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STEM Spotlight: Susan Fitzpatrick Shares How to Get – and Stay on – the Right Career Path

Susan Fitzpatrick, president of the Association for Women in Science and vice president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, has observed that in the earliest stages of a woman’s STEM career, situations tend to be highly individual. “As long as you get into a good lab and they give you two feet of bench space,” she says, “you’ll probably manage to survive, go on, and have a good time. The internal part of you is a key driving force.”


Fitzpatrick emphasizes that it also helps to have a great mentor. “I was very lucky in that as an undergraduate, I ended up having wonderful mentors, both of them male. They gave me a lot of freedom, and helped me get published.”


If a woman is interested in pursuing a particular project or goal, a mentor can help seal the deal, according to Fitzpatrick. “A person at the other end might recognize in you some quality that reminds them of themselves,” she suggests. “I think if you don’t have that, it’s hard to have a good mentorship. It turned out that my academic advisor was a biochemist, and when I told him I’d like to get some research experience in that field and go on to graduate school, he asked if I wanted to work in his lab. He recognized in me an independent passion that to him was an important indicator of someone who is going into science. I think so much depends on serendipitous relationships like that.”


Women, Fitzpatrick feels, “often seem to be waiting for someone to invite them to dance, but that’s not the way it works in science. You have to say: ‘I want to dance!’ I remember having a conversation awhile back with some other women scientists. One of them said: ‘If women would just be bolder, the men would have no one to complain to but their car pool.’”


Fitzpatrick points out that she was the first one in her family to go to college. “So where did my confidence come from?” she asks. “I honestly don’t know. But by the time you get to graduate school, if you don’t have confidence, passion, and a desire to learn, it’s going to be hard—not just for women, but for everyone. And you need to have a strong streak of resilience that will help you keep going, even when you’re taking blows.”


Karen Purcell

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