Several years ago Cold Facts had a cover story on women in cryogenics and superconductivity. It elicited some surprising and interesting responses. We thought it was time to introduce our readers to several more women who are excelling in our fields and find out more about their experiences in areas where they are still pretty much in the minority. We sent them several questions that they could answer. Each answered in her own unique way.
- Who were or are your mentors? Are any of them women? Do you have the same support and mentoring as men in your field?
- What challenges and/or advantages have you experienced as a woman working in a STEM field?
- Are you assertive in the workplace? How do your colleagues respond—positive or negative reactions?
- Do you see a noticeable difference between how colleagues interact with you and how they interact with male colleagues?
- What advice do you have for women in STEM careers who are coming up now and in the future?
Mechanical Technician, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Performs mechanical assembly and testing of superconducting magnets and their many components
I’ve been very lucky to have excellent mentors throughout my career. Emanuela Barzi has always guided me in our research and has provided endless direction in handling the difficult situations that arise as a result of being a woman in a STEM field. Watching the way she has handled these experiences herself over the years has been an inspiration to me, and I can’t thank her enough for all she has taught me.
Tom Van Raes has also been an incredible technical mentor. When I started working at Fermilab, I had research experience, but limited technical experience. Tom taught me everything he knew, from the very basic to the complex, and was always patient when I had questions.
The most striking characteristic I’ve noticed in the way my coworkers act toward me is that they frequently assume I’m inexperienced until, and sometimes even after, they learn otherwise. As a result, coworkers are eager to help me out when I am new to a role. The challenge is that they can be slow to recognize when I have grown and developed in that role and subsequently have ideas based on that experience that could benefit them.
I have oscillated between meekness and unapologetic self-assuredness, which has resulted in being overlooked as a contributor and being looked at as pushy, respectively. I would like to think I’ve now settled on a middle ground; I’ve learned to be observant enough to identify work-related problems just as they begin, and put a stop to them in a firm but unobtrusive way.
I feel that I am expected to constantly prove my skill as a technician while the males’ skills are assumed. The most notable experience illustrating this concept occurred during a technical discussion between a male technician, two engineers and me. I was experienced with the topic being discussed and chimed in with two suggestions. My contributions were overlooked, but later in the discussion the male technician, who had no experience in these techniques, made the same suggestions and the engineers listened and incorporated them. I was amazed at the time, but similar situations continue to occur regularly.
The most constructive reactions to sexism at work in my case have been first acknowledging that it occurs, and then understanding that it is unintentional. The engineers in the earlier story did not intentionally ignore my comments—they likely didn’t understand or consider them. Because I understood that the behavior wasn’t malicious, I was able to make changes to my level of assertiveness that resulted in improvements in the situation. Assuming the other party is malevolent is the first step to creating a situation in which both sides are defensive and nothing will be solved. When we recognize these problems, the intentions behind them, and their fallout, we can take non-confrontational corrective actions to ensure our voices are heard.
Lead Mechanical Design Engineer-Cryogenic, General Electric Health Care, MR magnet cryogenic system design
No special mentor for me, but I can ask any technical questions to any of my colleagues and they will help me with patience, just as with their male colleagues. Currently my main support is from male colleagues, because there are few women in the cryogenic and superconductivity field.
Like other female engineers, my main challenges are maintaining balance between family and work. However, we do have the advantage of communicating easily with colleagues as female engineers.
I just joined the Florence South Carolina team in the past four months and still am learning a lot of new stuff. When I have built the capability, I think I will be assertive in the workplace. At GE, if you maintain a positive manner, your colleagues will always respond positively.
I don’t see a noticeable difference between how colleagues interact with me and how they interact with male colleagues.
I would advise women in our field to stay curious: you can find a lot of fun in STEM!
Sample Environment Project Manager and Chair of the British Cryogenics Council, ISIS Neutron Facility, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Evans manages, and provides design input to, projects to provide cryogenic equipment for use on neutron beamlines and other technological projects for ISIS, but she has also managed inter-facility sample environment projects and the organization of workshops, training schools and public engagement events.
I have not had an official mentor, although I have been given the opportunity to manage some very interesting projects by the ISIS deputy director Zoë Bowden, and through these, and her guidance, I have learned a great deal.
The greatest challenge I have experienced as a woman working in a STEM field has been balancing work and home life. Having a family and changing to part-time hours in an environment where I was the first to have done so means that perhaps I have experienced less understanding of my reduced flexibility in terms of travel and availability.
I am sure many women working in a STEM field can recall a host of “inappropriate” comments made by male colleagues, mostly in jest, and/or the feeling of isolation when faced with the prospect of being the only female at a meeting, or even at an entire conference. But this also has the distinct advantage of becoming instantly memorable to potentially useful contacts. My advice to women in a STEM career who are coming up now and in the future is to work hard, be yourselves and keep your senses of humor.
