On February 11th the United Nations celebrates the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The day was created to honor the achievements of women in science and technology, as well as encourage more women and girls to consider careers in science. While women have long been under-represented in the sciences, they continue to play pivotal roles, both in the lab and in each other’s lives.
This year ACS Publications is celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science by taking a closer look at the important role women scientists can play in mentoring the next generation. The following interviews offer a look at the relationships between an ACS journal Editor and a female scientist they’ve mentored.
Click on the names below to read each interview:
ACS Applied Polymer Materials Deputy Editor Jodie Lutkenhaus & Shaoyang Wang
Shaoyang, tell us about yourself.
SW: I’m a fourth year Ph.D. student in Professor Lutkenhaus’ lab. I joined the department in 2015. I originally come from Beijing, China. I did my undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, but I grew up in China. I’m getting my Ph.D. in chemical engineering and studying the redox mechanism of organic radical polymers that can be used as battery electrodes.
Shaoyang, tell how you came to work in Professor Lutkenhaus’ lab.
SW: Before I came to Texas A&M, I already knew somebody in the chemical engineering department. So I got a lot of advice from my friend. He recommended a few faculty members in the department, including Professor Lutkenhaus. I searched her research area and publications, and I learn from that. I got to know that she works on polyelectrolyte complexes. That is kind of different from what I did in my undergrad research, but at least it’s still on the experimental side. I don’t want to go into simulations. So I think that’s a good starting point.
The time I decided I wanted to join her lab is when I learned her project for Ph.D. students, which is the project I’m working on now, which to use a device called an Electrochemical Quartz Crystal Microbalance with Dissipation (EQCM-D) to study the reaction mechanism of this polymer. This project generally matches my research interest in renewable energy, because you are now using a polymer to make a battery. Also, I feel like EQCM-D is a really new and powerful device that can open up a lot of opportunities for us. Lastly, this project really targets a big gap in the literature, so that I know we can make a great contribution to the research community if we make these things work. I was very lucky because I was also the TA for Professor Lutkenhaus’ class, so I had more time to interact with her.
Professor Lutkenhaus, what do you typically look for in candidates?
JL: I always interview a lot of students for one spot in the group. There’s a lot of people interested in joining the group, so I have to be really careful about who I choose. The top two things I’m looking for are a passion for the project or passion for research, professionalism, and then collegiality. And then the things that I’m interested in, but that are less important, are technical ability and attention to detail.
If you get into graduate school at Texas A&M, you already have some level of technical ability, you’re already selected from some of the best candidates. You know they’re going to be good. So I’m very careful that the people I choose are professional and friendly and they can work with other students in the group and they’re very passionate. When I’m interviewing students for my group, I have my group interview them or talk to them as well. So if my group doesn’t like them, then they don’t join my lab.
The group culture is really important to me, so we’re looking for people who will support that research environment and help everyone out together, as a kind of a research family.
What are the ingredients of a good mentor/mentee relationship?
SW: The ingredients I think about are being considerate and also understanding each other’s expectations. A lot of the time I feel of our mentor/mentee relationship is more like being collaborators. My advisor is supporting me and I also want to produce the work to support her career because she has a lot of responsibility and she needs to support the whole group. A lot of the time we collaborate with each other and I just know that she will be supporting me and I will just try my best to get her good results and some good papers.
Also, she understands a lot of student expectations. So, choosing to spend five years in grad school when we not only want to get trained to become a professional researcher but we also want to develop some soft skills that we can choose later on in the future. She really understands that and she’s really supportive toward extracurricular work or developing leadership or organizational skills. Our group really has a good tradition of taking leadership positions in graduate student associations. She’s very supportive in every aspect.
JL: It’s so you can go out and rule the world and then fund my research later!
Shaoyang, I think that’s a great answer. You said it better than I do. I see it as a collaboration as well. I think there should be two-way communication. If it’s just me communicating, then it’s not as rewarding for me. I like for it to be a conversation about ‘Hey, do you think that data’s right? What do you think is wrong with it?’ Or ‘That’s really exciting. Can we keep going?’
To have communication, you also need mutual respect — respect for each other and respect for each other’s time. That include being on time and doing reports and that kind of thing in a timely fashion, which everyone does. At the same time, being respectful of your time, and that’s why I haven’t been dumping more projects on you. Because I need you to finish the ones you already have. And then we have a shared interest in the project, so it’s more enjoyable to celebrate successes together if we’re both interested in the project. If the project isn’t interesting, that kind of means that we need to find a new project, right? So I see the relationship as something to enjoy. I get enjoyment out of seeing my students grow, become independent, get their own jobs, stay in touch after graduation.
What have you learned from each other?
SW: The most important thing I’ve learned from my advisor is not to be perfect on every single aspect. Because originally I wanted to get everything to work perfectly and that can take me a lot of time doing repetitive work and not being so productive. When my advisor sees this, she will give me some really helpful advice and just help me move on. Because some of the problems, when you get away from them later on and you work through the project, it won’t be a problem at all. So I think that’s really helpful and helped me save a lot of time and also gives me a sense of how research projects really work. Now the things I would focus on is to get a bigger picture of the research project and not on every single detail.
JL: Every student in our group is totally different, cause some students are perfectionists and then some are not. So other students, maybe I’ll have to be like, ‘Maybe you should do that a few more times and think about that.’ So I have to approach each student on an individual basis.
It’s fun with Shaoyang because our relationship has changed over time. You’ve become more independent and we can be more collaborative. That naturally happens. And then by the time you’re ready to graduate, you’re telling me what to do.
Professor Lutkenhaus, what were some of the challenges you faced in your career as a woman in science?
JL: The biggest challenge that I’ve had is that I had children early in my career. I started as an assistant professor position at Yale six months pregnant. So I spent one semester at Yale and then immediately went on maternity leave. And then I had my second child also before tenure, but while at Texas A&M. So it was a very difficult time to manage two young children and then starting up my career, but I wouldn’t do it any other way, at the same time. That’s just when I had my kids. In both cases, I had pretty supportive departments and my husband is a superhero, incredibly supportive. He shared equally, and in some cases more than equally, on part of the childcare duties, so that I could get started. I’m really lucky to have that. Not everyone does. But it was really hard, because you’re trying to get tenure on about 3-4 hours of sleep. Then you discover that children don’t sleep for years. It’s not a temporary thing. So the lack of sleep was really hard.
Another case where it was hard was where your colleagues — they might not understand or be thinking about it — but they might schedule a meeting at 5:00 P.M. or 4:30 P.M., not understanding that most daycares close at 5:30 or 6:30. Then you have to explain why you can’t go to the meeting, so it does make for some awkward situations. But I was always firm and held my ground. There are the boundaries I operate under but we can still make it work. We can handle it over email or talk on the phone at night, but I just can’t be available during certain times.
What challenges are there now for the younger generation?
JL: I’ve seen this huge change in maternity leave policy. I feel like if I started out now, I would have a much easier time with managing maternity leave. I think things are much better. They’re still not perfect, but things are much better for the younger generation of parents.
What I see now when I talk to junior faculty or younger women trying to start their careers, is there are still issues with equal pay, equal startup space, and equal packages. Part of the problem with that is there’s not a lot of data our there for people to point to and people are reluctant to talk about startup packages. I think if we talk about them more, we may be able to get some equal footing for women and men in that really critical area as you start your career.
SW: I think for myself, the challenge will be to balance family and work. This is actually my ninth year in the U.S. I have been away from my family since 2010. So I think the main struggle is to finish work but also find some time to spend with my family.
And also in the future when I graduate from a Ph.D. program, I need to get a job. It could be a postdoc, or I could go to industry or academia. Then if I have a spouse, he will have to make some accommodation for me. What if he wants to stay where he’s at because he’s happy with his job? Because I feel like one of us has to accommodate the other one. I think that’s a really hard situation.
JL: We see that a lot, I think, with the faculty candidates for hiring in your career stage and maybe a couple of years later, almost everyone has a spouse. Sometimes the spouse is an academic or they’re in industry and then we have to make this big conversation about ‘How do we accommodate them? Can we accommodate them? Because we’re in a small town.’ In my time, that was much less of an issue. People wouldn’t talk about whether they were married or not, you just didn’t. There were more single people. It seemed like there were less relationships between academics and more degrees of freedom. Now you see more power couples. It’s hard. Someone is always making a sacrifice, or maybe someone feels like they’re making a sacrifice. That’s very difficult.
Shaoyang, do you feel that having a female mentor has improved/enhanced/helped your career?
SW: I would say yes, definitely. Obviously, I feel very lucky to have a female professor as my Ph.D. advisor. Not only my advisor, Professor Lutkenhaus but also there were previously some female postdocs in the group the made a big impression on me. From the I learned that female researchers are very independent. They work really hard, they have goals they want to accomplish. But at the same time, they really enjoy life. They value family so much. And then they also find something fun to work with, either over the weekend or in their spare time.
Previously, I was very stressful about the research project and I feel very insecure about the future. But from them what I realized this other attitude toward life, that if you have a clear goal and work hard enough, you should be okay in the future. You shouldn’t worry too much about it. As time went by, I developed a growth mindset, where I really think if I work hard enough, I will get better over time. So a lot of challenges I thought I would never accomplish in the past, will become possible in the future.
How are you paving the road for the future generation of women in science?
JL: I always feel awkward answering a question like that because I feel like by simply existing I provide an example to other women that you can have children and work and have fun. It’s also really hard and time-consuming, but you can enjoy your life. I feel like there’s not much to do, except exist.
I’m aware that a lot of people are watching. I’m very careful to set a good example to women of all ages. That means that in everything I do, I try my best, because I know people are watching. That goes for everything I publish, how I interact with people, how I react in certain situations. We all have difficult situations come up from time to time. I’m very careful about how I react in these situations, because I know that I want to set a good example for other women who are there and can learn from what I do or, more importantly, what I don’t do. Those are stories I can later tell to younger women when they have a similar situation come up. For me, it’s important to maintain an excellent example of what it’s like to be a mother and a wife and professor. It’s not easy. Sometimes I want to scream into a pillow.
