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Liberty Science Center luncheon honors 8 N.J. women excelling in STEM

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The message from the Women's Leadership Council luncheon at the Liberty Science Center Monday? Girls can excel in science, technology, engineering and math, too.
The message from the Women's Leadership Council luncheon at the Liberty Science Center Monday? Girls can excel in science, technology, engineering and math, too. - (Thinkstock)

It's amazing how many scientific breakthroughs or big discoveries happen when women are part of the process.

That's not me saying that; that's an almost-direct quote from Paul Hoffman, president and CEO of the Liberty Science Center, during a luncheon put on by the center's Women's Leadership Council.

"Gender stereotypes really do play a role in scientific discovery," Hoffman said. "Women and men bring different perspectives. It's the same reason why you want different ethnicities in the workplace."

Hoffman was speaking to a room full of women who are excelling in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. There's a big push now for more women to pursue careers in the STEM fields, and these women are prime examples of why. They are nurses and deans and company founders and chemists, and the purpose of the event was to honor their contributions to their companies and their respective fields as a whole.

Here are those women, along with a few thoughts they shared during the event:

Dr. Mary T. Abed – chief of cardiology, Jersey City Medical Center

Mary said she remembers eavesdropping on the weekly discussions her uncle gave about the merits of practicing medicine — to her three brothers.

"I sat very quietly in a corner and listened to his lectures," she said.

Although she wasn't the intended audience, those talks had a profound effect.

"Medicine was the right choice for careers," Mary said. "It is my passion."

Dr. Cathryn M. Clary – head of U.S. medical and chief scientific officer, Novartis

Cathryn said several factors contributed to her career choice and subsequent success, but first on the list was her mother, "who always told me, 'A woman can do whatever a man can do,' and she told me that at a time when many women weren't doing what men were doing."

Dr. Jean Fuller-Stanley – associate dean of College of Science and Health, William Paterson University

Jean grew up in Jamaica, where she was a tomboy constantly chasing after her older brother. When he constructed makeshift trucks out of wood and sticks, she was the guinea pig, bravely giving those contraptions a test drive.

She has accomplished a great deal in her career, but as she looked around the room during the luncheon on Monday, she said: "This is a very humbling experience."

Karen M. Graham – chief operating officer, Summit Medical Group

Karen is one of seven children — and six of those kids are boys.

"The action never stopped," she said.

Undoubtedly spurred into recklessness by her brothers, Karen was hit by a truck at the age of 7 when she was out riding her bike. She fractured her hip and her femur — and that experience may have had a little something to do with her career choice, she said.

Laura B. Overdeck – founder and president, Bedtime Math

Laura grew up in a home where math was fun, where her mom had her baking when she was in diapers and where her dad had her dabbling in carpentry "at a very unsafe age," she said with a laugh.

"We had no flashcards or workbooks; we just did stuff," she said.

In her AP physics class, she was the only girl out of 25 students. But that didn't bother her. And now she's on a mission: To make math fun.

"We have reading for pleasure, but we don't have math for recreation," she said.

MaryPat Sullivan – chief nursing officer, Overlook Medical Center

MaryPat thought for certain she was going to attend graduate school at Dartmouth and study genetic counseling. She went so far as to enroll and move there. But before school started, she realized she was making a mistake.

She deferred and instead enrolled in a baccalaureate program in nursing.

"This was probably the best professional decision of my life," she said.

As a nurse, she knows her children had to endure late nights and working holidays over the years, but she feels confident that those challenges helped turn them into the stellar people they are today.

Dr. Ann Weber – vice president, discovery & preclinical sciences and chemistry head, Merck

Ann attributes her success in her industry to two great mentors: her high school chemistry teacher and a college professor.

Both died about 10 years ago, when they were in their 50s, one from complications related to Type 2 diabetes and the other from melanoma — both illnesses her company is working hard to combat.

Xiaokui Zhang – director, discovery research, Celgene Cellular Therapeutics

Xiaokui knew from a young age that she had to aim high in her career.

Both her parents are astrophysicists.

But her mom was a particularly strong influence in her life, she said.

"It was her support and her believing in me that helped me be where I'm at today," she said.

And the family tradition is likely to continue, Xiaokui said. Her daughter is currently in her sophomore year of college and has just chosen her major: biology.

Mary Johnson

Mary Johnson

Mary Johnson is a staff reporter covering midsized and growth companies, as well as women in business. Mary lived in Fla., Texas, Conn. and N.Y. before moving to N.J. with her husband and infant son. Email her at maryj@njbiz.com. She is @mjohns422 on Twitter. Read her blog, Breaking Glass.

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