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February 2017 Lead

Sunday, February 26, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Allison Shultz
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February 2017
GWIS LEAD is a GWIS periodical profiling women leaders in science.
Patricia Silveyra: Argentinian Asthma Researcher Breaks Barriers for Latinas, Extols Benefits of GWIS
Growing up in Argentina, Patricia Silveyra went to the University of Buenos Aires, where she completed a “Licenciada en Ciencias Biológicas” in a mere three years—this is equivalent to a Bachelor plus a Master’s degree in the North American system. She then went on to earn a “Doctora en Ciencias Químicas,” the equivalent to a doctoral degree, from the same university. In 2008, she made the big decision to come to the United States to postdoc at Penn State University. For many coming from a foreign country, three years probably is barely enough time to overcome part of the language barrier and maybe get a couple of publications, if everything goes perfectly according to plan. However, within three years, Dr. Silveyra had become one of the youngest faculty members at the Penn State University College of Medicine, and had her own lab shortly thereafter.

Dr. Silveyra came to this interview directly from an eight-hour-long workshop surprisingly energetic. We started chatting about the workshop, a symposium offered by Penn State University about biological data analysis and reproducibility. At the same time, she is also taking courses on applied bioinformatics and computational biology. When asked why she was making time in her extremely busy schedule to continue to study, she referred to a number of “transitions.” This response referred to, not only the trend that biomedical research is undergoing in the switch to “omics-study” and movement into the “big data” era, but also describes her own transition of status: from student, to independent researcher, to professor and group leader:

 
When you are a student, you have more freedom to explore a broad interest, but the vision is limited by your experience and situation; when you become faculty, you get the chance to see the big picture, have more consideration and responsibility, and that’s when you start realizing that to some aspects you are trained, but you are never trained enough. … Even if we don’t perform all the analysis by ourselves, at least we should know the best way it could be done.
 
In a bit of serendipity, Dr. Silveyra discovered her interest in biology:

 
As a kid, I always thought I would be a personal trainer or some sort of a sport person. However, I decided to pursue a career in science after a teacher in high school took me to his lab and showed me what molecular biologists did there—he was working on his PhD.
 
Since then, driven by curiosity and passion, Dr. Silveyra has carved out a niche for herself in the world of biological research and established a career in pediatrics. Currently an Assistant Professor at Penn State College of Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics, she researches the molecular mechanisms of inflammatory lung disease using mouse models. To evaluate the condition of the lung defense system, Dr. Silveyra’s research lab examines the immune cells present in lungs after being exposed to toxins. However, male and female lungs respond differently to toxins in the environment. As a result, Dr. Silveyra has become interested in the sex-specific molecular mechanisms of inflammatory lung disease. She also investigates the sex-specific effects of hormones in lung function, particularly the lung inflammatory response. Since hormone levels can cause immune cells to trigger stronger inflammatory responses, she hopes to use her research to help men and women get better treatment for lung diseases, such as asthma:
 
People often don’t think how important sex-specific research is. Most of the medicine that we have access to has been tested only in males at the laboratory level or, when females are used, the hormonal fluctuations are often ignored, and we miss important information.
 
Dr. Silveyra is aware that sex-specific medical care is often lacking and maintains that this is concerning because diseases like asthma, COPD, and lung cancer are “more prevalent and are killing more women than men, and yet we treat men and women with the same medicine.” Therefore, it becomes increasingly important for Dr. Silveyra to advocate for and educate others about her research. Fortunately, Dr. Silveyra is passionate about her research:
 
I always wanted to lead a group of researchers who are curious and smart. Now that I have assembled my lab, I am excited to go to work every day.
 
This is what a scientist looks like: Patricia Silveyra
Watch this video to see how Patricia Silveyra's research seeks to understand the differences between men and women in their susceptibility to asthma.

Under Dr. Silveyra’s leadership, her research group has achieved impressive progress and won multiple grants within a short time. Her very first grant got her “exposed” to the academic community, and it was the Adele Lewis Grant fellowship from GWIS:
 
I almost didn’t apply to this fellowship thinking I didn’t have ‘leadership experience’ (although I was involved in so many groups and leading them without even noticing!). It was the technician in my lab who told me that pretty much everything I was doing with the postdoc society, GWIS, etc. was leadership. I did not even know what that meant. This speaks to the importance of having other women rooting for you. GWIS does a great job at that.