What work still needs to be done?
JL: What work needs to be done is, as we have more and more women rising through the ranks of the professorial and industry leadership, it is time to talk about having better representation of women in terms of awards, society fellowships, and editorial boards.
ACS Central Science Editor-in-Chief Carolyn Bertozzi & Mireille Kamariza
Mireille, tell us about yourself.
CB: Mireille started at the University of California, Berkley, as a chemical biology student. She was in this multidisciplinary graduate program. Then when I moved to Stanford, my whole lab moved with me and so did Mireille. She transferred her standing to Stanford’s biology department. She’s a hybrid of a chemist and a biologist.
Mireille, tell us how you came to work in this lab.
MK: I’m originally from East Africa. I was born in Burundi. I’m very passionate about infectious diseases. And when I was in college, during my senior year of college actually, I spent a quarter as an intern at ACS. During that time I was tasked with writing a piece on the keynote speaker of the following national meeting in 2012, and that keynote speaker happened to be Carolyn.
The more I did research for my piece, the more I read about her and her work, the more I realized our interests aligned. At the time as well I was interviewing for Ph.D. programs and one of the schools I was interviewing for was Berkeley. The more I read about Carolyn the more I fell in love with the approach she used in her lab and how they were using chemical biology to investigate tuberculosis, which was sort of a new approach. I thought that was pretty cool. The fact that when I got to Berkeley and was interviewing and realized that Carolyn was just a rockstar of a scientist was just a bonus. It became a no-brainer to me that if she allowed me to join her lab, I would just do that when I got to Berkeley.
Professor Bertozzi, what do you typically look for in candidates?
CB: I was lucky because I’ve been at very high-level universities. I was at Berkeley and now at Stanford. The students that get admitted to the graduate program at institutions like that are just always really, really top-notch. They’re all just really great. We’re lucky when any of them want to join our lab, quite honestly. But I find it fulfilling to work with students who have a real passion for the science we do. And when I say, ‘the science that WE do’ I really mean that. Because when a student put together a thesis project, it only reflects a small fraction of where my interest might lie. It might leverage some ongoing work in the group, but then it quickly becomes the brainchild and the primary property of the student doing the work and then all the collaborators that might join that project after. So I’m looking for people who can take some kernel we have in the lab, whether it’s a technology or some knowledge base, and turn that into something new and exciting and impactful and push the science forward. It’s hard always to know who those people are going to be. They rotate in your lab and you get to talk with students and you get a sense of where their passion comes from. So Mireille explained how when she joined my lab she already had a passion that she already hoped to fulfill and it had to do with infectious disease research, so that was a very natural alignment for me.
What are the ingredients of a good mentor/mentee relationship?
CB: The best and most exciting synergies come when I really understand what the student wants to do and trying to figure out how to be supportive. And I don’t always get it right. Mireille, you have your side of the story, but from my perspective, the first project Mireille was working on, when she first joined the lab when we were at Berkeley, was a very basic-science oriented project. It, basically, was digging into the molecular details of a signaling pathway that a previous student had kind of unearthed. Although it was good scholarly science but it was a bit esoteric. Mireille was a dutiful grad student, I pointed her toward this project and she just kind of embraced it and started getting into it and everything. But honestly, if I had been paying more attention early on, I might have noticed that wasn’t really where her passions lay.
I think the fact that we moved to a different institution was really helpful because it got me to take a step back and sort of take inventory of what we were working on a group, what was working well and what wasn’t, and who was thriving and who maybe could do better. I think with Mireille, I wasn’t realizing her full potential on that project, it was just too narrow. She had a lot of skills, besides just hands that could do good at experiments, and ideas for asking questions in a scholarly way. Those are great skills that she has, but she has a lot more and I wasn’t really taking full advantage of that.
When we moved to Stanford, Mireille started a new project, still in infectious disease, but that focused more on addressing a major unmet need in the diagnostic space and that’s for tuberculosis. She partnered with another student in the lab and they basically came up with [an alternative to a TB test] that really hadn’t changed in 100 years. I was so excited by that, because that’s real impact.
I honestly don’t think I had a vision. I couldn’t see on a horizon that big and I had no sort of concept for how you could translate a basic finding from your lab to a place where you have neglected diseases and places where you don’t have the resources that my Stanford lab has. And Mireille saw that. And I think she saw because, yeah, she’s smart. But she went out there. She went to conferences and interacted with people and formed collaborations and alliances and stuff I didn’t know enough about. She brought that knowledge to the lab.
So now the project has a completely new direction. Mireille is starting a company based on the technology. We have clinical test sites set up in South Africa. I collaborated there with patients that were testing and doing head-to-head comparisons with older technologies. Quite honestly, that would never have happened without Mireille. My experience with her as a student is — it’s sort of like a once in a career experience.
MK: So on the other side of this transaction, I would say great communication. And as my key, being able to identify and express what you need will help your mentor support you better.
From the other side of the story, when I started my Ph.D., I knew I wanted to work on TB, I knew I wanted to work in Carolyn’s lab. But I didn’t quite have a firm grasp of where my story fit within all these other projects. She told me about this really incredible project from another grad student that just graduated and I wanted to contribute my signature to it, but really along the way, I realized I was driven by something that is directly translational. I would go out there and meet with other folks at these TB conferences, not just scientists from the U.S. and Europe, but also scientists from Asia, from Africa, particularly Bavesh Kana, who is from South Africa. In talking to him and trying to figure out where my story fits in Carolyn’s lab, I realized there was an opportunity there to build something directly translational in medicine.
So exactly as Carolyn said, when we moved to Stanford, I thought there was an opportunity presented to me because there’s a hospital right here, there are TB clinicians here at Stanford. And I thought that this would be a great opportunity for us, for me personally, to explore this other interest that I had with another labmate of mine.
Once that really took off, it kind of married both my interests and the opportunities in the lab and that’s taken off and we’ve created this long-term relationship with Bavesh. We now have a patient study ongoing, we now have a company. So it’s quite an exciting relationship, once you figure out what you want and also communicate that with your mentor, so they can support you better.
What have you learned from each other?
CB: When we did our little Twitter chat recently, one of the questions was “What are some attributes of a good mentor?” Lots of people chimed in and added things to the list. The thing I added was: Two ears and one mouth. That’s a good mantra. I think we need to really listen to what students are saying — and not saying, right? You need to figure out how to create space so they can articulate to you, in a fearless way, what would be the most compelling research project, how could you support them. And it took me kind of a while to figure that out. Hopefully, with each student I get better at it. I’ve certainly gotten better over two decades. But I think that’s something I continue to work on. The interesting thing is, if you really try to listen to people and understand, ‘In what setting would they thrive?’ then what you can do as a mentor becomes really clear, which is that you have to create those opportunities and mold the setting for them.
So at this point in our relationship, Mireille knows more about TB than I do, she knows more about diagnostics, she knows more about point-of-care, she knows more people in the field than I know. She’s driving that project! And the best thing I can do for her is move crap out of the way, try and clear a path, and when I see opportunities, hand them to her — speaking engagements, introducing her to someone interesting. I introduced her to someone at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and now she’s very networked in that organization. I guess I’m the catalyst now. But she’s really the driver of the project and she just landed one of these prestigious independent Harvard fellows positions, so she’ll file her thesis this spring and then she’ll head off to Harvard and be an independent fellow for a couple of years. I think this is like a model for how a mentor and a trainee can benefit from each other.
MK: And you can imagine being on this side, and watching Carolyn do all of that and providing inspiration for me. Not only do I get to see how I can succeed as a woman in science, but also how to mentor others and increase my professional network — and help others increase their professional network as well. And if you’ve met Carolyn, she’s incredibly charismatic, so that’s certainly a goal of mine is to emulate that energy.
Professor Bertozzi, what were some of the challenges you faced in your career as a woman in science?
CB: It’s the usual stuff. I don’t know that I have anything particularly surprising to share. I, of course, had to deal with all of the microaggressions and all of the unconscious and sometimes conscious biases and the underratings that you sometimes have to endure in settings where you just want to blow. Mireille and I were talking just the other day about how much energy I have to put into not having a rage aneurysm. And I’m accustomed to it now, after two decades. I’ve had to learn to exercise restraint. Sometimes you really have to exercise a lot of restraint in order to get what you want to get and be where you want to be. You just have to keep moving forward.
The more senior I get — so the more influence I might have, or the more I’ve been accepted into the mainstream scientific culture even though I’m a minority — the more liberty I have to release the restraints. But Mireille is still learning how to exercise restraint so she can succeed in different settings. And she has the additional dimension of being a woman of color, so multiply the microaggressions and multiply the marginalization. There, I’m not a good mentor for her in that regard, because I haven’t lived that experience. But I’m trying to learn.
What challenges are there now for the younger generation?
MK: I’m at the intersection of being a woman, a woman of color. To be honest, there’s a lot of challenges to be had for people like me. I’ve been lucky though. I was just talking to my mom about this earlier today, actually. I’m lucky that I got into Carolyn’s lab because Carolyn always supports us and fights for diversity. She herself has dealt with these struggles and she understands.
I went in last Friday, incredibly frustrated with a situation and just by her telling her story and how she dealt with it in her life experience, she showed me that you have to master the perfect combination of patience and pushback in order to get to where you want. There’s a long way to go for all of us.
Mireille, do you feel that having a female mentor has improved/enhanced/helped your career?
MK: Absolutely! Just watching her tweet is a lesson! Watching her in certain situations she finds herself in on a daily basis is incredibly educational. She’s a household name and she still has to deal with them. She handles them with grace and patience. That’s certainly one thing that I know I want to aspire to and remember as I mature in this industry.
How are you paving the road for future generations?
CB: I think Mireille gets this one. She’s paving a different road than I am. She’s paving a road that’s much less trodden.
