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If You Can't Go Right, Go Left - Lessons on Gender, Elephants & Science

The annual TGen Scientific Retreat gives our faculty a chance to strengthen their professional relationships and explore the diversity of our research. This year, Dr. Lynn Matrisian, Vice President for Scientific and Medical Affairs at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, gave the keynote address for the retreat. Afterward, she hosted a free-wheeling question-and-answer session about her experiences as a pioneering woman in science.

The annual TGen Scientific Retreat gives our faculty a chance to strengthen their professional relationships and explore the diversity of our research. This year, Dr. Lynn Matrisian, Vice President for Scientific and Medical Affairs at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, gave the keynote address for the retreat. Afterward, she hosted a free-wheeling question-and-answer session about her experiences as a pioneering woman in science. Among the lessons she shared, in her own words:

Recommended Reading -- The Executive and the Elephant: A Leader's Guide to Building Inner Excellence, by Richard L. Daft

So much of our responses are hard-wired and evolutionary. Dr. Daft calls this innate response 'the elephant.' I was geared to protect myself. I was geared to be afraid of failing, to have self-doubts and question things. If I really wanted to make a difference, I learned I had to engage my executive. I had to take control of the elephant and have the courage and wisdom to know when it's OK to take a risk. It won't happen if I don't try."

Engage the Strength of the Women on Your Team

Women are an incredible resource in any scientific organization. Part of it comes back to socialization: Little girls are told to 'play nice' so they can play again tomorrow. Boys get out there to win the game. When you're talking about 'team science,' we need all of our talents to make something happen. I say to take advantage of the fact that there are very smart women in the room with special talents, and let their ability to play well in the sandbox help you craft a situation where you can all succeed.

Don't Take it Personally

I've learned it doesn't always go my way, and I don't take it personally. I understand that there's a gazillion things that go into a decision, and just because I think one thing doesn't mean it's the right thing… or I may be right and they may not learn it for a while. I had to grow up in terms of recognizing this. Don't take it personally.

If You Can't Go Left, Go Right

My father was a bus driver and we lived on this big hill. I'd take the car out in the snow and he'd say, 'It's gonna be icy. If you can't go left, go right. As long as you're moving, you're not stuck.' If I run into a barrier because of a person or attitude, I'll find another way to go. It may take me longer, but I usually manage to figure it out. My mother also said, 'Do your best. Leave the rest, and don't worry about it.' If you worry, you're just destroying your energy. Between those two things - finding a way to keep moving forward and not worrying about it - it keeps me on track. 

Find and Cultivate Leaders in Your Ranks

Middle management is a hard place across the whole world, but that's where the next leaders come from. I wanted to hear from the people who came to me with their problems and also had potential solutions, as opposed to the ones who came to complain. The leaders that stuck out were the ones looking for opportunities for advancement by doing a really good job and taking responsibility and being accountable.

Know When to Say When

I loved my students and post docs, and that training is part of my legacy. I would try to cultivate what they were naturally good at to help them shine. There were others that I could guide but couldn't give them the energy. One of the hardest things was recognizing at what point should you continue to help push somebody to get them in a place where they could succeed, or recognize that this was not going to happen. Sometimes you have to say, 'You should do something else because this isn't good for either of us.'

Find that 'Silly Thing' that Boosts Your Confidence

Really, it's about having mentors. You need one or two people that have been on the path you're trying to take. There are many different kinds of mentors - one is a role model. One of my best mentors was a man and he taught me how to be a leader. He was tough. I wasn't going to sit for hours talking to him, but I tried to pull out the aspects of him that I could see working for me. He's also 6-foot-2, a really big guy, and I always wondered, 'How can I be as intimidating as him?' To me, it's silly things. I have to have my nails done. If I have ragged nails, my self-confidence goes out the window, so I make sure to give myself that boost. Whatever it takes: I'll never be 6 feet tall, but I'll have great nails! 


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