International Women Scientists: A Conversation with Chemists from Asia

International Women Scientists

Worldwide, women scientists are underrepresented in their fields. The next generation of young girls and women will be more likely to pursue a career in an area like chemistry if they see women scientists in these roles. Five established chemists from Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and India shared their perspective on what it’s like for women scientists in their countries.

The Panel:

In this interview, they share how they got their start in science, challenges encountered, and what they’ve learned about forging their path to success. They also share professional tips for young women looking to become chemists in a field traditionally dominated by men.

How did you first become interested in your career?

Ching-Wen Chiu: I became interested in main group organometallics when I enrolled in the graduate program at Texas A&M University and joined Professor Francois Gabbai’s group.

Jackie Yi-Ru Ying: Since high school, I have been passionate about and interested in chemistry. My high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Williams, was one of the best teachers I had, and he was a key motivator for my decision to pursue a career in science. When I was in university, I switched my major from electrical engineering to chemical engineering because of my interest in chemistry. My chemistry professor, Prof. John Bove, recruited me to conduct a research project very early on during the semester and I worked with him on the project throughout my four years in university. That really sparked my interest in research. I was introduced to nanotechnology during my postdoctoral studies in Germany. My postdoc advisor, Professor Herbert Gleiter, is an expert in nanotechnology. I was one of his first female postdocs.

Vivian Wing-Wah Yam: I have always been amazed and fascinated by the wonders of science and nature, especially chemistry since I was small. I always love to look at things and analyze things in an objective manner. Chemistry is a science of great creativity. The beauty that distinguishes it from other disciplines involves its ability to create new molecules and the ability to understand and to manipulate molecules. Chemistry is also a central science. One can work at the interface of chemistry, physics, and engineering in developing new materials and in tackling energy‐ and environmental‐related problems. Alternatively, one can work at the interface of chemistry, biology, and medicine in developing new drugs and diagnostics for biomedical applications.

Somdatta Ghosh Dey: I had always enjoyed chemistry in school, because of which I chose to pursue chemistry after school. Extremely knowledgeable and motivational professors at Presidency College, where I did my B. Sc. in Chemistry Hons., inspired me to further my knowledge in chemistry. Exposed to current research in chemistry and a competitive environment at IIT, Kanpur, while doing my master’s degree further motivated me to do a Ph.D. in chemistry. At Stanford University, I got exposed to state-of-the-art research. The sincerity, honesty and hard work of my peers helped me excel and want to pursue chemistry further. Essentially, I became interested in chemistry at many different levels in my academic journey.

Jyotirmayee Dash: From an early age, I had a passion for science. In high school I took physics, chemistry, math, and biology; organic chemistry classes were my favorite ones. From the very beginning, I was curious to know the chemical structure of drugs and medicines and understand how they work in our bodies. I took chemistry as the major subject for my undergraduate studies and studied MSc in chemistry with a specialization in organic chemistry at Ravenshaw University, Cuttack, India.

How did you progress your career to your current position? Were there any programs in place to help women scientists advance, such as for funding or scholarship?

CWC: I started chemical research in nanomaterial as an MS student and then worked as a research assistant in the synthesis of dye molecules for OLED applications in Taiwan. After joining TAMU, I became interested in main-group chemistry, a research area that is not well-developed in Taiwan. Then, I received a Humboldt fellowship to work in Germany as a postdoctoral researcher. After two years of postdoctoral work, I became an assistant professor at National Taiwan University and was promoted to associate professor in 2015.

In Taiwan, there is foundation called Wu Chien-Shiung Education Foundation that is devoted to helping women in scientific research. It not only established awards in recognizing senior and junior outstanding female scientists, but is also actively involved in encouraging high school female students to participate in scientific research.

JYRY: I joined the chemical engineering faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1992, and was promoted to associate professor in 1996 and then to professor in 2001. At MIT, I was a triple minority – I was a woman, an Asian (there were only two Asian-American women professors at MIT in 1992) and young (I was 26 when I first joined the faculty of MIT). So I had to work very hard to break whatever glass ceiling there was – working 75-80 hours a week since I was a Ph.D. student. I was also fortunate to have two wonderful mentors, Professor Kenneth Smith and Professor Robert Brown.

In 2002, I was given the opportunity to set up the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) in Singapore. It was a tremendous career opportunity, and I was excited about being able to contribute to the then-fledgling biomed scene in Singapore. I also had very fond memories of Singapore because I grew up there before my family moved to the U.S. when I was 15. So I took up the challenge to create a research niche in bioengineering and nanotechnology, recruit talented people from all over the world, and build up the research infrastructure.