MK: I always say I’m the only Burundian woman scientist that I know. That’s certainly true. It’s incredibly hard. There are very few black scientists, even fewer black woman scientists. You just have to keep having a vision for what you want the world to be and emulate that as you navigate these spaces. I’m certainly trying to be visible. I’m present online. I’m trying to do the best work that I can, trying to improve my network — and trying to be there for my mentees. I actually have been mentoring a lot of people in the lab. Going through the lab and pushing them on, almost all of them women. In trying to be the best that I can be, I’m really trying to emulate Carolyn here.
There’s still a lot of work we need to do. Being the first of anything is always daunting. But you have to do. Someone has to do it. We have to do it.
ACS Chemical Biology Editor-in-Chief Laura L. Kiessling & Amanda Dugan
AD: I’m a postdoc in the lab and I’ve been here for a few years. I did my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan with Anna Mapp. I wanted to branch out into looking at host-microbe interactions and I thought Laura would be fun to work for because carbohydrates are so central to that. And so I ended up applying and she was pretty stoked about it too.
AD: So I’ve been enjoying my time for the last couple of years, working on that in her lab.
Professor Kiessling, what do you typically look for in candidates for your lab?
LK: I would say that Amanda is really bold as a scientist. She just will do anything that she needs to do to tackle a problem. She did beautiful work developing chemical crosslinkers to look at proteins that regulate transcription. And now she has been working on a mouse knockout. She’s learned mouse physiology! But she also does a lot of work with proteins and imaging. She’s an amazing
person. She gets interested in something and she’ll just go do it. And she does it all really well.
I can’t describe one thing that you look for, right? You look for somebody who brings a new perspective into the lab and who has an exciting vision of where they want to go and where they want to take science – and that is something that Amanda has in spades.
What are the ingredients of a good mentor/mentee relationship?
AD: You want me to go first?
LK: You go first. The mentee is always willing to go first!
AD: I’ve found that what I’ve most enjoyed about working with Laura is there’s pretty clear communication. So if I need to talk about anything — personal or work-related — she will find time to talk with me and usually there’s really good advice behind all those meetings.
And having someone who’s goal-oriented like Laura is – she has this clear big picture. I get concerned about all the detailed stuff and panic about it and she’s good about saying ‘We’re still on track!’ So I think communication is really key.
I think it requires a significant amount of trust. She trusts me to do mouse work, for example, that I’ve never done before. And I trust her to tell me if I’m going in the right or wrong direction.
ACS Chemical Biology Editor-in-Chief Laura L. Kiessling
LK: I think what Amanda said about communication and trust and respect is really important. Also, I like everyone in my lab. So we view it as kind of a family. We start with the baseline ‘we all like each other’ and then it can be a place where you can make mistakes and there’s no penalty for admitting that. That’s really important because if you don’t have that kind of atmosphere, especially where people have high aspirations, they’re more likely to feel the urge to do unethical things. So I think having an atmosphere that gives freedom to pursue their ideas and go in directions they’re interested in. And also freedom to make mistakes and admit those mistakes is actually really important.
One of the hardest things when I first started running a lab, is that we don’t have any management training – I’m going to take a class in that because I think that’s really valuable – but I didn’t have that when I started. Most faculty don’t have training. So you don’t really know how to make your way.
One of the most important things I learned was, ‘Wow, not everyone is like me.’ It’s totally obvious but you keep trying to advise people the way you would have like to be advised and do what things worked for you from your advisors. And that doesn’t work for everyone, just because they respond to different things. So I actually experiment people in my lab. I will try something and realize ‘Oh that didn’t work. That wasn’t a good way to talk to this person.’ And then I learn from that.
Amanda and I are really different in a great way! We were talking about this the other day, about how she’s more introverted and I’m more extroverted. We have to listen to each other because we don’t always respond to things in the same way. You can take other people’s actions in the wrong way if you have a completely different way of viewing the world.
AD: Laura’s really good at thinking on-the-fly. So a lot of times she’ll come up to me and want to know my opinion on something but I need a day to think about it and process it. It’s definitely been a learning relationship, but one that’s very good.
LK: I had two advisors and they were both really different in that way. Stuart Schreiber really likes to throw out ideas and get people’s immediate feedback. And Peter Dervan is more circumspect, he likes to think about an idea and then offer his opinion. One of the values of having different kinds of research mentors is that you learn different ways of interacting with people. And that does help prepare you for a career.
What have you learned from each other?
AD: Laura is really good at perceiving how people are, how they operate, and she knows that I’m introverted and maybe won’t take certain risks. Knowing that about me, I know that she’ll push me to do things that get outside my comfort zone a little bit. Sometimes that is something like going to social events with post docs and grad students in the department. ‘Go meet new people. I know it’s not your preferred thing to do, but get out there and socialize.’ Because ultimately it’s in my best interest to do so.
LK: I first met Amanda when she was in Anna’s lab; we met at a meeting. Amanda was about to give a talk and she was really nervous about it. We talked about that issue and so I really encourage Amanda to give a lot of talks – which I know she loves. But she is such a great representative of the group and she is so thoughtful about her research and also about the field in general. That always comes across in her seminars.
I have also learned that I need to tell her that I need to hear her thoughts because if they’re not fully formulated or just kind of nascent, she doesn’t like to talk about them. I appreciate that, but there’s often great ideas that she’s developing, and they can benefit from input or discussion with other people.
She’s taught me the importance of really listening and communicating and going back and forth because sometimes I’ll make assumptions about what she understands. You can take for granted that someone just automatically understands something and if they’re a quiet get-it-done person, they’ll just move forward, thinking they understand what you mean and you understand what they’re doing. So we have to communicate and that’s something we have really been developing.
Professor Kiessling, what were some of the challenges you faced in your career as a woman in science?
LK: I first noticed I was a ‘woman in science’ in graduate school, in my classes where I would say something and then some guy would say it after me and the professor would be like ‘Really great point!’ So that kind of ‘woman-at-a-meeting’ — only this was ‘woman-in-a-class’ –experience.
Then I worked in a synthetic lab and my advisor, Stuart, was really supportive, but the lab was kind of a locker room. There were a lot of things that were really alienating to women that went on that he didn’t really know about. And we just put up with it. One thing that I think is great now is that women don’t put up with it. They recognize it’s inappropriate. And it did make me feel uncomfortable a lot of the time, but I guess I just didn’t have a blueprint for how to handle it.
Jackie Barton was one of the first women I ever saw give a talk. And it was a great talk. I guess it was important, not because I felt like I could be like Jackie – Jackie’s her own thing – but it really showed that, yeah, this woman can go and do this amazing science and be recognized for it. So that was exciting for me. But there were just so few women that were in academia. So in one way, I didn’t really have role models — but I did, because I had Stuart and Peter and Bob Grubbs and Sam Danishefsky, all these people around me that were doing things and have different ways of looking at the world.
Then, as a faculty member at UW-Madison, I would say that in general, my department was supportive, in most ways. But I wasn’t involved in a lot of higher-level input into the department. I never served on any of the departmental committees that made the major decisions.
There there’s the experiences where you go to meetings and people think you’re part of the administrative or logistical staff, that sort of thing. I guess that’s less of a big deal because they’re not people you see all the time. It’s the lack of respect from people you interact with frequently, that’s tough. And I still go to board meetings where my input is not as recognized. I still experience the ‘woman-at-meeting.’
What challenges are there now for the younger generation?
LK: One thing that I think is good is to have women with different personalities excel. Amanda and I have different personalities, so if the only woman she knows in science is me, then she’ll look at me and go, ‘I’m not her and so I don’t think I can do this, because I’m so different from this other person.’ So I do think it’s important to not have a one-size-fits-all for success. I never thought, ‘Oh, I can be Stuart or I can be Peter.’ That allows you to be yourself and find your own way. Role models can be great, but we need enough of them so that people don’t think they have to be a single way.
AD: I like what Laura said a lot. I think the fact that there are a lot of female mentors. For example, I’m a little non-traditional in that after undergraduate I worked for two years in industry. And I remember waffling a lot about going back to graduate school. I was like ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ There was a lot of hesitation.
One of the reasons I liked the University of Michigan was that the department chair at the time was working really hard to bring a lot of women to the department. I think they were at like 20% representation at the faculty level, which as pretty high for a chemistry department. But that just meant being exposed to a lot of really fantastic women, like Laura said. But that’s not enough on its own.
As a graduate student, for example, I had my son at the end of my Ph.D. I was the only female grad student who was pregnant. Just having people to talk to about the experience was hard, which is maybe less true of other departments. Maybe? I don’t think so. Within chemistry, I was pretty isolated in that regard. But I had fantastic mentorship directly from Anna, who has a family as well, and so she was very supportive in making sure I had resources available.
At one point, after my son was born, the only room in place to pump or nurse was a bathroom. So the administration at the Life Sciences Institute actually set aside a pumping room for mothers, because HR was like, ‘this is unacceptable.’ So I think there’s a lot that needs to be done.
LK: I once went to a meeting at the National Science Foundation at they had these fishbowl offices! Who would think to design a building that way these days? There was no place that didn’t have a completely open view. There’s a lot of stories like that and I don’t think that’s a completely solved problem.
AD: It’s not and you can go on Twitter really easily and see women are still experiencing explicit bias against them. I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t experience that. Maybe there are some subtle undertones that come by, but as far as, ‘You’re a woman, you can’t do that,’ my personal experience is that I’m grateful I haven’t been exposed to that. But I know women that are told they can’t have families, that they need to choose between career and family. I like to think people like Laura and Anna helped change that culture and showing that you can do it.
LK: We need men to help do this too, right? Because I think that men that care about their families and care that their spouses have good careers are essential for all of us to actually have careers. Because if the expectation is that we are the support staff, it’s hard to be the support staff and your own courageous, scientific leader. It’s just a lot of pressure on women that try to fulfil those roles without sufficient support.
I would say that the one thing that we can do is look for a partner that is supportive of your career choices and your career aspirations. Because if you don’t have that, it’s really, really hard to hard succeed.
