Celebrating OU Women in Science
The United Nations recognizes Feb. 11 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science – a day that’s dedicated to ending gender imbalance in STEM fields and dismantling gender stereotypes. As we celebrate all of the OU scientists who are working to solve global grand challenges through their research, meet a few of the many OU researchers, faculty members and alumnae who are making an impact in their field.
Lauren Ritterhouse Casariego
Lauren Ritterhouse Casariego, who earned her M.D. and her Ph.D. from OU, now serves as an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and an associate director of the Center for Integrated Diagnostics at Massachusetts General Hospital.
She is a leader in diagnostic molecular genetic pathology with expertise in biomarkers for personalized medicine in cancer.
“Even when I was really young, growing up I was fascinated by infectious disease,” Ritterhouse said. “I wanted to be a virus hunter at the CDC. I thought that was super cool when I was younger.”
In her biomedical engineering lab at the University of Delaware, OU alumna Emily Day and her research team develop innovative nanomaterials that enable high precision therapy of cancer and other diseases.
As a student at OU, Day said the open-door culture of physics department faculty helped establish strong mentorship relationships that ultimately led to her deciding to pursue biophysics, and later, bioengineering.
“I had this plan that I was going to get my undergrad in physics and my Ph.D. in astrophysics,” she said. “I was in the Honors College and took a class called ‘What is Science’ about all these different subfields of science. I found myself really drawn to the biological fields.”
Rong Zhu Gan is a Presidential Research Professor and the Charles E. Foster Chair in the Gallogly College of Engineering, Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering. Her current research is sponsored by the Department of Defense and explores blast exposure hearing loss.
She said she likes the challenge of studying hearing and her work has made others take notice, including being asked to serve on the DoD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs.
“Hearing is a challenge,” Gan said. “Also, hearing is more close to the patient, to the benefit of society. It is not the pure, basic research. We are close to real society ... I am very honored to be a part of the CDMRP panel to determine this funding.”
A piano scholarship brought Elaine Hamm to the University of Oklahoma, but a hand injury spurred her to discover a new passion.
“That’s what I tell a lot of young women and others wanting to get into science,” said Hamm, now the CEO of the pharmaceutical accelerator, Ascend BioVentures. “It’s taking things that you’re naturally excited by that may not have anything directly related to science, something more broad like ‘I like to learn something new every day’ that can be applied to a scientific career as well. So say you’re really passionate about communication, you like to talk or write books, that has an incredible role in science.”
OU alumna Alyssa Hill is a postdoctoral researcher in medicinal and pharmaceutical chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich).
A first-generation college student, Hill said that growing up, she didn’t really have an idea of what a scientist really was. But this all changed when at OU, she met Susan Schroeder, associate professor in the OU Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
“I think, especially in working class families, the pinnacle of success is to be a doctor or lawyer,” Hill said. “Even as an undergraduate, I had little idea of what it was to be a scientist. Joining the Schroeder Lab and seeing Susan be a mentor to me and teach me what that role was so valuable.”
As a mentor to young women, OU alumna Lindy Ritz shares that it’s never too late to change paths in pursuit of your goals.
“Too often, I think we put a huge price on that you have to know exactly what you want to do and you stay with that … it’s never too late,” said Ritz, who has served as the director of the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City since 1997. “You just have to touch base with what brings you joy.”
Ann West, associate vice president for research and partnerships at OU, makes it a point to involve undergraduate students in her research lab – largely because she credits her own experience as an undergraduate researcher for sparking her interest in science.
“I was a biology major as an undergraduate and I was fortunate to be able to conduct laboratory research three of my four years at Wesleyan University, and I really, really enjoyed it,” West said. “It was a calling of sorts. The lightbulb went on and I realized that’s what I wanted to do for my career.”
By Chelsea Julian
Article Published: Wednesday, February 10, 2021