Science of inclusion

CAREERS + ED As Big Tech struggles with diversity, women find support and fellowship in the biotech industry.

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NexGene Girls study the properties of physics via egg drop experiments
Photo courtesy of NexGene Girls

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Tammie Jean Bellinger had been unemployed for 14 years, and when she was 48, she decided to enter the tech industry. "My son told me that if I wanted to start my life over, I should do it in San Francisco," Bellinger said. "He said no one would notice my age, or anything about me."

She's Hispanic, Native American, a little bit Ashkenazi, and female. That doesn't sound like the tech industry, where data illustrates the lack of workforce diversity. Between 60 and 70 percent of employees at Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Yahoo are men, while 91 percent of U.S. employees at Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn are white and Asian.

Bellinger, however, wasn't setting her sights on the software or programming sectors but rather biotech, where female representation in major companies like Genentech is now over 50 percent, according to Fortune. In 2010, women held 46 percent of all positions in the biological and life sciences. A far cry from the frat boy image often associated with tech, things are different in the science-based field that tinkers with the building blocks of life.

First, though, Bellinger needed a way in. She found it at City College of San Francisco's Bridge to Bio program, which accepts students who have no prior background in science. And it's affordable. In-state students pay $46 per unit at City College, far below the $3,000 price tag for a full semester at San Francisco State University. Bellinger found herself learning alongside an eclectic mix of former school bus drivers, cooks, ballerinas, and bartenders. Many were female, people of color, and over 30.

Before long, Bellinger found herself completing internships in science labs where she cataloged human tissue, urine, and blood samples for cancer research.

"I know it sounds stupid, but a light bulb went off. My whole family has been affected by cancer," Bellinger said. "I've been that family member. The doctor is on the other side, and there's nothing you can do. I just hope that the person reading the tissue has as much passion as I do. That's all I want."

 

FUTURE SCIENTISTS

When Bellinger went to look for jobs, she was concerned about her age, but her worries vanished when she was offered a lab tech position at Genomic Health. "Biotech is different. Pretty much all ... the recruiters are all women," she said. "My knowledge is all new. If I talk the talk, and walk the walk, and it's all updated, they'll take me in."

But even now, she has trouble seeing herself as a scientist. "I feel like an artist," she said. "If you can stain a perfect nuclei and bring that cell to life when they're performing cancer treatment, that's kind of an art. The tissues come alive. They tell a story."

Bellinger wants all young girls to see themselves as future scientists. This September, she's going to start a program called Tech Bridge for those in the Livermore area. With a coral reef she built with her son, she'll teach the Livermore Girl Scouts how to test water and play around with nitrates.

Tech Bridge is mirrored after Nexgene Girls, launched by Bridge to Bio graduates Jeanette Wright and Marlena Jackson. Through Nexgene Girls, young girls in Bayview-Hunters Point complete internships where they work alongside professional scientists and conduct their own experiments, like extracting DNA from bacteria in the salt marshes of Heron's Head Park. By 2015, Nexgene Girls is looking to take a science field trip to Botswana.

Before Jackson became a scientist, she drove a school bus. In Hunters Point, where she grew up, breast cancer rates among women under age 50 are twice above average.

"I looked around and I thought, 'I've got to do more'," Jackson said. "You look around at the divisions in Bayview Hunters Point, and science seems like a way you can really change the community. My mother survived breast and cervical cancer. I know the power of medicine."

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