Dr. Dugan, do you feel that having a female mentor has improved/enhanced/helped your career?
AD: For sure. Absolutely. There are a ton of men inside and outside of science who are supportive of women, not to say that it doesn’t exist.
LK: Oh, it does. That’s what you gotta find.
AD: I think my development as a grad student and as a mother was – I don’t know how it would have turned out if I didn’t have Anna as my mentor. And I think that she is the way she is because she had gone through those experiences, and so she knew the hurdles were and she could help me with those because she had done it. And so similarly, with Laura, who has her own family, she understands who hard that is. So she offers me a lot of flexibility in my postdoc to be able to take days off when my son gets sick. Just little things that if I was in a different environment or with people who didn’t understand the challenges first-hand, that it would be very difficult to do what I’m doing.
LK: But I also don’t know if that’s a male/female thing. That might be mentor dependent. One thing that I think is great is that a lot of men are taking a much more active role in raising their kids. And that means male faculty are more understanding because they’ve been there and done that.
Implicit bias studies show that we women have the same level of implicit bias as our male coworkers. The only thing that we have is when you tell us that we have implicit bias and show us that it exists, we work hard to stop it, to mitigate it. And that’s all you can do.
AD: Culturally, at least in the U.S., and I’m no exception, women are raised to be demure. So speaking out – you have to do it in the right way, so you’re not perceived as being aggressive. I think having had two fantastic female mentors has taught me to push beyond that, and not feeling like I have to behave a certain way for my ideas to be valuable.
What work still needs to be done?
LK: There are so many things that need to be done on a lot of different levels. If other women can look around and see ‘oh, there’s lots of different models for being successful,’ then they can give it a shot and then we can have more and more diversity. That is really going to help science in general. We just need more numbers, right? The trend is really good, but we need to keep pushing. And I don’t just mean academia, I mean women in leadership positions in industry, in government – we don’t have a lot of that. I mean, industry is often worse than academia on that end.
I don’t what the answer is, but I think encouraging people to go for what they want in life is really important. And to say, ‘You can do this. Look at all these different people.’ So maybe giving these sorts of interviews where you can see all these people with really different ways of looking at the world or being in the world can help.
AD: I am encouraged by all the movements to increase diversity, especially on academic campuses. I don’t know how each campus is handling that, but I think an important partner to that is inclusion and support. It’s not enough to just bring women in, they have to feel like they’re part of the team. I think that’s something that’s very much in progress. People are trying to understand what that means, what they need to do, what they need to put that in place, for women, people from minority groups, for them to feel like they belong, that they’re in a place where they feel valuable and there’s a lot of trust.
ACS Material Letters Deputy Editor Bin Liu & Purnima Manghnani
Dr. Manghnani, tell us about yourself.
PM: I recently obtained my Ph.D. from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, National University of Singapore under the supervision of Professor Bin Liu. I am currently a Marie Curie research fellow at the Italian Institute of Technology, working on nanoparticle drug delivery platforms for neurodevelopmental disorders.
Dr. Manghnani, tell us how you came to work in this lab.
PM: I was lucky that Professor Liu had an opening in her lab at the time of my admission. Her research was gravitating strongly towards developing smart probes and nanoparticles for biomedical applications. With an unfulfilled ambition for medicine, I knew I could make a difference in her lab, so that I chose Prof Liu as my supervisor.
Professor Liu, what do you typically look for in candidates?
BL: I look for candidates with an open mind, reasonable creativity, good team spirit, the right attitude and sufficient presentation skills.
What are the ingredients of a good mentor/mentee relationship?
PM: First and foremost, the leadership quality of the mentor plays a very important role. The ability to lead through example is difficult and Professor Liu has it in her. Although her passion is hard to match up to, it is nevertheless, inspiring. Secondly, as a mentee, the ability to handle criticism is essential. Since a Ph.D. is basically a learning process, not all your work reflects on you as a scientist. It is important to stay objective and handle criticism with humility. Lastly and most importantly, an honest feedback loop between the mentor and mentee allows for mutual growth.
BL: It takes two hands to clap. It is important for me to walk the talk and show by example consistently. It is also helpful to have an open and dynamic discussion with my mentee at all times so that we learn from each other in this relationship.
What have you learned from each other?
PM: Professor Liu has instilled in me the ambition to be highly disciplined. I knew that I was disciplined to some extent before I joined science. But I was gobsmacked by Professor Liu’s work ethic. She also encouraged my interests outside the lab and did not question my commitment to my work. I was an active dancer throughout my PhD, and I think it helped me stay optimistic.
BL: I always enjoy interacting with my students. I especially love the moment when my students and staff teach me new knowledge. I recognize each member has a role to play in the team and it is important to respect their individuality and pursue a life outside of the lab. If they are happy, they will be able to create smart ideas and become more productive.
Professor Liu, what were some of the challenges you faced in your career as a woman in science? What challenges are there now for the younger generation?
BL: Science is a slow, laborious and high-risk career path. There is a high probability that you will not produce results that in any way are high impact early on in life. This, when faced with a woman’s biological clock, can impede the trajectory that you envisage when you start out. The challenge is not giving up on science particularly if you’re able to make a difference with the skill-set and training you acquired as a researcher. It is not necessary to stay in academia, but it is necessary to contribute to science.
I think a fine balance between people trained as engineers, inter-disciplinary scientists and fundamental scientists is needed to see through any translational project. Each training path poses its own challenges and the future generation needs to learn to collaborate to contribute meaningfully to science.
Dr. Manghnani, do you feel that having a female mentor has improved/enhanced/helped your career?
PM: I think having Professor Liu as a mentor has been fantastic and I am not sure if that has anything to do with her gender.
Dr. Manghnani, how are you paving the road for the future generation?
PM: I hope to transfer my knowledge and expertise to my juniors in lab so that I can, in my own small way, empower them and learn from them. Some of the greatest ideas have come from brainstorming with my juniors.
What work still needs to be done?
PM: We need to learn to work together in science without having glamour associated with the specific authorship in a scientific paper.
BL: Overall, there are lesser women in STEM globally. We need to generate their awareness and start the outreach from young, preferably at the primary or high school level.
Biochemistry Editor-in-Chief Alanna Schepartz & Susan Knox
Susan, tell us about how you came to work in Professor Schepartz’s lab.
SK: I first heard about Alanna’s research during an undergraduate Chemical Biology course taught by Dr. Danielle Guarracino (a Schepartz lab alumna!) at The College of New Jersey. I found the module on -peptide bundles fascinating. Learning that engineered -peptide bundles were kinetically and thermodynamically indistinguishable from natural -peptide bundle proteins demonstrated the power of chemical biology to me. As a first-year graduate student at Yale, I set up a meeting with Alanna before the school year started. Her enthusiasm for her lab members and their science was contagious.
Professor Schepartz, what do you typically look for in candidates?
AS: In graduate students, I look for lots of enthusiasm (like Susan’s!), a positive outlook, and strong communication skills. I look for these attributes in postdoctoral candidates, too, but I also look for individuals who are expert in an area that will help broaden everyone’s skill set – including my own!
What are the ingredients of a good mentor/mentee relationship?
AS: Mentorship is really about three things – support, advice, and setting the best example that you possibly can. The best mentors provide all three. All three of my mentors – Shelton Bank, Ronald Breslow, and Peter Dervan – fell into this category.
SK: I have had several opportunities to aid in grant writing or presentation preparation with Alanna. If she asks me to read through an application she has written, I always say yes. Alanna is really good at explaining complex ideas and assembling results into a cohesive story. It is important to lead by example, and participating in this editing process has taught me to be a better writer.
Susan, what have you learned from Professor Schepartz?
SK: During a graduate level chemical biology course, we analyzed journal articles each class. The class emphasized obtaining a better understanding of how to critique experimental setup and data. Alanna emphasized the importance of controls, both positive and negative. Over the semester I began to see missing pieces of data in the papers and have brought this mindset to my own research. Just yesterday I completed a preliminary key experiment and made sure to include both positive and negative controls.
Professor Schepartz, what have you learned from your mentees?
AS: Mostly I’ve learned how to stay out of their way. Or so I hope!
Professor Schepartz, what were some of the challenges you faced in your career as a woman in science?
AS: Time-management was tricky when my children were young. I benefited enormously from a dedicated co-parent and tons of family support, but it was still tough. I became super-duper-organized and learned to delegate very effectively. The inherent flexibility of an academic life and the fact that I did not have a “boss” in the traditional sense was a key element.
How are you paving the road for the next generation?
AS: My goal is to provide an environment that allows students to exceed their own expectations. That’s the best way I can pave the road for future generations of scientists and educators.
What work still needs to be done?
SK: One of my personal commitments is to mentor students interested in science. I was selected to participate in the NJ Governor’s STEM Scholar Program 2014-15, mentoring a small team of four students through STEM-focused conferences and research experiences. I designed an experiment for the program’s high school students, including writing a research proposal, requesting funding, purchasing chemicals, preparing informational materials, leading the experiment, and mentoring my students, three of whom were women. These women have gone on to study mathematics at Princeton University, business at Rutgers University, and computer science and business at NYU Stern.
Communicating science to a general audience is essential to the advancement of STEM. In 2014, I discussed my REU experiences at Boise State University with students from my own high school and led them in hands-on chemistry activities. It was rewarding to present to as an alumna (the school is an all-girls K-12 school), to show younger girls what opportunities exist in college for research. Expanding on this model, I founded the Connect Program for TCNJ students to share their research experiences and other exciting undergraduate opportunities in science at local high schools. I spoke with a fellow TCNJ student yesterday who informed me that students are continuing this outreach program five years later.
My contributions and leadership to TCNJ’s ACS Student Chapter and Gamma Sigma Epsilon (Vice President and President) demonstrate my commitment to inclusive participation and outreach. I created a mini-series at the ACS Student Chapter meetings where members of GSE discuss potential career opportunities in chemistry with freshmen, helping them plan a future path.
