Last month we had our very first Hangout from our In The Spotlight series. This series will focus on individual interviews with women who are active in STEM fields. We will talk to them about their inspiration and motivation for embarking on their chosen career path. We kicked off this series by talking to Clarissa Silva, a behavioural psychologist.

Career in Global Health

Clarissa has specialised in Infectious Diseases and Psychology, with a particular focus on HIV/AIDS. She has sixteen years experience working both within the US and internationally in various capacities: research, clinical and administration in academic institutions, hospitals, government, and nonprofits.

For Harvard’s Global Health Institute, she sits on a Health Disparities committee that’s designed to examine the HIV disease burden in African-American communities. The committee designs solutions to address its impact, disease containment models, and prevention strategies based on Community Based Participatory Research.

We then took a step back and asked Clarissa to recount her career path and how she became interested in science. Clarissa explained how her focus has always been on life-sustaining activities and reducing disease burden in high incidence areas. The HIV epidemic reached catastrophic rates when she was in high school. She was inspired to  tackle the spread of the disease by understanding core behaviours and risk factors that predispose people to becoming infected. To achieve this, she was the successful recipient of the National Institute of Health Fogarty Fellowship, which she used to complete her residency in Costa Rica. She compared the US system with Costa Rica’s universal socialised medicine. She also emphasised the importance of constantly diversifying her practice area so that she had a more comprehensive understanding of the situation, as well as having the ability to design algorithms that she would later be able to adjust in any setting.

Science Lessons for the Public

We asked Clarissa if she could draw on her experience working with HIV to dispel some of the common misconceptions about the disease. Clarissa explained a few of these to us, utilizing 16 years of research experience in the field!

1) Transmission Rates: transmission rates between women are very low. Transmission from a woman to anyone is also low. The main route for transmission for HIV is through anal sex.

2) HIV Prevention: two known strategies are condom usage and needle exchange. These alone will go a long way towards preventing HIV transmission. It would make a noticeable difference if these prevention strategies could be implemented in a similar manner to smoking Public Service Announcements.

Quantifying Social Science

She shared some of the lessons she learned during her career. First, she talked about looking ahead into the future; utilising the predictive power of algorithms to project what would happen in society ten years later, using small indicators. For example, people will select sexual partners and often have unprotected sex with them, but what are the implications in society? Next she discussed the benefits of developing formulae that withstand scientific rigour so that they can be replicated later on in various different industries and applications. Finally, she explained the importance of diversifying practice as it increases marketability, and how it helps broaden perspective beyond lab and clinical walls.

We thought it was interesting that Clarissa spoke to us about algorithms in conjunction with behavioural science, since these two things are not typically associated with each other. We asked Clarissa to explain the advantages that she had from her training, when applying it to a social science such as behavioral science.

“People don’t think of us [social scientists] as formula driven geeks….but we are!”

She explains how she still treats everything she does as a lab; she creates the conditions and the environment that she is going to measure, she measures the reactions and then tests it out in various environments and finally extracts the variables that are most effective for further study.

The right conditions won't always exist. You will have to create them. - Clarissa Silva
The right conditions won’t always exist. You will have to create them. – Clarissa Silva

Making Social Media Safe for Women in STEM

Given that Clarissa has a large presence on social media, we asked her if she had any thoughts on how to create a safer environment for women online, to encourage more women to engage with the public about their research.

“If we always make sure that our message stays true to the integrity of what we represent, then that will be the best way to form a protective wall around yourself and what you do. It will eliminate people who are uninterested in your content, and only have negative things to say. It will create a natural barrier”

With regard to handling trolls, she told us how she tries to convert them into becoming technologists, to use the energy they spend trolling on something more positive instead. Throughout her career, Clarissa has been a passionate advocate for empowerment and self-esteem. Social media offers us a unique platform to communicate with people we wouldn’t have had any access to before.

Imagine what it would have been like, 10 years ago, to simply switch on the TV and see a female scientist talking about the steps it takes to get into her field. This has an amazing impact.

Clarissa brought up a great point about how we don’t often consider blogging a form of social media, but it is as it creates an interest-based community from your audience. We discussed the importance of setting your own tone, and starting the conversations you want to have on the topics you want to discuss. Although blogging is not a substitute for peer-reviewed research publications, it is a useful resource for disseminating information.

Minority Women in STEM

Next asked Clarissa what are some of the challenges that a minority woman in STEM faces, as she is essentially a minority within a minority.

We still have the burden of under-representation. The right conditions won’t always exist. You will have to create them. Delete certain words from your vocabulary, and the ability to hear them; “No can’t won’t don’t shouldn’t”. The world is about solutions, not problems. You’re creating a solution as a scientist. Someone telling you “No” is creating a problem.

She talked about how she petitioned to do her research abroad because at the time global public health education did not exist in the US; she would have had to wait 8 years for that. She talked about removing negativity from our outlooks, and the importance of taking risks and being innovative.

Delete certain words from your vocabulary, and the ability to hear them; "No can't won't don't shouldn't". The world is about solutions, not problems. - Clarissa Silva
Delete certain words from your vocabulary, and the ability to hear them; “No can’t won’t don’t shouldn’t”. The world is about solutions, not problems. – Clarissa Silva

Career Advice

This conveniently led us to the next point in our discussion; we wanted to know what advice Clarissa could give someone who wanted to follow in her footsteps and become a behavioural scientist like her. She said that given the increasing prevalence of online degrees, attending and graduating from a brick-and-mortar institution will give anyone an inherent advantage. Next, she discussed the importance of identifying faculty members that you would want to work with, before submitting a graduate school application. If possible, working with them pre-graduate level is beneficial as it allows you to know exactly what they are working on, how to build your thesis and have a whole summer to prepare yourself before you begin the official graduate program. Finally, she encouraged everyone to do something global during their training, and used her own experience with the NIH Fogarty Fellowship as an example.

We wrapped things up by using Clarissa’s diverse career path to highlight how women in STEM do not have to be restricted to simply working in academia. We talked about how Clarissa made the jump from specializing in infectious diseases to cognition, self-esteem and relationships. She talked about how the skills we learn as scientists can be applied to entrepreneurial endeavours, as we already have the experience, innovation and creativity that is required.

Follow Dr. Clarissa Silva on Twitter, add her to your circles on Google+, or visit her website.

To see a female scientist talking about the steps it takes to get into her field has an amazing impact. - Clarissa Silva
To see a female scientist talking about the steps it takes to get into her field has an amazing impact. – Clarissa Silva

Next Time

We are interviewing roboticist Annika O’Brien on Sunday 27th of April at 230pm Pacific USA/ 9pm GMT. Annika is an engineer who works on robotics and she is also a passionate STEM educator, teaching kids how to program and build robots through STEAMtrax. She will talk to us about her exciting career path as a woman in STEM, what inspires her, and why supporting women in STEM is important. Find the scheduled video and more details on our event page.
STEM Women Event Annika Obrien PROMO

@Next time…

STEM Women
STEM Women is set up to help the public to connect with women who work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Our network is run by a group of practising STEM women professionals. We aim to create a safe place for people of all genders to discuss how we can work together to make STEM more inclusive.

Join us: http://www.stemwomen.net