Celebrating Women’s History Month: Danforth Center Scientists Reflect on Inspiring Women in Science

In honor of Women’s History Month, Amie Sankoh, graduate student in Dr. Tessa Burch-Smith’s lab, Preethi Vallal, Senior Lab Technician in the Dr. Veena Veena’s Lab, and Dr. Katie Murphy, Postdoctoral Associate in Dr. Malia Gehan’s and Dr. Doug Allen’s Lab, reflect on women in science that influenced and inspired their careers as scientists.

Amie Sankoh, Graduate Student in Dr. Tessa Burch-Smith’s lab at the Danforth Center

Amie Sankoh on Dr. Tessa Burch-Smith

Amie Sankoh, graduate student in Dr. Tessa Burch-Smith’s lab, shares how Dr. Burch-Smith's support as a mentor and advocate has impacted her career. 

“It was very hard to just pick one woman who inspires me (especially with all the amazing women in my life), but one woman in science I refer to often is Dr. Tessa Burch-Smith. She has played a significant role in helping me persevere through the demands of graduate school. Her willingness to advocate for my accessibility has contributed to my progress in my doctoral program. 

As a Deaf, African American scientist, I have often felt doubted by others and have doubted myself. Dr. Burch-Smith encouraged me to overcome such doubts and use my talents to fulfill my obligations of becoming a successful scientist. Dr. Burch-Smith adapted and fully committed to creating a culture of accessibility even though it takes hard work and personal time and energy. 

I could give numerous examples of her efforts to provide an environment of accessibility, but one instance occurred shortly after I joined her lab. She gave a presentation to the entire molecular biology department at the University of Tennessee on 'How to work with Deaf and hard of hearing colleagues and diversifying your audience.' In her presentation, she talked about understanding the culture and communication needs of Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Being in her lab for the past five years, she has inspired me to do things I never dreamed I could do, and I am a better person because of it.”

Preethi Vallal, Senior Lab Technician in Dr. Veena Veena’s lab at the Danforth Center

Preethi Vallal on Dr. Marie Curie

Preethi Vallal, Senior Lab Technician in Dr. Veena Veena’s lab, shares how learning about Marie Curie as a child inspired her to pursue a career in science. 

“Growing up, I was always fascinated by the Noble Prize winner - Marie Curie. She was a pioneer for women in science and proved that women can be great scientists through her research and discoveries. Her hard work and dedication led to discovery of the radioactive elements – polonium and radium. Her discovery that radiation can cure cancer is a great gift to the world. Marie Curie’s accomplishments during a time when women were underrepresented in science truly inspired me and made me discover my life’s passion: to pursue a career in scientific research.”

Dr. Katie Murphy, Postdoctoral Associate in Dr. Malia Gehan’s and Dr. Doug Allen’s Lab. © 2019 The Regents of the University of California, Davis campus. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Dr. Katie Murphy on Dr. Virginia Walbot

Katie Murphy, PhD, Postdoctoral Associate in Dr. Malia Gehan’s and Dr. Doug Allen’s Lab, was impacted by her time in Dr. Virginia Walbot’s lab as an undergraduate. 

“My undergraduate advisor, Dr. Virginia Walbot, inspired me from the first day I met her. When I was an undergraduate chemistry major at Stanford University, I met with Ginny looking for a research job, and she told me she would teach me all I needed to know to work in her lab even though I had no experience in biology. Ginny taught me everything from the best way to weed a corn field, to how to ask and answer the most interesting scientific questions. Importantly, she taught me that bringing my whole self to the lab – including my hobbies and passions – only made me a better scientist. Working in her lab started my career and gave me my life’s purpose as a scientist. Ginny’s scientific career began when women were actively excluded, and her perseverance is inspiring. 

One quote most encapsulates how I feel about seeing other women in science: ‘I can see myself more clearly now that I've seen you.’ And, ‘I know that when you say these things are possible you mean for me, too’ (written by Julie Lythcott-Haims). Seeing Ginny’s approach, passion, and success in science allowed me to see this future for myself, as well, and showed me that it really is possible for me to get a PhD and become a scientist. Now, I try to be the same role model and mentor for other young people, and show them that science is for everyone.”