VWWY: I obtained both my BSc (Hons) and Ph.D. from The University of Hong Kong. After spending two years as a faculty member in the then-newly-established Department of Applied Science at the City Polytechnic of Hong Kong (now City University of Hong Kong), I joined my alma mater, The University of Hong Kong, as a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry in 1990. I am now the Philip Wong Wilson Wong Professor in Chemistry and Energy and the Chair Professor of Chemistry there. I have served as Head of the Department for six years, spread over two terms in the 2000’s. I have been trained as a coordination chemist and am now a synthetic inorganic and organometallic chemist as well as a photochemist, with a strong physical inorganic and materials focus.

As for current support of women scientists, our Vice‐Chancellor and President at The University of Hong Kong launched a United Nations campaign HeForShe starting from April 2015. HeForShe is a UN initiative on gender balance, and HKU is the first university globally to launch this campaign on campus.

SGD: I have never applied for or received any funding or fellowship programs to promote women in science. I am quite satisfied with my current job profile as I get to be a scientist and a mother of two at the same time. I have always felt a lack of support for women scientists in India. This is in contrast to the U.S. where there is a conscious effort to accommodate the need to balance family and work for women scientists. In Indi, a generous maternity leave (now extended even more) and some other leaves are what you get. I am aware of women in science schemes. However, having interacted with one once in 2009 or so, I realized that they were mostly outreach activities for women scientists and did not express genuine concern for the practical difficulties of women in science.

JD: After completing my MSc, I had the opportunity to do my Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry under the supervision of Professor F. A. Khan at IIT Kanpur, India; that is where my career in scientific research started. Subsequently, I was awarded the Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship to work with Professor H. U. Reissig at F. U. Berlin. Then I moved to ESPCI Paris to work as a postdoctoral researcher with Professor Janine Cossy, a renowned woman scientist. I was awarded the Marie Curie fellowship to work with Professor Sir Shankar Balasubramanian at the University of Cambridge, UK, in the field of chemical biology of nucleic acids. I am lucky to have worked with excellent scientists throughout my research career.

I started my academic career as an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata, and presently I am working as an associate professor at the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS), Kolkata. My current research interests are the synthesis of biologically active compounds, targeting nucleic acid secondary structures and membrane channels for the delivery of drugs.

All of my progress in my academic career came through my hard work and dedication. There were no specific schemes for women scientists. Nowadays the government is providing different scientific programs like DST women scientist scheme or DBT Bio-care programmes that encourage young women scientists to carry out research in their respective fields.

What are some of the challenges you encountered as a woman in your field? What advice would you give to young women scientists?

CWC: I would say it is common in all scientific research fields for people to feel male researchers are better. It is strange that we’ve seen an increase of female students in science and engineering departments in the past decade, but we have not seen an increase of female faculty members in those fields. In our department, we rarely receive applications for faculty positions from female chemists. It seems that female scientists turn down the opportunities themselves. Thus, my suggestion to young women in science is “don’t be the one who limits your development.” If you do not give yourself a chance, no one can help you.

JYRY: The nanotechnology and engineering fields are still very much male-dominated, and this gives me added impetus to work harder. When I was going to university and graduate school, I had only one female professor in chemical engineering. But I believe it is a matter of having enough women going into an area to form a critical mass. Although we may be a minority [in the lab], women are very good at juggling multiple roles and managing people from diverse backgrounds. These are important and necessary skills to work successfully in a multidisciplinary research environment.

Research is a long journey that requires a lot of perseverance. If you are in research for tangible, quick rewards, then you will give up easily, because, in this field, we don’t see the rewards until many years later, when your inventions get commercialized and make a difference in people’s lives. I would encourage young people to look into opportunities for an internship in research areas that excite you. Such exposure will help you decide if you are really interested in pursuing a career in science. It will also bring you into close interaction with researchers who can mentor and advise you.

I was very fortunate to have met many excellent mentors in my research journey. I hope to pass on what I have received to the future generations and be a role model for young women interested in careers in research.

VWWY: I think a lot of times women are discouraged by traditional social values and family pressures, and sometimes they choose to give up their dreams to fulfill the so‐called and widely perceived “social and family role and duties of what women should be.”

SGD: Doing creative research in a developing country like India is quite difficult as the promotion and other assessments are strictly made on the basis of metrics (number of papers and their impact factors). It does not matter if the woman candidate has had a child or any other family commitments that may take a lot of her time. In my case, I have had two children in the first five years of my service. In return, I have not been given due promotion or award in spite of being a performer in the field with substantial recognition as an independent researcher. So I kind of faced discrimination of women in science rather than the promotion of women in science. Since these issues are subjective one can never establish such claims. Although it has recently improved, I had to face tremendous delays in the release of grants in my first two years. The situation is much better in the developed countries where these factors are considered for women scientists.

