“I had been told all this discrimination against women, from the 1970s, was a thing of the past,” said Colleen Bollin of the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
“Unfortunately, that was a lie.”
From her college years to her distinguished career leading the technical development team for processing submissions to GenBank, Bollin has had to figure out how to maneuver in a traditionally male-dominated STEM field.
As an electrical engineering student at the University of Maryland in the early 1990s, she said, “I would go to my big lecture halls and count the women, and I would get five out of 60 students.”
She urges female students and professionals to seek support from other women. “If someone tells you that you don’t need any of those women-centered groups to study with, they’re wrong,” she says. “Seek out mentors. Don’t assume that you don’t need a mentor.”
At this stage in her career, giving back through mentorship has meant a lot to Bollin. When looking for someone to support, she says, “Look for people who need more confidence. They may have skills but not recognize that they’re already good enough.”
Bollin’s advice for women—and anyone:
“Genuinely figure out what’s important to you and what’s not.”
This is particularly important when it comes to how to spend one’s time.
She recognizes that this can be harder for women.
“Women in particular are targeted for marketing,” she says.
Bollin admits to having had her own challenges with sites that primarily focus on women.
“I think there’s a lot of things that target women to make time go away—like Pinterest. I love Pinterest,” she confesses. “Pinterest can be a useful tool under certain circumstances. I have a collection of pictures of tulips on Pinterest. For a little while I was collecting them like it was my job.”
Then she had an epiphany.
“Is there something else I could be doing that would be just as relaxing but would result in something useful?”
Her personal list of how she spends her free time reflects her varied interests: traveling, running, and learning to play the ukulele and the dumbek (a goblet-shaped drum played in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and Eastern Europe). She also sews medieval costumes using patterns from all over the world to wear at Pennsic, an annual medieval festival.
Bottom line, she says, is, “Figure out what is important to you.” She also cautions against judging other people for their choices.
But no matter what’s going on, Bollin can always fall back upon the one rule that she’s always had.
“I’m not allowed to complain about things unless I have a plan for fixing them—or at a minimum get a plan to fix them,” she say. “Don’t sit around being unhappy and not doing anything about it.”
And if you can’t take ownership of the problem, she said, “Find someone who can fix it and then poke at them until they do.”
By Kathryn McKay, NLM in Focus writer