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Local organization helps women in science find their voice in ‘a room of all men’

Members of Women in Bio meet before the coronavirus pandemic sent meetings online.
Members of Women in Bio meet before the coronavirus pandemic sent meetings online.
(Courtesy)

Local women ranging from college students to top-level executives are getting a lift in their professional development through the Southern California chapter of Women In Bio, which also is offering a new grant opportunity intended to promote diversity.

Based in San Diego, the WIB Southern California chapter, which also serves Orange and Los Angeles counties, has 423 members and is “rapidly growing,” according to chapter Chairwoman Jennie Starr.

WIB, a nationwide organization with 14 chapters in cities with “robust life science and biotech clusters,” aims to provide women “a network and a support structure ... throughout their careers,” said Starr, a Del Mar resident. Several of WIB’s programs were started in San Diego and became models for the national programs, she said.

The programs meet monthly. Many were meeting in La Jolla before going virtual in the spring amid the coronavirus pandemic, Starr said. One such program, Mentors Advisors Peers and Sponsorships, was created by Starr before she was chairwoman and is responsible for much of the chapter growth, she said.

Gayani Weerasinghe, member of Women in Bio, says the organization helps keep her connected to the science community.
Gayani Weerasinghe, a member of Women In Bio, says the organization helps keep her connected to the science community.
(Courtesy)

Gayani Weerasinghe, a University Towne Center-area resident with a practice in intellectual property and business law, leads one of the MAPS groups, facilitating discussions among 10 to 15 other women.

Weerasinghe joined WIB in 2011 “to stay connected with the science community” after switching from biomedical research to law. She said the MAPS groups address topics relevant to the members, such as how to search for a job during a pandemic. “It’s an opportunity to mentor others, an opportunity to work together to empower each other,” she said.

Chapter Vice Chairwoman Alexa Tralla said her membership in the MAPS program was pivotal in helping her find her current job in sales for a genome-sequencing company. It helped her identify local companies to apply with and to prepare for the interview process, she said.

“I was blown away by the women involved — people who were really willing to help,” she said.

Tralla said the skills presented through MAPS help women find their voice in “a room of all men” — one of the challenges for women in scientific fields.

Starr, a marketing director for a biotech company, also created micro-communities designed for people to network in a particular field.

La Jollan Julie Fishman co-leads a Women In Bio micro-community in digital health.
(Courtesy)

Julie Fishman, a La Jolla resident who owns a consulting firm and works as a digital health advisor, co-leads a WIB micro-community in digital health, which uses digital technologies in health care, including wearable devices and telemedicine. She said the micro-community provides “an opportunity to educate others,” noting that the digital health field is not as well-known here as in other parts of the country.

Tralla, a leader of the genomic micro-community, said the sessions make information “digestible and interesting. It’s really engaging, open, thought-provoking.”

Fishman said the most important benefit is WIB networking, which she said helped her build professional and personal relationships and learn about San Diego after she moved here five years ago. “I was really inspired by the women I met. I felt this was a group I could see myself involved with and grow and contribute to.”

Another program, the Founder’s Forum, was created “to provide a mechanism to support … first-time and serial female founders or chief executives of start-up life science companies with intellectual property,” Starr said.

Where other peer groups might focus on a personal journey, women in the Founder’s Forum have “unique challenges,” Starr said. “They might be going after their first round of funding; they have to think about their pitch decks [or] which investors would be more inclined to support the work they’re doing.”

The Founder’s Forum members “are enormously supportive of each other,” Starr said, which helps in industries where investors “are not accustomed to seeing women at the helm. ... The question is, if it’s not the norm, are there certain things that might need to be overcome in order to present ... as needed to win the dollars that are necessary?”

Unique to the Southern California chapter is its Young Women In Bio Bio-Influencers teen program, which Starr said will be emulated by other chapters in 2021. The monthly workshop, created to connect teens with industry professionals for mentorship, will “allow these teens to basically start from the beginning, understanding what the industry is [and] begin to actually network … as they continue their education and go off to college,” she said.

The Young Women In Bio program currently is full, with 60 teens enrolled.

The chapter is taking applications through Nov. 6 for a new $1,000 grant for “organizations in our region that are doing interesting work with regard to diversity and inclusion,” Starr said. “I’m excited about that … it’s a unique opportunity for us to be able to highlight the work of an organization … [and] share what they’re doing within the community.”

For more information about the grant and applying, visit womeninbio.org/page/2020InclusionGrant?&hhsearchterms=%22grant%22.

To learn more about WIB, visit womeninbio.org/page/socal. ◆