This year at JEM, we are highlighting women in science by sharing their stories and amplifying their voices. In this Viewpoint, we hear from a cross section of women, across multiple research fields, discussing their science and the process of setting up a lab as an independent researcher. As well as being able to celebrate the positives of becoming an independent researcher, we would also like to use this platform to discuss the unique challenges they face as women scientists in their respective scientific environments. This Viewpoint is part of an ongoing series at JEM, and follow-up articles will be published in the coming months.

Clarissa Campbell
Principal Investigator, Mucosal Immunology Lab, Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (CeMM), Vienna, Austria

I always wanted to be a researcher, and studying was my priority growing up. In 2011, I moved from Brazil to New York City to pursue a PhD. It was a big jump, but thankfully I was given enough time to mature into an independent scientist during my training. My husband and I faced the two-body problem during our transition to independence. Senior figures, including our mentor, leveraged their networks to help us find academic positions in the same city. Vienna has great funding opportunities for starting principal investigators (PIs), with rolling open calls for grants of various sizes. The relatively less dense host–microbiome community here was an unexpected asset since my expertise was in demand. Starting a lab abroad is a challenging (ad)venture. After 3 years, I can say that support from colleagues with scientific discussions, collaborative projects, and grant writing goes a long way.

Maja Funk
Head of DZL Junior Research Group, Institute of Lung Health and Immunity, Helmholtz Munich, Germany

I have been a junior research group leader at Helmholtz Munich (Germany) since February 2024. My lab focuses on the molecular links between aging and environmental stress in chronic lung diseases, for which we mainly use 3D-organoid cultures.

During my transition from postdoc to independence, I received tremendous support from several mentors. Therefore, I strongly advocate building a solid professional network for this critical phase. However, I believe that mentorship is already crucial during the PhD, which is why I am actively involved in mentoring. Based on my own slightly unconventional career path—I started in industry after my PhD and then returned to academia to pursue my dream of becoming a group leader—I give the following piece of advice: never self-reject. This tendency, which is unfortunately more common among women, can limit our opportunities. Remember to exploit your potential and seize every opportunity that comes your way.

Yuki Hattori
Associate Professor, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, Graduate School of Medicine, Nagoya University, Japan

I am an associate professor at Nagoya University, running a research group to study brain development, especially focusing on how immune cells function in this process. As a PI, and as a mother of two kids, it is sometimes difficult to juggle childcare with work such as grant applications, publications, and team management. However, my colleagues who are parents, who manage to strike a balance between work and childcare, always encourage me to pull through this current situation. Building a community of peers who are at the same stage is valuable, because you can rely on and openly share your feelings and ideas from the same standpoint. My inspiring mentors always support me and give me their simple but essential advice for pursuing the science that I genuinely want to do, reminding me of my enthusiasm for research when I am overwhelmed. I really appreciate their strong support, and hopefully I wish to pay it forward to the next generation.

Wei Hu
Assistant Professor, Department of Immunobiology and Institute of Biomolecular Design and Discovery, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA

My lab combines immunology, genetics, biochemistry, chemical biology, and genomics to study transcriptional regulation of T cell–mediated immune tolerance in health and disease. Towards the end of my postdoc training, I increasingly had moments of envisioning building new tools and exploring understudied questions. Establishing my own lab seemed the natural step to pursue these aspirations. Fueled by the initial excitement of fulfilling my dreams, I quickly learned that launching a lab entails more than just conducting science; it requires knowledge in finance, management, teaching, and administration to ensure smooth operation. While I was used to working autonomously as a postdoc, being a PI necessitates working with others such as trainees, collaborators, administrators, and supporting staff members. The best advice I got was to take a deep breath (a resounding “Om” often helps) while consistently upholding clear and polite communication amidst occasional frustrations. This approach kept people on my side and willing to support me through countless obstacles. The most rewarding moment of being a PI was witnessing my trainees present ideas that hadn’t even crossed my mind. While the journey to independence has been marked by its share of challenges, it has proven to be an immensely gratifying odyssey.

Jana Jeschke
Associate Professor (FNRS, National Fund for Scientific Research), Laboratory of Cancer Epigenetics, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium

In October 2022, I started my own research group at the Université Libre de Bruxelles to study the clinical significance of epigenomic and epitranscriptomic gene regulation in cancer. This was the realization of a long-held personal ambition. Transitioning to a leading role in my postdoc institution presented both advantages and challenges. While familiarity with the institute and support from colleagues have been invaluable, stepping into the shoes of a group leader where I was once a postdoc has posed its own hurdles. However, receiving additional support from peers outside of my immediate circle has been motivating and empowering, and fostered a true sense of community within my university and academia in general. Some key advice I received was to accept the inevitability of mistakes and to encourage open dialogue for collective learning. Though my journey as a PI is still in its early stages and often feels chaotic and overwhelming, I take pride in the progress we have made and cannot wait to see the impactful contributions of my growing team.

