Meet US Scientist Dr Gizelle Baker who’s on a mission to get more women involved in science

Scientist Dr Gizelle Baker. Picture: Supplied/ Philip Morris

Scientist Dr Gizelle Baker. Picture: Supplied/ Philip Morris

Published May 18, 2023


Cape Town - A renowned scientist from the US, Dr Gizelle Baker has a sit down with IOL to discuss the importance of more women entering into the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) sector.

Dr Baker PhD, a scientist who specialises in leadership, women in science, public health, harm reduction, and epidemiology, is currently the vice president of Global Scientific Engagement at Philip Morris International and is on a visit to South Africa to meet with industry and medical leaders.

Philip Morris International is a tobacco company with headquarters in Cape Town and since 2008, has invested more than US$10.5 billion into the science and research of developing smoke-free products.

On the topic of developing smoke-free products, Baker said smoking it not just a male problem, but a population problem and that having a woman’s perspective incorporated into the science, especially if trying to eliminate cigarettes, it’s about driving behavioural change.

Scientist Dr Gizelle Baker. Picture: Supplied/ Philip Morris

“What will convince one person to switch will not convince another. So, it's really having the female perspective about how to assess, how to look and really having communicate science in a way that is compelling to not just focus on men who smoke, but the population who smokes which is also women,” Baker said.

No straight career path

While she may be a driving force in her field, it did not start out that way.

“My career path has not been linear in any way, shape, or form. I think each time I took a step it made me think maybe what I thought was my field is the wrong way forward for me.

“I started on a scholarship in physics then I decided I wanted to do biology and wanted to go into medicine. Then I did a fellowship before going into med school, then I decided I don’t really want to treat patients.

“But, the concept of developing medicines to improve health for patients was something that was interesting to me. That is why I went into epidemiology and biostatistics, which took me into the pharma world where you’re developing medicines,” she said.

While biostatistics and epidemiology are two separate fields, Baker entered into tobacco harm reduction after seeing how these fields could be brought together.

“I was able to see the impact of smoking on many diseases we were trying to develop drugs for, so when the opportunity to bring biostatistics and epidemiology together and address a public health need that was sitting in front of me came up, I had to be a part of this and I went from pharma to the tobacco industry.

“I also realised sitting back and waiting for cigarettes to go away was not helping solve the problem. The only way to truly be part of the solution is to be part of the science behind it and push and drive to move away from it and ensure what was happening, was happening scientifically in my mind,” Baker explained.

While careers in STEM are known to have been male-dominated, Baker said the wheels are turning and change can be seen within the sector.

“Ten years ago when I entered Philip Morris, I felt like there weren't many women and when you saw the women in science you saw them in technical roles.

“When I look at it today, I do it with a smile because you see the non-clinical head is female, when you come to leadership meetings in science you see a really nice mix of different age groups, genders, races, and different ways of thinking and approaching problems and I feel like that is the value of diversity,” Baker said.


She believes diversity is the way forward.

“Absolutely, I think there are some things in the past where certain careers were for ‘certain people’ and I think that every career, when you broaden who is there, brings new perspectives, new approaches and just improves what you can do and what you can achieve,” she said.

On diversity at Philip Morris, Baker said there is no favouritism when opportunities arise, as the company brings everyone on board and then opens the door for training.

“They really push people who show promise and work on growing their skill sets.

“This training not only gives you confidence but allows you to go broader than you actually know you can,” she said.

‘The world is full of problems which need solutions’

For women wanting to enter into the STEM sector, Baker said while in the past there was a lack of opportunities, now was the time to focus on inspiring women to enter the field.

“There is space for them. But people have to want it, get educated in the sciences and have to look for careers in science.

“Role models are a huge piece of the puzzle, seeing women doing science, seeing women succeeding in science, and seeing women in visible places in the scientific space is important for young girls growing up to see. To see that success is possible because inherently in the past it hasn’t been,” she said.

For those wanting to enter the STEM sector, parents and teachers need to broaden what people see and what people think.

“When you talk about science it’s a way of thinking and a way of addressing problems.

“The world is full of problems which need solutions.

“You don’t have to be a bench-top scientist, but applying scientific learning and scientific thinking to problems brings a perspective and approach that is meaningful to probably all problems.

“An education in STEMS doesn’t need to be a career in STEMS, it can be, but I think it opens your doors wherever you go because you bring a methodological pragmatic approach to: I see a problem or I observe something, I identify the problem, I test ways of what might cause the problem and I look for solutions to the problem.

“It is the fundamental scientific method which can help us in every aspect of life,” Baker said.

Baker has been observing the Board of Healthcare Funders (BHF) conference at the CTICC this week.

The annual conference inspires industry cohesion on emerging issues, innovation, action, and honest discussions about what's next.

The BHF conference is one of the largest healthcare conventions on the continent. It provides healthcare insights and facilitates engagement and cohesion on fundamental challenges facing the healthcare ecosystem.

Baker told IOL she was very impressed with the conference and discussions on the table.

“We are here for the conference and you see the real topics being put on the table. Not the easy conversations, but they’re looking at how we improve the health of our population, how do we fund our healthcare system, how do we build our healthcare system and how do we ensure we deliver healthcare to South Africa in the future, and that to me is a first world country.

“They are not sitting there talking about what are the problems or what’s holding them back. They’re looking at how they move forward from where they are and that is what every country needs to be doing from a science, medical, and also from a societal perspective,” Baker said.

Her words of encouragement for those wanting to enter the STEM sector:

“Don’t define where you want to be. Keep your mind open and let the opportunities be your path forward.

“Too often we think: what do I have to do to get here? And every single choice limits the opportunities going forward because you have eliminated something you didn’t think was on the path,” Baker advised.