Olja Finn: Science Goddess

Nothing put a bigger smile on my face last week than Science’s profile of Olivera Finn, the founding chair of Immunology at Pitt and recent president of AAI. She is a remarkable scientist (cancer immunology), superb mentor, and delightful woman. Her colleagues and trainees are quick and eager to recognize her professional accomplishments in the course of maintaining a rich family life. I like the way Mitch Leslie starts the article:

Take a look at Olivera “Olja” Finn’s life, and you can tick off the actions women are supposed to avoid if they want to advance in science. Get married fresh out of high school. Check. Interrupt your education for your husband’s sake. Check. Allow his career to take precedence over yours. Check. Have children before you have a job and give birth at what seem like inopportune times, such as shortly before you start graduate school. Check.

Yet Finn has, with great success, pursued career and family goals simultaneously. She celebrated her 40th wedding anniversary last month, has raised a daughter and a son, and, at the age of 59, already has grandchildren. Professionally, Finn has prospered. Nearly 20 years ago, she discovered the first cancer antigen, a tumor molecule that elicits a reaction from immune cells. And despite spending her youth in Communist-run Yugoslavia, Finn has climbed the academic ladder in the United States–she is chair of immunology at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and has served as president of the American Association of Immunologists. She argues that interweaving career and family is essential. “I don’t think we live long enough to do things sequentially.”

Indeed, programs promoting women in science at the NIH, the AAMC, and FASEB need look no further than Olja for their role model, both in terms of her incredible career and how she manages her own productive yet family-friendly labs.

Of note is the current NIH RFA for “Research on Causal Factors and Interventions that Promote and Support the Careers of Women in Biomedical and Behavioral Science and Engineering.” I know of several applications going in and am not sure “research” will uncover anything more novel than the need for institutions to pony up resources and reward supportive department practices – but we’ll see. Perhaps just having hard rather than anecdotal data will make the difference in justifying policy change and budgeting priorities, especially in terms of enhancing recruitment and retention.

(Those not familiar with allowable grant costs in this regard can check this FAQ on NIH policy on child care and parental leave and should also check with their usual IC for special policies, such as the Primary Caregiver Technical Assistance Supplements for postdocs available through, who else, NIAID … Olja, did you have a hand in this?)

Now if only FASEB would recognize her with an Excellence in Science award….

7 Comments »

  1. PhysioProf said

    I know of several applications going in and am not sure “research” will uncover anything more novel than the need for institutions to pony up resources and reward supportive department practices – but we’ll see.

    Ain’t that the fucking truth! Administrators give a bunch of fucking lip service to diversity in hiring, but where the rubber hits the road, they rarely do jack shit. Some Dean will upbraid a department chair, telling him that he needs to do a better job with retention and promotion of female faculty. But at the same time, the school’s day-care program is so underfunded that there is a goddamn three year waiting list to get in. You have to sign up before you even start fucking!

    Always a pleasure, PP, and so bitingly on target. Heard at my last institution plenty of jokes about kids getting into college sooner than getting into the University child care program.

  2. Odyssey said

    PP wrote:
    But at the same time, the school’s day-care program is so underfunded that there is a goddamn three year waiting list to get in.

    You have daycare at your institution???? Not here in the boonies…

    Oh, baby. Perhaps the NIH should instead make the RFA’s $3M available as supplemental funding to which F, K, and T awardees can apply (with documented need) to offset caregiver costs/burden. When this is used up in about a month, they’ll have a solid data point regarding the structural disequilibrium that exists with its awardee institutions, specifically this essential bit of “research infrastructure” (novel and transforming, no less) that must be supplied as part of the investment in training and stability.

  3. BB said

    I collaborated with Olja for a bit while I was a grad student and she was a post-doc (she was in another lab). We had co-op daycare there; great for post-docs and profs but not so great for grad students (just for the record). Olja has a real sunny personality; I don’t know anyone who couldn’t help but be happy near her. She had a good way of teaching you techniques one on one too. Hooray for Olja!

  4. whimple said

    Indeed, programs promoting women in science at the NIH, the AAMC, and FASEB need look no further than Olja for their role model, both in terms of her incredible career and how she manages her own productive yet family-friendly labs.

    This is not a good idea, because Olja’s career is “proof” that the system can work as it is and that women don’t need any help.

    True – but I’m thinking not so much of the flight path she took but of how Olja runs her lab and helps her trainees and colleagues flourish professionally and personally.

  5. microfool said

    While I have the utmost respect for the subject of that profile article, I got a bit peeved by the language the author used, describing the raising of children as “youthful indiscretions”. I don’t think using such language helps the acceptability of women with families in a professional setting.

    Yes, this woman is exceptional because she has managed to have a successful career in science and raise a family at the same time. The article conveyed that. And we all know that it is not easy be a woman in science with kids. I just wish the tone of the article had been more celebratory and less incredulous. The incredulity suggests that we shouldn’t expect women to reach the same standard she set. But we need more women to reach that standard, and we need to find more ways to support them, and I appreciate your excellent suggestions of resources for doing so.

  6. writedit said

    Another great woman in science has been featured in Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology: Nina Fedoroff.

  7. writedit said

    A letter in Nature offers another perspective from someone in the know:

    Nature 456, 29 (6 November 2008 )
    Research rewards are worth the effort for multitasking mothers
    Tracey L. Rogers

    Sir
    The reasons women drop out of science are complex, and Timothy Roper and Larissa Conradt have hit on an important factor in their Correspondence ‘Childcare not enough to make a science career family-friendly’ (Nature 455, 1029; 2008). However, I don’t see encouraging more women into science as either pointless or unethical.

    Careers in science can offer enormous rewards to women. Moving into an academic environment has provided great opportunities for me as a mother, owing to its flexibility. I am now measured largely on my productivity, and my ability to multitask — honed by motherhood — is an asset as I juggle research, administrative duties and teaching.

    I have worked in the male-dominated field of Antarctic research for the past 15 years, and I run a research programme looking at climatic warming impacts on the top predators, leopard seals. This work has been successful, thanks to my scientific team — which, incidentally, is mainly composed of women. As the mother of two children under the age of six, I suspect that a large part of my success has been due to the enduring support of my partner. I’m not going to pretend that it has been plain sailing, but I wouldn’t have done it any differently.

    Let’s stop asking why there are so few women in science. Instead, let’s turn the question round to ask how those who made it actually got there.

    As scientists, we are skilled strategists, overseeing the conception of a new research initiative, then the project’s gestation and its birth as a peer-reviewed article. These planning skills also sustain our lives outside the lab.

    To those women embarking on the journey, I would say that it is not a road for everyone — but if, like me, you have a burning passion for your research, I would encourage you whole-heartedly to pursue it. It’s a long journey, so pace yourself and plan — including your home life and time with your family in your plan. Sometimes you need to step back a little in order to move forwards.

    Readers are welcome to comment.

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