International Day of Women and Girls in Science – UNC Health scientists discuss their paths to success

In honor of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Drs. Cindy Gay, Onyinye I. Iweala, Emily Sickbert-Bennett, and Ilona Jaspers share their journey to success, the challenges they’ve faced along the way, and the advice they’d like to share with others.


It is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day designated by the United Nations to recognize women and girls in science as agents of change. Every day, they overcome significant gender gaps in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines and empower other women and girls to do the same.

To celebrate, we’re spotlighting some of the women scientists at UNC Health, sharing their journey to success, the challenges they’ve faced along the way, and the advice they’d like to share with others.

Cynthia Gay, MD, MPH Dr Cindy Gay

Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases at UNC School of Medicine

Medical Director, UNC HIV Cure Center

  • Why did you decide to pursue a career in science/medicine?

Science and medicine offer a wonderful combination of a life of intellectual curiosity and lifelong learning with the ability to focus on both big and small problem solving. This allows for a purpose-driven career and life.

  • What challenges have you faced as a female scientist?

I have benefited from many women who have blazed a trail before me, so I find the greatest challenges are those faced by the research effort itself. Bias against women certainly exists, but I choose to focus on the work rather than the limitations others might try to impose or suggest.

  • What advice would you give to other women pursuing a career in science?

As with any career, choose an area and issues that you are passionate about and meaningful to you. Surround yourself with supportive, positive, kind, and challenging people. Work to build your confidence so you have it when you need it. Seek advice from other women in science and other fields on how to find your balance between work and the rest of life.

  • Why is it important to celebrate women and girls in science?

We all need to see women and girls in science to encourage girls and boys to pursue the careers that are best for them. It’s a real gift for children to grow up believing that all options are available to them. It’s important for girls and boys to see intelligent women leading, advocating and thriving in their families. We change stigma by celebrating what women and girls do.

  • What does the future of women and girls in science look like?

Unlimited.

Onyinye Iweala, MD, PhD

Assistant Professor, Division of Rheumatology, Allergy, and Immunology, UNC School of Medicine

Dr Onyinyw Iweala

  • Why did you decide to pursue a career in science/medicine?

I got the combined examples from my parents. My mother pursued a doctorate in economics and my father pursued a doctorate in medicine and a career as a surgeon and family and emergency physician. Their accomplishments have been inspiring and influential in my career choice. Also, in 9th grade biology, I discovered that I loved our unit on proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and nucleic acids. From that day on, I swore that whatever my job would somehow involve exploring these molecules. The joy and wonder of all the different things to study in my field motivates me now. My current career in science and medicine allows me to explore questions that intrigue me, but it also gives me the chance to contribute to improving the health and quality of life of at least one person.

  • What challenges have you faced as a female scientist?

Learn to deal with people who disregard your medical or scientific contributions or who find it difficult to imagine you as a leader or expert in science and medicine because of your appearance.

Feeling invisible or overlooked in some circumstances and feeling hyper visible in others.

Learning to balance all competing interests in my limited time, including:

    • To be compassionate, caring and available to my patients.
    • My sense of obligation to serve my field and my institution whenever asked.
    • Wanting to give back to my institution and my field through mentorship.
    • Preserve essential reading, writing, and critical thinking opportunities to advance my research and be available to members of my lab.
    • Family and life outside my scientific and medical career.
  • What advice would you give to other women pursuing a career in science?

Talk to your peers and talk to people who are just a little ahead of you and learn strategies from them to advance your science and your career. You can also end up teaching and encouraging them. Remember that you have a lot to offer no matter what stage of your career you are at.

  • Why is it important to celebrate women and girls in science?

Historically, women and girls in science (as well as outside of science in so many other fields) have been less visible, and their voices and ideas have not always been heard or taken seriously. The more we celebrate women and girls in science, the more we can all accept that women and girls also have their place in science. We belong and should be encouraged to explore and make mistakes. This is what could lead to the next big discoveries that will benefit us all.

  • What does the future of women and girls in science look like?

The future looks brighter for women and girls in science. Many scientific fields are beginning to recognize and name issues related to the under-representation of women in particular fields and issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion in science. This is the first step in making science an exciting career choice for everyone.

Dr. Emily Sickbert-Bennett, PhD, MS

Director, Infection Prevention, UNC Medical CenterDr. Emily Sickbert-Bennett

Associate Professor of Infectious Diseases, UNC School of Medicine

Administrative Director, UNC Medical Center Antimicrobial Stewardship Program

  • Why did you decide to pursue a career in science/medicine?

I first recognized my passion for infectious diseases and epidemiology as a high school student. After reading Richard Preston’s book “The Hot Zone” about investigating an Ebola outbreak, I announced to my AP biology professor that one day this is what I wanted to do. His answer… he told me I was crazy! This obviously did not deter me from continuing my studies at UNC-Chapel Hill to obtain my bachelor’s degree in biology, my master’s degree in environmental microbiology and then my doctorate in infectious disease epidemiology at the Gillings School of Global Public Health. I loved the multidisciplinary work of epidemiology which allows collaboration between several disciplines to solve important public health problems. Little did I know that all of this training was the foundation of my 17-year career in infection control at UNC Health, where I am director of infection control leading an inspiring team through a global pandemic.

  • What challenges have you faced as a female scientist?

As a PhD student in science, a very underrepresented group, I had to work very hard to find my voice in order to effectively share my expertise and experience. Many people (especially before the pandemic) do not understand the science of epidemiology and infection control; therefore, my role and contribution to the effort can easily go unnoticed.

  • What advice would you give to other women pursuing a career in science?

Find mentors who respect and support you. Find a job that you are passionate about and stick to the aspects that ignite your passion. Become a mentor to others, especially those who are underrepresented. Help others excel and find their voice.

  • Why is it important to celebrate women and girls in science?

We need diversity in science. Science is enhanced by multiple perspectives. Different disciplines and different people allow for a fuller understanding of our most compelling scientific questions. We should celebrate and appreciate women and girls in science every day!

  • What does the future of women and girls in science look like?

The future is as bright as our reflection of light in each other. There are more opportunities than ever to train in different scientific fields. Knowledge sharing happens in milliseconds over the Internet. International collaboration is as possible as negotiating time zones for virtual meetings.

Ilona Jaspers, Ph.D. Dr Ilona Jaspers

Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Microbiology and Immunology and Department of Environmental Science and Engineering at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health

Director, Toxicology Studies Program

Deputy Director, Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Pulmonary Biology

  • Why did you decide to pursue a career in science/medicine?

I’ve always loved the intersection between chemical and biological functions, especially how chemicals can alter biology.

  • What challenges have you faced as a female scientist?

The constant feeling that I have to be twice as good to deserve the same respect as my male colleagues. Being short certainly doesn’t help!

  • What advice would you give to other women pursuing a career in science?

Make sure you have a partner or support structure that can help you balance the demands of your job while finding time for things outside of your job.

  • Why is it important to celebrate women and girls in science?

Women make up 50% of the population – their views and perspectives need to be represented in science.

  • What does the future of women and girls in science look like?

Excellent! Increased awareness of the importance of having women in science and the value they bring to different fields are signs of a great future for women and girls in science.

About Terry Gongora

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