By Lauren Tracy
On September 14, 2018, the NIH Women Scientist Advisors (WSA) Committee invited Dr. Elaine Ostrander to share her story as a scientist, during which she described important traits that helped her succeed in a challenging field. In a talk that diverged from the data heavy presentations typically held on campus, Dr. Ostrander recalled how she became Chief of the Cancer Genetics and Comparative Genomics Branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and one of the founders of the Dog Genome Project.
Before reaching her position as a branch chief at the NIH, Dr. Ostrander held a variety of jobs. Her early jobs included positions as a dishwasher and an autopsy assistant. But she attributes her spotless home and first paid research position to her time as a janitor. While attending the University of Washington, Seattle as an undergraduate student, she walked into a lab during her janitorial duties. Enamored by the environment, Dr. Ostrander convinced them to allow her to work there. This was a turning point for Dr. Ostrander, because it showed her that if she believed in herself she could get other people to believe in her as well.
Her self-assurance as a scientist later helped her attain a postdoctoral position at Harvard after earning a Ph.D. from the Oregon Health Sciences University. Dr. Ostrander repeatedly highlighted self-confidence as a critical trait for success in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Additionally, she noted that it is something she tries to instill in her trainees and should be a priority for all mentors. Furthermore, Dr. Ostrander stressed effective writing as one of the most important skills for scientists. In fact, she makes writing the number one priority for herself and her trainees. To improve one’s writing skills, Dr. Ostrander suggests practicing frequently, taking writing classes, and writing review articles.
Beyond academic skillsets, Dr. Ostrander outlined four essentials to make time for: family, health, friends, and giving. These are the things one can fall back on if things get rough, career-wise. She specifically stressed the importance of family and noted that she is most proud of this aspect of her life. For the remainder of the session, Dr. Ostrander fielded questions from the audience and offered candid advice.
Questions from the audience included inquiries about work-life balance and how to overcome setbacks. Dr. Ostrander revealed that she and her husband plan their schedules months in advance so that they have time for both work and their family. As for dealing with research and career setbacks, Dr. Ostrander simply cited tenacity as the solution. While challenges in STEM careers are unavoidable, one can transcend them with persistence and a firm support network.