International Women’s Day: How women can break down barriers in STEM

By Veronica Craker

Women have made great strides in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. However, there is still a gender gap that needs to be addressed. According to the United States Census Bureau, women comprised only 27% of the STEM workforce in 2021.

We spoke with WSOS Industry Partner Katie Vlastelica, who has first-hand experience working in STEM. Vlastelica works as a research associate in Protein Therapeutics at Alpine Immune Sciences. She is also a mentor with our Skills that Shine program, offering her time to support Opportunity Scholars pursuing a career in science.

I knew I wanted to pursue a career in STEM in fifth grade – a trip to the Puget Sound to study marine life sparked an interest in deepening my understanding of the natural world around me. When I was in middle school, my mom went back to get her medical assisting degree. I would quiz her with flashcards, and she would come home and tell me all about what she was learning in class that day. That really solidified my love of biology and inspired me to pursue a degree and career in STEM.

I felt very lucky to be in a program that was fairly balanced in the gender composition of the class. Many of my biology professors were women as well, and they were wonderful role models. Chemistry and physics were more male-dominated classes, and there were times when I felt like I didn’t belong there. I avoided the physics and engineering building for my first few years of college because I hated the glances of male engineering that were surprised and confused as to why I was in there.

I come from a place of privilege in that my parents supported me emotionally and financially in college. My advocacy for myself and my education came primarily outside of the classroom. I had to seek out opportunities to apply the knowledge I was learning in class to “real” research. It was hard to find a lab to volunteer in during the school year, and even harder to find a paid internship for the summer. I ended up finding these opportunities because of the connections I had made and mustering up the courage to reach out and speak up for myself and my skills.

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted other plans I was hoping to make, but advocating for yourself to help write research papers, attend and present at conferences, and other career development opportunities is worth doing.

I love that the field is always changing. There are new discoveries being made and new lab techniques to learn about and try out. I love the collaborative nature of my job and how much I learn from talking to other scientists during project meetings or even just walking up to them in the lab and asking what they’re working on. Everyone around me is passionate and driven to do the work we do, it’s very inspiring!

If you are interested in a career in lab work – start early. Apply to undergraduate lab research positions even if you don’t think you will get them. And if you get to work in a lab and don’t like it, then leave. Try something new. Getting as much experience under your belt will serve you very well early on in your career.

Some of the best advice I ever got was from a scientist I talked to in passing during an internship. I asked him what it takes to succeed in biotech, and he said, “I can teach you how to be a good lab scientist. I can’t teach you how to be a good person.” I think there are a few ways to interpret that, but my favorite is this: You can always learn new protocols and skills for every new job you have, but having an innate sense of curiosity and fascination for your work, asking questions, and being collaborative are all critical skills to foster as you are considering a career in science.

Talk to faculty about their work and make those solid connections, especially if they work with other folks outside of academics. Try to get experience in academic settings and industry settings. They are very different in their politics, funding, and culture. One is likely a better fit than the other.

Once you graduate, don’t be afraid to apply for jobs you aren’t totally qualified for. It can suck to be rejected, but the interviewing experience is valuable. Don’t forget that when you are applying for a job, you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. If you can, talk to current employees about the culture and trust your gut about how you would fit in at the company.

A woman I learned about within the last few years is Nancy Hopkins. She is a molecular biologist who worked at MIT for decades. She has pioneered the use of zebrafish as a model organism for studying development and cancer. In 1999, she published a report that exposed MIT’s institutional and implicit bias against women in STEM. They made recommendations on how to improve equality, and the university listened! The Dean at the time addressed inequalities such as disparity in lab space, funding, pay, etc. and worked to include women in departmental activities that they were previously excluded from. I learned about Nancy’s story and her work through the documentary “Picture A Scientist.” I highly recommend it.

There are so many things I could speak to, but I think one that’s prominent is designing clinical trials – especially for diseases that disproportionately affect women. Having women on the clinical operations team designing the studies and having MDs that work with these patients that can understand their experience on a personal level is so important.

Having women in biotech results in greater diversity in thought. When you hire people who look like you and think like you, you end up in an echo chamber. Having people that come from all walks of life will inspire “out of the box” thinking and advancement.

Representation and mentorship are so important! Being involved in the community and inspiring the next generation of scientists is some of the work I am the most passionate about.

I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was 10 years old. I feel so lucky to be in a job where I get paid to do science. And I get to work with really amazing scientists who are very supportive and teach me a lot.

Vlastelica has been partnering with WSOS since January 2022. If you are an industry professional, and are interested in supporting Scholars, please email for more information.