We talked to Zhenan Bao, a K.K Lee Professor of Chemical Engineering at Stanford University about how the tide is turning for women and minorities in research.
What is the focal point of your role at Stanford?
I am a professor of chemical engineering, and by courtesy, a professor of chemistry and a professor of material science and engineering at Stanford University. Prior to joining Stanford in 2004, I was a distinguished member of technical staff in Bell Labs, Lucent Technologies from 1995 to 2004. My group pioneered a number of design concepts for organic electronic materials. My work has enabled flexible electronic circuits and displays. In my recent work, we developed skin-inspired organic electronic materials, which resulted in unprecedented performance or functions in medical devices, energy storage and environmental applications.
You are one of the most decorated and influential female researchers of our time, most recently being chosen as 1 of 5 women around the world awarded a 2017 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award in physical sciences. How has the recognition in the industry helped you amplify your voice on in the research world?
The award gave me more exposure especially to communities outside my normal specialized scientific communities. I hope my experience and my path in science and engineering can inspire more girls to choose science and engineering as their future career.
Growing up in school, and even in your higher education, can you describe your experience as a minority female in the sciences in comparison to your male peers?
Women have always been the minority in science, regardless of in school, at work or at conferences. This doesn’t prevent me from speaking out or attending events. I feel it is even more important for more women to be present so that we can encourage more women to be part of it. I also try to include more women as speakers if I organize a conference. In my own lab, I try to assemble a team that is highly diverse from gender, countries the group members are from and their scientific background. I truly believe in order to advance science, we need to include people of all backgrounds. This is how we can be more creative and more innovative.
What are the biggest concerns regarding the gender gap for women in research?
I think there may be a misconception that a career in research may not give sufficient flexibility for women who want to have both a successful career and a family. There may also be the concern that it is harder for women to move to higher level positions. I think things are improving over years, but gender gap still exists at all levels. We need to continue to raise awareness and implement policy that will ensure equality at work place.
What do you see is improving for women in research? What other innovations in your industry are exciting to you?
I see at the level of junior faculty, the percentage of women has increased significantly over the past ten years. I hope this will lead to an improvement of percentage of women at senior level in the next ten years. I also see there are more female students in science and engineering. They are more confident about their future than older generations. I think these are great trends.
Stanford is one of the nation’s top research universities. What part of the system in the school was most helpful for you in your current career, and how could other schools draw inspiration from this academic structure to empower their researchers?
I found several things in Stanford very helpful in increasing diversity. First, a general culture of promoting diversity. The administration does not just say it, they truly support ideas and initiatives that helps to promote diversity. We have great role models in Stanford. Our current provost, Dean of Engineering, Associate Dean of Engineering and multiple department heads are female. Stanford also has strong mentoring system and support groups. Female faculty members have formed their own support groups and informally mentor and help each other.
What insight or advice do you have to a young woman considering a career as a researcher, particularly in STEM?
I always tell young people, including young girls, it is most important to choose a career that they are passionate about. Building a successful career is hard regardless which field they choose, so it’s most important to choose something they enjoy and something that motivates them to work harder and push their own limit. In that case, they can overcome any obstacles in front of them. Don’t listen to others who tell you what you can or cannot do. You should believe in yourself.