February 11, 2022

SWHR’s Chief Science Officer on Her Path in Science 

In recognition of International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, 2022, SWHR interviewed its Chief Science Officer Irene Aninye, PhD, on her science path and what advice she would give women and girls interested in this field. The following blog post captures highlights from this conversation.

How did you become interested in the field of science? In other words, how did your science journey begin? 

I was not exactly a science person when I was a kid, but I loved math. I attended the science and tech magnet program at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland, so I ended up doing a lot of collaborative research projects through high school and college. I worked with organizations like the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); the University of Maryland; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA); and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW). At UW I got to work on wound healing, and it happened to be in an all-female lab. I loved that environment—both the camaraderie and the work that we did. That experience is ultimately what made me want to get my PhD.  

For undergrad, I went to University of Maryland, Baltimore County, starting in chemical engineering, but I changed to biochemistry because I wanted to do health research. I was in the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, created to support underrepresented minorities excelling in STEM. The program taught me how to go from being individually competitive to being cooperative. This mindset really helped me being a woman and a minority in STEM, because it reminded me how to cooperatively leverage networks and build community in my work. 

I went to grad school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), focusing on steroid hormone action in reproductive endocrinology. I did a postdoc at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, working in the thyroid hormone space, and was involved heavily in the Endocrine Society. I went on to work as faculty at Loyola University Maryland, for the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, and at the American Association for the Advancement of Science supporting their science and research enterprise, all before joining Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR). At SWHR, I’ve come full circle with my love of biomedical and health work. 

How do you feel your experience as a woman in science was affected by your gender, if at all?  

There are a lot more women in science than there used to be, but there’s still so much more to do. It’s still kind of funny for me to think about, but I was the first Black woman to get a PhD in my program at UIUC. I didn’t have any Black, women professors in my STEM courses, and I noticed this growing up, too. I wanted to change that for others.  

For example, while I was teaching at Loyola, I knew a freshman could come into my class, be taught by a faculty member who was a Black woman, and that would shift their perception of what they could be or do. Even in my role at SWHR, I’m aware that during my public-facing work, people are seeing a Black woman in science and having their perceptions changed, which is important.  

How does SWHR support women and girls in science through its work? 

By nature, people have a passion for things that affect them, so naturally SWHR presents an opportunity for young girls to see women working in science. We try to make this diversity visible by bringing many perspectives to the table, because every person has a different story. For example, when building our working groups, we look at diversity across everything from career stage, geography, types of organizations, race and ethnicity, gender, and more. When we bring people together, we’re not trying to merge voices; we want to reflect all voices. For every person out there, there is a unique experience, and sharing each story will reach a different person, a different girl, a different adult woman, a different older woman. We take each opportunity to highlight all types of women here at SWHR. 

What can people do to support SWHR and its work in the sciences? 

First, share the materials, attend the events, and participate. The audience discussions during our events often highlight important gaps our team hasn’t seen in women’s health and inspire us to pursue opportunities to extend programs to address these gaps. To support the science work at SWHR, receiving feedback is important. Patient stories are so important. When people respond, we pay attention.  

If you’re a health researcher, I’d also encourage you to ask yourself, are you looking at sex and gender in your research? Are you building this component into your proposal? Not every topic will affect a large population, but every study does address a specific population’s needs, a specific woman’s needs, so be open to pursuing and researching that work, too.  

Finally, we love having women, but you don’t have to be a woman to support a woman’s health cause. There’s value in having men at the table, so we can learn from them, and they can learn how to be a better man in women’s spaces and how to improve the work they may be doing to support women.  

What advice would you give other women and girls interested in exploring science?  

Science is no harder than any other field. If it’s your niche, or if you have a natural dedication or passion for science, you will work through the challenges. For anything you love, at some point it’s going to get challenging, whether it’s English literature, or sports, or science. But if it’s your passion, you will find the strength to push past those challenges. The sciences can become hard for everybody at some point, but that shouldn’t mean that it’s not for you.  

When you’re looking at jobs, look at the type of change you want to make and the work you want to do. I like teaching, building, and working with people. I’m not in the classroom today, but I can educate through SWHR’s toolkits and webinars. I’m not building robots, but I’m designing programs and experimenting on processes and approaches. Don’t lock yourself into a job title, but instead think about the things you like to do, go out and get those experiences, try those opportunities, and find out what the job is later.   

For Black women, I’d say that although you might be the only face like yours in a room at times, try not to be intimidated. Remember, you are a voice—not the voice. Don’t focus on having to be everything; just be who you are in that space. Trust that those around you will encounter somebody else in the future who will give them another opportunity to learn from others. The weight should not be on you to be everything, the weight should be on you to be your best self.  


A shorter version of this interview is also posted on SWHR’s LinkedIn channel