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NSE Rising Stars event offers young women researchers rare opportunity

Symposium provided nuclear science and engineering students with chance to connect with academics and practitioners.
Photo: L. Barry Hetherington

Participants in the Rising Stars in Nuclear Science and Engineering Symposium Photo: L. Barry Hetherington

There was a profound sense of fellowship in the room March 5th when a dozen outstanding young women researchers gathered at MIT for the Rising Stars in Nuclear Science and Engineering Symposium. Of all the engineering disciplines, nuclear science and engineering might be the loneliest for women, with just 228 female graduate students and 13 postdoctoral fellows pursuing the field, according to statistics gathered by the National Science Foundation. The forum, organized by the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, provided a singular opportunity for women on the verge of launching their careers in the discipline to share research and connect with each other, as well as with established academics and practitioners.

“There’s a lot to be said for just seeing people who are similar to you,” said Kathryn Matlack, a PhD candidate at Georgia Institute of Technology. “I have sometimes thought I don’t belong, but coming here, with all these women, you see there is a place to go.” Maria Gatu Johnson, an MIT PhD in applied nuclear physics, said, “It’s a confidence booster to be part of something like this. It helps me reflect on where I want to go, what I’m doing, and how to get there.”

“We have to do better in attracting women to the discipline,” said Richard Lester, head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. He conceived the Rising Stars symposium, sponsored by the department’s David J. Rose Fund, as part of a broader effort to sustain and grow the field at MIT and beyond. “Looking to the future, we see large needs for expansion of the workforce related to nuclear science and engineering. It will be easier meeting those needs if we increase the number of women entering and remaining in the field.” He hoped that the symposium might encourage participants to stick with their research and commit to nuclear science and engineering careers.

An NSE faculty trio — associate professors Paola Cappellaro and Bilge Yildiz, and assistant professor Anne White — planned the day around research presentations, distinguished speakers and opportunities for discussing how to build a research career, especially in a discipline where women are severely underrepresented.

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