Women in Cryogenics and Superconductivity

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Shirley Yang

Engineer at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility

What projects are you working on?
I work on the FRIB (Facility for Rare Isotope Beams) project for Michigan State University and a little bit with the LCLSII project for SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. I’m also the project engineer for the upgrade of one of the operation units at Jefferson Lab.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am very proud of the cold transfer line our team designed for the FRIB project. We had five process lines, a 1.5” 4 K supply line, a 2” 4 K return line, 2.5” shield supply and return lines and a 10” 2 K return line. We enclosed all these process lines with thermal shields and MLI, and jacketed them with 20”, 24” or 30” diameter pipes. The design met mechanical strength requirements under different load scenarios—including transportation, pressure test and normal operation—and also minimized heat leak and provided the piping system with flexibility both while cooling down and at normal operational conditions.

What advances for women would you like to see in the fields of cryogenics and superconductivity?
I’m not certain what advances I’d like to see for women in these fields. However, I’d like to share my story. I came to the cryogenic and superconductivity fields at Jefferson Lab by “accident” after working in a refinery as a reliability engineer.
One of my initial impressions at Jefferson Lab came from the female engineer who provided a tour of the lab after my interview. I recalled how proud she was to show me the cavities and cryomodules. The modules looked strange and complicated but they interested me at the same time.

I did not initially start in the Superconducting Radiofrequency (SRF) sub-group at the lab, but came on board to work on the finite elemental analysis of the C100 cryomodule tuner.

Since then, I’ve worked on other projects pertaining to the field of superconductivity, such as finding more reliable feedthroughs for the cryomodules, performing finite element analysis of cryomodule pressure and tuning sensitivities, testing large grain niobium mechanical properties, designing the space-frame for the SPX project at Argonne National Laboratory and designing the spoke cavity for the Basic Energy Sciences inverse Compton scattering (BES-ICS) project. I then joined the cryogenic department’s design team to work on the design of FRIB cryogenic plant in November 2013.

In all, I have worked in the cryogenic and superconductivity fields for over five years. It is a very unique area requiring a good amount of knowledge in material strength, heat transfer and thermal dynamics. The longer I am in this field, the more I enjoy it and feel that I’ve grown tremendously as an engineer.

There are many challenges that keep me learning and growing as an engineer, and this is what I really enjoy about my job. I’d like to see other women taking on these challenges and expanding the field of cryogenics and superconductivity. I’d also like to see women take on more leadership roles in these fields.

What would be the best approach to getting more women into our field?
I think that increasing awareness of our field to young women is the best approach to introducing more women into it. Many young women are unaware of the existence of these fields as they are rather obscure in comparison to others. General awareness could be increased by promotion in publications such as Cold Facts. Another good approach is promoting summer positions offered by laboratories or companies working in these fields.

Jefferson Lab, for example, has an annual program called “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” where local, selected junior and senior high school girls who are interested in STEM come to our lab and spend a whole day with some female engineers. They are shown equipment and systems that we’ve designed and are provided first-hand experience as to what it’s like to be an engineer in hopes of inspiring them to pursue an engineering career.

Shannon Hackett

Associate curator of birds at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and manager of the museum’s cryogenic laboratory

What projects are you working on?
I’m currently working on projects examining the tree of life for birds, the evolution of bird genomes in changing environments, the evolution of the innate immune system in birds and the evolution of morphology and color of birds.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
My goal as a person is to learn something new every day and I feel grateful that I have a career that facilitates this. I am proud of my efforts to not only do cutting-edge evolutionary biology and biodiversity science, but also to effectively and passionately communicate about science to diverse audiences.

The combination of both doing and effectively communicating about science is critical. I am proud of the research programs and projects I’ve been involved in, in particular my research into the avian tree of life. This project was led in large part by a group of women (not common in my field) and revolutionized our understanding of the tree of life for birds. I find inspiration and stimulation from the diverse, smart, fun and committed people I’ve interacted with throughout my career.

What advances for women would you like to see in the fields of cryogenics and superconductivity?
In my field, cryogenics comes into play in the context of natural history museums and the acquisition and storage of cryogenically preserved specimens for genetic and genomic analysis. I would like to see more women advancing into higher-level leadership and mentorship roles, paving a wider pathway for women to travel on.

What would be the best approach to getting more women into our field?
This takes generations to accomplish with a multifaceted approach through our educational, political and cultural systems. I also believe it starts by encouraging young girls to develop and maintain interest in science. If you wait until high school to reach out to girls, you’ve lost too many bright young minds and too much talent. I believe more girls will see themselves in a scientific career if we show them the true nature of science as an artistic, collaborative, creative and intellectual endeavor, highlighting the diversity of careers you can have if you are interested in science. Also, never underestimate the power of female role models and mentors and hands-on authentic science experiences.

Marta Bajko

Section leader at CERN

What projects are you working on?
I am working on projects linked to the upgrade of circular particle accelerators (HL-LHC and FCC), insuring that we can test all superconducting magnets and components for these future accelerators. This involves both the design and installation of unique test stands and the testing of the different items. Our high power (30 kA) test stands operate at superfluid He temperature (1.9 K) and feature ultrahigh switching capacity (< 1ms) for magnets up to a length of 5 m and 800 mm diameters.