My advice will be “ekla cholo re.” This is a very famous line by Rabindranath Tagore which means essentially “you are on your own.” You and your male counterparts will be measured on the exact same scale. So try your best.

JD: It is a long journey of dedication for pursuing an independent career as an independent scientist. I am fortunate enough that my family has supported me, but in our country, many scientists cannot pursue their career because of their socio-economic status. But yet, in recent years, I have noticed a steady increase in women research scholars and faculty.

In my opinion, a strong will and a curious, innovative mind can overcome all the hurdles faced in life. I also feel that there should be supportive scholarships for young students and scientists at the beginning of their career, and there should be no gender bias for the scientists.

What is one of your biggest accomplishments or accolades in your field?

CWC: In Taiwan, no one teaches main-group organometallics. That’s why I knew nothing about main-group chemistry before I joined Francois’ group. Thus, I feel my biggest accomplishment in the past few years is to show students in Taiwan that main-group chemistry is an interesting and on-going field of research in chemistry.

JYRY: My glucose-sensitive nanoparticles work that won the Mustafa Prize* in 2015 was very gratifying because this technology is now in clinical trials after many years of research and preclinical studies. These nanoparticles can auto-regulate the release of insulin depending on the blood glucose levels. This drug delivery system bypasses the need for blood glucose monitoring with finger pricks and allows insulin to be delivered orally or by nasal passage, instead of through injection. This technology would greatly benefit diabetic patients by helping to prevent hyperglycemic and hypoglycemic conditions and the associated organ damage.

*Professor Ying was the inaugural winner of the Mustafa Prize – “Top Scientific Achievement” Award in 2015 for her research in bio-nanotechnology. The laureate of this award receives USD 500,000 in prize money, a certificate and an engraved medal.

VWWY: The most exciting aspect of my research has been discovering strongly chromophoric and luminescent molecules with rich excited state properties. Our understanding and control of molecular packing has led to innovative classes of materials with improved and desirable properties and functions.

SGD: My group has been exploring the potential role of heme in Alzheimer’s disease; a rather new point of view. However, it seems that our opinion is getting gradual acceptance in the community and more and more groups are starting to work in this area and are approaching us for collaborations. This, to me, is most gratifying.

JD: After hard and sincere work, I have established myself as an independent scientist in the field of bioorganic chemistry, and I have been involved in teaching and training young and budding scientists and helping them to establish themselves in their careers.

What do you want people to know about women scientists in Asia?

CWC: In terms of intellectual abilities, I think there is no difference between Asian and western female scientists. However, I do think stereotypes in Asian society significantly suppressed the development of female scientists in Asia. Thus, I wish that Asian people, both male, and female, knew that female scientists can perform as well as male scientists.

JYRY: There are quite a number of excellent female scientists in Asia. It is our hope that we can make a difference through our research and nurture the future generations of scientists, especially more women researchers.

VWWY:  I do not think there is a difference between men and women, both in terms of their intellectual ability and capabilities for research in science. I am a firm believer that regardless of one’s gender and race, as long as one has the passion, the dedication, and determination, one can excel and produce work of high quality.

SGD: Asian society is very hierarchical and male dominated in spite of some well-meaning initiatives. The expectations of society on women are still limited to their roles as homemakers. Only women with very strong resolve and family support can work in science.

JD: Nowadays there is a good number of promising women scientists working in different disciplines. And it is possible for a woman to be successful in a scientific career. In modern times there is not much difference between men and women scientists.

What scientific developments are you most excited about for the future of your area of chemistry?

CWC: I think the most exciting development in main-group chemistry is the discovery of transition metal like reactivities in main-group metals. This may offer an opportunity to replace precious transition metals with abundant main-group metals in catalytic organic reactions.

JYRY: There are a lot of critical problems to solve, but I am most interested in developments in the area of diagnostics because infectious diseases are spreading faster around the globe than ever. IBN is developing paper-based kits for rapid, point-of-care diagnosis of infectious diseases, such as dengue and Zika, in 10 minutes to facilitate health screening and monitoring.

VWWY: I am particularly excited about advancing our understanding on the control of supramolecular interactions and molecular assembly, as it will have important impact and contribution toward our society in addressing issues in energy and biomedical applications.

SGD: I am really looking forward to the advancements in brain imaging and super-resolution microscopy amongst other things. Much of what we do and how we plan depends on credible information that we get from in-vivo imaging and analysis of human tissue.

JD: I am interested in applying my knowledge in organic chemistry to understand biochemical reactions involved in human physiology and related diseases. I would also like to develop novel therapeutics which will give a new direction in the field of medicine.

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