Since its establishment in 2011, the GAINS (Girls Advancing in STEM) Network has connected hundreds of GA girls and women with a passion for STEM subjects to support, encourage, teach, and inspire one another. A key programmatic element of the network has been the cadence of STEM speakers brought to campus to discuss their careers and areas of expertise. Last week's speaker Dr. Louise Perkins, chief science officer of the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA), has dedicated her 30-year career to cancer research.
Though Dr. Perkins had been interested in science since childhood, she wasn't always sure where it was going to lead her. She entered college with plans to major in pharmacy, changed to pre-med, and then finally settling on zoology. She spoke candidly to the girls about her disappointment at not being able to pursue her primary research interest during her PhD studies in biochemistry because her grades weren't high enough. When her advisor suggested that perhaps biochemistry wasn't for her, she opted to trust her gut and pressed forward, successfully earning a PhD and going on to do postdoctoral work at Princeton. Her achievements to that point might have suggested a career in academia, but she made the switch to corporate research, working in cancer drug-finding, first for Schering-Plough and then later for Bayer.
An opportunity for reinvention presented itself when Bayer shut down the research facility where she worked. After 16 years in pharmaceutical research, she moved to the nonprofit sector to continue the fight against cancer as chief scientific officer at the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF) and later moved to the MRA. She has been at the MRA for five years now and finds challenge and fulfillment in directing scientific grant-making.
Dr. Perkins readily offered that career reinvention can be a frustrating and scary experience. No matter the challenge, however, her love of science always pulled her through. "Science was the thing that held me together," she said. "Even on a day when I'm feeling low, I read about science and it perks me up."
Dr. Perkins also shared with the girls her predictions for the future of cancer treatment as well as tips for how to write a compelling research proposal. When asked for her best advice to someone going into research, she said, "Recognize that not everyone else thinks like you do. Just because the next step is obvious to you, doesn't mean you should tell someone else what to do. The diversity of perspective is what generates fresh ideas and keeps moving things ahead. Other people don't think like you and you should welcome that."