The Adele Lewis Grant fellowship was my first grant. This grant was very important, because not only it provided the resources to run preliminary experiments, but it also helped in my ability to get more grants afterwards, and gave me ‘exposure’ in the scientific community. I strongly recommend GWIS members to apply for any grant, no matter how big or small. Having been selected among others for a particular award makes you stand out and get noticed, and this really influences future reviewers into paying more attention to your applications.

 
Dr. Silveyra joined the GWIS Hershey chapter in 2011, and has since served as their chapter secretary, president, and faculty adviser. Since 2013, she started working as a member of the nominating committee for national GWIS. Looking back to her path in this organization, it is quite a typical GWIS version of “Lean in.”
 
I joined GWIS in 2011. I learned about it from the Nu [State College] chapter, when they recruited me to be a poster judge at a conference. Then I found out there was a new chapter in Hershey and I helped them with an activity for girl scouts before I ‘officially’ joined the group. I stayed active with the chapter because it provided me with an opportunity to meet more women in science, and do outreach activities that involved science. I have always been a very service-oriented person, but I did not know many people in the area since I had moved to Hershey in 2008, mainly because I was working full time as a postdoc, and I was still struggling to communicate in English. GWIS not only provided me with networking and outreach opportunities, but also helped me realize that I had leadership qualifications and that my leadership was appreciated by others.
 
As a female scientist, Dr. Silveyra has faced challenges and obstacles as well; years of involvement in associations like GWIS to support female scientists, along with her research background provide Dr. Silveyra with a special perspective and more confidence. When talking about GWIS, she focused most on how important a role that GWIS plays in her life and how much she loves this organization:
 
I think being a female scientist is very hard. For me, one of the biggest challenges is to deal with society’s expectations for women (being nice, looking good, taking care of others, having children, etc.) and the unfairness I perceive when I compare myself to men. One of the things I do to prevent this from affecting me is to surround myself with other women scientists that help me realize when I am having negative feelings about myself. I also feel like we do not have a lot of role models. Most of the women I know had to resign and give up many things to get to where they are, but they regret doing that afterwards. I think we can learn from others, but there is a lot of ‘trial and error'. In GWIS, you not only see people’s accomplishments, you can also see their struggles and how they get through it and succeed. It provides me with a network of mentors I can trust, because we are all committed to each other’s success. I like to hear about other member’s accomplishments, and to be able to contact them for support and advice. Also, knowing that there are members who follow my success makes me want to be even more successful. It is nice to have cheerleaders.

GWIS is at a great time, because the current leaders are so diverse, open minded, and committed to the advancement of women in all areas of science. Also, we have the support of long standing members that provide expertise and connections. I think the fact that we are all very technology oriented makes us very visible and current with what is going on in the world. We are a big group of smart women, so we are determined for success!

 
Dr. Silveyra stresses the vital roles that a good education, communication, and networking all played in her achievements and offers this advice to aspiring women in science:
 
Be patient, be strong, and have friends you can count on. There are going to be a lot of challenges, and there are going to be moments when you think you won’t make it. Your friends will be there for you. And you will make it if you work hard, and if you don’t give up.
 
When asked how she manages to do everything that she does, Dr. Silveyra responded, “I have this ‘Sunday meeting’ with myself every week.” - to make plans for the next week, which might be not anything uncommon, but then she went on:
 
Most of the time we are so busy, but we should always ask ourselves, "Are we busy with the things we are supposed to do?"
One of the things that makes Dr. Silveyra even more inspiring is the fact that she managed to accomplish what she did within the confines of an unfamiliar system.
 
I did most of my training in Argentina, and my goal in coming to the US was to acquire additional expertise to become a faculty member. Most of the PIs I knew back home had traveled abroad to do postdoctoral experiences, and even though it was not a requirement, it certainly helped them get faculty positions. A few years into my training, I decided to become a PI in the US. This was challenging because I was not familiar with the US education system and I was not a US citizen (which prevented me from applying to several grant opportunities). Organizations such as GWIS were very helpful in this transition, mainly because they offered funding opportunities such as the fellowship program, but also because they connected me with individuals in similar situations who gave me direction. I remember I had to apply for a green card at the same time I was applying for my first grant, and that was probably one of the most stressful times in my career.

