A Seat at the Table: Spotlight on Dr. Mary Sánchez Lanier  

March 8, 2022

Dr. Mary Sánchez Lanier
Dr. Mary Sánchez Lanier
Source: American Society for Microbiology

A chemistry set and a microscope were all Dr. Mary Sánchez Lanier needed as entertainment growing up. Sánchez Lanier, assistant vice provost at Washington State University (WSU) and professor at the School of Molecular Biosciences, developed an aptitude for science at a young age—a passion that has continued for multiple decades. As an educator, Sánchez Lanier urges budding scientists, especially women in STEM, to take control of their narratives and give themselves credit for their achievements. "We do ourselves a lot of disfavors by how we portray ourselves," Sánchez Lanier said. "We're smart, and we have something to give back. We have ideas, we have creativity, and we can help one another view research from a different perspective through the questions we ask and contributions we make."

When she embarked upon her undergraduate education, the question wasn't whether she would pursue a career in science, but which area of STEM she wanted to make her focus. While she initially set her sights on wildlife biology, with the hopes of one day working for the U.S. Forest Service, a job as an undergraduate researcher in a virology lab shifted Sánchez Lanier's course. There her research probed the mechanisms of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and Lupus, focusing on how prostaglandins (E series) might affect human lymphocyte function by the modulation of surface receptors.

Her experiences working in the lab fostered a proclivity for microbiology. Sánchez Lanier co-authored 3 papers, including 1 first-author paper, by the time she finished her junior year of undergrad. Sánchez Lanier later obtained her Ph.D. in medical sciences from the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, where she studied immunosuppression caused by measles virus. But amid her academic and professional successes, Sánchez Lanier would encounter academics who were far from celebrating a woman's achievements in the lab. A neurology professor told Sánchez Lanier that a woman's brain worked differently than a man's brain, arguing that's why women could not be scientists.

"Truthfully, the ignorance behind such statements was laughable to me back then," Sánchez Lanier said. It was not until she moved to Georgia and worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a research associate that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) issues really became more visible. "In Georgia, and yes, at the CDC, where the prejudice was overt, my measurable blood pressure actually went up and came back down when I left." However, Sánchez Lanier pointed out that in many ways overt behavior, while more painful, can be addressed.

Sánchez Lanier said during her time at CDC, technicians in her unit were mostly women, while Ph.D.-level investigators were almost all men. When CDC was in the process of hiring someone for a high-ranking position, there were several candidates who were considered, including one woman. "It was commonly discussed in my unit that the very talented woman being interviewed was the ‘token' female, but that she would never be hired," Sánchez Lanier said. The bias was "openly discussed and accepted as fact."

As Sánchez Lanier continued in her career, she noted that one of the biggest barriers to DEI in STEM tends to be more subtle behaviors coupled with long-standing disadvantages that women face. "I have seen it more in upper administration than in faculty meetings, where female voices are simply not heard," Sánchez Lanier said. "Have you ever said something in a meeting and then had your exact words repeated by a male colleague, and suddenly everyone pays attention?"

One of her colleagues once told her that she was impressed when Sánchez Lanier led a meeting and sat at the head of the table full of men. "The truth is, being at a table of men as an administrator in STEM is the norm, commanding all of their attention is a bit more difficult," she explained.

Sánchez Lanier recalls that when she first started at WSU in 1990, there were very few female faculty in the microbiology department, and at the end of each faculty meeting, the administrative assistant would preface each man's name with "doctor," and refer to each woman by only her first name when typing up the minutes of the meetings. "On the surface, it does not appear to be a big deal, but it is," she poignantly emphasized. While women make up about half of the workforce in the U.S., women account for less than 30% of people working in STEM, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's something Sánchez Lanier would like to see change.

"I want every individual to know, regardless of background, that they belong and are not ‘joining,' they are part of the power that moves us to success."

- Dr. Mary Sánchez Lanier

Sánchez Lanier started the Showcase for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity (SURCA), which includes the entire university system at WSU. She emphasized the importance of making academic programming more inclusive and welcoming and providing fair and equal access to students. "I want every individual to know, regardless of background, that they belong and are not ‘joining,' they are part of the power that moves us to success," Sánchez Lanier said. "‘Joining' versus ‘part of' is an important distinction."

When Sánchez Lanier moved into more administrative roles, like managing the Office of Undergraduate Research, the Distinguished Scholarships Program and the First Year Experience Program, she had supervisors recommend that she drop teaching to focus more on managerial responsibilities. To that, Sánchez Lanier replied, "nope, no can do."

Sánchez Lanier has worked in higher education for more than 3 decades and is the recipient of many prestigious awards, including WSU's Sahlin Faculty Excellence Award and the College of Veterinary Medicine Undergraduate Excellence in Teaching Award. "I love my teaching and I love sharing virology with my students," Sánchez Lanier explained. "Plus, teaching and mentoring intersect with one another. I see and talk to so many students who are so talented and so smart, but they have so many strikes against them that the support we provide in the university makes all the difference in the world."

Previously, Sánchez Lanier chaired the ASM Robert D. Watkins Predoctoral Minority Fellowship Committee, the Minority Undergraduate Research Fellowship Committee and the Committee for Minority Education. She is the ASM Education Committee chair and represents ASM on the steering committee for the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS).

Sánchez Lanier said she frequently counsels her students to be in charge of the language that's used to describe them and their achievements, whether it be on a resume, during a job interview or while they're working in the lab.

"We tend to say, ‘thank you for this wonderful opportunity you've given us,' as opposed to, ‘of course you've given me this opportunity because I'm giving back, I've got something to give,'" she said. It is Sánchez Lanier's hope that more women continue to pursue careers in STEM, and that one day, it will be the norm for a woman to be leading the conversation at the head of the table.

Author: Leah Potter, M.S.

Leah Potter, M.S.
Leah Potter joined ASM in 2022 as the Communications Specialist.