International Day of Women and Girls in Science: Interview with CSO Isabel Fulcher, PhD

Isabel Fulcher
Chief Scientific Officer
at Delfina
min read

For the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we’re spotlighting Dr. Isabel Fulcher: our Chief Scientific Officer. Dr. Fulcher leads our data science team and works tirelessly to innovate new machine learning solutions that will change pregnancy care for the better. We spoke with Dr. Fulcher about the challenges and rewards of being a woman working in a scientific field. 

What made you want to pursue a career in science?

I’ve been interested in math since a very young age—I think I realized in middle school how much I loved the subject. In high school, I was part of a study group that we called the Knights of the Unit Circle, which we thought was funny since we sat at a round table and discussed mathematical concepts (like the unit circle). I studied math in undergrad, and then during my PhD in Biostatistics I started to think more about how to apply data to reproductive health. 

Who’s a woman in STEM that inspires you?

I wouldn’t be where I am today without my postdoc advisor, Bethany Hedt-Gauthier. To me, Bethany redefined what it means to be a mentor in academic research. Not only does she engage in formal mentorship of grad students and postdoc fellows at Harvard, like I was, but she has also mentored dozens of people at other institutions and in other countries.

Bethany introduced me to digital health and how to use data science methods for maternal health. She mentored me during a project where I conducted statistical analyses for a maternal health program in Tanzania. I then went on to travel to Tanzania to work further on the project, which delivered pregnancy care through community health workers in Zanzibar. 

What has been one of the most rewarding things about working in maternal health?

There’s a super pressing need for maternal health innovation right now. The maternal mortality rate has nearly doubled from 2018 to 2021, and things aren’t getting better. And there’s just not a lot of data-focused solutions being applied—in the data science world, I feel like maternal health is getting left behind. It is very rewarding for me to be able to apply my data science toolkit in a field where it can really make a difference. 

Also, so many of my friends and family members are embarking on their pregnancy journeys right now! So it’s nice to see the impact of my work on such a personal level. 

What are the challenges to being underrepresented in your field?

In high school and in college, I never had any female math professors, and only had a handful of other women in my classes. Even in grad school, I only had one class taught by a woman. In fact, I had never even considered pursuing an advanced degree in a quantitative field, let alone a career in academia.

My perspective changed after I participated in a program called the Summer Program for Women in Mathematics at George Washington University. The program was taught by four female professors, supported by two female teaching assistants, and provided mentorship, space, and funding for undergraduate women with interest in mathematics. For me, the benefit of this program wasn’t just the math that we learned but the community of female peers and mentors that we gained. Once I did the program, I was like, “Oh wow, I could go and get a PhD in this”—I had never thought of it as an option before.

What would you tell a girl who’s debating entering a STEM field?

My biggest piece of advice is to find strong mentors and people who will advocate for you. They don’t need to be of the same exact background, but you need people who can introduce you to different programs and connect you to things that you’re interested in. Without the Summer Program for Women in Math, I would never have gotten a PhD, and without my mentor Bethany I wouldn’t have discovered my passion for maternal and reproductive health. 

And… Come do an internship with me! We have an incredible team of data scientists at Delfina who are passionate about maternal health. This week, we’re presenting at the Society for Maternal and Fetal Medicine Annual Meeting—research conducted by team members Sara Sauer, PhD, Mia Charifson, & Audrey Kim will be featured! Mia and Audrey were both interns this last summer, and Mia still works with Delfina now.

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