My commitment to outreach and service continues at Yale. I am a member of a volunteer group named Open Labs. In Fall 2016, I gave a talk during a Science Café event for middle and high school students, detailing the functions of various ingredients in toothpaste. It was rewarding to have students ask questions after my presentation, connecting recent news of compounds in toothpaste to their own health. I just finished a year and a half post as the Public Relations Chair for Open Labs. In this role, I worked with my subcommittee to write articles highlighting graduate student members of the organization and their passion for science; these spotlights were shared on our website for high school students and families to read. In addition, I collaborate with members of Open Labs to present demos to local New Haven schools. I helped organize and regularly present a demonstration on strawberry DNA extraction for elementary, middle, and high school students. I plan to continue my involvement with Open Labs throughout my graduate experience.
Showing students that science is exciting and accessible will enable them to believe they can be a scientist. It is important to be a mentor to others, sharing and encouraging both educational and professional opportunities, helping improve their writing, and providing advice on how to move forward in one’s career.
Chemical Research in Toxicology Editor-in-Chief Shana Sturla & Claudia Aloisi
Claudia Aloisi, tell us about yourself and how you came to work in Professor Sturla’s lab.
CA: So, I have a chemist background. I studied Chemistry in Italy and London, and then I started my Ph.D. degree with Shana Sturla three and a half years ago. And I am from Italy. I must say, I wasn’t looking for a female mentor – meaning that for me, and maybe it was my naivety, I didn’t even think that was an issue. I actually think in my education I hadn’t experienced that chemistry is traditionally more of a male-heavy subject. So I really reached out for Shana based on topic. I was very interested in her research! But now looking back, I think it was a really good choice to have a female mentor because it’s been really useful for my career, and just for getting more awareness from her about how to deal with career and personal life balance, and the challenges facing women in science – so that’s been really good!
Professor Sturla, what do you typically look for in candidates for your lab?
SS: Yes, so what I typically look for is that the candidates have a strong foundation in something that’s connected to the research that we do in the lab or the project that we’re searching for. Also, a motivation to work in an interdisciplinary way – because our research is very interdisciplinary the students have to really show that they’re motivated to make connections between different areas of science and that they really have a strong ability in communication so that they can make those connections. I also really look for people that are interested in the diverse science that’s going on in the lab – so not just that they’re in one particular project but they’re really interested in the breadth of the research that’s going on in the lab. And – I have a long list – a really really important thing is that they have the ambition to pursue a career that requires that they have a Ph.D. Finally, another thing I really look for is leadership potential. This one is a little bit harder to evaluate because there’s so many forms of leadership and it comes out in so many different ways, but this is something that’s important for me.
What are the ingredients of a good mentor/mentee relationship?
CA: For me, and this is coming from our own personal experience which is really positive, it’s open communication on anything – like how I’m feeling and scientific desire on what I want to learn. I think Professor Sturla and I also have good communication about decision-making. I don’t feel there is any hierarchy between us and this I think comes down to the good communication that we have.
SS: It’s interesting – Claudia and I decided to not talk to each other before this interview because we thought it would be more interesting. So I’m happy that Claudia pointed out this mutual decision-making. For me, I know that Claudia wants to do her best and is open to my mentoring – and she won’t always do everything I suggest, but she will listen to it and let me know that she agrees and knows when to say no. Also, she is normally so ambitious and open to taking on things, that when she does say no, I really respect that. Those answers kind of match right.
What do you feel you have both learned from each other?
CA: Shana is really fantastic in science, both in what she studies and in other things. She really knows a lot.
SS: That was going to be my answer!
SS: Yes, well a few things. One that I was going to point out is that there’s a lot of scientific information that I have learned from Claudia – so many things connected to her research, things that she’s discovered and also things that she has found from literature and really brought in to her research. So of course, a ton of scientific information. But I was also going to say that from her I’ve learned that even when things are really difficult, you can be really positive and enthusiastic.
Professor Sturla, what are some challenges you faced in your career as a woman in science?
SS: So when I was a very young student starting out as an undergraduate for my Bachelors, I definitely had trouble finding others to study with who were a good scientific match for me and with whom I wasn’t an outsider based on gender or social reasons. Then when I started as an Assistant Professor, the main challenge for me that I thought I could see had some gender bias, was when I started teaching. When I started, I did a lot of team teaching with older male colleagues and this made it difficult for me to really establish my authority or even to try anything new and creative that I wanted to bring into that forum, so that was a bit difficult.
What do you both feel are the challenges facing the younger generation of women in science?
SS: You know, I feel like it’s a lot of the same challenges that I faced are still there. I think maybe the intensity of these have changed, but in the nature of these, I don’t see a big difference.
CA: Right, right. I agree.
Claudia, do you feel that having a female mentor has enhanced your career?
CA: Yeah, because I think one of the major points to improve in society is to give support to women in science. I sometimes get discouraged and having Shana as a female mentor who has succeeded and that she has a great life and great career – so for me that is very encouraging. It’s somewhat subconscious. It’s not like I actively say “Oh because she’s a woman, this is great for me.” But subconsciously, she really gives me confidence.
How do you both feel that you are paving the road for the next generation of female scientists?
CA: I mean in my current position, I am not actively doing anything. However, I am of course encouraging my female coworkers and female students. But I think this I would do despite gender. Like if I have to encourage and be supportive, I would do that no matter what. I must say that also one way to pave the road is not giving up yourself and hanging in there, so when you have a higher position, then there you can be really active especially in mentorship. But this is, of course, all part of the plan.
SS: And Claudia, you’ve mentored students.
CA: Yes, and they were both female students. Maybe because I don’t have this bias in my mind, but I don’t think I’d behave differently – I think I just am very supportive.
Do you both feel there is work that needs to be done?
SS: Yeah, I think mentorship is really important and one thing that I’ve figured out is – Claudia’s pointed out that I’ve said this a lot before – I feel like often mentors are very busy, so that people should really consider putting together mentorship teams. It’s really important for academics to realize that different people can give others different aspects of mentorship throughout their careers. This is something that’s always a challenge in the lab. I mean we have a very large lab and I’m always trying to make sure that there’s some sort of support structure in place, so if people can’t find me all the time we have a way for people to have the mentorship that they need amongst their peers. It can be challenging because you know in a research lab there’s turnover and we tend to do things in an individualized way. So I feel like personally something I am always working on is that people have the mentorship support that they need even if it has to come from multiple angles.
I guess – and this is somewhat of an undeveloped thought and maybe a little bit more philosophical – I feel like there is a lot of dialogue about work-life balance and that people shouldn’t work too much. I see this right now, there’s a lot of this going on in the graduate student culture at ZTH, and I’m concerned that the tone kind of undermines a drive for leadership and excellence. I really feel like there needs to be a way to balance that yes, you can work really intensely and love what you do, but still be personally balanced. I think that the dialogue needs to be more around the wellness of the person. I look at someone like Claudia, who is very driven and is working on her confidence in the light of things, but she also has things that she personally enjoys. She’s healthy and exercises and really integrates wellness into her life and into being a scientist. She does this very harmoniously, instead of it being a conflict between “I have to work or I have to be with my family” where it’s two separate things. I feel like we’re missing that dialogue like, how can you be well and still really love your work and do it in a way that you excel while checking in with what your personal needs are and where your energy is.
CA: Yeah, I agree and maybe this is just cultural but sometimes this balance, rather than being harmonious is very sharp. It’s like you have work as one thing. Life as another thing. And I think then you perceive work as more of a burden, something that just has to be done and has nothing to do with life. However, for me, science is part of my life. They are entangled, and I think some people miss this and maybe this dialogue is missing that.
I also think that for me, continuing down this idea of support, recently there’s been discussions around failing experiments and the frustration of research. These discussions seem to be growing, but not quite enough to support people at the Ph.D. level. Especially, you know there is all this research around depression amongst Ph.D. students. I’m glad this has come up, but not enough to really support these challenging moments of your education. So I think more support around speaking up and sharing your feelings and frustrations, that this is all normal and we have all experienced that and it’s not the end of the world, this kind of support I think is missing.
Journal of Chemical and Engineering Data Editor-in-Chief Joan Brennecke & Caitlin Bentley
Caitlin, could you tell us a little about yourself?
CB: I’m a third-year graduate student working for Professor Joan Brennecke, and I’m also co-advised by Professor Nathaniel Lynd in the Chemical Engineering department, working on polymers. I got my undergraduate degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2016. And before this, I had done almost no academic research. I did the co-op/employment opportunities instead.
I worked for a consulting company named Robisys, in Ohio; I worked for Dow Corning, in Midland, Michigan; and then I worked for a start-up company in Rochester, New York, that’s working on making sustainable plastics.
Tell us about how you came to work in Professor Brennecke’s lab.
CB: To start with, all those internships, I didn’t really like them that much. And I was most interested in those peoples’ jobs who had higher degrees. So I made the decision to go to graduate school.
I then went through a whole graduate search process. Professor Brennecke was not a professor at the University of Texas yet, but I had fallen in love with the school, and I knew that they were doing great research here. So I decided to move down to Texas.
Then, in the first week of recruiting, Professor Brennecke came down from Indiana and gave her research presentation. I found the presentation really captivating. I could tell she was really interested in her research. And most of the research here was interesting to me, so it came down to who was really passionate about their work, and who would I have a good time working with and help me be excited about the work, too. So that’s what drew me to Professor Brennecke’s group.
We met a few times over Skype, and I was very happy with it, so I joined the group. She flew us out to Notre Dame in the middle of winter so we could meet the rest of the group, and that was really fun. And I’ve been working with her ever since.
JB: I’ve been here at Texas for a year and a half, but I was at Notre Dame for 28 years before that. I made the decision to move here to Texas, but it took about a year and a half.
CB: They were working on building the building that we’re in now, so she wouldn’t have had lab space if she moved earlier.
