Interviews with Scientists: Joanne Kamens

Interviews with Scientists: Joanne Kamens
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1 month ago

Interviews with Scientists: Joanne Kamens

In the next in our Interviews with Scientists series we spoke with Joanne Kamens, a Senior Consultant at The Impact Seat, a female-run consultancy practice which brings science-based DEI knowledge and practice to organizations. We are delighted that Joanne will be delivering the closing keynote talk on ‘STEM Career Paths For Life Scientists’ at the upcoming Hello Bio LabLife Conference on 30th June 2022.

Joanne received her PhD in genetics from Harvard Medical School and has had a varied career in academia, pharma, biotech and nonprofit. She founded the Boston chapter of the Association for Women in Science (MASS AWIS) after an entire week went by at work when she had no meetings with any other women. This awakening led her on a journey as a scientist to understand the inequities that cause this disparity. While Executive Director of Addgene, she experimented with practical ways to create an inclusive workplace with everyone able to thrive and contribute. Joanne maintained single digit employee turnover for almost a decade at Addgene and collaborated with dozens of inclusion organizations to make the company a Best Place to Work in Boston for 6 years running  (#1 Best Place in 2016). Joanne is also active in creating and supporting group mentoring programs and has been nominated for the Presidential Medal of Honor in STEM Mentoring. 

We spoke to Joanne about her career so far, the importance of mentoring, and some of the problems still facing women in STEM today…

 

Thanks for speaking with us, Joanne! Please can you tell us a little bit about your current role at The Impact Seat?

I've been focused on making science and the workplace more inclusive and diverse as a volunteer for decades in parallel with my professional roles, but in this role I am doing DEI consulting full time. I met The Impact Seat founder many years ago and we’ve worked together on a number of projects involving women in science entrepreneurship.  I love the firm because we try to model what we profess. We are a woman owned and managed company with a widely diverse team in terms of multiple social identity dimensions: multi-ethnic, generational, religious/spiritual, gendered, sexually oriented, historically classed, and differently abled. It’s delightful to delve into the challenging and rewarding work with a team like this. 

I do enjoy working particularly with biotechs and STEM organizations, but The Impact Seat does all kinds of projects for all kinds of organizations. For example, I’ve learned a lot doing projects for orchestras! Some examples of projects we do include DEI assessments, data collection, data analytics; Employee learning, dialog and culture building; DEI strategy, messaging and commitments for change and much more. We don’t do “cookie cutter” work. We always work with our partners to customize what they need most.

 

What was the focus of your PhD research?

I was a hard-core molecular geneticist with a love of molecular technologies. In fact, my advisor was the first person to fuse two pieces of two different proteins together and show that both parts were functional (DNA binding and transcription activation). My thesis was about the transcription factor/oncogene v-Rel which I studied in yeast. While working on my thesis, it was discovered that this is a homolog of one of the proteins in NF-κB - if you know, you know. This was a big deal. I started writing up my work to graduate because I suddenly had many competitors.

 

Did you always want to work in science when you were younger, and if so why?

Yep… as you can see in this photo of me aged 9 with my first microscope. You can see a reenactment of this Hanukkah moment in this video made for International Day of the Girl: www.sparktheseries.com/dayofthegirl

 

You founded the Boston chapter of the Association for Women in Science. What inspired you to do this?

It’s my oft told story. After 6-7 years in pharma I realized an entire week had gone by and I had been in many meetings, but there had been no other women (and I’d been asked to take the minutes multiple times – even in meetings that I had called). It was like a lightbulb going off for me. I started doing research and the data on gender inequity in science astonished me. I still see this happening. Many young women do great in high school and college with equal treatment and success and don’t think equity issues remain. But then they hit up against barriers early in their careers or someone starts harassing them and they are sort of taken aback and not sure how to deal with it.

 

You have been involved in mentoring programs that support diversity and inclusion. How important are programs like these and what impact have you seen them have?

When I founded MASS AWIS and started this journey, I did a lot of research into what works to move the needle on diversity and inclusion. That’s the way a scientist approaches a problem. It turns out having strong mentorship relationships can make a big difference, but only when done correctly. Since then I’ve studied how to do this correctly. I favor group models because 1:1 matching is hard. Don’t get me wrong, I love 1:1 mentoring. I just think one needs to choose one’s own mentors through relationships. In formal programs, group mentoring is much more successful. I’ve helped almost 100 group mentoring programs launch and get going and many are still active. I have 3 new programs in the works this year. You can see my video series on peer mentoring at iBiology.

 

Women remain underrepresented in all fields of STEM. What more do you think could be done to improve the gender balance in science?

This is probably too big of a question and too big of a problem as part of this blog, but maybe where could we start? Perhaps we could start by changing the terrible culture of bullying and harassment in science training which disproportionately affects women. We need a whole other article on how to do that but bottom line, perpetrators need to be held accountable and should not be allowed to have trainees or receive grant funding.

 

What key piece of advice would you give to a young female scientist hoping to climb the ranks within science?

Be aware of the hurdles, but don’t be paralzyed. If you find yourself in a toxic lab, find peers to support you, and get out of that lab as soon as possible. I am working with an organization called https://friendsofsarah.org/. Please reach out to us for confidential support.

 

What has been your proudest career achievement so far?

I am always proud of MASS AWIS and the impact it has had for so many scientists. I’m also proud of my decade at Addgene where I was able to show that a very inclusive culture could result in remarkable organizational success.

 

Outside of your career, what do you enjoy doing most? (e.g. hobbies, passion projects, etc.)

I am a voracious reader. I read around 100 books a year and keep a fanatical list on Goodreads. I love to challenge my biases by reading books from very diverse perspectives. I am a big word gamer. I do the New York Times and WSJ crossword puzzles and have been playing weekly Scrabble with my husband for 35 years. I am also a level 46 Pokemon Go player which provided a nice motivation to get out during the pandemic.

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Thank you so much for chatting with us Joanne! We look forward to hearing you speak at #LabLifeCon on 30th June 2022.

Connect with Joanne:

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