Down to a Science

Fall 2017, News
Michaela Lucas, who helped launch a Girls in Aviation Day at UNO this fall, inspires the next generation of women scientists.

LOCAL WOMEN EXCEL IN SCIENCE FIELDS & INSPIRE THE NEXT GENERATION

BY SARAH WENGERT

A predictable handful of names spring to mind when most of us think about famous scientists: Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, Neil deGrasse Tyson—all great men to be sure, but that’s just it, they are all men.

Because of the historical trend of women’s contributions to science being obscured, it can be more difficult for girls and young women to envision themselves embarking on a career in science. But Kacie Baum, events and science outreach coordinator at UNMC and Nebraska Science Festival coordinator, says that’s precisely why it’s important for more women to enter the field.

“We should have equal representation with men in any field, but often women haven’t been looked at as equals in STEM fields,” Baum says. “Hidden Figures was a fantastic example of showing young girls and the world that women do exist in STEM, but rarely do we hear about it. That movie really inspired a whole new generation of females to see themselves as able to achieve that dream.”

How else can women who grew up on Mr. Wizard and girls who got down to the joys of Bill Nye the Science Guy better discover the science she-roes in their midst? Baum says it’s all about digging deep, because the examples are out there. “The more stories we can tell about women in STEM, and the more women currently [working] in STEM that we can get out into schools and communities—for example, through programs like the Nebraska Science Festival and Omaha Science Café—the better exposed girls are to these careers,” Baum says.

“Omaha, and Nebraska as a whole, have an amazing amount of women in STEM doing fantastic things that you might not hear about on a day-to-day basis, but I encourage people to look deep into a lot of the science programming in this state, because women in STEM are everywhere and we are only growing.”

To that end, Today’s Omaha Woman sat down with two local women working in science to learn about their successes, challenges and hopes for the women in science who will follow in their footsteps. Michaela Lucas, associate director at NASA Nebraska Space Grant and Aviation Instructor at University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO), not only loves working in science, she also truly values the opportunity to help the students she works with in various capacities get excited about science.

“I really have the best job in the world,” Lucas says. “NASA gives us money to advance and initiate different aerospace projects in the state—things that are important to NASA, like building our workforce, educating students for tomorrow’s workforce, generally inspiring them [about science] and recruiting them into jobs.”

The nearly 30-year-old program runs in all 50 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. Through the NASA Nebraska Space Grant Program, Lucas works with students throughout Nebraska and facilitates a statewide competition that helps initiate and implement various scientific projects. “We have students doing rocket competitions against MIT and other top university engineering programs,” Lucas says. “We have students building lunar rovers down at Kennedy Space Center—competing against other colleges and universities—and we have students doing drone competitions.

Just super exciting stuff. To be a part of helping support all those initiatives and getting students connected to NASA in all those ways is just awesome.” Lucas, who is an Omaha native, earned her Bachelor’s degree in Aviation and Master’s degree in Urban Studies at UNO. She started teaching full time at UNO in 1996, when she was also hired to manage the NASA grant. By 2005, the NASA grant program had grown so large she chose to rebalance her workload, focusing mainly on NASA but still teaching as an adjunct professor.

“I couldn’t just give up my NASA card, so I took on the NASA role full time but still get to teach as an adjunct, which I love doing,” she says. Additionally, Lucas is a licensed private pilot and faculty advisor for UNO’s Women in Aviation chapter. She also works extensively with Women in Aviation at the national level and is invested in bringing more girls and women into the fold of both science and aviation.

Michaela Lucas, Associate Director of NASA Nebraska Space Grant and UNO Aviation Instructor “[Aviation] is still very male-dominated,” she says. “About 6 percent of pilots are women. We’re always trying to help get little girls excited about it, because planting that spark at such an early age just lets them know it’s something they can consider as an option, and not to just automatically write it off as something they can’t do just because it is still so male-dominated.”

In September, Lucas helped facilitate a Girls in Aviation Day at UNO for grades three through eight. “We do lots of activities with them,” she says. “Last year they flew the flight simulator, we did a flight planning exercise, talked about careers in aviation . . . it’s a lot of fun and a good way to plant that spark for the girls at an early age.”