JB: Yes, I was waiting for this new building for my lab, so there was a year and a half when I knew I was leaving Notre Dame but I was still back at Notre Dame. But I decided to take graduate students here the year before I showed up. So that’s why Caitlin said at graduate recruiting time that I wasn’t even on the radar.
CB: I don’t think she was on the list of presentations or anything. And then she showed up, and there were three of us who were very interested.
JB: So I got three graduate students a whole year before I got here. These guys I really appreciated, because they went out on a limb, working for somebody who wasn’t even here yet.
I flew them up to South Bend in the middle of winter to meet the rest of the group, and they all froze their butts off. They were like, “we’re really glad we’re going to Texas!”
CB: One thing I wanted to say is that during that search time, there was a graduate student here working for Professor Benjamin Keitz, who as an undergrad worked in Professor Brenneke’s lab. So I talked to him, and that was really helpful in making the leap, since we didn’t get to work with Professor Brenneke that much before making the decision. We didn’t have Professor Brenneke for class, for example. My other advisor, I was in his class three times a week.
Professor Brenneke, what do you normally look for in terms of candidates for your lab?
JB: Well, first of all, everyone who comes here for graduate school is really fabulous and has tremendous qualifications. But what I really look for are people who are not afraid to take risks, who are willing to do things on their own, that are confident enough—or show they will become confident enough—to come up with their own ideas. And you can kind of tell that when talking to someone.
I don’t want to say I’m looking for a go-getter, because it’s not just that; it’s intellectual curiosity, an interest in understanding things and finding things out, showing that you have analytical thinking. If you want to find something out and don’t know how, knowing that you can go to other people here at UT, that someone else will have that capability. I used to call it the “oomph factor.”
For both of you, what do you think are the keys to a good mentorship relationship?
CB: I think the most important thing to know is that when I come into a meeting with my advisor, that I’m going to be heard and that we’re going to have productive discussions, and that we’re both excited about what’s going on. And I definitely feel like I have that here.
What I think is great is the advisor really being on the same page as the student—which is really hard when you have a large group. That’s something that I really appreciate about Professor Brenneke. As much as she can, she has one-on-one meetings with her students. You see her scribbling in her notebook: “these things have been accomplished, they’re going to do these things next week.” And I know when I come in next week and I tell her what I did, she knows. I don’t feel like I ever have to spend lots of time explaining. We’re just always on the same page.
When I need help, it’s easy to ask. I get direct guidance. It’s OK to say, “this isn’t working, and I need to move on, or try a different technique.” Those are the things that are most important to me.
JB: I do still like to have one-on-one meetings with all of my grad students. I try to do it every week. And even though the group has gotten a little big—we’re up to 14, 15 graduates, and if you count the undergrads, we’re over 20—I still want to meet one on one. I’m not comfortable with the hierarchical structure of having undergraduates meet with grad students. That’s just not something that’s me.
So I like to meet with the students every week, find out what they’re doing if they’re having difficulties, if the experiment’s not working, and sometimes I can actually help. Help with the direction, with the big picture. So I think that “constant contact” is really good.
The other thing that I really enjoy here is that my office is right next to the grad student office and right across from the labs. I never had that at Notre Dame.
At Notre Dame, first my labs were in the basement, and I was on the first floor. So the poor grad students would have to come up out of the dungeon. Then we moved the research labs to a new building, but my office didn’t move. So I was in a totally different building from where my research labs and graduate students were. So I would go over there and hang out for the morning.
I didn’t know if I would like this setup, but I actually love it. In the hallway, it’s completely glass, and I thought, oh my gosh, this is like a fishbowl … but I like it! I can see what’s going on. And I’m right here. It’s really interesting to see: some of the grad students stop in more frequently to ask little questions; others tend to wait for the “official” meeting. But I very much like the easy-access arrangement that I have here.
For both of you, what have you learned from each other?
CB: That’s hard to say in a short amount of space, and I’m definitely still learning. But like I said previously, I had almost zero academic research experience. My undergrad university did not have a graduate program, so we didn’t really have a research structure. It was an industry-focused school; that’s why we had the co-ops.
So one of the things I had to learn was, “how do I become independent?” The first year, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to do that. How do I design my own experiments so I’m not wasting time and going down wrong paths?
It took a bit of time, but with help from Professor Brenneke, my other groupmates, and my other advisor, I’ve been able to iron that out.
That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned, but there are numerous more. Like how to give a presentation, how to conduct yourself around professional people and at conferences, so you sound intelligent and are becoming expert in the material you’re working on. That’s hard to understand as a young researcher.
JB: For me, one of the biggest things from Caitlin is the fact that she’s jointly advised by Nate Lindt. I’m an ionic liquids person, so we develop ionic liquids for a variety of applications. But her job is to look at polymer ionic liquids phased behavior interactions, with the ultimate goal of encapsulating the ionic liquids in polymer shells, for a wide variety of applications.
I don’t know any polymers. So it’s really been wonderful because Caitlin’s been able to translate the whole polymer world for me. So I’m learning about polymer substances, and polymer properties through Caitlin. It’s really great.
I was just looking back on my whiteboard … in ionic liquids, we use all of our little abbreviations, which are totally intuitive to me … but all the little abbreviations for the polymers are not. So I have pictures of the polymers drawn on the top of the whiteboard, with “do not erase” written there. That’s part of my learning process.
Professor Brenneke, could you talk about some of the challenges you’ve faced as a woman in science?
JB: Things have changed a lot. I got my Ph.D. in 1989, and I started as a faculty member at Notre Dame that year. There were no females, not just in chemical engineering … there were no females in the college of engineering. There was another woman hired the same year, so we were the first two women in the college of engineering.
At that time, people—wonderful, good people—just weren’t used to working with women! So there were a lot of bumps along the road, with people saying and doing really stupid things. But they learned with time.
I can’t say that I’ve ever had really big obstacles. There was one. I was told, “well, Joan, you’re too aggressive.” I was like, “what do you mean?” Well, what they meant was “assertive.” What I said was, “you know, in the chemical engineering faculty here at Notre Dame, I barely make the middle. Look at the guys.” I had to point out to the department chair that he was using a different ruler to measure me than the male faculty members.
And I think that certainly happens. But it certainly happens less.
In my Ph.D., I had a very wonderful mentor who was very encouraging of his female grad students—and all his grad students. He’s a really great guy. He’s retired, now, and I just went and visited him in Florida a week ago.
So I had a lot of encouragement along the way. I tell people, for me, there were actually some advantages being female because there weren’t so many women faculty in chemical engineering back then. So people remembered me. People invited me for seminars, for plenary lectures at conferences. I think I had some real advantages at that point in being female because it was just so unusual.
There were little challenges. I’ve told the story of when I was an undergraduate here at UT, it was my last semester before I was going off to the University of Illinois, and a grad student invited me to a “grad student party.” There were some faculty there. This one faculty member who recognized me from class asked what I was doing. I explained that I was going off to graduate school. He asked why, and I said that I thought I might want to be a faculty member.
He literally said, “A female faculty member in chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin? Over my dead body.”
And frankly, he’s dead. It was so silly, so ridiculous, that I just ignored it. Though I obviously remembered it. That was certainly the attitude of many people at that time. But things have changed.
Caitlin, with the idea that things have changed, are there any challenges you have faced as a woman in science? What are the challenges for the younger generation?
CB: I would definitely say that a lot has changed, but we have more work to do. I didn’t face a lot personally. The chemical engineering team at my school was very woman-focused. I think half of our professors were female. My department was very good.
However, one of my friends came to me in tears one day because she was in electrical engineering, and she has a learning disability, and she went to go see one of her professors—who was a very old man—and he basically made the comment that “electrical engineering is for men, not women.” And this was only eight years ago.
I have never had anything that extreme. All of my bosses across all of the different co-ops I had never made any difference between me and a male co-op student, or any other employee.
Sometimes, it’s a feeling, and you’re not even sure if it’s a real thing. If somebody is not necessarily paying attention to everything you say, and you’re the knowledgeable one on a piece of equipment, and you don’t know if they’re abiding by every direction because they just don’t care, or because you’re a woman.
I don’t think I’ve experienced hardly any discrimination. It’s gotten way better, and I will say between the two groups, Professor Brenneke hires lots of women, and in Professor Lynd’s group, there are two males and six females. It’s kind of funny how the proportions are changing so much with women in science. And that comes from all of the promotion. There are all these various groups encouraging women from very early ages to get into science. Telling them, “it’s fine, there are plenty of us who are doing it. You should do what you want to do with your life.” It’s evident how well that’s working.
Caitlin, do you feel that having Professor Brenneke as a female mentor has improved your career?
CB: I think she makes a really good example. She made the comment that someone said she was aggressive/assertive. I think one, that’s not true, and two, it’s good to be assertive. I think seeing that Professor Brenneke is so successful and has made it so far is a really good role model. I have considered the idea of becoming a faculty member myself. Right now, that’s not where I’m leaning towards, but it’s just great to see an example of what you can do … that you can go out and take what you need … that you’re not going to be held back by anything.
JB: We Texans, we have a “we can do anything” spirit. I grew up and went to high school here in Texas, and truthfully, Texas, because it’s like, “oh, we can find oil and become incredibly rich,” there’s really this can-do attitude in Texas. It’s a good attitude.
For both of you, how do you feel that you’re paving the road for the future generation?
CB: I participated in a few different “recruiting of women to STEM careers” events, through a few of my co-ops. Also, UT does “Girl Day,” where they invite a whole bunch of girls to campus and get them excited about science. They do mathematical experiments and different activities, demonstrations in the forensic sciences.
When I was in Michigan, we had a day camp for girls; they came and did experiments all day. We had women from industry come and give talks, and also academia, so they could get an idea of what their options were. And these were 12-year-old girls—not even close to thinking about college. We were just telling them, “it’s OK to be in math and science club.”
I think the biggest thing we can do is get people excited. And that goes for everyone. So I like any of the “Explore UT” days, when young kids come in of any gender. Just to get everyone excited—because science and math is a really fun field.
