Interview with Ms. Karen Wilkins

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“To be successful, you have to believe in yourself, behave, and be professional. You should be very honest, and straightforward.”

Today, I had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Karen Wilkins, who works for Pall Corporation.

What was your first memorable experience with the sciences?

I loved learning about astronomy. I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, and that made me interested in astronomy and the planets.

Did someone inspire you to pursue a career in STEM? If so, tell us your story.

No, I wouldn’t say that there was any one who inspired me. As I went through school, I was more interested in science than I was in the arts. I didn’t think that I was interested in  pursuing a career in science. I didn’t know anyone in the sciences, and I was the first one in my family to go to university.

What is it about STEM that most excites you?

What excites me is learning interesting things. I am always amazed [by science]. I love learning about things that I might not fully understand. I am particularly interested in medicine, and the drugs that are coming out. Sometimes, I can’t believe what we are doing.

What is the most interested STEM-based project that you have ever worked on?

I did a Ph.D. looking at IUD’s, and learned that they could cause pelvic inflammatory disease. This Ph.D. allowed me to go into things in a lot of detail. Later in my career, when I was no longer interested in pure research, I discovered that it could also be useful to know a little bit about a variety of different things. I did a Ph.D. because it gave me more opportunity to do anything I wanted. I did not do a Ph.D. because of any particular career. [I completed a Ph.D. program because] I didn’t want to be constrained by [my level of] education.

If you could solve any problem that your community, state, or even the world is afflicted with, what would it be? Why?

The biggest issue is water. There are water shortages, and cleanliness of water is always an issue. Global warming will exacerbate the issue. I would want to change the distribution and filtration of water, and might even want to artificially change the weather. I’ve heard of people seeding clouds to make it rain. If our phones can go on the internet, I’m sure that we could put our heads together to control weather patterns.

As a woman in STEM, what obstacles have you overcome in order to be successful

I think I’ve been very fortunate. I don’t have children, which has removed some of the obstacles which might exist for some women. It can be hard to combine children and a successful career. I travel a lot, and if I had kids, it would be difficult to find childcare when I was traveling.

When I started my job, I was the first female person employed in the group that I worked in. I think that it is important to be true to yourself. When you go to meetings, there is a lot of machismo involved, and men are always trying to one-up each other. Women shouldn’t be interested in playing that game. To be successful, you have to believe in yourself, behave, and be professional. You should be very honest, and straightforward.

I believe that people should be judged on their own merit, and I don’t like quotas. I prefer to hire the person who is best for the job, rather than hiring someone just because they are female. I need to be the best at my job, and I don’t need quotas. It can be easy for people to think that they were discriminated against, and that they were not hired because they were female. In reality, they might not have been the best candidates for the job. It’s important to avoid using gender or minority status as a crutch.

How would you define success?

Being comfortable in what I’m doing, and feeling like I’m making a positive contribution. I would like for people to learn from me, and I would like to learn from others. I do feel that I contribute to other people. I am not changing myself, because I am very comfortable in my own skin. I don’t feel that I have to be different at work. My job has allowed me to travel a lot, and I have met people that I never thought about meeting. Traveling for work has allowed me to work with people from a lot of different countries [which has also contributed to my success].

What advice do you have for young women who are up and coming in the world of STEM?

It is important to do things that genuinely interest you. Don’t only pursue a career only because it is lucrative. Be comfortable with what you are doing. Be honest, and don’t get involved in workplace politics. If you don’t value your integrity, people won’t follow you. It is important to be a role model. You shouldn’t expect for other people to do things that you wouldn’t do, yourself.


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