Women in STEM Interview Series: Emma Benn, MPH, DrPH

Specialty: Biostatistics

Current position/s: Assistant Professor in the Center for Biostatistics and Department of Population Health Science and Policy at ISMMS; Director of Academic Programs for the Center for Biostatistics; Co-Director of the MS in Biostatistics Program; Co-Director of the MPH in Biostatistics Track

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 1. Can you describe what inspired your interest in science?

When I think back, I cannot remember a time in my life when I was not interested in science and mathematics. I can remember being so excited for the math competitions in elementary school and how amazing it felt to beat the boys. However, it took me quite a while to figure out exactly what I wanted to do with my passion for science. For example, when I majored in Chemistry in college, I assumed that I would spend the rest of my life in drug development and innovation.

However, after working as a quality control chemist on the night shift for a pharmaceutical company upon graduating from Swarthmore College, I realized that chemistry wasn’t my passion. I decided to go to graduate school to get an MPH, since I wanted to gain a broader understanding about the major contributors to health. While I had been so caught up with drug development in college, I started wanting to learn more about the larger socio-structural factors that prevented some subgroups of the population from accessing the prescriptions and quality healthcare that they need in the first place. In other words, I knew that an MPH in Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University would provide me with a more thorough understanding of a new language revolving around social epidemiology and the social determinants of health.

Yet, while I was pursuing my MPH, I took a few introductory statistics courses and started falling in love with this new knowledge I was gaining. As a Chemistry major, I had taken quite a bit of math, but it wasn’t until I took my first biostatistics course in graduate school that I finally figured out what I wanted to do with my life. I realized that biostatistics was the perfect mechanism by which I could link my love for mathematics, science, social epidemiology, and medicine. Once I had that eureka moment, I knew the next step for me would be to pursue a doctoral degree in Biostatistics. While my path to where I am now was a bit non-linear, I wouldn’t change it for the world. Science is so vast that sometimes you have to get exposed to many areas of science before you can find that one area, biostatistics in my case, that really clicks for you. 

  1. What engages you the most about your research?

As a Biostatistician in academic medicine I am always exposed to new research problems. It comes with the collaborative nature of my job. For example, I recently learned more about this econometrics-based statistical method and thought it was really interesting. However, I couldn’t figure out where I could apply it, since it hasn’t been applied very much in the clinical and translational sciences. Speaking to some of my colleagues, they suggested that I might be able to apply this method to cardiothoracic research. That led me to a really great collaboration in which I could use this interesting methodology to examine selection bias when racial/ethnic minorities and women are inadequately represented in cardiothoracic studies. With this collaboration, I get the opportunity to use my expertise to answer a research question that has important clinical and policy-related implications. I am always amazed at the new knowledge I gain by collaborating with others. It keeps me engaged because I never feel stagnant. I am always challenged to figure out how my statistical background can be used to answer complex, real-world, biomedical questions. This keeps me on my feet and always keeps me striving to learn more.

  1. Do you currently have a mentor? Describe how a mentor has been of professional and/or academic assistance to you as you’ve strived to fulfill your career goals

When I first started as a faculty member at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, I don’t think I really surrounded myself with sufficient mentors. It took about a year or so for me to learn that I was going to need to reach out to more senior faculty to ensure that I was on the right track with respect to meeting both the short-term and long-term career goals that I had set for myself. Now, I have quite a few mentors who are both within and outside of Mount Sinai. They have been extremely helpful in keeping me grounded and also helping me success in academia, while also making sure that I maintain a healthy work-life balance. For example, at one point, I felt very isolated because I didn’t know many Biostatisticians of color. After attending a Diversity in Biostatistics Workshop at the Joint Statistical Meetings about two years ago, I was able to network with a whole community of Biostatistics faculty of color, mostly females, from other institutions and a couple of these faculty eventually became great mentors for me.

Also, more recently, I was invited to be the Program Chair of an important section of the American Statistical Association. At first, I thought this would be a great opportunity for me, especially since it would increase my visibility nationally and internationally. Also, having a leadership position like this, I thought, would be perfect on my CV when I go up for promotion. However, after reaching out to a couple mentors, they reminded me about all of the other leadership positions I already have (e.g. co-Director of the MS in Biostatistics Program at Mount Sinai) in addition to my research projects. Just speaking with my mentors first helped to put things in perspective for me and really helped me to understand that the invitation to be Program Chair was really wonderful, but that it might be detrimental at this earlier stage in my career.

  1. What is one of your more challenging career experiences?

This is a difficult question to answer considering I have encountered many challenges throughout my career. However, I think the biggest challenge is recovering from rejection. You often don’t always get what you want in this field the first time around. For example, I may think that I have a great idea for a research proposal, however, the study section reviewing my research proposal might not think that my research project is solid enough or innovative enough for funding. Or, maybe my colleagues and I think that our study findings are perfect for publication in a top-tier journal, but ultimately get rejected shortly after submitting our manuscript. At first, this can be really frustrating because you have such high hopes. However, what I’ve realized is that it’s important to be able to learn from rejection. Often times, someone else might see flaws that you never even noticed and once those flaws are revealed to you, you dust yourself off, revamp, and come up with an even better proposal or manuscript. Also, sometimes it’s just a matter of finding a better match, like another funding agency for my research proposal or a different journal for my publication. So now, I have begun to look at rejection as just a catalyst for revision, not an end point.

  1. What advice would you give to other aspiring female scientists?

There are three major tips that I would give to aspiring female scientists. First, surround yourself with people who see your potential and consistently provide you with encouragement. That way, if there is a brief moment when you doubt your ability to rise above your challenges, the positive people you surround yourself with will give you the motivation to keep moving forward. Second, always remember that you are a scientist first who happens to be female, rather than the other way around. That way, you stay confident even when you encounter situations when someone unfortunately negates your scientific brilliance because of your gender (and race/ethnicity for females of color). Lastly, always keep nurturing your love for science by learning as much as you can about your field. This will help to strengthen your foundation, while also keeping you up to date about the newest discoveries. This is very important if you aspire to be a future leader in your field.

 

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