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“Put yourself in other people’s shoes” With Tyler Gallagher & Dr. Dorit Donoviel

I know I will get in trouble for this, but you often see this in STEM leadership teams. There is a man at the helm, and there is typically a far more talented and productive woman in the number two position. Usually, the woman rises to the top spot only when the man leaves for […]

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I know I will get in trouble for this, but you often see this in STEM leadership teams. There is a man at the helm, and there is typically a far more talented and productive woman in the number two position. Usually, the woman rises to the top spot only when the man leaves for whatever reason. And then there is tremendous growth within the organization. The myth — whatever it is — is that women are good at clean-up. Well, it is true. They are good at clean-up, but they are even better at building cohesive congenial organizations that do not need to be cleaned up.


As a part of my series about “Women Leading The Space Industry”, I had the pleasure of interviewingDorit Donoviel.

As director for the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), Dorit Donoviel, Ph.D., leads a ~$0.25B NASA-funded innovation R&D program that sources, funds, and fosters disruptive human health and performance solutions for astronauts traveling in deep space. In her previous role as deputy chief scientist of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), Dr. Donoviel led domestic and international research programs that bridged academic, industry, and government resources to deliver fast and cost-effective tangible results. She is the recipient of multiple honors, including recognition from the NASA and the NSBRI Pioneer Award. A published research scientist and a frequently invited speaker and subject matter expert for news and magazine articles, Dr. Donoviel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Chemical Biology and the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM). She lectures to and mentors graduate and medical students and advocates for science education for all ages. Before joining BCM, she led a metabolism drug discovery program at Lexicon Pharmaceuticals for 8 years. She serves as a mentor and judge for healthcare-related startup companies at pitch competitions with organizations and conferences such as SXSW-Interactive, American Heart Association, Ignite Health, and AARP.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Dorit! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I was born in Israel. My family immigrated to the United States when I was at the end of 6th grade. It was bad enough that I did not speak English well, but my family dressed differently and talked loudly. No one in my family went to college, but my parents always told me that they would do whatever it took to make sure I could complete my education. There was a lot of love, and remarkably, not a lot of pressure. It was a self-inflicted pressure to excel and prove that I was good enough to be an American.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

For me, Range by David Epstein has affirmed that being a “Jack of All Trades” is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it can be a huge plus. When training as a scientist, there was always pressure to specialize and become the world’s expert in something. Usually, that something was somewhat esoteric and only interesting to a handful of people. I get bored quickly and like to learn a little bit about many different things. This trait has now served me well because I oversee a space health research program and have to know enough about so many different subjects and topics so that I can “connect the dots” and translation inventions in the healthcare field to what we will need for that trip to Mars.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

One of my favorite quotes is “change favors the prepared mind” by Louis Pasteur. In science and life, breakthroughs come when we least expect it, and often by luck. You have to be prepared to recognize that opportunity when it happens, and that means a lot of hard work.

Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the space industry? We’d love to hear it.

I am embarrassed to confess my “crush” on Leonard Nimoy’s Dr. Spock character in the original series of Star Trek. I was born just a few years before that series was released, and it was so revolutionary. It broke all boundaries and had a diverse cast, including handsome aliens. I loved the scientific mind of Spock and his struggles to control his half-human side. I loved the spirit of exploration and discovery that the show promoted. When the opportunity came up to work with the space program, I jumped at it.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?

I meet so many smart and accomplished people in my position that it is quite daunting. At first, I had a bit of imposter syndrome. When I got to know some of these folks, I realized that some feel the same way. We all have something to contribute, and you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to get stuff done. You just have to be curious and open and genuinely interested in being effective in your job.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was a graduate student, I was in charge of taking a famous scientist who our school invited to be an invited speaker to lunch. I got so carried away talking about science that I was 10 minutes late getting him to the lecture hall. Lesson learned: be on time!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been so fortunate that there have been genuinely wonderful mentors throughout my career. For my current leadership position, in particular, I continue to learn a lot from my boss at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Jeff Sutton. I also made a point of gathering smart, honest, and caring people around me that I regularly rely on for a reality check or just a bit of a pick-me-up. You must have a village around you, particularly during a pandemic.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am most excited about a new initiative that we are calling “Space Health for All”. In talking to folks in communities that typically don’t engage with the space program, I learned that they never felt included. They never felt that access was within their reach. Our research is aimed at ensuring that when humans go to Mars, they stay healthy and productive. I want to make sure that ALL humans are safe if they happen to be lucky enough to go to space, not just those that fit a particular profile. In doing so, we will make space travel safe for all.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The space industry, as it is today, is such an exciting arena. What are the 3 things that most excite you about the space industry? Can you explain?

