Spark Voices

Creating a path

STEM/STEAM Day: An open letter to my daughter and yours

While the pandemic has challenged the world in unprecedented ways this year, we still have much to celebrate around STEM/STEAM, which was honored by National STEM/STEAM Day 2020 this past Sunday. There are so many educators, organizations and companies committed to programs that encourage and enable students – our next generation of problem solvers – to explore the world of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

Yet, we still have work to do. Continued research shows an unfortunate declining interest among young girls to pursue STEM careers. Ensuring that STEM professionals serve as role models can be key to maintaining girls’ interest, particularly as they become older and interest tends to wane, according to research from organizations such as UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), youth leader Junior Achievement and Microsoft.

As chief medical officer of Spark Therapeutics, I am a female who has experienced the joy and satisfaction of a successful career in science. I am proud to be part of a diverse team united in our goal to break barriers for people and families affected by genetic disease. Now, more than ever, science needs our daughters. So, I am taking the time to remind my own daughter of what she needs to know to keep aflame the internal fire she has found for scientific endeavors and to not let it burn out! I share this in hopes others do the same!

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Dear Margot,

When you started at your new school, your teachers asked you to fill out a form to get to know you better. As your mother, I knew most of the answers (purple is your favorite color! Ice cream is your favorite food!). Yet, one question made me stop and think, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Today, you want to be a veterinarian, however through the years, this exciting and sometimes serious question will come up over and over, and you will likely explore many ideas as you work to find your passion and joyfully live your life.

I’ve even asked myself, “Do I want you to follow in my footsteps?” Part of me wants to tell you, “Only if you want to.” The other part of me wants to tell you about the feeling you will experience after telling a patient that, “The new treatment worked, your disease is being managed.”

Let me remind you, as you continue to grow (more quickly than I would like!) into the young woman you will ultimately be, Margot the field of STEM needs you more than ever. So, if a spark for scientific endeavor burns within you or should doubts about the STEM field cause these to smolder, let this lifelong physician scientist share with you the secrets to keeping the flame burning brightly:

  • Feed your sense of wonder: Curiosity can be suppressed or enhanced by your environment. The greatest innovations in history, such as gene therapy, were developed because women dared and felt comfortable to ask, “What if?” Put yourself in creative and non-judgmental environments that will unlock, rejigger and unleash your continued sense of wonder and curiosity.
  • Dream big: Realize that your dream role or job may not exist yet and that you could help discover it! Today, there are fascinating careers in science that were not available just a few decades ago. I love to listen to you and your friends talk about wonderful, well- known – and highly respected – professions such as researcher, nurse or physical therapist. But guess what? You also could be a vectorologist or genetic counselor, one of the top life science careers in most demand over the next decade. You, my dear daughter, could be the originator of a new type of career in STEM just waiting to be found.
  • Celebrate small victories: Though I say to dream big, big scientific breakthroughs can take a long time. While there is nothing like the feeling you get when you arrive at one, I always found joy in small victories and wonders, like watching the strands of DNA precipitate out of solution when I prepared DNA from bacteria or patient cells for my experiments. These small things kept the spark alive even when big discoveries seemed out of reach some days.
  • Embrace failure and persevere: In science, failing can mean getting one step closer to the breakthrough. It can mean stumbling, learning, revisiting or rethinking. There will always be setbacks, but in no other field in the world is perseverance rewarded so highly. When you hit a wall, consider all possible solutions, reframe the question, look at it through a different lens, and most of all, never give up.

While I continue to chase my dreams, committing to the exciting field of gene therapy, overall women remain underrepresented in the STEM workforce. With love, I implore you, your friends and other girls of your generation to break this cycle.

With love,

Your mother

aka Dr. Gallia Levy, Chief Medical Officer, Spark Therapeutics

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