Breaking Down Barriers

Forbes magazine recently recognized four of Case Western Reserve’s own for their achievements in science and health care. What can their stories teach institutions about helping women scientists thrive and closing the STEM gender gap?

One is a medical student whose research is changing how the United Nations distributes nutrition to malnourished children in Africa. Another helped design a lessinvasive approach to heart imaging. There’s the PhD whose research team zeroed in on a potential answer for Alzheimer’s, and the entrepreneur who launched the nation’s first incubator for digital health startups.

Like light refracted through a prism, all four—Cindy Chang, Christine Fleming, Paige Cramer and Halle Tecco—followed divergent paths and passions to Case Western Reserve University. Since graduation, they now find themselves sharing a bright new ray: All are featured in Forbes magazine’s recent “30 under 30” list of the nation’s most innovative young minds in science and health care.

To see four young women make such rapid strides in fields that, until recently, have been largely male is itself noteworthy. To find four of the 30 Forbes “Rising Stars of Science” from the same institution is extraordinary.

“Not only do we have four with ties to the school, but it’s four women, which I think is impressive,” says Caroline Howard, a Forbes senior online editor involved in the “30 under 30” project. “The odds of having four women in a field that’s not known for having women, I do think that’s unusual.”

The Case Western Reserve alumnae’s deft and dynamic stories could serve as blueprints for the university and other institutions looking to encourage more talented women to pursue so-called STEM careers—that is, those in science, technology, engineering and math.

Their stories vary, but these four women—all 29 years old—share much in common. They each demonstrate a personal perseverance and motivation that exceeds intellectual engagement. They are drawn to succeed at high-caliber institutions, in essence, to test and push themselves. And each has been encouraged and inspired by mentors and role models, from family members to educators, every step of the way.

"CWRU produces high-caliber science, regardless of gender, and is becoming increasinly noticed for its endeavors."
Paige Cramer

Cramer, PhD, who completed a doctoral degree in neurosciences in 2012, was drawn to the university’s groundbreaking spinal cord research of neurosciences professor Jerry Silver, PhD, after one of her friends from high school in Pensacola, Fla., fell asleep at the wheel, swerved off the road and was injured so badly in the crash that it left her a quadriplegic.

“That was the button,” says Cramer, now an associate principal scientist at the pharmaceutical powerhouse Merck. “It got me thinking, ‘How can we make this better, how can we fix this?’ I thought, ‘If I get accepted I have to go here.’”

As it turned out, Cramer was unable to join the spinal cord lab, but in the process of her studies became intrigued with neurodegeneration. Ultimately, she became involved in Alzheimer’s research, whose progress made international headlines last year.

For Fleming, PhD, who earned both master’s and doctoral degrees in biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve, the university offered an opportunity to work with leading biomedical engineering researcher Andrew Rollins, PhD. Fleming’s interest in the field was partly born of her older brother’s bouts with asthma and her high school research on why her home state of New York reported such high rates of the disease. She still remembers the time someone smoking a cigarette near where her family was eating at a Macy’s department store triggered such an attack that her brother had to be hospitalized.

Now an assistant professor in electrical engineering at Columbia University, Fleming focuses on optical imaging and spectroscopy instruments for cardiology. She already has created an optical probe that captures detailed images of hearts in animals.

"My calling now is exactly what I’m doing. I’m an entrepreneur, but I’m helping other entrepreneurs. I love, love, love what I do now."
Halle Tecco

Tecco, MBA, earned a bachelor’s degree in management at Case Western Reserve in 2006, but only after circumstances dashed her original plans. Voted “Best Dressed” at Solon High School in suburban Cleveland, Tecco had visions of heading to New York for college and a career in fashion journalism. Then 9/11 happened. Tecco’s father persuaded her to attend CWRU and study finance and accounting, which he believed offered more long-term promise.

“That was my calling, but your calling changes,” says Tecco, co-founder and CEO of Rock Health, the accelerator for health care startups. “My calling now is exactly what I’m doing. I’m an entrepreneur, but I’m helping other entrepreneurs. I love, love, love what I do now.”

Chang, a fifth-year medical student at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western Reserve, changed direction as well—three times. Chang, who has lived in about 25 cities— growing up in Taiwan, where her parents are from, Japan and the United States— originally studied mechanical engineering. But her interest shifted to biomedical engineering and then medicine.

“I realized that I really enjoyed working with things that were living,” says Chang, whose research is leading to more affordable nutritional supplements for children in Malawi, Africa. “Then I realized I really do enjoy working with individuals instead of cells or parts of bodies or parts of machines.”