What is going on today with NASA partnering with commercial spaceflight companies also happened 100 years ago with commercial aviation. Who living in 1920 anticipated that people would routinely and cheaply travel the world in a few hours? I truly believe that space travel will be accessible and affordable for many people.

Second: For 20 years, while governments were posturing and politics were raging, humans have been living and doing science together peacefully on the international space station. Space is a unifying place where we are all just humans, seeing our planet as a shared home, beautiful, fragile, and ours to protect. I genuinely believe that when we next establish a laboratory on the Moon, it will have the same effect, bringing us all together.

The third thing has to be humans on Mars. It is truly going to challenge us beyond our imaginations. In the process of getting there safely, we will discover many wonderful things about our planet, our bodies, and our universe. I am excited to see what the next few decades bring.

What are the 3 things that concern you about the space industry? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?

What concerns me is that NASA is subjected to politics and it’s budget and mission changes with every administration and election. NASA should be set free to chart a course to explore the universe and be allowed to determine how it spends its money and resources based on scientific reasons,

Another item that concerns me is the exploitation of space for military purposes. Space should be for the mutual benefit of all nations. For science, for exploration, for improving our conditions here on Earth.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I want everyone on Earth, no matter their nationality, skin color, or educational status, to feel engaged in humanity’s search to understand our origins and our universe. I want every child to be excited about how they could be part of it, even if it is just to dream and send us inspiring artwork.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No. Our institute directly supports about 10 STEM trainees a year. We also annually fund over 100 different research laboratories led by one scientist that we call the Principal Investigator. We have a good sex balance in our trainee program, with 50 percent women. But something happens between that stage and the Principal Investigator phase. We lose many of them, and we end up with only 30% of our projects led by women. I suspect that finding a position as a woman scientific leader has its challenges, from hiring biases (perhaps) and trying to balance family with career. What we do with our institute is we coach all our trainees about career transitions, and I talk to female trainees about raising kids as well as a science portfolio.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in the space industry that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Let’s face it; we are biologically positioned to bear the offspring. Despite how balanced your relationship is with your partner, women are more pressured to be the primary caregiver. I know plenty of women like myself who manage to have a rewarding STEM career and a family. But it is tough, and I don’t blame anyone for making different choices. I just want to make sure that they make those choices freely and not because they have to for financial reasons or because of lack of support or access to childcare.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech, or the space industry. Can you explain what you mean?

I know I will get in trouble for this, but you often see this in STEM leadership teams. There is a man at the helm, and there is typically a far more talented and productive woman in the number two position. Usually, the woman rises to the top spot only when the man leaves for whatever reason. And then there is tremendous growth within the organization. The myth — whatever it is — is that women are good at clean-up. Well, it is true. They are good at clean-up, but they are even better at building cohesive congenial organizations that do not need to be cleaned up.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. A diverse team of people is essential to success. It has to do with points of view. There are many, and when a whole group of people can provide their creative inputs, the result is always better. You see it in biology. It’s called hybrid vigor.

2. Do not hire “yes” people. I encourage everyone around me to push back when they think I should hear a different point of you. I am susceptible to my own “blind spots”. My work always improves when the people around me were not afraid to tell me when the first version was terrible.

3. Give people the freedom to be creative and empower them to grow something all their own. You have to show them that you trust them, and they will always rise up to exceed expectations.

4. Put yourself in other people’s shoes. Reality is in the eye of the beholder. It’s amazing how everyone sees things so differently! As a leader, you have to take all that input and figure out the best way forward.

5. Encourage everyone to play. People will stay healthier and more engaged. Creativity comes out in their work as well if you make time for play.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

As I mentioned before, I want space to be safe and affordable for all people. I believe that day will come.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to meet Dr. Tony Fauci. He’s such a hero of mine: a clinician, a scientist, a humanitarian, and a noble man under intense pressure.

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