I think one of the biggest differences between becoming a faculty member in the US and in Argentina is the formal mentoring program. When you apply to become a faculty member in Argentina, you do it through a structured system which requires partnering with a senior PI. The process is similar to a K award, and it is highly competitive and dependent on the country's science budgetary situation. Also, one of the reasons for partnering with a PI is to get lab space and startup money, since there are less opportunities for independent funding. The resources are limited but the science is of high quality. The education in Argentina is very good and accessible, and we have some of the best scientists in Latin America (including threee science Nobel Prize winners). Also, there are fewer opportunities to try high-risk science, due to budgetary issues. That being said, I think Argentinean women in science have better work-life balance. The salaries are lower, but there is more job stability. Also, benefits such as maternity leave and vacation are much better in the Argentine system. I think it is overall friendlier towards women scientists in terms of balancing family and work, but the budgetary problems and instability of the economy may get in the way of your science. I think the same is true for other countries in Latin America and some countries in Europe.

 
Being a Latina has impacted Dr. Silveyra’s career here in the US and, as a result, she has faced challenges that women don’t typically experience in their research careers.
 
Being a Latina is associated with several stereotypes, and none of them involve science. In general, people will tend to believe that I work in housekeeping, or that I work assisting someone, rather than being a leader. Also, I have an accent that resembles that of some Latina actresses, and that creates and unconscious association with the roles they see on TV. You have no idea how many times people tell me "you speak like Sofia Vergara". Her character could not be further away from that of a scientist. I also dress differently, because of my culture, and I tend to look younger than I am. I am 36 years old and I get confused for an aspiring medical student, or anything except a scientist, on a weekly basis. I am still waiting for the day someone will assume I am a Principal Investigator and leader of a research lab, just by looking at me. This has made me doubt about myself on multiple occasions, and I had to work on it. I remember it was so evident at a leadership training, that one of the trainers asked me to record myself saying "I am worthy" and play it every night. Imagine having to do that!! One of the things I had to learn was to embrace this. I cannot get mad at people for thinking that just because I have an accent I am not smart, but I make sure I do not internalize that. There is literature showing that this happens to minority women in science, and more often than not. Now, I try my best to make sure I introduce myself properly, and I have my elevator speech well prepared and polished! Also, I am aware that I serve as a role model for several young Latinas and aspiring scientists. This is very empowering, and gives me a lot of courage and makes me want to be better every day. Even though I mentor a lot of students, I tend to mentor minority students more often, because I know I can understand their struggles better than other mentors, and because I know there are not many minority mentors available.
 
There are a number of Latina-specific resources that Dr. Silveyra has found particularly in supporting herself personally and professionally since immigrating to the US.
 
There are several organizations aimed to promote minorities in science. One of the most helpful for Latinas is SACNAS [Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science]. They have an annual meeting attended by over 4000 individuals, with professional development workshops, and advice from Latinos in all sciences and science education. I think one of the most helpful resources this organization has is the summer leadership institute. This is an incredible experience for junior faculty member and postdocs, especially if you are interested in science outreach. In addition, most professional societies have a minority affairs committee that often offers resources and workshops for trainees and faculty. I recommend the ASCB MAC [American Society for Cell Biology Minorities Affairs Committee] summer workshop if you are a postdoc thinking of beginning a career in academia. Also, do not overlook opportunities in your local community. I have volunteered in organizations for the advancement of Latinos in my community, such as the Latino Hispanic Professional Association, and Estamos Unidos de Pennsylvania (EUP), and it has helped me polish my leadership abilities. I have served in multiple positions in these organizations, including being the president of EUP for the past year (this is a nonprofit that serves thousands of individuals in central Pennsylvania). Through these, I have connected with community leaders, politicians, and business people who have taught me a lot about leadership and personal and professional development, and have provided me with opportunities to share my science with the public and become a more well-rounded investigator. My advice to Latinas aspiring to a career in science is to find your science "familia". It will help you fight the stereotype threat and feel pride for your accomplishments.
Contributed by Shu Li with Kayleen Schreiber and Maria Adonay. Video by Kayleen Schreiber and Maria Adonay. Copy Editor Rozzy Finn.
GWIS members can join a free, small group mentoring session with Dr. Silveyra tomorrow, February 21st at 8pm EST/ 7pm CST/ 5pm PST. We have fixed a bug that prevented registration submissions last week. If you tried to register and were unable to submit, please try again by 11:59 pm today. You will receive an email early tomorrow with instructions for the webinar. The webinar 
will be accessible via Google hangouts; you will need to have a gmail account to participate.
Register

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Founded in 1921, Graduate Women in Science is an inter-disciplinary society of scientists who collectively seek to advance the participation and recognition of women in science and to foster research through grants, awards and fellowships. We comprise over 20 active chapters of more than 800 women who are "United in Friendship through Science" to support and inspire member professional goals and mutual appreciation of science. Learn more at www.gwis.org.

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