Women make up 1 in 3 researchers across the globe. IN MD Anderson, women play a vital role in our research community. They are leaders, doctors, innovators, drug developers, engineers, mentors and more. Every day, they make breakthroughs that transform patients’ lives.
We asked Jennifer Litton, MD, Julianne Pollard-Larkin, Ph.D., and Nakia Spencer to share what inspires them, where they find support, and what advice they have for the next generation of women in cancer science and research.
What inspired you to pursue a career in cancer research?
Litton: My first job in health care was as a study coordinator in a breast assessment center at a large cancer hospital. After seeing the fusion of patient care and clinical research with the hope of new therapies, I was hooked. I knew this was the path I could take to cure and help more cancer patients.
Pollard-Larkin: During college, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and that’s when I decided to go to graduate school. There is nothing more life-defining than applying all your ingenuity and care to one area, and my career in medical physics has allowed me to do just that.
Spencer: My primary motivation to begin a career in cancer research stems from the profound resilience demonstrated by individuals affected by this disease. My personal experience with individuals affected by cancer has underscored the urgency and importance of this field. Driven by a lifelong passion for science and a burning desire to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others, I have found it extremely satisfying to combine these aspirations in the pursuit of cancer research.
How have you overcome challenges in your career based on your gender?
Litton: For me, a career in clinical research aligns me completely with our entire mission at MD Anderson. Always trying to learn more ways to fight and end cancer, I know that I am helping my patients and other patients in other clinics in other hospitals and even in other countries. Not every experiment or study works, but, boy, when it works—and someone has more time, or better, or fewer side effects and can live their life better—there’s nothing like it.
Pollard-Larkin: I have collaborated with other smart and courageous women scientists. We support each other every chance we get!
Spencer: Being a woman in science and especially an African American woman in science has presented its share of challenges. However, I approach each obstacle with steely determination, coupled with an unwavering commitment to keeping an open-minded perspective. I try to approach every obstacle with a fearless attitude, enabling me to face these challenges with confidence and adaptability.
What is your advice to young women considering a career in research?
Litton: I wish I had some great advice on here for being a mom during medical training and beyond, it would make everything better, so when I figure it out I’ll let you all know as well. I think we put so much into ourselves to be present in so many places in our lives at once. So, my advice is to give yourself some grace. This is a marathon and you don’t have to do everything at once and in record time. Sometimes, you’ll focus more on your kids or your spouse/partner more, and sometimes you have to work crazy hours and shop at the hospital gift shop. But give yourself grace. And it’s okay to take some time for yourself too.
Pollard-Larkin: Go for it and don’t look back! Biomedical research needs every willing participant, and you have so much to contribute.
Spencer: My advice to young women is to cultivate self-confidence and unwavering faith. Embrace strength and fearlessness in navigating any situation. While the search journey may seem daunting, persevere without wavering.
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