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Noémie-Manuelle Dorval Courchesne, Ph.D., in the lab
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Innovation

These 6 Women in STEM Are On a Mission to Change the World

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The Johnson & Johnson WiSTEM2D Scholars Award Program winners have big ideas—and an even bigger drive to inspire other women studying science, technology, engineering, math, manufacturing and design to pursue their dreams, too.
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Figuring out how disruptions in circadian rhythm may cause cancer in young people.
Using mathematical equations to stop the transmission of malaria. Harnessing nanotechnology to help patients with facial bone defects.

These big ideas have the potential to change the world—just like the women who are pursuing them.

This year, six female researchers received a 2022 Johnson & Johnson Scholars Award, which honors women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, math, manufacturing and design (STEM2D). In 2017 the company launched the program to fuel development of female STEM2D leaders and feed the talent pipeline by awarding and sponsoring women at critical points in their careers. The goal is to support the research passion of the awarded women and inspire career paths in their fields. The 2022 Scholars will each receive $150,000 in funding and three years of mentorship from Johnson & Johnson.

It's just one of the many ways the company is helping promote women in STEM2D. For example, for the past four years, the company has partnered with Girls Who Code (GWC), an organization that's working to increase the number of girls in STEM and close the gender gap in new entry-level tech jobs by 2030. In 2022 50 students across the U.S.—half of whom come from historically underrepresented groups—participated in the Johnson & Johnson and GWC virtual summer immersion program to learn coding, gain exposure to tech jobs and receive mentoring and coaching.

Indeed, uplifting young women in STEM is an area of passion for these Johnson & Johnson Scholars while they forge a path toward making their own research dreams a reality.

We sat down with these six university researchers to learn more about their work, get a sense of where they see themselves in 20 years, ask about their best advice for other women pursuing careers in STEM and more.


Working to eradicate cancers by targeting the circadian clock

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Selma Masri, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of biological chemistry, University of California, Irvine

Have you always been interested in science?
I always gravitated toward the subject as a student, but the pivotal moment happened during my freshman year of college. My first job was a work-study, washing dishes in a lab. It was monotonous and boring—and I’d often look over the scientists’ shoulders and ask questions. The Principal Investigator (PI) of that lab noticed and took me under his wing. It goes to show that you can get your start anywhere. Now I’m a PI, at the head of my own lab.

What would you like to be doing in 20 years?
Right now we’re working on the intimate links between how the interruption of your biological clock relates to cancer. We have so much to answer that we’ll be working on this for the next 20 years! We’re interested in why there’s an alarming trend in young-onset cancer, like colon cancer, and we think it could be related to disruption of our biological rhythms. And if in 20 years I’ve helped someone who started off washing dishes in my lab and sparked their interest in STEM, I’d consider that a success.

What advice do you have for young women interested in STEM who want to break into the field?
Not a single one of us is born knowing how to do science; we learn. Which is why we have to reach out to people around us who we think can help teach us. I’ve had a lot of help getting to where I am, and I can point to several strong women and men who have helped me. That’s why I often say, "Look for your village. Seek help and seek out advice anywhere.”


Using nanotechnology to restore quality of life for patients with facial bone defects

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Ange-Therese Akono, Ph.D., assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University

Have you always been interested in science?
My mother instilled in me a love for science, and we spent a lot of quality time together doing math, which was one of my favorite pastimes. I also gained an interest in life sciences from my grandmothers, who were midwives. I loved studying and was fortunate to have a nurturing family and inspiring teachers who encouraged me to study even harder and enabled me to pursue engineering studies abroad.

What would you like to be doing in 20 years?
I would like to become a translational scientist and discover advanced clinical solutions to promote the regeneration of diseased hard musculoskeletal tissues, such as bone. Bone defects are prevalent; they can be the result of trauma, cancer or congenital defects. In my research, we apply advanced principles of nanoscience and materials science to discover advanced bone substitute materials to promote accelerated healing. The end goal is to improve the quality of life in patients affected by musculoskeletal tissue diseases.

What advice do you have for young women interested in STEM who want to break into the field?
Working in STEM has made me a better mother, partner, sister, friend and mentor—and this is an exciting time to be in the sciences, as there are many opportunities and myriad career paths. The first steps are to pursue a research opportunity and find a mentor. It's important to nurture the joy and excitement you have about your field and cultivate discipline, patience and perseverance as you increase and expand your technical skills.


Developing rechargeable batteries for implantable biomedical devices

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Feifei Shi, Ph.D., assistant professor in energy engineering, The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State)

What do you love most about your work?
I love the freedom to explore challenging, interesting and meaningful projects that push our understanding further. I get to dream big—and if there’s support for the dream I want to research, I get to pursue it. Right now, I’m designing new, rechargeable batteries for biomedical electronics in an attempt to solve the related power supply challenges.

