For International Women and Girls in Science Day, we’re featuring microbiologist Tiffany Tsang, who leads MITRE’s countering weapons of mass destruction group. She also helps grow the ranks of early-career and next-generation scientists—and narrow the gender gap in STEM fields.
At the tender age of 10, Tiffany Tsang knew with absolute certainty she wanted to become a biologist. And not just any biologist—she wanted to be a “disease buster.”
Tsang recalls reading a magazine article about the public health officials who study the “nasty” pathogens that make people sick. She was awestruck.
“These tiny things you can't see with the naked eye can do so much damage to humans, to plants, to animals, to the entire world,” she says. Then and there, she set her sights and never looked back. “I told myself, ‘This is what I want to do with my life. I want to study diseases and figure out what makes them tick.’”
Now the lead for MITRE Labs’ countering weapons of mass destruction group, Tsang explores diseases through a slightly different lens. Her team serves U.S. government sponsors charged with countering biological threats. The group helps answer questions like: How do we stop these threats? How do we recover from them? How can we respond more effectively?
When you push outside your comfort zone, that’s where you’ll discover new areas of amazingness.
Her journey to becoming a microbiologist isn’t all that surprising, considering her early interest in biology and genetics. An interest that’s actually, well, genetic.
Tsang comes from a family of scientists: her father a nuclear engineer, mother a genetic counselor, and brother a chemical engineer. During childhood family road trips, instead of playing “I Spy” or other games to pass the time, Tsang’s father quizzed her on physics equations.
From the seeds of that informal education, she earned a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah and a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from the University of Michigan. She then embarked on a dynamic early-career sprint. Tsang served as a technical intelligence officer in the CIA, taught at Yale University, and did science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) outreach at University of Hawaii, before landing at MITRE in 2017.
She says the company offered a chance to return to her roots. “I really wanted to get back to the science. As a trusted adviser, MITRE provides that sweet spot of being able to do that and still work with the government and help them achieve their mission.”
Striving to Narrow the STEM Gender Gap
Tsang has worked on close to a dozen projects at the company. From biosecurity for the Defense Department to COVID-19 security lessons, she enjoys collaborating with diverse sets of people across varying challenges.
For example, Tsang advised a government sponsor on how to incorporate virtual reality tools in training first responders to operate in hazardous-materials environments. She says the experience also allowed her to learn about new technologies.
“MITRE is an organization that's willing to take chances with people and give you an opportunity to grow and learn and work outside your comfort zone,” Tsang adds.
Such engagements are particularly important for women in the sciences, where a gender gap persists.
Sheerly by the numbers—women comprise 46% of biological scientists—gender representation in the sciences has markedly improved over the past few decades. But women still lack opportunities to become research leads and tenured staff or get premier lab positions and credit for work (e.g., publications and patents).
The impact for women in STEM: lower advancement, retention, and salary. In 2021, the American Association of University Women reported women in science earn roughly $15,000-$30,000 less annually than their male counterparts. Over a lifetime, that amounts to upward of a million dollars.
Inspiring the Next Generation of Scientists
Left: Tsang and MITRE's Will Symionow work through a VR scenario in the Immersion Lab.
Beyond these gaps, Tsang says women in STEM face a different challenge: being heard. She says in work conversations, they often get overlooked—or worse, talked over.
In her own career, she credits her first mentor with helping her develop the confidence to overcome this behavior. “She would call people out when they cut her off. She showed me it’s important to not just be present in the room, but to stand your ground and make sure your voice is heard.”
For her part, Tsang pays it forward as a mentor in several capacities, formal and informal, for both women and men. “I’m passionate about mentoring the next generation of scientists.”
She’s particularly excited about her first leadership role, which she assumed last September. “I’m focused on really helping my team with their career growth. I want to partner with them to explore the new and creative things they want to do.”
Tsang also serves as a mentor in MITRE’s Asian and Pacific Islander Network business resource group. And she’s co-instructed several “Girls Who Can” biology classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s BeaverWorks Summer Institute.
Her advice to girls and young women interested in STEM?
“You have to be willing to say yes to new challenges—even allow yourself to be a little in over your head. When you push outside your comfort zone, that’s where you’ll discover new areas of amazingness.”