JB: I’m the deputy director of a national science foundation engineering research center, and we have a young scholars foundation. We have high school kids come and do research over the summer. We had three people in the lab last summer; two of them were women. I think it’s good for them to see that there are female grad students, female faculty … this is just normal. It’s what we do as women.
What work still needs to be done?
JB: That’s a tough question.
CB: In the internships I worked in, there were female managers and females in charge of upper-level labs, but I think more of that is where we’re heading already. More women are getting into the field, more women are getting higher up in the field. So I think it’s as simple as saying, “keep going down the road we’re going on.” Get more people involved and just keep making it a positive space.
JB: When I started out, there tended to be more women who were hypersensitive to micro-inequities. My attitude was to ignore micro-inequities and to just forge forth. As I’ve always told people, “there’s no substitute for competence.” There’s no substitute for being really good at what you do. Some people will start to argue that women have to be better at what they do to be treated equally. But I think the disparity is getting less and less. In no circumstances is being really good at what you do a bad thing. So I think we just need to keep being really good at what we do—and not dwell on micro-inequities.
The Journal of Physical Chemistry A Deputy Editor Anne McCoy & Meredith Fore
Meredith, if you can start off by telling us a little bit about yourself?
MF: I’m from the suburbs of Chicago originally, majored in physics, minors in math. So, I decided to go to grad school for physics and that was a little less than four years ago—I’m in my fourth year of grad school. And I couldn’t really find a group in grad school; it took a while for me to find a place that I liked. And I heard about Anne from a fellow grad student in the chemistry department, and he said “I think you’d like her. She does a lot of physics.” So, we talked, and I really liked what she did, and I decided to come to the chemistry department.
AM: And Meredith learned that molecules have colors. Black means carbon and all sorts of these things. And white means hydrogen. I learned that “hydrogen bonding” does not just mean a bond with a hydrogen in it. I didn’t know that before.
It was actually really good for the group to have someone who had a lot of sophistication but just didn’t have the language, as opposed to a freshman who has a lot of the language but doesn’t know the ideas.
Professor McCoy, if you can talk about what you typically seek out in terms of candidates for your lab?
AM: I like people who like physics. I’m a theorist. You’ve got to be willing to work with computers and want to try to make the computer sing at some level. And people who are curious and want to understand and want to ask why. I tell my students I want them to be the world’s most obnoxious toddlers and just keep on asking “Why? Why? Why?” A lot of what we do, there’s a lot of computation, there’s a lot of theory, but a lot of it is just trying to say how can we develop models to be able to understand and interpret what’s being seen both in terms of bigger scale but also in terms of what’s being measured in our experimental colleagues’ labs. And I gave Meredith the hardest system we’ve been working on, which is protonated methane, which behaves like no other molecule. But I decided that as a physicist who has no preconceptions of what molecules should do, she won’t be hindered by those challenges. Other challenges, but not that—the challenge of having expectations. Meredith had one semester of Gen. Chem., I think?
AM: Which is unusual. Usually, I’ve had a lot of chemistry students but they have had a lot more chemistry than Meredith came in with. So, that was a good experience for both of us.
How was that process for you, Meredith?
MF: It’s been fun, actually, because we’re all talking about the same stuff. We’re talking about the way it functions, we’re talking about potential energy, interactions, and perturbations. It’s all the same. It’s just in a different language, it’s using a different perspective. It’s like learning a different language, a foreign language. I honestly found it really satisfying.
What do you feel the good ingredients are for your mentorship and your mentor/mentee relationship?
AM: I’m pretty hands-on; I think Meredith would agree. Our office space is very combined, so I think a lot of it just having the lines of communication. I would prefer for a student to come to me and say, “I don’t get it,” and be able to try to work it out at some point rather than be afraid to ask. That’s really the big one. And just being able to develop the relationship.
MF: I would definitely second the communication aspect. In any good relationship, you need solid communication. And I think on the mentee’s part, just not being afraid to ask for what you need. It also comes with figuring out what you need first! Once you know what you need, it’s not being afraid to say, “This is me. This is what I want. How we can make this work?”
AM: And when you’ve got a group of five or six people, trying to figure out all the different needs of all the different people. I tend to run a small-ish group, but even in a small-ish group, everyone’s a little different, everyone’s unique and uniquely special—in all the dimensions of that word.
What have you learned from each other?
MF: I feel like the biggest thing I’ve learned was when I decided not to continue with my studies. It was a very hard decision. Anne helped me a lot with it, just in learning that what you want is not good for you. Sometimes the thing you think you wanted, it may not be that, and that’s ok. You can have strengths that aren’t oriented to what you want and maybe it’s better to go toward what your strengths actually are. Maybe that’s healthier and better.
AM: Going along those same lines, I’ve had students over the years who struggled and—interests change, interests evolve. And Meredith has really great skills and passion for the scientific communication side and great skills on all dimensions. In terms of Meredith’s physics and math background and computing, she’s top of the group, but that’s not where… Being able to watch—and learn how to watch—and see where a student is gaining the passion and being able to say it’s ok to initiate some of the harder conversations. To say we really need to figure out what’s best for everyone. And sometimes what’s best for everyone is not powering through. I’ve seen several students power through, for various reasons, and sometimes it can work, but sometimes it gets pretty frustrating toward the end.
I had a recent student who did a great job, but after she graduated, she decided that what she wanted to do was be a middle school teacher, and I feel great about our relationship and everything else, but I feel and she was the one who wanted to push through to the end. But I’m like, is the Ph.D. in chemistry helping her be a middle school math teacher. It’s interesting. I don’t think she regrets doing it; she’s the daughter of two Ph.D. chemists who are academics. I think she felt she needed to do it. You know, you watch different things and say at what point does it make sense to take the road that’s not necessarily the most direct one or the obvious, easy path forward?
Meredith, could you talk a little bit about what led you to that scientific communication path?
MF: Yes! Absolutely. I know it’s a little clichéd, but I actually always wanted to be a writer, when I was a kid. And I planned on it up until my junior year in high school when I took physics. I just kind of fell in love with it, couldn’t let it go. So, I decided to take AP physics. I went to undergrad and majored in physics. I took a science journalism class my freshman year, which kind of turned me off of science journalism because I was the only scientist and the other people were all journalism majors just trying to fill an elective slot. So I said, “Oh, I guess science journalism isn’t for me because my passion is really the science and the writing equally. I really, really care about the science. I did end up writing a little bit for the mechanical engineering department. I decided to go to grad school to just be a physicist. And then, as a grad student, actually—one of the reasons that I really don’t regret doing this Ph.D. program is that every opportunity in science communication that I’ve had has come because of being a science grad student, my version of being a physics grad student. So I took a science communication class, where I ended up on the board of a graduate student science communication organization, which brought me to a conference for the American Academy for the Advancement of Science.
AM: So she went to the AAAS meeting representing the science communication side.
MF: Right. And then I made connections which led me to an online group, which led me to my first freelance opportunities, where I started actually writing about science for publications. And I found that that’s what I really, really love.
Can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges you faced in your career as a woman of science?
AM: Starting in high school physics, the number of times that I was one of 5% of the class that wasn’t guys went all the way through school. I think the thing that was always hardest for me (and I was saying this to the graduate students this afternoon) is that people say stupid things, hurtful things, that they don’t realize how they’re going to come across and why they might be hurtful. Or things happen, and is the thing that happened because people are just saying stupid things because scientists are not always the most socially aware of their effect on others, or is it because of my gender? And I made the decision early on to make the assumption that it’s just people being people and you don’t want to trace things back to gender more than it needs to be. There have been things that have come up that have probably been opportunities because of my gender. There are things that probably have gotten in the way. Or things that I didn’t have access to for one reason or another. But overall, I’m not sure how much my gender has impacted my professional career one way or the other. You want to be supportive of everyone. You want to do what you need to do. You can draw lines on that, but I’ve tried to be aware but not pin things to it because as soon as you, you just get pissed off. And that’s not necessarily healthy.
What challenges have you faced, Meredith?
AM: Meredith has seen some things.
MF: Looking at the big picture, we’ve gone from women not being allowed in science to women being allowed in science but being constantly belittled and denied opportunities to being like, ‘maybe we should allow more women in science—maybe we should encourage more women to be in science.’ And I feel like my generation is at the point where we’re actually trying to change the culture, which is probably the hardest step, I think. I’m part of my department’s diversity committee, so I’ve been on the front lines of some stuff that we’ve been trying to do, and it’s definitely the cultural aspect that we’re trying to change. You can see that with the Me, too movement, in that, maybe 20% of the problem is sexual harassment and 80% of the problem is the fact that people let it go on and don’t talk about it and don’t punish anybody for it. That sort of culture is the next step that my generation is trying to change.
AM: Some of the inclusion stuff, really, benefits everyone. It’s not just the women, it’s really everyone: male, female, majority, minority, whatever. A lot of the culture changing at this institution, chemistry in particular, it’s very sensitive and it does a good job of paying attention to a lot of these issues. Stuff happens, people say stupid things and do stupid things.
MF: It is a slow, hard slog, but it’s worth it.
Meredith, do you feel that having a female mentor has improved or enhanced your career?
MF: I think so. It’s cool to be able to relate to my mentor about being the only woman in physics or math class. But a lot of the qualities that I appreciate in Anne are not gender specific. I’d say it’s the ability to relate and to see a successful woman in science every day. Yes, it’s helped.
Meredith, in regard to your being on the diversity board on your campus, how else do you feel that you’re maybe paving the road for the future generation?
MF: There are two ways to answer that question: How am I personally? And how are my peers/cohorts paving the way? I’ve felt that there’s a lot of group support and engagement and motivation and organization to push for change and that’s shown itself in a multitude of different ways. We’ve just started an organization called PIE, Physicist for Inclusion and Equity, and that’s been met with a lot of enthusiasm from the grad students. And since I’ve joined the diversity committee, we’ve started instituting open diversity committee meetings, where anyone from the department can come and hear what we’re talking about or propose things to talk about, and those are super-well attended. Pushing for inclusion, openness, transparency is something that we, as a generation, are really good at doing.