I got involved in this project both by demonstrating my knowledge of the field and as a result of previous experience. This project, apart from providing the chance to learn more about new technical domains, also offers me the opportunity to work on long term planning and strategy for the CERN Superconducting Magnet Test facility.

I lead a team of 28, composed of several engineers, post docs, doctoral and technical students and technicians both from CERN and industrial partners. Of the team’s four engineers, one is a woman. There are six technicians of whom two are women and eight fellows and students of whom one is a woman.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
The first relevant accomplishment for me, after working on the development of assembly procedures and transmitting the technology and knowledge to the industry, was the follow-up of the production of one third of the total quantity of dipole magnets (1,282) for the LHC.
At that time, I had to handle a contract of >160 MCHF lasting over a period of five years. The challenge was not so much technical, but rather to get accepted by the other teams—both at CERN and in the industry—composed entirely of men. My personal experience was rather positive.

After a period in which I had to demonstrate my capability in the field of engineering, I was accepted without any problem. All in all this was a wonderful experience for me. I worked on all aspects of the engineering—from basic conceptual design to prototyping and industrialization of the magnet fabrication—and was responsible for following up the contract and its financial aspects. The magnets were delivered on time and are currently used in the LHC machine to accelerate particles to collision energies of 13 TeV.
Working closely with industry also gave me the opportunity to meet many people at CERN and familiarize myself with many different areas of work and R&D. Moreover, I have travelled in different countries, seen different working cultures and learned one more language.
I am also proud to have been the first person to organize researchers from superconducting magnet testing facilities worldwide for an international workshop. The main goal was to discuss ideas, measuring equipment and measuring techniques and to optimize community efforts to work together through a well-balanced and healthy competition. The first workshop took place in June 2016 at CERN and was a success.

What advances for women would you like to see in the fields of cryogenics and superconductivity?
The superconductivity and cryogenics field is complex. I would be pleased to see an equal sharing of project responsibilities between men and women but I am aware of the fact that this can only happen if the same number of women choose this field for their carrier.
There are limited statistics on which to arrive at safe conclusions, but I think that a well-trained woman has good chances to make a career in the field. Although the technical work done by a man or a woman should be the same or at least very similar, women bring different ideas and ways of doing things to the management of projects or teams. I am convinced that this kind of “mixture“ will result in more advances for the community.

What would be the best approach to getting more women into our field?
I personally landed in the field by chance. My personal opinion is that we have to start working with universities and perhaps even with primary schools to attract more women to the field, letting students know how these theoretical concepts are used in reality. It’s very important that they know these fields are not reserved for men and that applications, although not yet sufficiently broadly used, are very interesting and range from particle physics to medical applications. I guess that young women just need to get our feedback and see what is our everyday activity to understand better and demystify the job.

Susana Bermudez

Magnet engineer at CERN

What projects are you working on?
I’m working on the development of Nb3Sn magnets for the High Luminosity LHC upgrade and the FCC.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Probably the most difficult part was finding my place at the very beginning. After finishing my master’s degree, I was 24, unable to speak French and working in a French-speaking workshop with a lot of technicians. I had to demonstrate that I knew what I was doing, like everyone has to do when starting out, but I never felt it was more difficult for me than for the rest of my colleagues because I was a woman. I developed good relations with everyone in the workshop and earned the full support of my supervisor. I advanced quickly, moving from a fellow to a staff contract position in a year and a half, and on to project engineer by age 28, the youngest in my section.

What advances for women would you like to see in the fields of cryogenics and superconductivity?
Women and men are different and I don’t see anything wrong with that. We also have differences depending on our nationality, the environment in which we grow up and many other factors that affect our way of facing problems. And again, there is nothing wrong with that. The important thing is to have a well balanced team, particularly in positions with responsibility.
If the decision-making positions are not balanced, it becomes difficult to promote diversity at lower levels. I am sure there are women qualified to hold high responsibility positions who are not there, probably, because they decided to prioritize family or simply because women have traditionally never reached such positions.

With a better balance of men and women in the more visible positions for both society and our field, combined with an increase in women studying in technical fields (which is important to motivate from the very beginning of school), in some years (maybe a decade) we should be able to have a much stronger representation of women in cryogenics, superconductivity and applied sciences in general.
I would not select a woman for a position if she is objectively less prepared, but I would always promote women to be present in conferences or similar events with an impact on the community to show that there is a place for us in science!

What would be the best approach to getting more women into our field?
I think it starts with equally motivating children independent of gender. In my opinion, the lack of women in superconductivity is directly linked to the lack of women with technical degrees such as mechanical or electrical engineering. Fortunately, this is changing with time, and as more and more women receive technical degrees we will hopefully have a better balance. I was the only woman in my section both when I started working as a fellow at CERN six years ago and when I first moved on to another section. But our section now has two female staff, two fellows and one student. It’s still a small percentage, but nevertheless a good sign!

