Building a Supportive Network for Women in STEM

I have always been curious. As a young girl, I reveled in the intricacies of the simplest things, always wondering "why". After immigrating to the U.S. from China at the age of 12, I sought refuge in my math classes, because that's one language I understood. Upon entering high school, I became particularly drawn to physics because the simple elegance of the laws revealed such humbling beauty of our universe. It was no surprise to anyone, especially my parents (scientists themselves), that I pursued a career in physics.

One reality of physics is that it's a traditionally male-dominated field. Throughout my educational career, I typically found myself to be the only woman in a class, the only woman at a conference, the only woman in a lab. It occurred so often that I stopped noticing. Personally, I always felt that I could do whatever men could do; nobody ever told me otherwise. That, in many ways, was because I had been fortunate enough to grow up with many generously supportive, encouraging mentors and parents who offered me opportunities. Unfortunately, this isn't the case for everyone, but it makes a big difference.

I never thought my gender made me any different than my male scientific colleagues until my daughter was born last year. I quickly discovered that being a mom presented its own challenges that were unique to women. As a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, motherhood came at a period in my career when I needed to move my research forward. More broadly, postdoctoral work is an important and critical time for many female scientists to maintain their role in their field and can be the most difficult for many women because these are their childbearing years. At the same time, we're taking on new roles and responsibilities in addition to our academic work, which is both rewarding and challenging.

I have had friends and colleagues, all great scientists, who have decided to leave academia after becoming moms in search of a better balance between work and family. This is clearly a time where women are in need of support, and I now have the ability to make a difference.

Last week, I was awarded a L'Oreal USA For Women in Science Fellowship. This honor is given to five U.S.-based female scientists each year for their scientific excellence and efforts to serve as role models for younger generations. Funding from this program will help me build a new support group at UC Berkeley for women in STEM, particularly new moms. It's very encouraging for me to hear how other female scientists successfully balance their work and family lives, and I know other women will benefit from being part of this conversation, too. It's important for women to remember that we are not alone in our challenges. We need to hear from each other, "I'm experiencing the same issues. You can do this. We can do this."

As part of the Fellowship, I visited Washington, D.C. where I met members of Congress and prominent female STEM leaders in the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, and, arguably most importantly, mentored young girls at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington. Since elementary school, my teachers, advisers, and mentors pushed me toward opportunities to be at the frontier of research, to break the boundaries of knowledge and to fuel my curiosity through scientific pursuits. This was vital in getting me to where I am today, and I now have the responsibility to do the same for younger generations. I want to show women and girls that they can be on the cutting-edge of research and have a family too.

Being a mom is fantastic. I can already see that my daughter has the same curiosity that I had as a child. Will she pursue science, too? Perhaps, and if so, I hope by the time she grows up, we as a society will have made enough progress that she won't even be aware of a gender problem, that she can pursue her curiosity with abandonment, and that the quiet whispers of "Oh, I'm a girl, I can't do this," will be gone for good.