Describe the happiest moment of your career so far …
When I first arrived at Penn State I wrote a lot of proposals for research grants. I also got a lot of rejections. So, one of my happiest moments was the first time one of my proposals was funded. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was that feeling of getting your very first paycheck: this amazing sense of independence, like I was growing up and I knew I could make it on my own.

What’s the coolest thing about being a woman in STEM right now?
My mom is a chemist and a university professor, and she's my role model. Because of that, I never thought of myself or my skills as different than what the boys were capable of. I’ve always set the bar high for myself and believed that I could do anything, and I think as female researchers and women working in STEM, we need to form a strong community and support each other. The sky is the limit for women in STEM!


Using mathematics to understand malaria—and stop its transmission

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Miranda Teboh-Ewungkem, Ph.D., professor of practice, department of mathematics, Lehigh University

What do you love most about your work?
I work in math biology, which means I use mathematics to understand the intricacies in disease transmission. I’ve been focusing a lot on malaria lately, and one of the things I’ve really enjoyed is how I’ve come to understand the complexities involved around its transmission and the strong role mathematics can play. It has helped me appreciate the difficulties in disease eradication and the need for relentless control efforts.

While I love the research itself, I also love mentoring students. Using mathematics to unravel the complexities in a vector-borne disease—and in the process, teaching and mentoring students—is gratifying. We must be able to transfer our knowledge and train students to pick up the work we started for future use.

Describe the happiest moment of your career so far …
Receiving the National Science Foundation Grant and being a 2022 WiSTEM2D Scholars Award recipient both served as a stamp of acknowledgment of my research, which feels great.

What’s the coolest thing about being a woman in STEM right now?
For me, it's being a role model to millions of little girls out there who may not believe that they can do this. Being able to show them it’s possible to be a woman in STEM and contribute to big ideas and development of tools and processes that make a real difference in the world is incredible! Being a woman of color in STEM also feels important. The younger ones see what I’m doing, and that empowers them to know they can do it, too.


Engineering electronic devices used for monitoring, diagnosing and treating patients

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Noémie-Manuelle Dorval Courchesne, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemical engineering, McGill University, Canada

Have you always been interested in science?
Since I was a child, I enjoyed creative activities and games that involved building something, creating a new setup or imagining different scenarios. Now, I get to express my creativity while engineering new devices aimed at solving important challenges. As we rely more and more on wearable or implantable medical devices for monitoring and diagnostics, it’s important to develop materials that are harmonious with the human body and able to detect small physiological changes. I’m researching the viability and scalability of “green” protein-based bioelectronics to solve both biomedical and environmental challenges.

What would you like to be doing in 20 years?
I hope I’ll have contributed to demonstrating that biology is a powerful tool to engineer new devices. In the near future, I hope to pursue various projects in my lab to create sustainable alternatives for electronics, plastics and textiles.

What advice do you have for young women interested in STEM who want to break into the field?
I strongly believe that women and men can equally contribute to advancing knowledge and designing new technologies. I think it’s important for young women to believe in themselves and to have confidence in their abilities. I would also advise them to surround themselves with mentors. During my Ph.D., I was lucky to have two wonderful advisors who were great examples of successful and creative women leaders in STEM.


Improving 3D printing to make better bone implants for patients

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Atieh Moridi, Ph.D., assistant professor, mechanical and aerospace engineering, Cornell University

What do you love most about your work?
The intellectual freedom to explore new and challenging ideas. For example, current implants have predefined shapes and can't mimic the structure and mechanical properties of bone, which leads to inaccurate anatomical fitting and sub-optimal patient outcomes. I had an idea to improve quality of 3D printed parts by "watching" and "listening" to the process such that we can leverage its intrinsic flexibility for affordable, personalized healthcare in orthopedics.

These moments—where ideas click in your mind and you have the freedom to pursue them—feel like pure joy.

Describe the happiest moment of your career so far …
We have a tradition at Cornell called “thank a professor,” where students can express their appreciation for professors who’ve had a positive impact on their educational experience. The first time I received a letter from one of my students was one of the happiest moments of my career. The impact I can have on others is a different joy for me as compared to my own successes.

What’s the coolest or most surprising thing about being a woman in STEM right now?
I’ve read a lot of articles and talked to a number of colleagues about the fact that women are generally asked to do more service in academia, and the pandemic increased the demand for this. I think institutions should be mindful of this invisible labor, but I also believe that one of the impactful ways to fill the gender gap in STEM, academia or industry is the active participation of women in outreach activities. I'm really passionate about this so I can meet more girls in their critical stages and let them know math, science and engineering is for girls.

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Read about the many ways the company is invested in supporting women as they work to help change the trajectory of health for humanity.

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