How can we encourage more women to take leading positions in science?
Meet Sandra Wilson, Head of Innovation & New Technology Development at Sophion Bioscience. We asked her; How can we encourage more women to take leading positions in science? We asked her to give us her story of when she became interested in science and how she has made it all the way to a leading position at Sophion Bioscience.
First, can you tell us a little about yourself, Sandra?
I’m Scottish and Canadian and I have lived internationally since I was 11, so I would say I have a pretty global context for life. I’m an extremely curious person and always learning, poking away at things, and trying new things out. This includes a lot of travel and meeting people.
When did you first know you wanted to work in science?
In high school, I did an O-level in Design & Technology and one of my favorite things was to work with metal, especially casting – I found it mesmerizing, and I have always been curious about processes and how things have been made. It wasn’t clear that I wanted a scientific career until I was considering what to study and realized that I wanted something practical that also involved languages because I already spoke fluent French. I was accepted to study IT, French & Spanish but took a gap year and returned to Canada to work and watch the Winter Olympics in Calgary, loved the mountains and decided to stay. It was during that time I pivoted direction to study materials because it includes a lot of the core sciences, physics, chemistry, mechanics, and maths, and its endlessly complex, especially when I added biology at a later stage.
How has your journey been to where you are today?
When I look back on my career so far what stands out are the variety of companies, projects, and teams I have worked with internationally. Each country has had its own distinct flavor and way of approaching challenges and there are plenty of gifts in that. I’m also really proud that I studied and worked simultaneously. Work experience really helped me to get clear on what kind of impact I wanted to have next and my ongoing studies have helped support me to focus on achieving that impact. Further education doesn’t have to be done all in one continuous shot and I certainly highly recommend getting work experience along the way. Having an international career also builds a certain kind of resilience and most definitely a great network. I’m really pleased that my ongoing development as an engineer, then scientist then scientific manager has allowed me the opportunity for working in such a huge range of sectors from telecom, space to health.
Women are underrepresented in leading positions in science. Do you think that is a problem?
I think women are still underrepresented in leadership positions in science, and I see the need for focus to improve it. For example, through programs such as the WiLD program (Women in Life Science Denmark, www.womeninlifescience.dk) and mentoring programs such as CyberMentor (www.cybermentor.ca).
In general, in science, whether academic or commercial – women bring a huge amount of value and knowledge to the table and the kind of collaborative skills that pull teams together and help generate results in a very efficient way. Science can be a tough field to work in. Wins are by no means guaranteed and there are always unknowns that you are figuring out. I think there still exists this misperception that aggression and confidence is equated with brilliance in the science world. I don’t believe it’s sustainable. It can alienate some exceptional scientists that are more shy or less confident – good science can be done with kindness and inclusion.
Can you describe your role in Sophion Bioscience?
I really enjoy my role at Sophion. It’s such a great team of people to work with and a diverse range of skills from the software development team to hardware, consumables, production, technical support, and of course the extensive range of biology knowledge the team has. Plus all of the fantastic collaborations with academia and research institutions and companies. I can’t really speak a lot about the work I do, because it’s future-focused, but Sophion is growing a lot and that tells you we have some exciting things happening and new products coming. Essentially, I focus on technology development and scientific collaborations that support the strategic goals of Sophion Bioscience as a company and everything that entails.
You collaborate with external institutions like universities and research centers. Why?
Collaborations with Danish and international universities and research institutions are key, not only because they are customers but because academics are really the experts in their fields. They ask important questions, are developing really cool and exciting methods, and bring ideas and skills. They are targeting extremely complex health science issues, so there are some great synergies for us here at Sophion. These collaborations bring excitement to the team, and they challenge us to make better and new products – making great science tools that ultimately help understand and treat disease. I think that’s a fantastic focus for a career.
You find it important to mentor women and men in their early careers. Why?
It’s been important to me to mentor throughout my career, whether it be leadership with the scouts, through Cybermentor, a Canadian program to mentor girls in high school interested in careers in engineering and science or informally with people that I cross paths with. It’s also important to be mentored, and that has also been a part of my journey – feedback, mirroring, and gentle challenging from trusted advisors have really helped me get clear about what I want to achieve and to help me map out pathways to get there.
Most recently I joined the Spark program, which started at Stanford but is a new program in Denmark (https://sparkdenmark.ku.dk/) that provides some funding and more importantly tailored mentoring to support academic scientists to take their brilliant inventions further toward commercialization. So, giving and receiving mentoring, in whatever form, I think is a crucial part of living up to your potential and it can be deeply enjoyable.
How do you explain the lack of women pursuing leading science positions?
I see many more women in STEAM careers now than when my career started, so that’s a good thing, but there is still a gap to getting to those leadership positions, and we need to elevate that focus and be active about resolving it. I don’t think that women are not pursuing leadership positions, I think they would jump given the chance and proper support – but leadership also has the responsibility to actively create opportunities for women to have a voice and seat at the table.
Sandra, thank you for sharing your story and helping us bring gender equality in science to the forefront today.