Twenty women from across the country were selected to attend the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Rising Stars Workshop on Oct. 15-16. Chosen from among more than 120 highly competitive candidates, each woman attending presented her scholarly research and was exposed to a variety of strategies to ensure greater career success and work/life balance. The inaugural workshop also featured MIT faculty talks, panel discussions, and opportunities for informal networking, especially at a special research poster session and reception.
The workshop chair was Associate Professor Colette Heald, who was assisted by five steering committee members: professors Sally (Penny) Chisholm, Heidi Nepf, Carolina Osorio, John Ochsendorf, and staff member Bori Stoyanova.
CEE department head and Professor Markus J. Buehler noted that MIT is a place that brings together extraordinary individuals to solve complex problems. “It is in this spirit that we hope that the workshop will contribute to your network of people and ideas, and to your continued success as you take the next steps in your careers. Your talents will be critical to solving the grand challenges our world is facing today.”
All participants were within a year of earning their PhDs or earned their doctorate within the last five years.
“It’s amazing that so many MIT faculty members participated,” said Teresa Yamana, a postdoc at Columbia University. “I appreciated the openness of all the faculty speakers in describing their experiences and giving great advice.”
“[I’m] privileged to be a CEE Rising Star at MIT... Incredible workshop!” tweeted the University of Toronto’s Nadine Borduas.
“I found role models for the first time in my life,” wrote another.
Great minds don’t have to think alike
Attendees hailed from many different schools, including Caltech, Columbia University, Georgia Tech, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Stanford University, and University of California at Berkeley. Four participants represented MIT: Tal Cohen, Maria Maza, Marzieh Parandehgheib, and Anna Tarakanova.
The research presentations spanned multiple dimensions of civil, systems, and environmental science engineering, from “Tracking Isocyanic Acid (HNCO) in the Atmosphere” to “Improving Seismic Performance of Buildings” to “Traffic Management, Economics and Data Analysis.” Many of the women commented that they never before had seen such breadth of topics, but each presentation was pertinent to opportunities and challenges inherent in modern life and civilization.
For example, Yi Liu of Berkeley set herself apart describing ways to better manage air traffic towards a congested airport based on her research that investigated national airspace system predictability.
Brittany Belin of Caltech spoke of her environmental science engineering research focused on understanding nitrogen-fixing symbiosis between plants and bacteria to improve sustainability in agriculture.
And Stanford postdoc Lihua Jin talked about her work exploring the formation of mechanical instabilities and ways they can be exploited in smart surfaces and flexible electronics.
CEE professor and MIT Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart spoke at lunch about “imposter syndrome,” a term coined by psychologists in the 1970s that describes how many high-achieving women sometimes feel they are unworthy or unable to internalize their accomplishments. Barnhart quickly assured them that their selection in the Rising Stars workshop was not by chance.
“You are here because you earned your seat with hard work and impressive results,” she said, adding “I know the challenges you’re going to face as you try to balance your professional and home lives. It’s not easy, but it can be done.”
Barnhart advised to schedule personal and home life responsibilities just as work is scheduled. She also talked about ways to adjust work/life strategies as different priorities emerge throughout a career.
Because the workshop was designed for newly-minted PhDs, it’s no surprise the women’s career questions also focused on ways to stand out when applying for faculty positions and what to focus on when first hired.
“I always look for passion in people,” said Buehler, a member on the “Job Search and Interview Process” panel, which also included CEE Professor Joseph Sussman and assistant professors Ben Kocar and Lydia Bourouiba. “If you’re excited about research and teaching, then that will show through. Bring something unique, and also be open to interdisciplinary collaboration. Patience also is critical, because you can’t let setbacks define or upend you.”
The panelists emphasized that it is critical to take advantage of any mentorship opportunities. “Mentors are important to help navigate a new environment and culture,” Buehler said. “MIT has a formal junior faculty mentoring program, but you can always seek out mentors in an informal way, too.”
Sussman encouraged them to find new ways of looking at traditional problems. “Don’t be afraid to look across disciplines into entirely new fields. You never know where you might pick up an idea or make a surprising connection to your interests and research.”
Angela Belcher, the W.M. Keck Professor of Energy and a faculty member in the departments of Biological Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, spoke at lunch on the second day about being a parent, scientist, and engineer — in addition to her experience as inventor and entrepreneur.
Dreams do come true
“Our goal was to bring together the next generation of women CEE leaders,” Heald said, “to empower them to take the next steps in their academic careers and create more robust networking environments.”
The workshop participants expressed their appreciation for the insight and practical advice offered by all the faculty, saying they felt more confident and excited about pursuing their dreams.
Yu Zhang from Princeton University wrote: “Thanks a lot for all your efforts … and for providing such a great opportunity to get to know and learn from each other at MIT. It was an inspiring and amazing [experience].”
The department plans to offer the workshop again in the coming years to build on this initial success.