The Next Generation of Scientific Women

I had the pleasure, last week, of going to Boston and hearing my daughter-in-law Jessica Yecies defend her PhD thesis at the Harvard School of Public health. Her thesis was on the role of lipid metabolism in cell signaling via the mTor pathway.  MTor activity, gone awry, is believed to be one of the main factors in the development of cancer.  Her research, therefore, could prove to be seminal towards potential treatments that attack the core activities of cancer cells.  If you are interested in more detail you can read the presentation or see the video.

What is particularly impressive is the body of research Jess was able to accomplish in only 3.5 years.  While the typical PhD path at Harvard is 5-7 years she got her doctorate in a little more than 3.

Besides pride in her accomplishments, I wanted to write about Jess here because it is clear to me that women are alive and well and making MAJOR contributions in the STEM field.  I find it interesting that more than ½ of the PhD biology candidates at Harvard are women.  And beyond academia women are breaking through in biotech at a faster rate than software.  The percentage of women venture capitalists in biotech is double that of software.  Additionally, the number of women founders is higher among venture backed biotech startups.  Why the difference between biology and computer science I don’t know.  Perhaps the direct application to people and the potential to improve public health.  Certainly there is a positive cycle in place already in medicine (1/2 of medical school students are women) and the broader biological sciences are benefiting.  There may be something to learn from this field to assist us in getting more women involved in computer science.

Jess had many of the ingredients for success that I have written about – talent, tremendous work ethic, role models, mentors, and education.  Jess’ mother is an accomplished scientist, doing her own important cancer research at Wyeth, now Pfizer.  Jess had wonderful teachers at Princeton and Harvard.  She had a supportive mentor in her “P.I.” (primary investigator) Brendan Manning and support from her husband Derek and her entire family.  But while these factors are important and she graciously acknowledged them during her presentation, in the end it comes down to her initiative and work to get across the finish line.  We are very proud of what she has accomplished in the field of cancer research that is so important to all of us.

Apologies to the reader if there is too much kvelling in this post J.