Are you really a doctor spelled with D O C T O R?

A few weeks ago I was chaperoning a sixth grade field trip to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. At the beginning of the field trip the teacher introduced me to the class as Dr. Kaplan.

On our walk back, one of the girls I was chaperoning enthusiastically asked me, “Are you really a doctor spelled with D O C T O R?”

“Yes,” I replied, “I am a doctor spelled with D O C T O R. If you are asking whether I am a medical doctor, I am not. I am a scientist doctor.”

“How do you get to be doctor?” she asked.

Start with elementary school, middle, high school, then college,” I replied. “After college, you can pursue medical school where you can become a medical doctor. If you decide to pursue graduate school for Ph.D., you can become a scientist doctor. You are in middle school so you are on the right path.”

I do not think I can pass the college grade courses,” she confessed.

It is Ok to feel that way when you are in middle school.” I told her, “When I was in the 3rd grade I thought college courses were for very smart people and I did not think I was smart enough to pass them. Look, I went to college and more….”

This conversation with a minority middle school girl made me realize that my personal achievements made me a role model for all ages of women. She could relate herself to me as a women. That meant, if I can do it, she can, too.

When I was growing up, I looked up to many great women in my country, in Europe and the US. These women shaped my future career aspirations and accomplishments at every stage of my life. In elementary school, I discovered my first woman role model. Our first president did not have his own children so all of his kids were adopted. His daughter was the first female combat pilot in my country. When I was in middle and high school, our principle was a woman and many of the science teachers (physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics) were also women. Finally, our country elected a woman prime minister, so a woman can be prime minister. When I moved to the US for graduate school, I met other inspiring women.

Realizing my own accomplishments made me a role model for others took me a lot longer, as you may have guessed. I think that is because I am surrounded by successful women, so our achievements are similar. I have to remember that only ~2% of the population hold a Ph.D. The first time this role was pointed out to me a professor, who was on my Ph.D. committee and an eminent scholar, asked me whether I inspired any immigrant women undergraduate students. I asked why? He told me, “You are an immigrant teaching at a Land Grant University in the US. This is a big accomplishment. Immigrants and women students can relate themselves to you.”

Then I remembered my very first day teaching a college level course. I taught one section of introductory biology, a very large class with 1000 students a semester. The first lecture I introduced myself, briefly provided my scientific background and then continued with the lecture. At the end of the class, a female student from Bosnia was very impressed by my background and asked me where I was from. At that time, I did not think of much about it. Looking back, I realize that she was able to relate herself to me since I was an immigrant and a woman.

As a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, I mentored several women who have become successful physicians. As an independent scientist, I have had many women and minority students ask to work with me because they were impressed by my scientific accomplishments. I did not have a lab of my own so I asked other professors in the department to host them for hands on science training. Many female undergraduate students on campus at the bus stop or crossing the road would also compliment on my teaching. “Hi, Dr. Kaplan. You don’t know me but I am in your introductory biology class and I like your teaching. I learned a lot.” In January 2015, when I was setting up my own lab, one woman student from the introductory biology class came to me, said she was very impressed by my scientific background and asked to work with me. I found resources and trained her while I built my company and my lab. In the Fall 2017, she started Temple Medical School and is on her way to be a medical doctor. She told me that her experience working with me helped her get into medical school. This made me believe that I did a really good job being a role model.

Talking to the middle school girl on our way back from the field trip reminded me that girls need role models at every stage of their life, not just the college level. Many accomplished women are always surrounded with people like themselves. You may not always realize how important your personal accomplishments are for the next generation of young girls, but they are looking up to you. When you tell your story, it makes a difference.

Author: Dr. Fatma Kaplan is the CEO/CSO of Pheronym and an accomplished scientist with experience in both biology and chemistry. She has a Ph.D. in Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology and postdoctoral training in Natural Product Chemistry with a focus on isolating biologically active compounds. Dr. Kaplan discovered the first sex pheromone of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and published in Nature. Then she discovered that pheromones regulate other behaviors in both parasitic and beneficial nematodes. She has very high impact publications and her dissertation was cited in textbooks within 5 years of publication. Dr. Kaplan worked as a scientist at NASA, the National Magnetic Field Laboratory and the US Department of Agriculture — Agricultural Research Service. Dr. Kaplan co-founded Pheronym to bring nematode pheromone technology to the market and to provide effective, non-toxic pest control for farmers and gardeners.

CEO of Pheronym, Inc.