Scientific Market Manager, Air Liquide Advanced Technologies (AL-aT). In charge of marketing and sales of cryoplants (helium refrigerators and liquefiers, turbo-expanders and cryogenic compressors, valve boxes and cryogenic transfer lines) in Europe and the Americas, for scientific labs and helium gas fields (helium extraction units)
My mentors were Louis Burnod (CERN), Jacques Chaussy (CNRS) and Guy Gistau (AL-aT). None of them were women. I have benefitted from the same level of support and mentoring as men in my field. Twenty years ago, beyond your diplomas, references and professional position, half the time during the first meeting with a new interlocutor, as a woman you had to strongly demonstrate that you were the relevant person for the job. I was more challenged than my male colleagues. But after demonstration of your abilities, the fact that you were a woman turned out to be an advantage, with the negative “a-prori” turning to positive respect, even admiration, especially in countries were the employment rate of women was low.
I feel that this “special treatment” is less the case today. Nowadays the behavior of professional interlocutors in STEM is more neutral regarding the sex of the professional they are working with, which is a good improvement, certainly due to the increased number of women in STEM fields in the last two decades. I do not see a noticeable difference between how colleagues interact with me and how they interact with male colleagues.
I would advise younger women to consider that a STEM career is nowadays fully compatible with a balanced family life and with children’s education, for both men and women. The job can be shared. And this is a good example for your girls to follow. Be confident, demonstrate your talents to others, express your professional expectations and ask for promotion.
Research Fellow, University of Southampton, Characterization of HTS superconductors in critical conditions, in a wide range of temperatures and fields. Falorio’s job includes the design of the sample holder required for the specific measurements, the manufacturing of the mechanical components required for measuring, the sample test, the post-processing and the analysis of data.
My mentors are Professor Yifeng Yang, Dr. Edward A. Young and Professor Carlo Beduz. My research group (including professors, lecturers, research fellows, PhD students and technicians) is composed of 10 people and only two of us are women. I have been working in this research group for four years now and I consider my working experience very positive. The people in my working environment are very open-minded and as a consequence I have never felt any kind of difference in treatment between me and my male colleagues.
The main challenge I’ve had to face when I started working in superconductivity and cryogenics was to work in a mechanical laboratory, which requires very strong practical skills. Although my parents certainly did their best for my education, I was never encouraged or involved during my childhood in solving practical problems—it was done instead with my brother, since this was considered to be more a man’s job. Also, my background at university was more theoretical than practical; therefore, I felt very unconfident when I first started to face experiment setup problems and the need to design, manufacture and assemble mechanical components. Curiosity and observation have been, and still are, my tactics for stepping forward and overcoming these limitations.
Communication is very important in my research group and all opinions are welcome for discussion among the team. So in general terms my colleagues respond in a positive way and I don’t see any noticeable difference in treatment between me and my male colleagues.
I think that dedication and enthusiasm for the work are the keys to being respected and treated as a professional in any work environment. Feeling such a respect from others is essential to gain self-confidence and makes it easier not only to express yourself in work discussions but also to build more personal relationships with your colleagues. Also, as a woman in science, I have never tried to hide my feminine side and I do not think that hiding it or following any stereotype would help a woman to be given more consideration; my personal objective is to keep on growing professionally and humanly, showing who I really am.
Doctor Engineer, Wroclaw (Poland) University of Technology
My choice of technical studies was not a coincidence. Problems requiring a mathematical background and logical explanation were always much easier to understand and solve for me than learning by heart. At the beginning I wanted to focus on refrigeration technologies, but after the first lecture on cryogenics I was sure about my future profession. Therefore, I decided to continue my education as a doctoral student in cryogenics technologies at Wroclaw University of Technology. My PhD studies were dedicated to thermodynamic optimization analysis of an autonomous system for liquid nitrogen production in small quantities. The concept was based on coupling N2 separation technology (polymer membrane) with a Joule-Thomson cryogenic cooler.
Currently I hold the position of assistant professor in the Department of Cryogenics, Aeronautical and Process Engineering at Wroclaw University of Technology. I’m a lecturer and supervisor of both engineers’ and masters’ theses and cryogenic technologies projects. Three years ago I joined the teaching staff of English-language Master Studies in Refrigeration and Cryogenics.
Besides my duties as an academic teacher, I’m involved with the Strategic Program Advanced Technologies for Energy Generation: oxy-combustion technology for PC and FBC boilers with CO2 capture supported by the National Center for Research and Development. As a project engineer I’m involved in the development of medium capacity cryogenic coolers. My research program is focused on Joule-Thomson coolers working in a closed system and supplied with gas mixtures. I’m also interested in risk analysis of cryogenic systems. My interest in quantitative risk assessment methodology is influenced by the fact that cryogenic industrial installations and scientific facilities become more and more complex and require an increasing amount of cryogens. This trend has to be followed by solutions repairing the results of potential failures. Therefore, methods for identifying hazards and for classifying failure consequences must be evolved now.
