Remain humble. It’s important to remember that you can always learn, grow, and change; that you are not always right if you are in leadership; and that your success is likely due to the contributions of many others. Years ago, a team member said she appreciated that I never said she worked “for” me, but always said she worked “with” me. We all have strengths, weaknesses, and different skills so it’s important to remember that even if you reach higher levels of leadership, it’s important to have humility and appreciation for the team that helped get you there.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Alpa Patel.
Dr. Alpa Patel is the Senior Vice President of Population Science at the American Cancer Society. She oversees a team of approximately 40 staff whose work focuses on better understanding the causes of cancer and how to improve outcomes following a cancer diagnosis through multi-disciplinary research in the fields of epidemiology, behavioral science, and implementation science. She also serves as the Principal Investigator of the Society’s Cancer Prevention Studies (CPS) II and 3, which are among the country’s largest population cohort studies. Her research focuses on the role of physical activity, sedentary behavior, and obesity in relation to cancer risk and prognosis. She earned her Bachelor of Science from the University of Florida, Master in Public Health from Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, and her doctoral degree from the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and has been a member of the Society’s research program for nearly 23 years.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Dr. Patel! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path? I always knew I wanted to do something in science or medicine.
As a teenager, I watched my 64 year old grandfather go from training for a triathlon to losing the ability to speak or walk and ultimately his life as a result of an aggressive brain tumor called glioblastoma within 6 months of diagnosis. It both scared me and sparked my curiosity about cancer.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The most exciting story was when we launched the Cancer Prevention Study-3. We had the ambitious goal of recruiting at least 300,000 participants into a long-term study to better understand the causes of cancer and how to prevent it. As a young investigator, I had the opportunity to lead this effort. I remember flying to Victoria, Texas, our first pilot site. We were all set up to enroll participants and collect blood specimens, but I had no idea whether anyone would actually come to enroll. The feeling of excitement when people started coming to enroll in the study was overwhelming because I knew this was the start of something truly life-changing for future generations.
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 writing my first scientific manuscript for publication, I gave my mentor the first draft of the paper. She returned it to me a couple of days later telling me to read her comments and try again. When I got to the start of the discussion section, in all capital letters she wrote “I just can’t go on!” This would have probably made some people cry, but it made me laugh that my writing skills were so rough that she couldn’t even finish reading the paper. I learned not only what I needed to do to be a better scientific writer, but that it’s also okay to not be perfect. This experience also taught me how to accept feedback from people you trust and how important it is for growth.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The American Cancer Society stands out because of the scope of what we do. We are focused around a noble mission of eliminating cancer and we do this through research, translating and delivering programs and education, and advocating for changes in policy to help cancer patients and the public. I remember in 2006 being in Washington DC with thousands of Society volunteers at the National Mall for an advocacy event called Celebration on the Hill. There were volunteers from every congressional district in the country meeting with their legislators to educate them and advocate for issues related to cancer patients. We also enrolled hundreds of participants for CPS-3 at the steps of the Capitol that day. It’s a day I’ll never forget because it demonstrated the collective power of the American Cancer Society’s staff and volunteers in changing the face of cancer.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
CPS-3 will continue for at least 20 more years and I am working on several projected nested within that study. One that I am particularly excited about is that we are collecting device-based movement data on 20,000 participants. This will allow us to characterize how people sit, stand, and move throughout their day and better understand how different patterns of physical activity influence health outcomes like cancer.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. 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, I am definitely not satisfied. While there are several changes that are needed, we need to make significant changes in the implicit biases about what someone in science looks like. Many people still expect that a researcher is likely an older white male in a lab coat. I’ll be in meetings where the men will be called “Dr.” but I will be addressed by my first name. We have to change these inherent biases of how people see researchers.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I think women have to work much harder to prove their worth and ability in STEM, and this makes it much harder for women in the field to advance. If you look at the number of women in research compared to the number of women in leadership positions in research, there is a huge disparity. This must change, and I think it is incumbent on women in STEM who have been able to break through these glass ceilings to help other women, especially the next generation, to do the same. It’s difficult, intimidating, and scary to speak up as an advocate for yourself and others, but it is imperative that women in STEM allow their voices to be heard and their talents to be more broadly seen.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
I have traveled to many places to give talks about research at the American Cancer Society.” I’d love to break the “myth” that a researcher should look like an older white man. From young ages, girls continue to have a tougher time breaking into the field of STEM. Even now, I have had individuals come up to me and say “You don’t look like what I expected a researcher to look like.” I dream of the day when you see a woman of color and aren’t surprised to hear that she has a thriving career in cancer research.
