As the world grows more complex, the demand for qualified scholars in the science-technology-engineering-mathematics (STEM) profession is on the rise. A robust selection of ideas is essential for scientific development. This necessitates that diverse backgrounds and perspectives are represented in research. Although some progression toward achieving parity has been realized, women scientists continue to encounter obstacles in their careers, from unconscious gender bias to lack of professional mentors. In a recent Materials Research Society (MRS) webinar series titled “Walking the Walk—Intersections of Underrepresentation (Part II),” Anamika Prasad (Florida International University) and Rebecca Anthony (Michigan State University) from MRS hosted a distinguished panel of women scientists:

  • Valeria Bragaglia, a research scientist at IBM Research Europe–Zurich (ZRL)

  • Shan Hu, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State University

  • Dhriti Nepal, a research materials engineer at the US Air Force Research Laboratory

  • Mihri Ozkan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Riverside (UCR)

The panelists shared their unique career paths in materials research and explored if and how unconscious bias and underrepresentation impacted their choices and career progressions. Ozkan led the discussion by reflecting on her past experiences, including being the only female student in her graduate classes. This experience reverberated to her faculty position at UCR, where her research group focuses on Li-ion batteries for advancing electric vehicles. At UCR, Ozkan is the first female faculty to receive tenure in the College of Engineering, the first and currently only female faculty in engineering with a Step VI professorship status, and the first female engineering faculty to become a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. While the need for more women in academia remains, Ozkan highlighted the goal of the 2022 International Women’s Day to celebrate “Breaking the Bias: Gender Equality.” The aim was to challenge all of us to act and level the playing field across genders.

Bragaglia, a leader in the technical advancements of resistive random-access memory activity for neuromorphic computing at IBM’s ZRL, addressed two pertinent elements for success in the sciences: mentorship and a support system. She revealed that during her graduate studies, her PhD advisor acted as a significant mentor and role model for her. She recalled being impressed by her advisor’s charm, erudition, grounded qualities, and the degree to which her colleagues and students highly respected her. Bragaglia, now a permanent scientist at IBM, shared that over 45 nationalities are represented at the ZRL campus. There, she serves as a mentor for young scholars and professionals interested in pursuing a similar career path as her own. From this experience, “we are reminded of the significance of not only seeing distinguished women in the sciences but also forming a community that supports each other in our diversity,” says Bragaglia.

Hu was also influenced by her mentors and role models. Although initially encouraged to practice medicine, she instead pursued a mechanical engineering degree. Of the 100 students in her program, she was one of only five female students. A few years later, after completing her graduate studies, Hu was faced with the decision of whether to pursue a career in industry or academia. Hu’s advisor believed she was an excellent choice for academia, commending her excellent and innovative work. “He was prouder of me than I was,” she says. Here, Hu emphasized the importance of guidance and mentorship. Influenced by her advisor and several successful female students in her PhD program, Hu is now an associate professor at Iowa State University. Her research focuses on nanomaterials for energy storage and conversion.

Nepal, a research materials engineer whose work is focused on next-generation nanocomposites, echoed these sentiments. She further elaborated on the importance of attaining the “right” mentors, both male and female, building the “right” support system, both professionally and personally, along with securing opportunities. She commended her workplace, saying, “Women in science and engineering are crucial for filling leadership gaps, and the Air Force works very hard to recruit the best people, and provide them with the right guidance, promotions, and mentorships. The key to promoting and establishing inclusion and diversity in the workplace is also to have strong leadership and vision from a higher organizational level.”

In each of these stories, the accomplishments and lessons shared by the panelists were inspiring and worth hearing. These efforts are vital to ensuring that women are able to reach their full potential in these fields. We hope their stories will inspire other women to pursue careers in the sciences. By raising awareness, we can work to create a more inclusive environment in STEM fields and ensure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the advancement in materials research.