I acquired industrial experience during internships at CERN and KrioSystem (Wroclaw, Poland). I had the chance to participate in the reception tests of the cryogenic distribution line for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). I spent five months at CERN working in the cryogenic group (technology department). I was also involved in the collaboration between CERN and Wroclaw University of Technology. I took part in the update of the Preliminary Risk Analysis of the LHC cryogenic system and the analysis of helium release from the helium ring line. I’m also a co-organizer and lecturer at the European Course of Cryogenics (reported in Cold Facts each year).
Public presentation is a challenge. In general, public presentations are very stressful situations. From my experience, explaining a technical problem and its solution to 200 or 300 men makes me double- or even square-stressed. On one hand I must be aware that even a small mistake will be noticed, but at the same time it’s the best motivation to pay special attention to each possible detail.
There is a bright side to being a woman working in a man’s world. In a group full of men, a woman always is noticed and remembered. This results in our being recognized in the work environment from the very beginning.
I am assertive in the workplace, because my time is very precious to me. The secret is to do it in a polite but firm (strict) way. My colleagues were surprised, but they got used to it very fast. I’ve never had to face any negative reaction from them. Maybe I’m lucky, but I don’t see much difference in how my colleagues interact with me and with my male colleagues.
Young women coming up in the field should never fear or have any doubts about working with men. Although technical studies are not easy, they are definitely most interesting and give us the opportunity to use our imagination and creativity. The start-up of a system that was just a drawing at first or the opportunity to participate in big projects gives lots of satisfaction. If I had to make the choice again, I would choose Technical University once more. Moreover, I’m sure that the taste of success for a woman working in a predominantly male-dominated profession is much sweeter.
“Women, Work Independently and Preeminently on Cryogenic Engineering”
by Dr. Xiaoqin Zhi, associate researcher, University of Wisconsin-Madison, email@example.com
Dr. Xiaoqin Zhi, who graduated from the cryogenic group Cryoboat of Zhejiang University in China under the direction of Professor Dr. Limin Qiu, now works as an associate researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) with Professor John M. Pfotenhauer, continuing her research in the US cryogenic community. In the following year and a half at UW-Madison, she will conduct a combination of modeling and experimental work addressing heat transfer, fluid dynamics and cooling system design for a variety of cryogenic applications including cryocoolers, air separation and superconducting magnets.
During her doctoral study, Zhi carried out research on the multi-stage Stirling pulse tube cryocooler (SPTC). Through her cooperative research at the University of Giessen with Professor G. Thummes she was able to achieve minimum temperatures of 4.26K with He-4 as the working fluid, and 4.03K with He-3 as the working fluid in a three-stage SPTC. These results represent a world-record accomplishment for multi-stage SPTCs, and are inspiring for the various groups working in cryogenics, including the aerospace corporations who are leading the development of such coolers. Zhi also demonstrated a deep understanding of the detailed thermodynamic cycles occurring within the pulse tube cryocooler, thereby illustrating a new working mechanism of the pulse tube cryocooler from a microscale perspective. Professor Pfotenhauer commenting on this work remarked, “For all of us exploring the thermodynamics and heat transfer within these deceptively simple-looking refrigerators, it is a great pleasure when a colleague unlocks some new understanding of their performance, or surprises the community with a novel approach that improves their cooling capacity.”
Zhi has recently been selected as the winner of the Carl von Linde IIR Young Researchers Award by the committee of International Institute of Refrigeration, for her outstanding work in cryogenic engineering. The committee was pleased to recognize her high quality contributions to the field of cryogenics, especially as one of the few female researchers in this area.
“Cold and hot are the most basic feelings in nature, which makes the cryocooler and heat transfer study very intuitive and vivid to me. I am not just choosing cryogenics as a career; I do love it. Besides, cryogenic technology is an essential supporting technology in many areas, and I feel a great sense of accomplishment when doing my research well,” said Zhi. “There are some difficulties for women to work in an engineering field like cryogenics, but I believe that my feminine characteristics of carefulness, meticulousness, patience and even assertiveness help me to do my research well. Furthermore, an increasing number of opportunities are being provided to help women advance their careers within the worldwide cryogenic community, and it is becoming easier for women to study and work in cryogenic engineering. As in my own case, it has been very helpful and enjoyable to work with leading experts worldwide from Hangzhou, to Giessen, and to UW-Madison. I feel women are welcomed in the field of cryogenic engineering. We receive the same support from our coworkers and mentors as do our male colleagues. Sometimes, we are even more likely to win recognition and admiration when doing a good job, especially in China. So, I encourage females who are interested in this field to confidently jump in and believe you can do it well through hard work.
“Women can work independently in the field of engineering. They can work as well as, or sometimes better than, men. …We hope more talented women will choose to work on cryogenics to make this field more lively.”