Bringing women to the fore

8 March 2017 | General News
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Prof Kenney's research interests focus on the study of bacteria

Women have made important and inspiring contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) from the earliest times. These days, while there still exists a gender imbalance in the largely male-dominated sectors, the world has witnessed a significant attitudinal shift that has brought with it an expansion of opportunities available for female scientists and researchers.

Some women, like Professor Linda Kenney, Principal Investigator at the Mechanobiology Institute (MBI) at NUS and former Professor of Microbiology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, are boldly challenging stereotypes about women’s roles in STEM and paving the way for others to unleash their potential by achieving notable success in their own fields.

Hailing from Iowa in the Midwestern US, Prof Kenney completed her PhD in Physiology and Biophysics at University of Pennsylvania and became a postdoctoral fellow at both Yale University and Princeton University. She moved to Singapore in 2006, and despite initial reservations, says her time at MBI has been the most fun she’s had with science. “My research has gone in directions I could never have accomplished on my own in the US with limited resources,” she said.

Prof Kenney’s research is focused on the study of bacteria. She adopts a multidisciplinary approach that taps into fields such as genetics, biochemistry and molecular biophysics to answer fundamental questions like how bacteria senses environmental changes and how Salmonella causes gastroenteritis and typhoid fever. It is a field that piqued her interest while at Princeton University, and which continues to fascinate her today. Going forward, she hopes to build up studies in bacterial pathogenesis at NUS, an area she feels is largely missing in current local research efforts.

A cause close to her heart is the MBI Women in Science (MBI-WIS) group, which she founded in 2013. Composed of graduate students, staff, postdoctoral fellows and faculty in the sciences in Singapore, MBI-WIS is dedicated to achieving equal and full participation of women in all areas of science. The group organises activities such as sharing sessions to learn from successful women and events aimed at increasing camaraderie, as well as the Biological Symposium (Bios) series featuring an impressive all-female lineup of speakers and panel discussions on science and women’s issues. MBI-WIS has also managed to push for at least 30 per cent female representation at all MBI-sponsored meetings and events. 

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Prof Kenney (2nd from left) at the MBI-WIS booth during an International Women’s Day event in 2015

“I think that women can do whatever they set their mind to, but women have special challenges relating to motherhood, day care and domestic chores. How individuals work that out has an enormous influence on their scientific careers. Women need to be motivated and driven. That was another impetus for our MBI-WIS group, to stimulate women to articulate their career goals and make it happen,” she said.

Prof Kenney has also been a committed member of the Biophysical Society throughout her professional life, serving as Treasurer for four years and initiating a new subgroup in Mechanobiology, for which she was given the Distinguished Service Award by the Society in 2014.

During her free time, she refreshes by interacting with nature and is also a fan of tennis, bikram yoga and the theatre.

Prof Kenney acknowledges the progress made by women in STEM, but also that it has been slow. She urged women to never give up, sharing an expression often used by her partner to encourage her whenever she felt like quitting: “You’re not out of the game until you take yourself out of the game”.

This is the first of a five-part series by NUS News profiling some of the University’s powerful females making waves in STEM, launched in commemoration of International Women’s Day on 8 March.