Navigating the Winds of Change: A Woman’s Odyssey in Science

Rinalda Proko - Compass article

If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge,
then nobody can turn you off…
no matter what they say

–Barbara McClintock

As the train departed from Worcester and took me towards Boston, I found myself surrounded by the serene beauty of a fall evening and the pages of Nancy Hopkins’ extraordinary journey in science, while reading The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT and the Fight for Women in Science by Kate Zernike. Trains have always been my sanctuary for reading and reflection, so I simply enjoyed watching the rustling leaves paint the skyline with vibrant hues of red and gold.

Fifty years ago, the landscape of science—one that Dr. Hopkins navigated alone with resilience and determination—was different. The rhythmic hum of the train becomes a sound to my thoughts as I reflect on my transition from the realm of a Ph.D. student to the exciting postdoctoral journey lying ahead. My mind wanders back to a pivotal moment during a recent laboratory meeting, which not only marked the commencement of my postdoctoral journey but also underscored the strides we have made in cultivating an environment of empowerment and encouragement for women in science. Mary Munson, our principal investigator, broke the traditional lab meeting agenda with an unusual statement that left me momentarily stunned. “A homework for you all—think about your goals and how my lab can help.” Her words were words of empowerment, trust, and hope for women like me as just starting a career in science in a different country.

Academic science, as I have come to realize, has not been an easy journey for women. The historic systemic disadvantages, such as denial of authorship, sexual assault, sexism, inequity in pay, and barriers to career advancement, have cast shadows over the voices and talents of women. My personal journey in science has been a path like many other women marked with its own set of challenges: the shadows of harassment and racism, navigating the complexities of transitioning between research labs across continents, the loss of beloved family members, and the global upheaval of a pandemic. If you are pursuing science in a foreign country, especially in the U.S., which is world-renowned for scientific training, the expectations tend to be higher if you are on a student visa or an immigrant scientist. I believe that navigating cultural differences often requires a nuanced understanding and fostering a spirit of inclusivity and collaboration to bridge gaps and build connections. Adapting to a new academic environment presents a steep learning curve, but it is also an opportunity for personal and intellectual growth. Personally, my academic journey was like a marathon, and I always held up the flame of hope, perseverance, and passion for science. Sometimes dark clouds of loneliness, burnout, and anxiety blurred the path. Yet, in those challenging moments. This hunger for knowledge, coupled with the determination to understand the cell’s mysteries, propelled me forward.

As I navigated the intricate pathways of my doctoral research, I found myself drawn towards two distinct yet interconnected avenues of professional growth—performing experiments and actively engaging within scientific communities, particularly through my involvement with COMPASS—ASCB’s Committee for Postdocs and Students. This entailed participation in COMPASS meetings, blog writing, networking with other scientists in cell biology, and involvement in professional development sessions for the ASCB Annual Meeting—Cell Bio. COMPASS not only provided a platform for my professional development, but it also gave me the freedom to be myself. It is a space where ideas can flourish, opinions can be voiced, and authenticity is valued. It is a space that nurtures individuality while fostering a sense of community—a delicate balance that is invaluable in the competitive and demanding field of cell biology.

Moreover, my engagement in the ASCB community opened a world of resources, leading to the transformative option of being paired with a mentor within ASCB. Despite my initial timidity, frequent conversations on Zoom with my mentor became a cornerstone of my personal and professional growth. These discussions span a spectrum of subjects, from navigating career choices and enhancing my resume to broader topics like empowering women in science and the significance of fostering diversity and inclusivity. As I reflect on my journey, I am thinking about all the exceptional and fearless women in cell biology, who pushed through several challenges of racism, discrimination, and sexism, while serving as mentors and role models to future generations of women in science. In their stories, I find inspiration and remind myself that, despite the struggles, science is a collective journey fueled by passion and unwavering determination.

About the Author:

Rinalda Proko is a PhD candidate studying the role of the cytoskeleton in controlling the polarized growth of filamentous fungi with a particular focus on the cellular control of septin organization in M. oryzae in Martin Egan’s lab at the University of Arkansas. She also holds the position of president of the Student Organization of Cellular and Molecular Biology, which includes students from 4 colleges and 17 different departments at the University of Arkansas and a member of the Postdoctoral and Student Committee (COMPASS) on the American Cell Biology Association (ASCB). Winner of the Public Award in the "3 Minutes Thesis" competition at the University of Arkansas and winner of second place in the "Elevator pitch," the annual national competition of the ASCB in 2019. She completed her bachelor's degree in Biology and master's degree in Molecular Biology at the University of Tirana, Albania. From 2014-2017, she worked as a molecular biologist at the Institute of Public Health in the Infectious Disease Control Department in Tirana, with a special focus on viral disease monitoring and biosecurity risk assessment. Twitter: @r_proko Email: