Despite the push to bring more women into science-related fields, much work still lies ahead. As of 2019, less than 30% of the world’s researchers were women, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
ChristianaCare’s Gene Editing Institute, where women make up nearly 80% of the laboratory staff, has pushed to address the gender gap and promote inclusivity through local outreach.
Launched in 2015, the institute developed the first CRISPR gene editing tool to repair DNA outside human cells and is laying the groundwork for the first patient trial to gene-edit solid lung cancer tumors, according to its website.
Through its relationship with Newark, Delaware-based ChristianaCare, the institute also seeks to connect with young scientists in surrounding communities. Its “CRISPR in a Box” initiative aims to inspire young adults from underrepresented groups about gene editing, said principal investigator Kelly Banas.
“It is a high school- and college-based program that can be integrated into curriculums. It’s really to teach future scientists the world of gene editing, the world that we’re so familiar with and that we love,” she said. “So we’re trying to not only influence the next generation of young scientists, but we’re trying to get out there to the communities who have been historically left out. That’s really the mission of the Gene Editing Institute.”
Staff scientist Salma Kaouser was once one of those prospective researchers. More than five years ago, visiting institute members presented “CRISPR in a Box” while she attended Delaware Technical Community College. The experience cemented her interests in molecular biology.
“That inspired me to come into this field and even (to) the Gene Editing Institute to be able to contribute to this research by altering genes in living cells, treating inherited diseases and being able to understand more about human genetics,” she said.
“We all come from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, and we all have different areas of expertise. Bringing that altogether, we can definitely take science forward,” Kaouser said.
The environment is empowering, she added. In particular, she finds being able to work independently and share her opinions much easier when surrounded by other women.
Banas said it’s important to remember, however, that the institute is still more of an exception, given that many other laboratories still lack women at the bench.
“We forget that this is not the typical work setting that others get to take part in. We also forget how lucky we are and how inclusive and equal this workplace really is for us,” she said. “That just goes to show that our leadership values us that much and they foster this type of environment for us. I come to work every day and I work with some of the best scientists and greatest friends.”
Correction: A photo accompanying this piece shows 11 of the institute's scientists. An earlier version of the caption used an incorrect statistic.