By Joan Runnheim Olson
The use of role models is the number one recruitment strategy to increase the number of females in male-dominated, aka nontraditional careers. Females need to see someone of their gender performing a nontraditional career before they are apt to consider it for themselves. Below is an interview I conducted with Marquita M. Qualls, PhD, a trail-blazer for females in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields.
Could you provide a little background on your career path?
I have a typical education path for someone in the STEM field. I received an undergraduate degree in Chemistry at Tennessee State University. I participated in active research programs throughout my undergraduate school year and went to other universities during the summers to conduct research. This gave me a strong foundation for a future career in STEM research. After receiving my BS, I began a PhD program in Chemistry at Purdue University. In the physical sciences, it is common to enter directly into a PhD program which typically last from 5-7 years, going straight through. After earning my PhD, I began working at GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies, in Pennsylvania as a research scientist. I've had hands on experience the laboratory doing research and development on various drug delivery systems. Even though I enjoyed the lab, I wanted to learn more about the business side of the science that we were doing. I spent the remainder of my corporate career on the management side of the R&D doing things like business process improvement, strategy development and capital planning. These types of roles are not traditional roles that come to mind when you think of a PhD scientist, but it just goes to show you the variety of options that a technical degree affords you. What you learn in the PhD process is how to think and solve problems. Once you mastered that, you could apply that knowledge to any field or job. I left the corporate world in 2008 and formed my own consulting company in 2009. I use the training and skills learned from my STEM background--and I'm not even in a lab! I have to use skills such as analytical thinking, problem solving, communicating, writing, presenting, and negotiating on a daily basis.
How did you decide on your career choice?
I've always been an inquisitive person and ask 'why' about everything, so a career in science was natural. It satisfies my curiosity and there is always something new to learn each day about 'why' things operate the way they do.
Did someone in high school encourage you to pursue a nontraditional career?
My high school chemistry teacher had a strong influence on me pursing a degree in the chemistry. But ironically, most of my science teachers were women! So I guess even back then, there was a subliminal message being sent that women in science was the norm.
What challenges did you encounter working in a male-dominated field?
There are so many stereotypes that have been placed upon STEM careers that often discourage women from pursuing these careers. When you think about the images of a scientist, most people think of a male in a white lab coat with a test tube in his hand. That's why I like to speak to young audiences and let them see the many faces of a scientist--to dispel the myths that science is only for men. I believe this barrier of mental and psychological challenge is far greater than any physical challenge that women may face when working in other male-dominated fields.
What helped you overcome those challenges?
Having a strong network of those in the STEM field--both male and female--and mentors (STEM and non-STEM) have been critical in facing the challenges. It's very important to have people you can talk who have experienced what you are going through. They provide a sense of encouragement and motivation that IT CAN BE DONE. STEM can be a challenging field not just because of the subject matter, but also because the non-STEM community often doesn't have an understanding or an appreciation of what we do.
How did you move up in your career?
Focusing on doing the best possible job at whatever I worked on. Always being eager to learn new things and take on challenging projects.
What unique skills and/or personal attributes do you think females bring to a career in STEM?
I think by nature, females are natural problem solvers and generally good time managers...or at least it's what I've seen from the women in my life!
What advice would you give to females who may be considering a nontraditional career?
If there is anything that has ever crossed your mind as something that you want to do, then it can be done! Find other women who are doing the career and ask lots of questions. Ask the simple easy questions and the hard questions. Never be afraid to ask. The more you know and the more people you know, the easier it will be for you to get closer to achieving your goal.