In conversation with successful women in chemistry

One aspect of International Women’s Day is the celebration of successful women in all walks of life. Sharing women’s stories and experiences of success can inspire others to follow in their footsteps — and remind us that we are all capable of success given fair opportunities.

For this International Women’s Day interview focused on successful women in chemistry, Alica May of the Reaxys PhD Prize organizing committee met with Professor Cristina Nevado of the University of Zürich, Professor Li-Zhu Wu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Professor Yan-Mei Li of Tsinghua University of Beijing. The professors share their experiences, advice and perspectives in this candid interview.

Professor Cristina Nevado of the University of Zürich started her independent research career in 2007. She has developed a research program focused on complex chemical synthesis and new organometallic reactions. For her contributions to synthetic organic chemistry, she has since received the Chemical Society Reviews Emerging Investigator Award, the Thieme Chemistry Journal Award, the ERC Junior Investigator Grant and the Werner Prize of the Swiss Chemical Society. She is the Senior Associate Editor for ACS Central Science and Organic Syntheses. Since 2017, she has been an active member of the Reaxys Advisory Board, which oversees the Reaxys PhD Prize.

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Professor Li-Zhu Wu is the Director of the Supramolecular Photochemistry Laboratory at the Technical Institute of Physics and Chemistry of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Her role as a research leader began in 1998, where she has focused primarily on photochemical conversion, including artificial photosynthesis, visible light catalysis for efficient organic transformation, and photoinduced chemical reactions in supramolecular systems. She has been recognized with numerous awards and grants, including the New Century Talents Project award, two Young Women Scientists of China awards, the Physical Organic Chemistry Award of China, the Outstanding Graduate Teacher Award and the Chinese Chemical Society-Evonik Chemical Innovation Award. She is the newest member of the Reaxys Advisory Board, having joined in January 2019.

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Professor Yan-Mei Li of Tsinghua University in Beijing is focused on bioorganic chemistry, especially synthesis of peptide and protein small molecule inhibitors. She has worked as a lecturer and researcher at Tsinghua University since 1992. She serves as the General Secretary of the Female Chemists Association in the Chinese Chemical Society. She is also the Associate Editor for The Journal of Organic Chemistry. She became familiar with the Reaxys PhD Prize as a guest speaker at the 2017 Symposium in Shanghai and is a keen supporter of the award.

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You’ve all achieved considerable success in chemistry in your various roles as researchers, educators, editors and mentors. What do you attribute this success to?

Professor Cristina Nevado: I believe success comes when you can connect your passion with your profession. That combination of an open and curious mind, perseverance and just a little hint of different thinking are key ingredients to a happy scientific life. And of course, a network of scientists and friends with supportive attitudes. I’m fortunate to have that combination and to really enjoy what I do.

Professor Yan-Mei Li: I’d have to agree. My deep interest in chemistry, especially bioorganic chemistry, kept driving me forward and helped me get where I am today.

Professor Li-Zhu Wu: I think there is also an element of luck too. I could say that I’m lucky because I got accepted to the projects I applied to, which could be the right application at the right time. I was also lucky in that my PhD focused on a very fresh and challenging topic, so it was very easy for me to stand out among the applications after I received my PhD. And again, at the time there was a lot of government funding for challenging topics — the government believed my generation would succeed.

Prof. Li: Funding is definitely an important driver of success!

Prof. Nevado: We can’t get far without it!

Prof. Wu: Indeed. And that’s how it was for me. Passion, good timing, a good environment with fellow scientists enjoying discussing the topics, funding support… that definitely supported me.

What do each of you see as your primary role?

Prof. Wu: I think I'm a researcher professor, mainly. My research is what’s closest to my heart. I also teach at my University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences where our young and talented undergraduate and graduate students are our future.

Prof. Li: I value the teaching relationship between myself and my students the most, so I think I primarily regard myself as a professor — an educator and mentor. I enjoy my research very much. But teaching brings me the most joy, because I can encourage more young people to work in STEM.

Prof. Nevado: Can I split the difference and say “scientist”? Because I see myself as an active researcher and a mentor to both undergraduate and graduate students equally. Honestly, I think all three of us do. Asking us to choose between research and education… they’re both core roles for all three of us.

Prof. Wu: That’s true.

Prof. Nevado: Outreach and community service, including editorial work, also offers us the opportunity to advocate for diversity, equal opportunities and promotion of young talent. Those are topics I feel strongly committed to.

How do you feel about being called a successful woman in STEM? Do you feel it is important to speak about successful women in STEM?

Prof. Li: It’s an interesting question. Do I look in the mirror and say “That’s a successful woman”? It depends on your definition of success, which varies from person to person. For one person it relates to their joy in their work; for another it’s awards; for another it’s publications… I love my research and my students. I keep moving forward. And I’m seeing more and more women doing a great job in STEM with different working experiences and definitions of success. But we should definitely always aim to share those experiences and encourage people to speak about the success of women in every field.

