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Helping women in chemical engineering navigate academic careers

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Helping women in chemical engineering navigate academic careers

On a blustery day at MIT, 22 female graduate students and postdocs from around the country converged to gain insight into the world of chemical engineering academia. Nominated by department heads and professors in leading chemical engineering departments around the country, they represented the top early-career women in their field.
The Rising Stars in Chemical Engineering program was based on other successful Rising Stars programs in the School of Engineering and the School of Science, and for two days, participants networked, presented research, and learned best practices to become successful professors of chemical engineering.
“The ChemE Rising Stars program was very helpful for me as someone looking to become a successful professor in the field of chemical engineering,” said attendee Molly Kozminsky, currently a postdoc at the University of California at Berkeley. “The program addressed the multiple components of the interview process and was particularly helpful in demystifying the chalk talk.”
“The program also addressed steps we can take as young faculty members to set ourselves up for success,” Kozminsky said, adding that it was “incredibly positive and supportive, and it increased my confidence in my ability to succeed on the academic job market.”
Karen Gleason, the Alexander and I. Michael Kasser (1960) Professor at MIT and head of the workshop’s steering committee, said the goal of the Rising Stars in Chemical Engineering program is to “bring together the next generation of leaders in the field and help prepare them for careers in academia.”
“We aim to help strengthen the academic pipeline for women in chemical engineering, and provide opportunities for them to develop their own network of peers as they decide their own next steps,” Gleason said.
During the two-day event, participants attended workshops, met individually with MIT faculty, presented their own research with feedback, and learned strategies for job searching, building a career, balancing family and research, and thriving as a chemical engineering professor.
Professor Malancha Gupta SM ’05 PhD ’07, one of the speakers during the workshop, was impressed by the caliber of the cohort.
“The attendees were very talented and ambitious,” she recalled. “The networking lunches and dinners were full of fantastic conversations about ways to make a more inclusive chemical engineering community. I am confident that the attendees will become successful leaders in academia, industry, and national labs. I look forward to crossing paths with them in the future.”
Maggie Qi, another attendee and current postdoc at Harvard University, said the personal stories the female professors shared were are a condensed version of “what you could get from a female mentor over one or two years. How to keep work-life balance, how to plan maternity leave, etc., specifically as a chemical engineering professor, are things that you can rarely learn in many other schools’ departments when very few people know the answer.”
An important point that many speakers touched on was overcoming self-doubt.
“The advice that Karen Gleason and Paula Hammond gave, that ‘women tend to preselect and stop themselves from applying,” Qi said. “Do not preselect yourself,’ is something that I will always remember. This offers me a lot of confidence to apply to schools that I’m interested in in the future.”
Fellow attendee Amber Hubbard, a graduate student at North Carolina State University, agreed that it was enlightening for speakers to emphasize “that no candidate should limit their own opportunities.”
“In other words, as you begin the search for faculty positions, the universities to which you apply are going to critique you and your research, but there is no need to do some of this work for them, ” Hubbard said. “Include yourself in the conversation and don’t limit which positions you apply for based on your own perceptions and insecurities.”
During the workshop, the group was broken down into smaller units, where each attendee presented a short lecture on her own research, called a “chalk talk,” to MIT faculty members. Each presentation was followed by immediate feedback and recommendations.
“Being able to give a brief presentation about my research to faculty and other Rising Stars helped me think about my research in the context of presenting to a broader academic audience and about how I plan to develop projects for the future,” Kozminky said.
Attendees said the tone of the first Rising Stars in Chemical Engineering workshop was not only educational, but also hopeful.
“As was mentioned throughout the program, and particularly by Dr. Karen Gleason, I do believe that the academic opportunities for women in engineering have greatly improved over the years,” Hubbard recounted. “It was wonderful having the chance to talk to such inspiring professors not only about the opportunities for women in engineering but also about the state of engineering and STEM fields in our society as a whole. These professors provided so much wisdom, advice, and encouragement about the future of our field and the potential each one of us has to make a lasting impression wherever we end up in our careers. I certainly walked away from this experience excited and inspired about both chemical engineering and academia.”
In addition to Gleason, the event’s steering committee included Klavs F. Jensen, the Warren K. Lewis Professor of Chemical Engineering and former department head, and Paula T. Hammond, the David H. Koch (1962) Professor of Engineering and head of the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering.

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