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.)
- Find your voice and don’t be afraid to use it. There will be many times when you may be the only woman (or for me, minority woman) in the room and that can be intimidating. In those instances, I remind myself that I went through the same schooling and climbed the same ladder as those others in the room, so there is no reason for me to be scared.
- Connect with people around you by sharing your story. Whenever I interview someone, I ask them why they want to work in cancer research. If you share your story, it helps people understand what drives you and why you care about your work. That understanding helps build trust and connections which will inevitably make for a stronger team.
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes because it is how you learn. Early in my career, the head of my department asked me to lead a really big project for which I didn’t feel fully ready to do. I told her that I was scared I’d mess something up. She told me it was okay if I did as long as I could explain why I made each decision, and then I could learn where I went wrong. It taught me that I didn’t have to be perfect, no one is.
- Remain humble. It’s important to remember that you can always learn, grow, and change; that you are not always right if you are in leadership; and that your success is likely due to the contributions of many others. Years ago, a team member said she appreciated that I never said she worked “for” me, but always said she worked “with” me. We all have strengths, weaknesses, and different skills so it’s important to remember that even if you reach higher levels of leadership, it’s important to have humility and appreciation for the team that helped get you there.
- Empower people but hold them accountable. People will stay where they feel valued, trusted, and able to make real contributions.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
For me, it’s always been as simple as treating your team the way you would want to be treated. Be supportive, have their backs, trust them and give them reason to trust you.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
My advice would be three-fold. First, trust the people on your team. I firmly believe that trust is the most critical piece to building and maintaining a successful team. Second, reward and recognize thebehaviorsyou want to see in your team, but not those you don’t. So often we promote people because they’ve been there the longest and not because they are the type of person who has earned it through their work product. And lastly, communicate more than you may feel is necessary so that your team feels connected and knowledgeable about the broader organizational goals.
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?
There are two exceptionally strong female leaders that I will be forever indebted to. My doctoral mentor, Dr. Leslie Bernstein, and my former mentor and department leader, Dr. Jeanne Calle. They believed in me sometimes more than I believed in myself, they challenged me past where I thought I was ready to go, but I always knew they would be there to catch me if I fell. There are two common attributes of these two amazing women. First, whenever I would meet with them, the first thing both would do is ask me how I was doing. This made me feel valued as a person first and foremost, and this is something I have tried to do with my team too. The second is that they were my toughest critics, stating that if I could get past them, I’d be ready anywhere I went. My goal is to pay it forward to those that follow so that we can collectively build generations of strong and supportive women in STEM.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am grateful that working for the American Cancer Society, I have the opportunity to share my success and that of our outstanding research team with our volunteers, the public, and communities big and small. By bringing these research stories to life, I can bring hope to so many about the progress we are making in the fight against cancer. It’s been a privilege to do this lifesaving work in honor of so many who have faced this disease.
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. 🙂
I would inspire a movement to move more and sit less! There is so much benefit to our physical and mental health through exercise and moving our bodies as they were meant to move, and so much disease that could be prevented by getting people to do more of it. I love the idea of making every city a walkable city!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The late Maya Angelou once wrote “Nothing can dim the light which shines from within.” There will always be people hoping you fail, there will always be obstacles to overcome, and the road may not always be smooth, but this quote reminds me that ultimately success comes by believing in myself.
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’d have to say Michelle Obama because of the admiration I have for her intellect, compassion, character, and most of all her humility.