Focusing on the Science – Not the Gender of the Scientist

The founder of research firm Wibi+Works talks about the importance of perseverance.

Candice Helfand-Rogers By Candice Helfand-Rogers

Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a project in which we hope to explore the continued lack of female representation for employees and entrepreneurs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The first installment of this series can be found here.
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Dr. Aline Betancourt is the founder, CSO and acting CEO of Wibi+Works, a research company based in San Diego, Calif. that is focused on both the development and the commercialization of treatment options for inflammatory diseases. She is also an adjunct associate professor at the Center for Stem Cell Research and Regenerative Medicine of Tulane University. During her lengthy career as a scientist, she has established herself as a known and respected voice in the world of stem cell research.

When I spoke with Betancourt, she touched upon the experience of being a female STEM entrepreneur, the female scientists that inspired her, and the importance of perseverance in the face of doubt.

Edited interview excerpts below.

The Story Exchange: What inspired you to pursue scientific research and development professionally? 

I was always a curious person. I always wanted to know how things worked. During high school and college, I found that I could have an academic career in the life sciences, which basically meant spending a lifetime getting paid to learn and discover how living things work. I was hooked. I also had a wonderful physics teacher in high school that made the subject interesting and exciting to pursue.

The Story Exchange: As an entrepreneur yourself, would you say that it was especially difficult to start and grow a company in one of the STEM industries being a woman?

Yes, I think so, because the bias among both men and women is to quickly acknowledge facts given by a man, then quickly dismiss or question facts given by a woman. It is a constant uphill battle for a woman to establish her credibility. We mothers need to be better about teaching our children to see past gender in respecting or accepting a person’s credibility.

The Story Exchange: In your 1,000 Stories profile, you cite your female scientist predecessors as role models. Could you talk more about how they motivated you to persevere?

I was greatly inspired by Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini and her relentless pursuit of knowledge. Her amazing story – which is told in her autobiography, “In Praise of Imperfection” – and all that she overcame gives one strength to persevere no matter what obstacle may lie ahead. I also enjoyed Sharon Bertsch McGrayne’s book, “Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries,” as it helps one get a good feel for the amazing accomplishments of women in science despite most of the time getting little recognition or payment. They were in it for their passion to discover and learn – that is very inspiring to me.

The Story Exchange: Now that you are also an established female scientist, what words of wisdom would you offer to a younger woman who is unsure of whether she belongs in a STEM career?

I would quote Calvin Coolidge and say that, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press on!’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” This is the personality you have to have to succeed [in these industries]. If you don’t have this kind of drive, it will be a hard career to pursue.

The Story Exchange: How can we best address the issues of representation and support for women in STEM?

I wish we could live in a world where we could get past having to compare how women and men perform and think. I wish that we would not worry about the gender of the person doing the science, but rather, the importance and significance of his or her work. In that regard, I think the Internet – with its crowdsourcing and crowdfunding – is a great equalizer and democratizer that will help in giving women a more equal chance. I think, too, that we need to re-prioritize what we call “success” in our society; as Arianna Huffington and other women have said, [we need to expand] from how much you make or how high in the corporate ladder you get and incorporate child-rearing and other contributions that improve society and humanity as a whole [into the success spectrum].

For a List of All Project Posts: The Story Exchange on STEM Entrepreneurship

Posted: May 8, 2014

Candice Helfand-RogersFocusing on the Science – Not the Gender of the Scientist