GLASS WALLS

These four women epitomize the type of revolutionary ideas possible when young minds are nurtured and inspired. They also represent an emerging minority. Of the science and health care section of Forbes’ “30 under 30,” 13 of the 30 selected were women—a number keeping with recent workforce statistics. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, women make up about 40 percent of the physical and life sciences workforce. Yet in computer and math jobs, the largest segment of STEM occupations, women comprise just 27 percent of workers.

"I remember a subtle sense that, if you were a girl, you had to prove yourself to be just as good as the men, if not better."
Cindy Chang

Chang, who was traveling in Turkey the day she got the voicemail confirming her acceptance to medical school, remembers mechanical engineering classrooms of 200 students that had just three or four women. She recalls feeling “a subtle sense that, if you were a girl, you had to prove yourself to be just as good as the men, if not better.” She also heard stories about other engineering schools with far fewer women’s restrooms than men’s—a physical sign of an institution’s expectations concerning its student population.

Chang, whose father is a surgeon and whose mother is a pharmacologist, has found a more equal balance in medical school. “Those barriers are much more prominent in engineering fields than in medicine and, for that reason, in medical school,” she says. She’s also in good company as a former engineer, estimating about a third of her classmates are making a similar career transition.

Chang’s first career choice— engineering—is the second-largest STEM occupational category, and yet there’s often still a perception that women aren’t engineers.

"I’m sure that as our faculty does become more diverse, there will be more mentors for female students pursuing careers in STEM."
Christine Fleming

Fleming, whose grandparents moved to the Bronx from the Caribbean in search of a better life, thinks this perception stems in part from a lack of exposure to engineering to girls. Fleming, a biomedical engineer whose curriculum vitae includes engineering degrees from MIT and CWRU—says, “growing up, I didn’t know the term ‘engineering’… I think it wasn’t until junior year, when you really start to look at colleges, that I actually knew what engineering was or at least what it entailed.”

Part of the battle for budding scientists like Fleming and Chang is finding female role models—being introduced as girls to women scientists so they can begin imagining themselves filling similar roles. Case Western Reserve has introduced programs to facilitate those introductions early in girls’ education. The university’s Women in Science and Engineering Roundtable (WISER) program creates mentorship opportunities for girls and women across all STEM disciplines. Through WISER, 150 Cleveland girls visited the Case Western Reserve campus this school year for introductions to science and engineering. WISER also coordinates mentorship programs in which CWRU undergraduates mentor girls at two local schools, and through which more than 200 undergraduates participate in peer mentoring.

MENTORSHIP MATTERS

In adulthood, that sort of mentorship remains critical. A study at the U.S. Air Force Academy of 9,000 students found that for women with high math-SAT scores, having a female professor in introductory math and science courses increased their likelihood of graduating with a science degree by 26 percent.

Role models can prove vital for women regardless of their field. As a young girl, Tecco made crafts to sell at her father’s office, rented out books from a home “library” she created and ran a nail salon in her basement until she accidentally spilled nail polish remover on a coffee table and her father shut the business down. But Tecco’s path as a tech entrepreneur was anything but clear as a finance student at Case Western Reserve in the early 2000s. She, like Chang in her undergraduate years, remembers being one of few women in her classes.

“I really didn’t feel like I had the female role models to show me what my life could be,” Tecco says. “When I was there, I never really understood my true potential, and I think a lot of that was that I was different. I was a female in the room and there weren’t a lot of females.”

Tecco doubted she knew the material as well as the men in her classes because the men seemed to answer more questions, more confidently. It wasn’t until she graduated, headed out a week later on a cross-country drive with friends and landed a job as a finance analyst with Intel Corp. in San Francisco that she met thriving women CEOs and gained the confidence to pursue the same path.

Tecco launched her first venture—Yoga Bear, a nonprofit that provides free yoga classes to cancer patients and survivors—in 2006 while working at Intel. Tecco was running the nonprofit full time by 2008, the year before she began working on her Harvard MBA. Under her leadership, Yoga Bear grew from a few local San Francisco partner studios to a national nonprofit working with more than 190 studios.

“It was a good ‘starter’ experience for me as a social entrepreneur,” Tecco says. “The biggest lesson I learned was to always align your mission with your margin. Social enterprises may not be optimizing for profit, but they do need to be sustainable in order to make an impact.”