Michaela Lucas, who helped launch a Girls in Aviation Day at UNO this fall, inspires the next generation of women scientists.

Michaela Lucas, who helped launch a Girls in Aviation Day at UNO this fall, inspires the next generation of women scientists.

Lucas believes getting girls into science and aviation alike is really anchored in exposing them to female representation in those fields. “So many girls just don’t even see it as an option, because they haven’t ever seen a female pilot,” Lucas says. “Just having somebody there who they can look to as an example is powerful.” While Lucas hasn’t really seen the numbers of female aviation students rise, she has seen greater female representation in her work with the NASA grant program.

“We fund students to do internships at NASA centers each year, and this year, by far, we had the most female math majors ever apply to our programs. There was a visible difference after Hidden Figures came out,” she says. “I think STEM overall is attracting more women, with all the initiatives we have now. We haven’t quite seen it in aviation specifically yet, but we have seen it in the other fields.”

Lucas is pleased to see more women choosing STEM careers, because that means more female role models in the pipeline. “Role models are so important for women, even more so than men—the research has really shown that. So in the flight-training aspect, I think it’s really important for women to have those role models in the field and to see them succeed in the field, because it builds their confidence and their self-esteem in terms of being able to know it’s something they can do, too,” she says. It’s entirely appropriate that Lucas works for the NASA Nebraska Space Grant program. After all, she originally wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up.

This dream was fostered by her first-grade teacher, Linda Antonelli, who shared with her class an entire set of old-school filmstrips sent by NASA, which were meant to teach kids about the first shuttle launch. “My teacher was just amazing and she really inspired me,” says Lucas, who was totally taken with the NASA filmstrips. “I went home and told my parents, ‘I’m going to be an astronaut!’ This was pre-internet so my dad helped me send away for in-formation from NASA and we started reading about what it takes to be an astronaut and I realized you usually have to be a pilot to be an astronaut.

So I thought, cool, I’ll go to aviation school, and I got really interested in aviation and stayed with that passion all through middle school and high school. It was just an amazing coincidence that they opened the aviation program at UNO my freshman year of college there. It was just kind of meant to be. Plus, along the way I’d learned things like, women weren’t allowed to be military fighter pilots when I was still in high school, so I thought, ‘OK, what other choices would I have?’

So I was then looking at commercial aviation, and when I got to college they had just received this NASA grant and were looking for students to work on the program, so I, of course, said ‘NASA? I’m in!’ and I stayed with the program ever since. I started off as a student in the program and then worked for it later. It was just right place, right time.”

Vimla Band, Ph.D., professor and chair, Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Anatomy at University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) and associate director of the Center for Breast Cancer Research at The Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center.

Vimla Band, Ph.D., professor and chair, Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Anatomy at University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) and associate director of the Center for Breast Cancer Research at The Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center.

Vimla Band, Ph.D., professor and chair, Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Anatomy at University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) and program director of the Center for Breast Cancer Research at The Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center, also credits her career in science largely to an inspiring educator. Her father was chief of nursing staff in the Indian army, so biology was always a huge theme in her household growing up. But Band says it was her beloved high school biology teacher who really sealed the deal by further inspiring her interest in science.

“She was the best teacher I’ve ever had in my life,” Band says. “Her name was Pomila Singh, and she was absolutely so encouraging and wonderful. She taught us at the high school level how to design an experiment.” With Singh’s guidance, Band won a major science project competition in New Delhi. She says that process really stimulated her interest in biology.

“When children are in middle school and high school, that’s the time when you want to excite them about science,” Band says. “Teachers make a big difference in children’s lives; there’s no question about it. Of course, parents also make an impact, but teachers are the ones I salute, because if you have a teacher who can make a subject interesting, you’ll really be moved to devote all your passion to it. So, I loved biology and was very fascinated with various structures—how and why different organs are made in the body—and I’d made the determination by high school that I wanted to take the science path.”

From there, Band earned her Bachelor’s of Science, Master’s and Doctorate degrees from All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. She and her husband, Hamid Band, M.D., Ph.D., moved to Boston in 1984, where Band did her post-doctorate fellowship at Harvard Medical School’s affiliate Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. There she worked on ovarian cancer before transitioning her focus to breast cancer research.