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Prof. Nevado: Absolutely. It’s essential to speak about successful women not just in STEM but in all areas of our society. In developed countries, our basic rights like education, freedom of expression and self-determination are officially granted. However, equality in terms of salaries, promotion opportunities, access to decision-making positions and so on… that is still far from being accomplished. I am convinced that all of us, men, women and nonbinary people, need to work together towards this goal not only for the sake of community development but also to ensure the progress of our societies at large.

Coming up through your career – as an undergrad, postgrad, researcher, educator and editor – did you encounter any bias against women? For example, did people express surprise that you were a student of chemistry? Or did you feel there was less encouragement for you as a woman to go on to a PhD?

Prof. Nevado: I never experienced direct discrimination myself, but I was definitely aware of the impact of strong discrimination on others. Personally… in conversation with many other female colleagues over the years, we’ve discussed what I call "subtle but equally disruptive attitudes". For example, we’d hear someone talk about a woman’s achievement, promotion or external recognition as being "because she’s a woman". It’s genuinely hard not to feel discouraged by the amount of work ahead of us to erase these biases.

Our role as academics, regardless of our gender, is to ensure these attitudes become rarer. I believe peer pressure is the best way to "cure" those unenlightened people "suffering" from the imaginary "she got it just because she is a woman" syndrome!

Prof. Li: I have definitely experienced such issues personally and second-hand. When I was a PhD student, people around me did not understand my decision to be a woman in academia. But I insisted on my choice by ignoring the doubt. I am still so grateful to my mentor who was a considerate professor and a woman. She encouraged me greatly.

The reality is that we still have a very male society with expectations on women. The time of life when a PhD student is achieving success with their research, writing papers, applying for funding… in many, many countries, there are expectations on women, pressures for them to fall into certain roles that make it harder to focus their energy on research. It’s important that more people speak out and show that everyone can choose their direction and not be pushed away from their passion by being expected to, for example, start a family.

Prof. Wu: Like Cristina, I didn't experience direct discrimination, but I've definitely seen it for others. Others have told me of their experiences: an equally qualified woman and man going for the same PhD position and the man gets it because the professors believe things that are not true about woman. Professors prioritize men because they think science is very physically demanding so it’s better for men; or that women are too emotional to take the harsh feedback that often comes in science. We all need to fight against the idea that women and men are so different that they can’t do the same jobs.

What advice would you give to a woman starting out in chemistry?

Prof. Wu: The first thing I’d say to young female students is that chemistry is a good science and they are on the right path. It's an interesting place for current and future social and environmental reasons. Chemistry is about making things you want — it’s helpful and useful in daily life. It's possible to enjoy it and be successful. It's a broad and exciting field.

I would also let them know about how chemistry can be challenging for women for societal reasons, but the challenge is dependent on the personality, environment and network. They need to find the way to balance many things and build their space for the research, for being in charge, and for networking.

Prof. Li: I’d add that extensive study is very important. There is no great difference between men and women there!

Prof. Wu: Of course, that definitely needs to be said!

Prof. Nevado: Indeed. I always say this, regardless of someone’s gender identity: find what you like, work hard for it, give your absolute best, and focus your energy on developing yourself and supporting the potential of those around you.

Prof. Li: I’d also say to a young woman to always remember that pursuing an academic career is a respectable choice whatever anyone says. Find the key to being confident when facing misunderstanding and prejudice.

Why do you support the Reaxys PhD Prize?

Prof. Nevado: I believe the Reaxys PhD Prize is one of the few international awards recognizing young scientists. As such, it is as a strong motivation for these junior researchers to further pursue their goals and exploit their full potential. Importantly, the Reaxys community, to which the finalists of all editions are part of, is also an excellent platform to build scientific and personal networks.

Prof. Li: This prize encourages many PhD students indeed. For some students, it’s also the first encouragement they receive to start working truly independently.

Prof. Wu: Young scientists are the future of all STEM. I would also say it’s our responsibility to help outstanding candidates to stand out. And the exposure that they receive through this competition is a major driving force in their careers.

Do you feel that the Reaxys PhD Prize has done enough to support women in STEM?

Prof. Nevado: I joined the Reaxys Advisory Board in 2017 and was glad to see how fair and careful the review and selection processes are, while at the same time remaining rigorous. I truly believe that a female candidate has the same chance as a male one, provided her research is seen by the reviewers.

The fact that women are underrepresented in the winners’ pool can be rather linked to the lower number of nominations received for female candidates. I aim to increase awareness of this in conversation with PIs and others. In doing so, I am convinced these numbers will certainly grow in the years to come.

Prof. Wu: It is certainly something we have to discuss. If female candidates are not getting the same encouragement to enter or nominations, it’s harder for them to realize their dream of being a scientist. They need exposure, support and connections, and that’s what awards like the Reaxys PhD Prize can help them find. Now that I’m a member of the Reaxys Advisory Board, I also intend to see how I can ensure that women are getting a fair shot at being nominated and supported.

Prof. Nevado: That said, we have to recognize that the women and men who’ve been finalists in the Reaxys PhD Prize over the years all did exemplary, rigorous, ambitious and innovative research. They deserve the accolade they’ve received. But let’s make sure we’re reaching everyone who deserves the chance of recognition and not allowing local politics to hide someone’s achievements.

Professors, thank you all very much for your time. It’s been a privilege talking to you.


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