In honor of Women’s History Month, we recently had the opportunity to ask a few of our female professors about life as a woman in chemistry. Hear what Dr. Lihua Jin, Dr. Wendy Wolbach, and Dr. Caitlin Karver had to say about their experiences as female chemists and what advice they have to offer other young women pursuing a degree or career in chemistry.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman in chemistry? If so, how did you overcome them?
Lihua Jin: My biggest challenge is balancing work and family life. I accept the fact that I have to work more hours and that I don’t have the luxury to devote as much time as I’d have liked to my family. But there is a positive side to being a working woman in the sciences. I am better able to advise my children in school related matters as well as in their career pursuit. I also got to have a career in a field that I absolutely love and wouldn’t exchange for anything else.
Wendy Wolbach: I have experienced many sexist comments as an undergraduate and especially in graduate school, including from my research advisor. I was never bothered by them and generally ignored them. But I did have one professor in graduate school who stated frequently and publicly that he refused to give any female student an A in his class. I needed to take the class to graduate, so I took that as a challenge and I practically killed myself to earn the highest possible grade (exams, research paper). And to his credit, he acknowledged the work and gave me his first A ever to a woman, much to the surprise of his fellow professors. He then went on to publish my research paper (a review article) as his own, but that’s another story!
How have other women in chemistry and/or STEM influenced and inspired you?
WW: Unfortunately no — there were no female chemistry faculty in any of the schools I attended in the 1980’s.
Caitlin Karver: My biggest inspiration/role model is my PhD advisor, Amy Barrios. She had two children during her pre-tenure years and a third after tenure. She taught me that it is possible to do great things with your scientific career and have a family.
What advice do you have for young female chemists/our female students?
LJ: Aim high. Believe in your ability to learn, grow and accomplish. Seek out a female mentor who believes in you, encourages you and helps you to grow and flourish.
WW: Given that more than half of our students are female, graduate school classes accept many women, and there are now many female graduate school faculty, I’m not sure that my advice to women would be any different from that given to men. If there are issues related to relationships and family for which female students in particular would want advice, I am not one to offer it, since with no kids I never had to make such choices.
CK: A piece of advice for younger female scientists: finding a female scientist/chemist you look up to and see as a mentor is instrumental in your success. Whether we like it or not, it is still imbalanced in science, particularly in academia and having someone you can ask for advice is extremely helpful. I have been lucky to be surrounded by successful female chemists at every stage of my career, especially here at DePaul.
I think the worst piece of advice I ever received was to take off your wedding ring or engagement ring at an interview so that your interviewers won’t think you might be thinking of having children at some point. My advice is to be who you are and you don’t want to work there if they are concerned that you might have children some day!