By Lydia Chen
Anita Lee is the Associate Principal Biochemist at Merck & Co., Inc., which is a pharmaceutical company based in New Jersey. Project GirlSpire asked her a couple of questions about her career and experiences:
Q: Please describe your job
A: I am currently in a group called Translational Biomarkers. We discover, develop, and validate assays to detect and measure biomarkers, which are analytes in the body that may be changing in various disease states or due to pharmacological treatments.
Q: What got you interested in STEM and in biochemistry specifically?
A: All throughout middle school and high school, I had great teachers in the STEM fields. I particularly enjoyed my classes in the biological sciences. Throughout college, I had majored in Biology with the intention to go to medical school However, in the summer of my junior year, I had the opportunity to do an oncology research internship in a lab at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer center in New York City. That experience reinforced the idea that there could be more of an impact in finding ways to beat cancer through basic research. This was of particular interest to me as I personally went through the loss of my Mom to colorectal cancer.
Q: What do you think helped you succeed in STEM?
A: Thankfully, throughout my career so far, I’ve had many great teachers, professors, mentors, colleagues, and advocates. They were patient in sharing their knowledge and excitement for the sciences and many gave advice and advocated for me in each step of my career. Also, family support and encouragement has been a key factor as well.
Q: Have you noticed a gender disparity in your field? How so?
A: There have been many smart, hard-working women in the labs that I’ve worked in. In fact, my mentor at Sloan-Kettering was a very accomplished woman who led one of the top labs in the research institute. Nevertheless, there does still remain an issue of gender disparity in the upper management positions in some of the companies I’ve worked in and am familiar with. In addition, certain departments and specialties in the sciences still remain disproportionately staffed with males compared to female scientists.
Q: Do you feel like there are disadvantages to being a female in this field?
A: While this is not unique to jobs in the STEM fields, I do feel that maintaining work-life balance is sometimes more difficult for women. Many companies now are more aware of these challenges and they try to implement benefits and resources to help in this regard. However, the nature of working in the lab often times requires women to make tough choices about their careers outside the home.
Q: What, if any, obstacles have you faced on your journey to becoming a biochemist?
A: One obstacle that I’ve faced is lack of self-confidence and self-advocacy. While this can sometimes be a positive attribute in the sense that it keeps one humble and understanding that there is so much that we don’t know and to keep being open to continually learning from others, this should be balanced with an appropriate amount of confidence to let other know what you are capable of.
Q: Do you have anything to say to young girls who are interested in pursuing a career in STEM?
A: Keep working hard and pursue areas that you enjoy and find interesting. Never stop listening and keep asking smart questions–the balance of the two is essential to learning.