My advice to my younger self would be the same advice I have given each of my three daughters, and the same advice I convey to our students at Wellesley: Focus on what matters to you. My younger self was very confident and hardworking—she thought she was focused, so I hope she would listen to me. But I’ve learned over the years that it’s not as easy as it sounds to stay focused on what truly matters most.
My interest in science began in my early childhood. I conducted experiments in our basement, recruiting my younger brother as my reluctant lab assistant. I always knew I wanted to be a scientist, and this dream was a driving force in my young life.
But when I arrived at Yale University as a new Assistant Professor in Immunology, it became clear that becoming a successful scientist required more than just doing science. It was actually two full-time jobs. Job #1 was doing the work necessary to succeed as a scientist—running my laboratory, getting grants, publishing research, and teaching. And Job #2 was navigating the academic environment as a woman.
I knew what I had to do to succeed as a scientist. What I didn’t anticipate was all the other work that came from being a woman scientist. I didn’t know that as a woman I would have to work harder to gain the recognition essential for success, and to establish the connections that nourish a career.
I had to learn to assert myself. I had to learn to interrupt and how to avoid being interrupted. Most importantly, I had to learn the proper way to deal with the inevitable injustices and slights that came my way. Women were a rarity, and as such, they were treated differently, often not taken seriously, and their contributions were often overlooked. But eventually, I also had to ask myself: Do I want to spend time and energy responding to each and every one of these interactions?
The answer, I soon discovered, was no. Constantly reacting was annoying and enervating. It was confidence-sapping and largely fruitless. Worst of all, it took too much time—time that was better devoted to what mattered to me the most: my scientific career.
I also discovered that even the positive parts of being a woman scientist could detract from what mattered most. As one of the few women on the faculty, I was repeatedly asked to serve on committee after committee, some at high levels. I felt flattered to be asked—it was important work, and it was necessary to have a woman’s voice on these committees. But it was work that took me away from my research and teaching.
So one day, when I was asked to make yet another commitment beyond my Job #1, I went against my inclination to say yes. It was hard to do, but now—many years later—I know that it was the right thing to do. It allowed me to focus more on what mattered more to me. And it is the lesson I imparted later to younger women scientists: Just say no. It is okay to say no.
I learned to say no, and I also learned that rather than spending my time reacting to individual injustices, it was far more satisfying to work for systemic change. I discovered that I could accomplish more—and gain far more peace of mind—by focusing on big issues that had the potential to make a difference for all women: issues of salary equity, parental leave, new mentorship structures for scientists, and many others. These are the areas where I chose to focus as part of my Job #2.
By learning both of these lessons about this second job—to just say no, and to dedicate my time where I could make the most impact as both a scientist and as a woman in science—I was able to focus on what had been my calling since childhood. I still held (at least) two highly challenging, time-consuming, full-time jobs—all women do. But because these were commitments I made by choice, because they reflected my most important values and priorities, and because this work made a difference—I found both jobs fulfilling and inspiring.
Kim Bottomly, a renowned immunobiologist and former deputy provost at Yale University, is Wellesley College’s 13th president. A lifelong scientist and educator, Bottomly’s research has focused on the molecular and cellular factors that influence the initiation of immune responses. Her research has investigated how people respond to allergens and why inhaled allergens lead to lung injury. In 2009, Bottomly was elected to one of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies and center for independent policy research, the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.More from this Author