Science and Innovation

Women’s History Month Reflections on Being a Woman in the Sciences

Dr. Rebecca Essner

In the world of science, technology, engineering and math, commonly known as STEM, female professionals are few and far between. At AdventHealth, Dr. Rebecca Zuvich Essner is shining brightly.

Dr. Essner, a senior researcher for the AdventHealth Research Institute in Orlando, is passionate about two things in her professional life: educating the community about the importance of genomics, and being a role model for girls and women interested in the sciences. One of Essner ’s main professional goals is “to improve health care through the use of genomics and population-based research.”

What the Vanderbilt University graduate wants to ultimately achieve in her life is to leave places better than she found them.

“Being able to understand genomics and use big data to not only predict but also to prevent disease is important,” said Essner, who goes by Becca. “Let’s not be reactive when someone already has a condition; let’s be proactive and figure out who is most likely to develop the conditions down the road.”

In other words, by gaining more knowledge of data and genomics and embracing a proactive approach, Essner believes the medical community will be able to focus more on wellness and prevention, instead of disease.

Though Essner has an advanced degree in human genetics, she’s like every other working, full time wife and mother of two, learning how to best balance family and work.

She believes having a strong support system and knowing you have people in your life that you can trust, both personally and professionally is important. Essner ’s role models, her mother and grandmother, are two women who she looks up too every day.

“I remember my mom always working hard, but also being present as a mom. Having that balance between being a mother and career is a family-oriented person,” Essner said. “I want to serve as an example for my kids, just like my mom did for me and to show my kids that you can do meaningful work outside of the home and use your talents to improve society as a whole.”

One of Essner’s biggest accomplishments as a research scientist for AdventHealth has been the WholeMe genomic study, in partnership with Helix. The project launched in January 2019, after AdventHealth decided they wanted to develop and invest in an initiative around personalized health care. A first-of-its-kind study in Florida, WholeMe screens volunteers for hereditary heart conditions and hereditary cancer — and reveals 22 eye-opening insights about your health and heritage.

Of the many AdventHealth-related projects Essner is heavily involved in, WholeMe has received the largest number of consented participants, at about 7,000 and counting. Her role with WholeMe has included everything from writing protocols, to working with the operations team to develop a workflow, to working with physician leaders in creating clinical pathways to help prevent disease from occurring.

Essner said she would love to educate more women about STEM, and see more girls and women move into professional careers involving science, technology, engineering and math.

“Being a woman in the science industry is very challenging but rewarding,” Essner said. “It is an interesting dynamic to think about the stereotypes that exist today around male-oriented professions versus female careers. There are moments that you remember, and you can either take them as discouragement or you can use them to fuel your fire to strive to be better.”

Essner believes we need to change the narrative in order to overcome these stereotypes, and it starts with the people who are in the workforce now. She will tell you we need role models to lead by example, to start mentoring young people about STEM, to encourage creativity, and to emphasize that a career in science is something women can do successfully.

With March being Women’s History Month, Essner said that whenever you can, it’s important to lift up other women -- and men too.

“We can all succeed without someone failing,” she said.

“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘the sky would be pretty dark if there were only one star,’” Essner added. “The sky is a lot better when there are a lot of shining stars.”

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