The result of the Theranos trial and what it entails for women in STEM
“One tiny drop changes everything.” The development of new blood-testing technology in Silicon Valley—more efficient, affordable, and painless—claimed to be able to perform over 240 blood tests through the sample of a single drop of blood. This process would be considered a revolutionary step forward in healthcare, a miracle for mankind––only, it never existed.
Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos, the company that promised these results, was ultimately found guilty earlier this year on three counts of fraud, one count of conspiring to defraud private investors, and will face up to 20 years in prison for these charges. Her company, a promising start-up previously estimated to be worth over 9 billion dollars, crumbled in 2018 within 15 years of being founded, after former employees reached out to Wall Street about the fraudulent nature of Theranos.
How did Holmes, once hailed the “Female Steve Jobs” and “Darling of Silicon Valley”, collapse to such lows? And what does this entail for women, particularly, in STEM?
Holmes dropped out of Stanford University in 2003 when she was 19 to dedicate her time to launching Theranos with the help of her professor, Channing Robertson. After over a year of working in her college basement, Holmes was able to gain monetary support from various investors and raised close to 6 million dollars. From then on, Theranos’ influence only gained momentum and expanded rapidly. She secured 945 million dollars in investments from notable business and political figures, including former U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, as well as former Wells Fargo CEO Richard Kovacevich. Holmes quickly rose to fame as the “youngest self-made female billionaire” and perpetually appeared on the covers of “Forbes”, “Fortune”, among many other publications.
However, Theranos employees soon realized something was wrong. The machines Theranos claimed were able to perform these complex blood tests barely worked, and when they did, the results were never accurate. As a result, employees would often take a minuscule blood sample and split it among five conventional machines by diluting the blood and cherry-picking the data.
The Theranos machines would sit neatly lined up in a row when possible investors, who many times knew little-to-none of the field of medicare, came to investigate. Meanwhile, employees in the back room would scramble to push out test after test with inaccurate and most of the time, simply flat-out wrong results.
Out of the many Theranos employees, Erika Cheung was one of the two whistle-blowers that exposed the Theranos scam.
Cheung told Wall Street, “I kept running [the test] and it kept failing, it kept failing, it kept failing…I’m resetting the whole system, but I don’t feel comfortable sending out this patient’s sample.” Cheung quit later that year in 2014 when supervisors continued to shut down her concerns.
After more and more speculations and uncertainties surfaced, Theranos eventually shut down in September of 2018 with Holmes facing 11 charges, including those of wire fraud and conspiracy.
One of the main driving factors of the Theranos scam was the CEO herself, Elizabeth Holmes. It is not easy or often that a young woman such as herself would be able to make such a huge splash in the heavily male-dominated STEM field. Holmes even mimicked Steve Jobs in the way she wore a black turtleneck, posed in her pictures, and marketed the company, with the general public portraying her as a “girl boss.” However, according to Forbes magazine, Holmes was not “[held] to the same rigor and skepticism as many other “innovators” [are]”––perhaps this imbalance occurred simply due to the fact that Holmes, seemingly young and driven, is a woman.
The over-glorification of Holmes as a woman in this field has made her fall from grace all the more tragic for the other women who seek to pursue their passions. Alice Zhang, the founder of a drug discovery start-up, often found herself being demonized as a result of the comparison between her and Elizabeth Holmes––despite their companies being completely different.
“I could see no similarity besides the fact that we’re both women in the hard-science space,” Zhang told The New York Times in a recent interview.
It is unfortunate that one’s identity as a woman in STEM seems to be one of the main defining factors of their careers: not their work, not what they have accomplished––but the fact that they are one of the minority groups in the STEM field.
Jisha Rajala, a sophomore at MVHS who wants to major in physics or computer science in the future, attributes this to past beliefs and stereotypes.
“[There are] these preconceived stereotypes that ‘women are incapable of standing up for themselves’, or doing a good job,” Rajala said. “In so many different cultures, that idea is being encouraged.”
MVHS sophomore Anika Karandikar shares similar ideas. “In the [past], and what is ingrained in our society, is that men are better at [STEM] than women are…so the [Elizabeth Holmes scandal emphasizes] what she did wrong and [some people] are making [her scandal] reflect all women in STEM.”
Elizabeth Holmes’ downfall has negatively affected and discouraged many who have tried to pursue STEM. Despite her scandal, there are fortunately many ways to encourage gender equality amongst the discrimination that is so prominent in society.
Dr. Junjun Liu is a senior data scientist working to develop machine learning algorithms to predict blood pressure from pulse waveforms. Her many years of experience in the field of STEM have led her to see first-hand the improvement and efforts made towards equality. A graduate from Caltech, she notes how the number of women in their geophysics department had increased from two to four out of around 10 people total, a significant step forward.
“More and more women are pursuing fields in STEM,” Liu said. “Even from the [numbers] in the undergrads, it is [evident] that there is an improvement.” Liu also encourages women to be “brave and not discouraged, because bravery will help [them] move forward in the path [they] want to pursue.”
As MVHS students, STEM is often more encouraged than not, however, this privilege is not extended to various areas in the world.
“In those places, we need to advocate,” said Rajala. “Women have the capability of doing whatever they want to do. We just need to understand that and we need to advocate for that because it’s becoming a bigger problem.”
In a society where gender discrimination runs rampant, a line must be drawn. The standards to which people are evaluated needs to be reconsidered in order for the hard work and true findings of the women who work tirelessly to establish their voices in the STEM field to be heard.