In 1991, Band took her first faculty position at Tufts Medical School. She and her husband were later recruited by Chicago’s Evanston Healthcare, Northwestern Memorial School, where they worked for four years before joining the team at UNMC and The Fred and Pam-ela Buffet Cancer Center in 2007. Currently, Band teaches and chairs her department while also running her lab, where she has continued to focus on breast cancer research and is doing some groundbreaking work.

“My research in breast cancer is in two different areas,” she says. “For one, recent advancements in science have made us realize that breast cancer is not a simple disease, but a group of diseases. How we diagnose and treat different subtypes of breast cancer are completely different.” Band is currently exploring cancer stem cells that she and her team have found to be a common marker of the worst, least treatable types of breast cancer. From there, her lab is comparing how normal stem cells and cancer stem cells differ.

This will help them define how cancer stem cells can be killed and explore how different subtypes of cancer originate. “With this kind of analysis, we are able to really define what we call signatures of these different types of breast cancers. Then we look at how we can attack those silent cells, or cancer stem cells,” she says. Band says the second area of her research focuses on “finding better predicting markers in breast cancers.” In this area, she and her team are exploring particular proteins that are elevated in the progression of breast cancer and cause a tumor to progress.

“The multi-functional protein, called Ecdysoneless, or ECD, is a master regulator of tumor programs,” says Band. “It controls RNA, DNA, and protein folding in cancer cells; so now, obviously, our goal would be to target and attack this protein.” Band says that to make new discoveries and create interest in science as a career, research and scientists must be supported with resources and funding, respect and understanding. She encourages people to consider that all the vaccines, treatments and cures we may take for granted now all came from long journeys of scientific research.

“Research is not a short-term thing. Research is something you have to literally devote your life to and it [can] take years before you know the results,” Band says “I really hope that our leaders understand that and don’t cut money from science, because it’s [an area] where you have to invest long-term. You can’t ask for results on Day 1 when it comes to research. You must invest. All the discoveries that have been made in medicine were made because there was a consistent effort. You can’t do it in one day.

Even now when we think we’ve learned so much, still there are more than 200,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer every year and about 40,000 who will die because of it. That means we still have a lot of work to do in this particular area.” Band hopes that both young men and young women will continue to be interested in science. And while she says she sees more women graduate students than men these days, she understands the importance of fostering an interest in science, particularly for girls.

“[When it comes to science] it is extremely important to have programs where we can tell girls ‘You can do it,’” she says. “We have to start working on engaging women with science from a very early age onwards. So making sure that in schools—middle school, high school, but also in elementary school—we start encouraging girls and women to do science.”

While Band sees her path in science as having been no harder for her than for her male colleagues, she does note that higher positions still tend to be male-dominated. “Women are coming into science, yes. But do women reach the level of full professor and do they become chairs of the department? That’s where you will see more males than females,” she says.

Band attributes this imbalance to socialization and women’s tendency to bear more of the burden when it comes to home and child care. However, she notes that while a life dedicated to scientific research means a lot of hard work and serious focus, it can also offer flexibility as to when one’s work is completed, which could be a benefit for women trying to balance career and family. Band also says her path has been made easier by having a supportive husband and and encouraging supervisors over the years.

“If you have a supportive family and if you have a university where teachers are very supportive, women [can achieve] no less than men. But we need that support; it makes a big difference,” Band says. “[UNMC] is very supportive of women students, scientists and doctors.”

At the end of the day, Band encourages anyone to explore science and see if it could be their true passion. “The most important thing is: Do you have that passion for science? That passion must come from the inside, from when you were growing up and learning about science. If you have that, you will succeed,” she says.

Being interested in science doesn’t mean you have to become a scientist or an astronaut, Baum points out. That passion for science can come in many forms, and it’s important for people to understand that being a woman in science can mean a lot of different things.

“It doesn’t mean you have to just be in a lab—you can be a teacher, a communicator, a designer, a builder—or a science event coordinator like me,” Baum says. “There are an unlimited number of ways to get into STEM. We just need to continue to expose people to it. Hook them in young, get them excited and keep them engaged.” W

 

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