Dr. Laura Niklason is a world-renowned professor who studies vascular and lung engineering. She is a recent inductee of the National Academy of Engineering, and the founder of her own biotech startup Humacyte. Among many accolades, Time magazine named her work on lab-grown lungs one of the top 50 inventions in 2010.
As a woman in STEM, you learn the importance of balance in many respects, including balancing ambition and guilt. With twenty-four hours in the day, it can be hard to find that balance between family and career—taking care of my home life and finding the time and energy to pursue my career ambitions in the lab. The way I address that is by brutally simplifying my life down to family and job—not too much shopping. From my startup experience, one of the important lessons I learned is this: if you’re doing it for the money, it’s the wrong reason! The rewards are for the long term, and you have to be able to stick to it (fifteen years and running for me!) Now, for the first years: Focus on what you like and what you are good at, NOT on what is fashionable right now. When I started working on engineered blood vessels, there was this unspoken pressure to pursue what was fashionable like gene therapy, which died for 15 years before coming back. So, pursuing your interest is better in the long run. If you’re thinking about learning hard sciences, do it NOW. I studied physics and minored in biophysics in college and through my career experience, I can tell you that it is MUCH easier to learn the hard sciences in a structured setting. For all the women out there, I will leave you with this: one of the most fascinating phenomena I have seen is the difference between how women and men perceive achievement and difficulty. Women are not comfortable being in front of their own success, but very comfortable being in front of their own failure. This is disadvantageous—give yourself the credit you deserve!