What work do you feel still needs to be done?
MF: I feel that the last huge lift step is cultural change. You know, where somebody (not naming any names) is very abrasive and condescending to people who are not of his level and, when you complain about it, the response from up high is, “oh, that’s just the way he is.” Literally, in those words. That is what we are trying to change. That is the next step. We expect better of the members of our institution and of our community. That there’s a gross majority who can say that’s not okay and shut that down. We’re not there yet, but that is what’s missing.
Anne: There’s always more to be done. The fact that the conversations are happening; the fact that Meredith’s generation is holding the older generations accountable… In the chemistry department, we’ve hired a lot of younger folks, and once you get that generational transition, it makes a difference in terms of understanding what’s going on, having the students be empowered and able to speak up. It’s sad, you feel like we should be much further along, but everything’s slow, and then you take this great leap. You see this culturally and in so many different things. I think we’re at a time when everyone is ready to listen and, hopefully, maybe we can make one of those great leaps forward in the next few years. I feel like we’re on the cusp of that.
The Journal of Physical Chemistry C Deputy Editor Cathy Murphy & Ariane Vartanian
Dr. Vartanian, tell us about yourself.
I graduated in 2016 with my Ph.D. from Cathy’s lab. I was co-advised. I’ve been an editor at Nature Communications for almost three years.
Dr. Vartanian, tell us how you came to work in this lab.
I was a TA for Cathy’s class my first year of grad school, so we’d developed a rapport and I trusted her advice. When I was debating lab choices, I asked her to chat and we found ourselves talking about potential projects over lunch. I was really interested in her science and knew she’d be a great mentor as well.
Professor Murphy, what do you typically look for in candidates?
CM: Assuming you mean first-year graduate students, I look for “sparkle”. Does the student have that curiosity and passion for the kind of science that we do? We can always teach students techniques and facts, but if they aren’t enthusiastic about the science per se, then it is just a lot more effort to achieve success.
What are the ingredients of a good mentor/mentee relationship?
CM: Trust. Do I trust this person’s work? If I ask my mentee to do something specific, can I be sure that they will do it correctly and on time? For the mentee, she should feel like she trusts me to be an expert in our science, know the bigger picture, work hard on behalf of the lab for funding, etc. Another ingredient for a good working relationship is comfort. Do I feel comfortable talking with this person? Does she feel comfortable telling me things I might wish were not the case (e.g., this entire project is not working…I broke the microscope…etc.)? I suppose these two ingredients are tied together.
AV: I agree with those. And this is related to trust and comfort, but I’ll add honesty – I want my mentor to hold me accountable if I’m not producing up to my expectations or capabilities, and give me straight feedback. The mentor should have a sense of how far someone can be pushed, because that also gives the mentee confidence in the future (wow, I really can handle xyz). The mentee should also feel like she can be honest if the mentoring style isn’t really working for her (within reason), etc. It’s an evolving relationship.
What have you learned from each other?
CM: Ariane’s work in the lab led us to understand a lot more about the behavior of our systems. I also learned from her some great ideas about how to present one’s data – her group meeting presentations were always excellent and had way better graphics than I could do myself.
AV: Cathy really allows students to develop their own ideas and take ownership of their projects, so I learned to have confidence in my scientific thoughts and proposed solutions. That was a huge step towards doing independent research and now in my editorial career (in which I have to make decisions all the time).
Professor Murphy, what were some of the challenges you faced in your career as a woman in science? What challenges are there now for the younger generation?
CM: It’s always a challenge to balance work life and home life. I started doing undergraduate research as a freshman in college, after which I started dating the guy I later married. We are still married now, 36 years after our first date, and ever since we have been together he knows I will say, “Sorry, I can’t have fun with you now because I have to go to the lab.” Not many women have that luxury of a caring spouse who will do things like clean the house/do airport drop-offs/arrange for home repairs, spontaneously!
The younger generation will face this work/life balance issue even more, with social media and email telling us scientists every minute that papers have just come out about X, you had better tweet your results now, you should be constantly innovating, you should be constantly adding value to your organization.
Do you feel that having a female mentor has improved/enhanced/helped your career?
AV: Sure. Of course, I absolutely think one can have both great female and male mentors. What I really enjoyed about having a female mentor was that while Cathy was always very forthcoming and frank about the challenges women in science might face, she never made them sound like massive obstacles, which can be discouraging. The best thing is that she walks the walk and lives a life I think many women in science hope to have – it’s great to see someone in her position and status still (seeming to at least!) having fun and enjoying her life in and out of the lab.
Dr. Vartanian, how are you paving the road for the future generation?
As an editor, I have a fairly visible role within my scientific community – I interact daily with scientists at all stages of their career, go to conferences, give career talks, visit labs, etc. I think having women in visible, well-regarded roles – who are good at what they do and are confident in that – is important for the next generation. I (and other editors) also make an effort to promote other women (and diversity) in science by being conscious of whom we invite for commissioned content, reviewing manuscripts, and so forth.
What work still needs to be done?
CM: Approximately 40% of the chemistry PhDs awarded in the U.S. now go to women. This is great. But somehow we don’t hear about all the great work these women are doing 5 years, 10 years, 20 years later. To assure a vibrant future for science, the scientific community needs to be communicating to the general public with stories, data, new discoveries from a wide variety of scientists who do all kinds of work. The “sparkle for science” could be in anyone, and we want to make sure we nurture that spark, even for people who have no local way to participate in science at the moment.
AV: I recently attended a conference where there seemed to be a much higher representation of female professors than other conferences/fields I’ve been to (Cathy was one of them). I mentioned this observation to one of the other female PIs and she said, “well, you know, Cathy was a huge part of building the female community in this field – we help each other out.” I realized how important it is to have representation and active mentorship for building more diversity in science. There are still many fields in chemistry where this just isn’t the case yet.
Molecular Pharmaceutics Editor-in-Chief Lynne S. Taylor & Dana Moseson
Dana Moseson, tell us about yourself.
DM: I am a third-year graduate student working with Professor Lynne Taylor. Prior to coming to graduate school, I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for a decade and had two children, Henry (now 6) and Audrey (now 4). My research focuses on how critical quality attributes of amorphous solid dispersions impact product performance. Amorphous solid dispersions are a formulation strategy used to improve the oral delivery of poorly water-soluble drugs. The physical chemistry and processing of these systems is extremely complex, yet essential to understand in order to produce safe and efficacious products for patient.
Dana Moseson, tell us how you came to work in this lab.
DM: I joined Purdue’s Industrial and Physical Pharmacy department in the Fall of 2016. Having established a career in solid dose formulation and manufacturing, joining Professor Taylor’s lab was an obvious choice. She is incredibly dedicated to her graduate students, providing excellent scientific guidance while allowing me to develop my own research questions, ideas, and experimental design.
Professor Taylor, what do you typically look for in candidates?
LT: I look for enthusiasm and passion for research as well as persistence. Given the ups and downs of research, I feel that these qualities are important contributors to success in graduate school. Having a cohesive research group and participating in collaborative research are also key, so graduate students should be able to interact well with other people.
What are the ingredients of a good mentor/mentee relationship?
LT: Perhaps somewhat obvious, but it is critical to invest enough time in building the relationship. Being able to find common ground in personal and professional endeavors aids in developing connectivity between the mentor and mentee. Overcoming reluctance to talk about feelings may be difficult, since this may make you feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. But ultimately, this is important to do since these discussions enable the development of effective strategies to overcome problems that may be hindering research. This is especially true when these are non-scientific issues such as stress. A mentor brings experience, while a mentee has a fresh perspective and can often have out of the box ideas; this can be extremely synergistic.
What have you learned from each other?
LT: Dana is very optimistic. She has taught me the benefits of maintaining a positive outlook toward challenging situations and diving into seemingly long-shot opportunities which can lead to beneficial outcomes. She is also incredibly well organized and always has a backup plan.
DM: She gives me perspective. I can get too focused on details, and she helps me to see the big picture. She is also amazing at synthesizing disparate pieces of information and translating them into actionable ideas, which I can only hope to emulate!
What were some of the challenges you faced in your career as a woman in science? What challenges are there now for the younger generation?
LT: While I have had some fantastic mentors and role models, they have all been men. So there were some aspects of professional life that it was hard to get meaningful advice on. I was the first woman ever hired by my department, and I had two children during my tenure period. I felt a lot of pressure during this time to be a successful researcher and to not let my family responsibilities appear to be impacting my productivity. It took a few years to get work-life balance in perspective.
The younger generation faces many of the same issues of work-life balance, especially when they are caregivers. Leave policies and flexibility of working hours are slowly improving, but improvements in these aspects are paramount to ensuring the success of the younger generation in the workplace.
Dana Moseson, do you feel that having a female mentor has improved/enhanced/helped your career?
DM: Yes! She has been there to support me through personal and professional challenges, with her insight having been through many of the same experiences. We have similar personalities, and her perspectives as a parent are beneficial in helping me set goals. I can learn from the specific challenges she has faced, so that I am more prepared when I encounter them in my career.
Dana Moseson, how are you paving the road for the future generation?
DM: As an undergraduate, I had mentorship opportunities that helped guide my career path and ultimate choice to attend graduate school. I enjoy the mentorship process as well and want to provide that same opportunity to others. I am currently overseeing the work of one undergraduate student and will be taking on a second student this summer.
What work still needs to be done?
LT: There is definitely a need for more female role models in positions of varying seniority within workplaces and professional organizations. It would also be nice to see a greater number of females receiving professional recognition, such as scientific awards. There is clearly a need for more parity in both the management and division of domestic tasks so females get sufficient bandwidth to focus on their professional lives to the same extent as their male counterparts. Some women still feel compelled to take a backseat to partner’s career to the detriment of their own career – societal perceptions need to change about the relative importance of male versus female careers.
The interviews were lightly edited for clarity and style.