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Elizabeth L. Travis, PhD


Houston, TX

I got advice from my father that I try to remember every day: “Elizabeth, they can say yes or no, but if you don’t ask you surely will not get it!”

I have had a number of lean in, and lean out, moments during my long career as a scientist, but there are two that stand out in my mind.  I am absolutely convinced, based on absolutely no data, that I would not have had the wonderful career that I enjoyed for the last 30 years if I had not leaned in at these two times. The first was very early in my career, even before I had my PhD. I was pursuing a career in science but got sidetracked by a move to Charleston, South Carolina with my then-husband. I taught high school for a year and that summer looked for a position as a lab technician at the Medical University of South Carolina to keep my bench skills intact. At MUSC, I was directed to the Department of Radiation Oncology due to my radiation biology background. Much to my surprise, during an unscheduled interview, they offered me the opportunity to develop and implement a research program and teach the residents.  It sounded like fun and, since it was only for the summer, I said yes, full well knowing I would learn a lot.

Halfway through the summer they offered me the position permanently, again much to my surprise. However, this time, even after having held the position for six weeks and obviously performing to their satisfaction, I felt I was not qualified and turned down the offer. I had an immediate gut reaction that I had made one of the biggest mistakes of my fledgling career as a scientist. The next day, I sheepishly told them that I really would like the position -- which fortunately was still available. I proceeded to not only work there but also to obtain my PhD at MUSC, which was my dream. The lesson is that although everyone else had confidence in me that I could do the job, I did not. Unfortunately I think this lack of self-confidence resonates with women today.

The second lean in story came at the end of my PhD at MUSC. I knew that to be the independent scientist I aspired to be, I needed a post-doctoral position in one of the best labs in my field, one of which was in London. Again, I didn’t think they would be interested in me (that self-confidence thing again!) but I also had some hard data to rely on: the majority of labs I applied to turned me down. In discussing with my parents my desire to go to this lab, I got advice from my father that I try to remember every day: “Elizabeth, they can say yes or no, but if you don’t ask you surely will not get it!” I applied for the position and amazingly they responded that I had just the type of training they wanted and do come as soon as possible. I did and I stayed for three years, and, again without a shred of data, I am convinced that this experience set me on the path to a remarkable and wonderful career. The lesson is that you must ask for what you want, something we women are loathe to do. A corollary to having the confidence to ask is to be able to accept a rejection, recognizing that rejection is not the end of the world.

Unfortunately and much to my disappointment, I see these same behaviors today in a   generation that I mistakenly thought would have put these issues behind them. My advice is to have courage and heart, to lean in and to remember that the act of leaning in can result in unanticipated opportunities, opened doors, and occasions for even more leaning in moments and most importantly, the potential for a rich and rewarding professional and personal life.