Gala aims to reduce gender gap in science

Shira Weingarten-Gabbay

Women have historically been in the minority in the scientific world, but an Israeli program is working to change that, one budding female scientist at a time.

In order to help further that goal, Weizmann Canada, which works to support the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, highlighted its Wonderful Women initiative at its annual Celebrating Philanthropy event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto on Sept. 25.

Presented by the women and science committee, Wonderful Women, now in its sixth year, recognizes and empowers women in the field of science.

Elena Meirzadeh

Proceeds from the evening went towards the Israel National Postdoctoral Award Program for Advancing Women in Science. Having recognized a significant disparity between the number of women and men pursuing careers in science, the Weizmann Institute launched the program in 2007, with the goal of closing Israel’s gender gap when it comes to scientists in academia.

The postdoctoral award program provides financial incentives and assistance for female scientists pursuing their postdoctoral research abroad. In the six years since its inception, the Wonderful Women event has funded 18 postdoctoral fellows.

“We’re going to be able to send two postdoctoral women from Israel to continue their research abroad,” said Michele Atlin, who has chaired the event since its inception. “We don’t want to lose these women. We are a process that is constantly evolving … we’re trying every year to increase our support (for) Weizmann.”

The event featured a panel, comprised of three speakers, all of whom are recipients of the postdoctoral award: Naama Aviram, a postdoctoral fellow in the Marraffini Laboratory of Bacteriology at Rockefeller University; Elena Meirzadeh, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the department of chemistry at Columbia University; and Shira Weingarten-Gabbay, who is a fellow in the Sabeti Lab, which is part of the FAS Center for Systems Biology at Harvard University.

The three women had high praise for the award and what it is doing to further the career aspirations of female scientists.

“Programs like the Israel national postdoctoral award build solid foundations for true change and (I) feel privileged to be part of this movement,” said Weingarten-Gabbay.

Naama Aviram

“We don’t have enough women in science,” added Meirzadeh. “Now, having the support, (they are) hiring more women in the academy. It’s inspiring.”

Aviram noted that the award “was important on several levels – one is the financial support that becomes even more important when moving abroad with a significant other.…

“Secondly, leaving your home for the postdoc adventure can sometimes make you feel doubtful: can I really make it? …

“I think that having the support of the Israel national postdoctoral award makes you feel you’re worthy. It makes you think: if these people believe in me, I can believe, too.”

When asked what it meant for them to be in Toronto for this event and to be alongside other women who had accomplished so much in the field of science, Aviram said that, “It’s an amazing opportunity to take a step back and look at our accomplishments. It was absolutely wonderful to meet the people behind the award, and their responses to our stories were extremely heartwarming.”

The panel was moderated by keynote speaker Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian woman to fly into space.

“We always rely, I think, too much on governments and industry to try to do the research or provide funding for the research,” she said. “To be able to support institutes in which there is a multidisciplinary focus, where people from different types of backgrounds can come together to try to look at problems in novel ways is a wonderful thing.”

Over 200 people attended the event, which will help support two future postdoctoral awards.