More than ever, women are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and at Abbott, they are conducting groundbreaking research, pioneering innovations, developing breakthrough products and changing lives. Not only that, they're changing the healthcare industry.
In honor of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we connected with two Abbott scientists, Rachael Buck, Ph.D., who leads groundbreaking immunology and human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) research in the area of infant nutrition, as well as Jamie Partridge, Ph.D., MBA, who oversees Health Economics and Outcomes Research (HEOR) which measures the growing importance of medical nutrition therapy on people’s health, and the impact on healthcare costs.
We asked them about how they got their start, what they love about their jobs and what advice they have for young girls considering a career in STEM.
Here's what they had to say.
Q: What Do You Love About Science? What Makes It So Powerful?
JP: Science is powerful because it influences everything from genetics, to economics, to healthcare systems — it's all-encompassing. Even if something has been studied for 50 years there's always a new way to look at a problem, a new discovery to make. For me, analyzing data is a creative process and I love translating numbers into something that shows the value of an idea or program.
RB: Research in immunology may sound intimidating, but to me it's the exact opposite. It is relatable to everyone because we all have an immune system and we all get sick. The promise and far-reaching potential of immunology research are powerful, and that's what keeps me motivated to find out where this can take us.
Q: What Inspired You to Become a Scientist, and Who Were Your Mentors?
JP: The person who initially inspired me to get into science was my older brother. Now he's a doctor, but back in the day, he was always doing these interesting science experiments that I just couldn't get enough of. I looked up to him. Someone else who really had an impact on me was my high school chemistry teacher. Not only did he encourage me to explore my love of science, he taught me how to collaborate and work with others — something I've taken with me throughout my career.
RB: When I was growing up in England, I remember being entranced by the NASA scientists huddled around their command stations on my little black and white TV. With a little encouragement from my brother-in-law, who recognized my passion for science, I decided to go for it. Like space exploration, immunology was a new field of science when I went to university. My professor and mentor Dr. Bernadette Hannigan helped me navigate this new area of research. I ran my first experiments with her — she helped me discover the magic of separating immune cells and studying how they function, which was the inspiration I needed to keep going.
Q: What Is One Accomplishment That You Are Really Proud Of?
JP: When I came to Abbott there was no health economics team, so we pioneered studies that had never been done before. Seeing how this research makes a difference has been so rewarding. A study I led on the economic impact and health benefits of nutrition intervention influenced over 300 hospitals to adopt a new protocol and improved so many patient's lives.
RB: For over 20 years with Abbott, I've been studying the ingredients in breast milk and figuring out how to bring them to infant formula so that every baby gets the best start in life. I led research that showed the benefits of adding a special prebiotic called 2'FL-HMO to infant formula, giving formula-fed babies immune responses more similar to breastfed babies. Bringing this to life was huge for me because it means that these babies are now able to get the added benefits of 2’FL-HMO along with the nutrition they need at a crucial stage in their life. I am incredibly proud of this achievement, and I got there by doing what first captivated me at university: working in the lab, looking at immune cells up close and figuring out how to use that information to improve lives.
Q: What Challenges Do Women in STEM Careers Experience Today?
JP: Today things are much better, but when I was in school, engineering, math and science courses were filled almost entirely with boys. It wasn't common to go into science as a woman. Today, it's much easier to succeed in the field because classes are more diverse and there are more female scientists to look up to. My advice is to stick it out — the more women who blaze the trail, the more examples the next generation will have to follow.
Q: Any Last Words of Advice for Young Girls Interested in STEM Careers?
JP: I'd tell them not to be intimidated. If they haven't found their calling yet, take as many classes as possible and give everything a shot — you never know when you're going to discover your passion. Women and young girls should feel empowered to explore every opportunity in STEM. Don't doubt yourself, just go for it!
RB: Be fearless and believe in yourself. If you love and believe in an area of study pursue it. Don’t be afraid of the challenge and surround yourself by people who support you and can help you grow.