Colleen M. Lau
Assistant Professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA

I joined Cornell University in July 2022 to study natural killer cells and their unique ability to traverse the innate and adaptive immune systems. To be honest, I didn’t know I wanted to be a PI until the second half of my postdoc. I really enjoyed the science, but I was wary of the lifestyle that academia had to offer. Because of how transparent my PI was, I was exposed to the ins, outs, ups, and downs of PI life and ultimately made an informed decision to go for it. Starting a lab is overwhelming to say the least, because you are suddenly a PI, faculty member, lab manager, hiring manager, and your best senior postdoc all at once. To make things even more fun for myself, I had a baby a year into starting my lab. But what got me through these trials was a strong support system of family, friends, old mentors, new mentors, colleagues, and institutional support. Despite the rough start, my days are quite pleasant. I’m excited to see how my trainees grow and to witness all the new things they will discover. My advice for those who relate: (1) Shopping will be the bane of your existence because of choice overload, so start early and spread it out. (2) Find your village, and you will be much happier.

Guang Sheng Ling
Assistant Professor, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China

My group focuses on the mechanisms of immune dysfunction during tumor development. After a decade of training in the UK, I returned to my hometown in 2019 to establish my own laboratory. I am proud to see Hong Kong’s transformation over the past decade, evolving into not just a financial hub, but also a rising force in biomedical research. Transitioning from the Western research environment to the East as a junior PI was challenging, requiring me to step completely out of my comfort zone. In addition to honing the essential PI skills, I had to adapt to a new research culture with fewer female PIs, navigate a diverse yet smaller-scale funding system, and rebuild my research network. Advice from seniors and peers is crucial for overcoming the challenges of moving continents. However, the unwavering commitment of my dedicated team has been the key to my success. As my first batch of PhD students prepares to graduate this year, I take pride in their achievements and feel immense gratitude for working with such talented individuals. Witnessing our collective growth, both scientifically and personally, has been the most rewarding aspect of my role as a PI.

Siqi Liu
Assistant Professor, Department of Pharmacology, Children’s Medical Center Research Institute (CRI), Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX, USA

I am an assistant professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center, where my research focuses on understanding how our epithelial tissues detect injury and orchestrate repair to restore homeostasis. While my passion for the STEM field ignited at a young age, it wasn’t until my graduate school years that I truly grasped the essence of science. It was during this time that I stumbled upon a conserved kinase-substrate specification mechanism shared by innate immune adaptor proteins, crucial for ensuring proper pathogen defense response. The sheer elegance of nature’s design never ceases to fascinate me, and delving into its intricacies as a scientist brings immense fulfillment. Embarking on a scientific career is like running a marathon, which demands enthusiasm, perseverance, and invaluable mentorship. I am grateful to have crossed paths with mentors who provided unwavering support during challenging times. As a mentor now, the most valuable advice I’ve received emphasizes the importance of staying actively engaged in bench experiments, leading by personal example, and dedicating substantial time to my trainees. It underscores the significance of sharing with them my inspiration for science and fostering a dedication to rigorous experimentation.

Verónica Lloréns-Rico
Junior Group Leader (Ramón y Cajal Fellow), Centro de Investigación Príncipe Felipe (CIPF)—Valencia Foundation for Biomedical Research, Valencia, Spain

In January 2023, I established my lab at the Centro de Investigación Príncipe Felipe in Valencia, Spain. We study host–microbe interactions in the context of the gut microbiota, focusing on microbial functions and their regulation. After 1 year in this position, I am still adjusting to my new role, as there is a huge difference between managing my own research and managing a group of six talented scientists (and growing). I am still exploring what works for me in terms of leadership and mentoring, learning how to navigate bureaucracy and most importantly, learning to say “no” and prioritizing my tasks and duties.

In the process of setting up my lab, the support of my host institute has been crucial. Besides offering essential equipment and lab space, the administrative support for grant applications (helping with budgeting or organizing mock interviews) has been key to raising funding to kickstart my own projects. In addition, navigating this transition while maintaining my mental health has been only possible thanks to the support of my family. I consider myself lucky, as I could move back to my hometown to start this new chapter as a PI after spending more than 11 years in other cities and countries.

For the future, I aim to live by the advice of my PhD supervisors: “Be passionate and excited about your science, as that will show others the importance of what you do.” I hope I can transmit that to my trainees and live through the excitement of their discoveries and successes.

Elisa Nemes
Associate Professor, South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative (SATVI), Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa

Unlike girls in most parts of the world, I was privileged to be born in a country with free education and in a family that expected me to study and be independent.

I am an immunologist working on tuberculosis and HIV. I trained in Italy and France, worked in an international cooperation program in Cameroon, and in 2011 I moved to South Africa. Working in different countries and diverse settings has been critical to widen my perspective.

I never wanted “my” lab and was fortunate to gradually transition from postdoc to faculty within a large research group where multiple PIs lead independent projects but share resources. I have been guided by great mentors, who provided support and opportunities, which I strive to give back to my trainees.

My suggestions to women in STEM are to find their passions, and to be fierce with compassion and confident without arrogance. As Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first woman president, said: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.”

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