Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Women in Science - Melissa Willits

A scientist doesn’t have to be published to be a scientist. We don’t have to wear tweed jackets and glasses, sit in wing-backed chairs and drink port wine. We may often be overly dedicated to our work, but we may just as frequently be out at dinner with friends. We don’t need PhDs or glamorous university funding. More often than not, a scientist will be completely, wonderfully, extraordinarily ordinary.

Melissa Willits does not have her PhD, and she’s grateful for it. She was raised by a dentist father and a seamstress mother in Tupelo, Mississippi with a fairly ordinary life. She went to her respected but standard state university with the intention of going on to medical school, but was sidetracked by the sudden and unexpected discovery that she was very good at microbiology, so she went with it. She began to learn Spanish as a second language along the way, and says her pathogenic microbiology class changed her life.

Upon entering the workforce after graduation, Melissa very quickly figured out that to be a woman in her field, or maybe even a woman at all, took a little extra work and very thick skin. Her first job, a microbiologist at an un-air-conditioned chicken processing factory, had her harassed by the men operating the plant, and even had her sexually assaulted by an old mechanic. Her search for bigger things quickly brought her back to university life to seek her Master’s degree in Food Science. After a setback or two—including a lucrative job with Dole and a plane crash—she made it to the end with a degree in hand. She also met and married her soulmate, whom she credits for her survival and success in graduate school. In response to the current social norm of postponing “family life” until a satisfactory “career life” goal has been met, she says, “It’s not that clinical. When you’re ready and fall in love, you get married. Life doesn’t stop. Young women these days want to compartmentalize and it doesn’t have to be that way.”

The rest of her career followed what feels like a fairly typical, albeit somewhat flashy at times, “real world” experience. She opted for what she feels was a more applied use of her knowledge and skills as a scientist than what she believed a career in academia could have offered her. Her jobs involved quality assurance and pathogenic testing for global food manufacturing companies, development of new formulas and systems for making said food, and becoming the go-to person for salmonella contamination and remediation from New Jersey to Bangkok. She was personally involved in the remediation of every significant pathogenic food contamination scare in the late 90’s and 2000’s, and many of her safety protocols and employee training programs are still in effect globally.

Melissa traveled all over the world and was a pretty high-powered woman, and her work-life balance suffered for it. Her husband was extremely understanding and willingly followed her career around the continent whenever needed. Some of this strain she attributes to the pressure from the corporate world as well as pressure from being a woman. She developed a thick skin and a loud voice to rival that of any plant operator or corporate manager that she had to work with. Regardless of whether you choose to be a scientist in academia, in government, or in the private sector, Melissa offers advice to any woman seeking to bridge the gender divide and hold their own with the work force: “It’s not about justice. There isn’t any. It’s about being effective. Cover your bases. Make noise even when people don’t like it…[and] always show strength—not cockiness, show confidence. It drives a lot of men crazy; they think it’s arrogant.”

I think it is hard to forget the stereotype that a scientist is only found in a university office surrounded by books and laboratory equipment. More often than not I think scientists are found in the everyday places, working more for the benefit of the masses than prestige. This is why I chose to showcase Melissa as a woman in biology; the discoveries she has made in her career may have been behind closed doors (and ended up in the ice cream in your freezers), but in an ordinary way, she has had a substantial impact on the daily health and safety of people all over the world, which I think is pretty extraordinary.
By: Rikki Lucas