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Women in Science and Research: How Far We’ve Come and What Still Needs to be Done

To mark International Women’s Day, our chief scientific officer gives her thoughts on equality in STEAM fields.

International Women's Day is a celebration of women’s achievements—artistic, political, social, economic, scientific, and more—around the globe. It's also a day when women everywhere rally in person and online to raise awareness about gender bias and the need for full equality. 

In keeping with that spirit, BCRF sat down with our Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Dorraya El-Ashry, a breast cancer scientist who came from an established career as a researcher to join our organization.

Here, she talks about her own impressive career, the rise in women in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) fields, and what gives her hope that society is on a path to gender parity in science and research. 

What first got you interested in a career in science and breast cancer research specifically?

I knew in grade school that I loved science. My dad is a scientist, and science and math were always emphasized in our house of two girls! When I was in the 4th grade, the President declared the “War on Cancer,” and I thought, Well then that’s what I’ll do. I’ll find a cure for cancer. Going through school and continuing to focus on science, I liked biology in particular. I chose to get my PhD in pathology since it’s the study of disease—the how, why, and what of diseases, including cancer—so it gave me a great foundation to pursue a career in cancer research. In college at Vanderbilt University, my two best friends’ mothers died from breast cancer. It was then that I decided I would have a career in breast cancer research.

It was a little over 25 years ago that my 37-year-old aunt, my Dad’s youngest sister, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. She had two young daughters, and while she was treated and had some response, she died two years later. In the intervening years, several friends (and friends’ mothers) and other relatives have been treated for breast cancer. Some are surviving and others we have lost. This is what I and my colleagues dedicated our careers to—ending deaths from breast cancer.

Before coming to BCRF you worked as a breast cancer researcher. What was your research focused on?

For much of my career, my lab studied mechanisms underlying estrogen receptor (ER) negative breast cancer, a more aggressive form of the disease with worse clinical outcomes and fewer therapy choices. We were seeking to identify reversible mechanism for the lack of ER expression in ER- breast cancers with the idea that if those could be identified, then new therapeutic targets that when blocked would allow for the restoration of ER expression. We did in fact demonstrate that there were dynamic factors that regulated ER expression and that when blocked, ER expression (and in some cases, anti-estrogen responses) were restored to ER- breast cancer models. We further identified a microRNA pattern reflective of these dynamic factors that associated both with poor overall clinical outcome and with poor response to anti-estrogen therapy.

Then, as often happens, pursuit of more in-depth research into this microRNA pattern revealed a significant role for the tumor microenvironment (TME), and in particular one predominating cell type within the breast cancer TME, the cancer associated fibroblast (CAF). Our research, along with others, found that different subtypes of breast cancer had associated different subtypes of CAFs that helped drive and support some of the characteristics of that breast cancer subtype. More recently, and more importantly, we discovered that these CAFs leave the breast along with the cancer cells, getting into the circulation and traveling along with circulating tumor cells and helping the CTCs get out of the circulation and into other organs to set up home and grow as metastases. This work has several potential impacts, from liquid biopsies to new targets for therapeutic prevention of metastasis, that are currently being pursued both by the lab and in collaborations with other investigators. 

A lot has been written about how STEAM and research are still very male-dominated and that there’s more work to be done to achieve gender equality in these fields. Did you encounter any challenges working as woman in research? How have things changed since you entered the workforce?

There are certainly challenges for women in science and research today.

We have more women than ever interested in careers in science and research. We have mentors at the graduate school, PhD, and post-doctoral levels who, male or female, are completely supportive of women in science. Women are coming out of these programs, especially of younger generations, thinking, I had a great experience, and I’ve been supported and encouraged. Where women still face a challenge is once they become a faculty member and move from assistant professor to full professor. There is a lack of opportunity and inclusion. Not being asked to sit in on development meetings, not being included in meetings about big program project grants, not necessarily getting leadership roles. This is generally about unconscious bias.

There are studies indicating that if you don't put names on grants that women's grants are chosen as often as men’s grants. But once names are included, right out of the gate, the same grant is viewed differently depending on the name. Female speakers are more often introduced by their first name while male speakers are introduced as “Doctor.” This has certainly happened to me.

Are you encouraged and hopeful that research is moving in the right direction in terms of gender parity?

I’m encouraged because there has already been a lot of progress. At BCRF, we fund the best and brightest—and we are proud that about half of our awardees are women scientists.

My husband teaches elementary school science. He has noticed over his career that when he asks kids to draw a picture of a scientist on the first day, more and more of them are drawing women. I think we’re moving forward, changing the perception of science in the general public.

I also feel hopeful when talking with one of my groups of friends. We’re all scientists of the same age—many of us had similar mentors. We work to advance and increase women in science and in leadership positions, as well as helping develop women as mentors.

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