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Of like minds: Finding your communities

16th October 2014
By Katy Alexander

As part of Digital Science’s celebrations for Ada Lovelace Day, for the rest of October we are running a collection of blog posts featuring some of the great women that work across Digital Science and our portfolio companies.

jeanJean Liu is the Product Development Manager for Altmetric and is responsible for shaping the roadmap and working with the development team to deliver great software. Altmetric (which is supported by Digital Science) aggregates online attention surrounding scholarly articles. Jean is a neuroscientist by training. Her interests in scholarly communication prompted her to move to join Altmetric, initially as their data curator and blog editor. You can follow her on Twitter: @portablebrain.

Over a period of less than 2 years, I went from being a researcher in a neuroscience lab to managing product development at the technology startup Altmetric. This post is about my career path to date, and how, along the way, I’ve been supported and inspired by many amazing women in science and in technology.

A glimpse of academia

From a very young age, I wanted to be an academic just like my dad. He’d obtained his PhD in Engineering in 1990, when I was 2. Some of my earliest memories took place at a university, because my dad was always doing research and writing papers.

I remember how my mom and I would drop by my dad’s office in the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering, peering through the frosted glass windows and seeing men (always men!) who were usually deep in discussion.

Looking back, I find it interesting that even though my first-ever exposure to academia was in an environment that was dominated by men, I somehow never assumed that the overall endeavour of research was solely a male experience. (Nor did my parents ever give me that impression.) I suppose I was too young to understand the gender disparity. And as such, I was too young to feel excluded. I grew up wondering if someday, I too would have “Dr.” in front of my name.

My short stint as a neuroscientist

At the end of high school, I was planning to apply for an undergraduate program, but I didn’t know which discipline would be my calling. Inspiration came to me after reading a special issue of the National Geographic, which focused on the human brain. The concepts that were described in the article filled me with such wonder and awe that I knew right away I needed to become a neuroscientist and study the nervous system. And so off I went to study for an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience. After that, I continued onwards and started a Master’s degree in Pharmacology and Neuroscience, studying chronic neuropathic pain.

My university experiences were pretty much the complete opposite of the all-male Faculty of Engineering that I had observed as a child. In my undergraduate neuroscience program, we had a great mix of clever women and men, and the same was true in my Master’s degree cohort. The majority of my friends and lab colleagues in neuroscience were female, but men and women alike would always support each other. We’d all meet over coffee, beer, or dinner, and talk about science. We’d cheer each other up whenever experiments went awry and we’d worry together about job prospects. I don’t know if this was unusual or not, but at least amongst my colleagues, the challenges of being a “woman in science” rarely came up in our conversations. Mostly, our discussions were about supporting each other as equals. As scientists.

But throughout both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I was lucky enough to have some of the best female role models and mentors that I could ever ask for. One who deserves a special mention is Dr. Jana Sawynok, who supervised me during my Master’s degree. She is an incredibly kind and intelligent woman, and taught me to study not only the molecular underpinnings of chronic pain, but also the context of pain in the lives of real human beings. First, before I had even joined the lab, she asked me to read an exquisite, non-scientific book on chronic pain. Later, she introduced me to residents in our city who suffered from the pain condition fibromyalgia, and I heard their moving and inspirational stories firsthand. The lesson I took away was that no matter what work you are doing, you must know why you are doing it and for whom.

The big move

While I was heading on the path towards a PhD, I imagined an academic office of my own, someday, with frosted glass windows. Partway through my Master’s, things started to change and I began to feel the first twinges of doubt in my chosen career path. I still loved neuroscience and research, and was passionate about finding better treatments for chronic pain. But like many of my peers, I had become a bit disillusioned by my academic job prospects and wanted to see if there were other options.

I had become very interested in the areas of science communication, scholarly publishing, and research impact. Although I was a good researcher, I felt that I could make more a difference in other areas. But the idea of leaving science after so many years of training to become a researcher seemed daunting.

Still, I was excited by the possibilities. I had been blogging at The Portable Brain and new opportunities that I’d never even considered before had come out of that. The opportunity that I ended up falling in love with was related to a small London-based startup named Altmetric, which was doing some really compelling and innovative stuff in the areas of scholarly communication, publishing, and impact. The company hired me as a freelance writer for Altmetric, and I was tasked with helping them to explore new ways of thinking about research impact.

With ample encouragement, support, and well-wishes from friends, lab colleagues, and family, I moved from Canada to the UK to begin a brand new career outside the laboratory.

Entering the technology world

In the autumn of 2012, I was the third employee to join Altmetric and the first woman to join the company as well. We had a tiny team, and this meant that I was able to learn about and contribute to varied parts of the business, from outreach and communication to data curation and product design. (I eventually decided to specialise in product management, and moved into a new role as Product Development Manager.)

My new colleagues at Altmetric were fantastic, so it was easy to fit into the swing of things at the company. But in those early days, there were admittedly fewer women in my new workplace than I would have seen in my old neuroscience departments.

A close friend of mine, Jutta Frieden (Product Manager at Maths Doctor), started inviting me to events that were aimed at women working or interested in the technology startup sector. It became immediately clear Londoners were really spoiled with choice for events, because there were so many groups that existed for the sole purpose of supporting women in technology. (Other cities around the world have also started similar groups, too.)

On the engineering side, there was RailsGirls London, Codebar, and Code First: Girls, just to name a few. Asides from engineering, there were also more groups focused around technology in general: Girls in Tech London, Tech London Advocates, and others. Although I haven’t joined every group, each event or course that I have attended has always been welcoming and packed with women who are as passionate about technology as I am.

These events have been great for networking, and the conversations remind me of the ones I used to have with my fellow scientists. We exchange thoughts about the challenges of moving into the technology industry (e.g., through a drastic career change), experiences of moving to London, what we wanted to accomplish, and more.

Discussing the issues that face women in technology is a central part of these group events. Many of the events are sponsored by various companies in London, and I take this to be a positive sign that the industry as a whole is making more efforts to better support women who are currently, or will someday be, working in technology.

Great women in the altmetrics community

My current job is to shape and guide the development process for Altmetric’s products and data services. I am, however, really lucky to be part of the wider altmetrics community, which itself is full of amazing, accomplished women who are also working to make altmetrics better. There are women who are researching altmetrics (including Stefanie Haustein and Zohreh Zahedi), women who are building altmetrics tools (notably Heather Piwowar, Jennifer Lin, and Andrea Michalek), and women who are spreading the word about altmetrics to the wider community (including Stacy Konkiel, Donna Okubo, and Cat Chimes).

At Altmetric, we have been welcoming more women to the team since I first joined, including Cat Chimes (Head of Marketing), Sara Rouhi (Product Sales Manager), Louise Hills (Agile Coach), Fran Davies (Customer and Sales Support Executive), and Katherine Christian (Chief Operating Officer). It’s a great privilege to work with these talented and smart women every day.

Closing thoughts

I think it’s always important to recognise and celebrate the accomplishments of the many, many extremely capable women working in science and technology. In the case of altmetrics, the field has come a long way in a very short period of time, and without these women, such progress would have been impossible.

In terms of career support and mentorship, everyone (female or male) can benefit from conversing regularly with like-minded individuals. Whether your community is formed of peers in your workplace or of new people in a completely external group, it always helps to connect and share experiences. You’ll be surprised at what you have in common.

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