Luisa Chiesa

Associate professor of mechanical engineering at Tufts University, and 2016 CSA Roger W. Boom Awardee

What projects are you working on?
Our lab works on the electromechanical characterization of both low temperature (LTS) and high temperature superconductors (HTS), using both experimental and numerical techniques. We design and build experiments to study the electrical properties of superconductors when they are subjected to loading conditions like the ones experienced in large magnets. We use these experiments to verify assumptions made in our modeling so we can then use the modeling to extrapolate the behavior of the conductors in large magnets. The experiments help guide the design of high-current cables for large magnets.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I don’t like to think in terms of personal accomplishments. As a university educator, the most rewarding thing is seeing my students graduate with undergraduate or graduate degrees, having learned something along the way. Not all my graduate students end up working in cryogenics or superconductivity and that is okay. It makes me proud to follow their careers after graduation, as they become successful engineers and scientists in their chosen field, and I hope the time spent working in my research lab helped them become who they are.
One of the biggest challenges in pursuing my group’s research is that experiments are often complex, requiring specialized equipment and operations in cryogenic environments, high currents and high magnetic fields. There are often a lot of constraints, and sometimes it takes years to achieve the fidelity you are looking for from your results. I could never do this by myself, and I give a lot of credit for my accomplishments to people who worked with me along the way, both collaborators and students. As a group, we often work on a single project for a few years, with many people contributing through different phases of a project—from design, to construction, to actual use and data collection, to adjustments following the first experimental results. Continuity in the funding allows for these experiments to happen, but most importantly supports the students in my research lab.

What advances for women would you like to see in the fields of cryogenics and superconductivity and what would be the best approach to getting more women into the fields?
It’s challenging to give concise, straightforward answers to these questions. I suspect if you ask ten women you might get ten different answers. It’s a fact that there are more men in our field and I could simply cite the usual suspects for female underrepresentation: family constraints, perhaps inequities in pay or barriers to promotion. But I feel the issues are more complex and we need to have an honest discussion before good approaches can be identified.

One important aspect is the scrutiny that women face in the workplace by our increasingly judgmental society. Work-life balance is a challenge for all, both women and men, but women are judged with different metrics. For example, women can face scrutiny for deciding to start a family, for going back to work after having a child or for focusing on a career instead of having children.

One often-pursued approach is to ask women in male-dominated fields to act as role models and active champions of women’s issues. I honestly struggle a bit with this. I have had female students tell me it was important for them to see female faculty, but while I certainly advocate for greater female representation, there is an added burden with being a role model and having to seemingly be on-call to champion women’s issues. You start to wonder if being a woman is what people see and not the other roles that make you a valuable contributor to your workplace and field—in my case, an educator, an engineer and a scientist.

To start the conversation, I first think we need to understand why girls shy away from STEM disciplines. It’s a problem that, I believe, starts as early as elementary school. One thing I try to achieve is to be comfortable in my skin, comfortable with the decisions I make. This focus has been important for the “non-traditional” path that I have taken. I propose that access to informed mentoring in high school and college could be helpful both in letting women know there are more options for them than in the past and to encourage them to also become more comfortable in making decisions that are right for them (to be comfortable in their own skin).

On a more practical level, having funding and other infrastructure to support students at the post-secondary education level is an important aspect of attracting and retaining students in our field, both women and men. After graduation, job opportunities in this niche field are limited, so sometimes it is difficult for graduates to find a job (in addition to the other constraints they face). But I am happy when they have had the opportunity to gain a solid education, knowing they have learned skills to be effective scientists and engineers wherever they might land a first job.

I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunities I have had in my life. I worked hard to be where I am but I recognize I was given, and took, the opportunities to get me here. Some people do not get these chances. In principle, this is what we need. Give everyone the same chance, women and men.

Shanti Deemyad

Associate professor of physics at University of Utah

What projects are you working on?
My projects focus on the high pressure properties of low Z materials, the quantum solid effect in light alkali metals and structural and electronic phase transition under extreme conditions.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’m proud of having a probing eye and being innovative in revisiting long lasting problems. I have developed several experimental methods throughout my career as a researcher (both as a student/postdoc and PI). I’m proud of my contributions to the overall understanding of the complex physics of ultralight materials under extreme conditions, including lithium and hydrogen.

What advances for women would you like to see in the fields of cryogenics and superconductivity?
There have been, and continue to be, many outstanding women in these fields. But not enough! We need more women in this field and we need to NOT forget those who are making it to the top or seem to be on the top. For example, women like Vera Rubin, who died in December 2016, should not be celebrated only when they pass away.

What would be the best approach to getting more women into our field?
Women need extra support from those who care in order to overcome the disadvantage of being a minority group. The problem can’t be just childcare (since this is not limited to STEM). I think, unfortunately, the obstacles facing women in science have nothing to do with their actual capabilities as scientists. One particular problem is the male-dominated culture in STEM sciences and low tolerance for female leadership. Women are behind number-wise, and the culture is ignoring them and undermining them as leaders even when they rise to leadership positions. So it’s hard for women to make it to the top and continue. We have to go out of our way to recover the balance. We need to encourage women towards STEM and educate them; hire more female scientists and equip them with the best technologies available; and highlight accomplishments of those who make it to leadership positions. It will require time, dedication and resources!