Already an entrepreneur, by the time she got to Harvard Business School, though her classes were still filled with men, says Tecco, “I knew the game and I played it.”

Tecco says having President Barbara R. Snyder at the helm of Case Western Reserve marks an important shift at her alma mater.

“I think that’s huge, and a really wonderful thing to have there,” she says.

Seeing women in leadership roles— running universities, labs or lecture halls—is crucial for any university seeking to model female leadership for its students. There are other signs that trends are changing. According to the Case School of Engineering’s Associate Dean for Research Clare Rimnac, PhD, throughout the ‘90s, the number of women faculty in the engineering school hovered around 5 percent. Now, women make up about 15 percent of engineering professors at the school, and that number is expected to rise as its strategic hiring initiative seeks out talent with an eye toward including more women and underrepresented minorities.

Cramer, who comes from a long line of doctors, researchers and scientists (her grandfather, father and brother are radiologists), is observing a similar trend at Merck.

“There seem to be more women taking more leadership roles,” she says, “and I hope and expect that to maintain and increase.”

That’s not to say male mentors cannot have a powerful influence over female scientists’ careers. Cramer explains: “I was fortunate enough to join a lab that was very pro-women in science. I was never not given an opportunity.”

Cramer also notes “there were plenty of female graduate students ahead of me while I was just beginning that were excellent role models.”

Fleming can confirm the value of strong mentorship from both sides of the relationship, as a fairly recent graduate herself and now as a faculty member at Columbia University.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that women tend to help other women,” she says. “So as I’ve moved throughout my career at each place, I’ve had a network of women who were my peers, and we were able to talk with one another and give each other advice and support. So I guess we used that initial limitation as a way to strengthen and push us forward.”

Even when the ratio of women professors to women students remains imbalanced—as is apt to be the case over the time period when larger populations of women work their way through graduate programs but are not yet faculty themselves—Fleming believes inclusive and sensitive professors can make the difference.

That said, she adds, “I’m sure that as our faculty does become more diverse, there will be more mentors for female students pursuing careers in STEM.”

EMERGING AS LEADERS

It’s one thing to ensure that women can see themselves in STEM careers. It’s a separate challenge to retain them and foster career growth.

Tecco notes that she meets plenty of women managers and health care providers at entry- and mid-levels, “but where something happens and goes wrong is in the leadership positions.” Tecco notes that women comprise only 4 percent of CEOs on the Fortune 500 list.

She is so vested in the success of women that her organization has spun off XX in Health—a nonprofit community supporting women entrepreneurs working at the intersection of health and technology. The new venture connects entrepreneurs and executives through networking events and online discussions, empowering women to drive change in health care.

“Simply put,” says Tecco, “we wanted to see more female entrepreneurs apply to Rock Health and help support those going through our program. That’s where it started, but it has since grown to a much larger community of women supporting women in health care leadership.”

In the end, it benefits everyone to create an environment that allows women—or people with family responsibilities, or ambitious young scientists with time to spare, for that matter—to thrive.

Cramer is effusive about her experience working with her mentors in the neuroscience department at Case Western Reserve: Gary Landreth, PhD, director of Case Western Reserve’s Alzheimer’s Research Laboratory, and Brandy Wilkinson, PhD, a former postdoctoral fellow in Landreth’s lab. She explains that the department isn’t hampered by undue competition, but instead supports what is in the best interest of each student and post-doc.

She notes, “Gary makes sure that his students feel like they are working toward something and not for someone.”

She says Landreth encourages students to take risks and also take ownership over their work. It’s about modeling what it is to be a good scientist; gender simply isn’t an issue.

Cramer says the approach is similar to that of Case Western Reserve as a whole. “CWRU produces high-caliber science, regardless of gender, and is becoming increasingly noticed for its endeavors,” she says.

Cramer, Fleming, Chang and Tecco have taken the skills of scientific rigor, curiosity and independent thought learned at Case Western Reserve and other notable institutions and already are achieving remarkable things early in their careers. Forbes identifies them as “rising stars,” predicting even greater accomplishments lie ahead. Their ascension will continue to offer lessons for this university and others hoping to motivate more promising young women toward STEM careers—women for which they now serve as role models.

And therein may lie the key. At the same time that meeting a woman chemist or engineer can help young girls picture themselves in STEM careers, the crop of women beginning to fill those ranks also are rapidly becoming leaders in their respective fields. In rising so early to the top, they are marking out territory for women at the pinnacle of research, engineering, health care technology and medicine—and thus modeling the future for those who follow.