‘Women are often too modest. You do have a dream, don't you? Let's hear about it!’
Brigitte Lamers and Chenyue Zhang, winner and runner-up of the Marina van Damme Grant, respectively, aim to be role models for talented female scientists.
Both Brigitte Lamers and Chenyue Zhang advocate the need for more attention to be paid to the ambitions of talented female scientists. The respective winner and runner-up of the Marina van Damme Grant were presented with a check during MomenTUm by Marina van Damme herself, who wants to use the grant to give successful women an extra push to make a groundbreaking career move.
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The ceremony had an added dimension for Brigitte Lamers last Friday because not only did she receive a check for 9,000 euros - to be spent on her personal development - from Marina van Damme during MomenTUm 2022, but it was also a good reason to visit the Netherlands again. For a year now she has been working as team leader for Innovations and Technology at the Swiss high-tech company Metrohm.
Runner-up Chenyue Zhang took away the sum of 2,500 euros to her new hometown of Utrecht, where she has just started as a postdoctoral fellow. Zhang plans to use her prize to fund a research stay at the Flemish technological research institute VITO. Both winners are alumnae of the Chemical Engineering & Chemistry department.
Missing role models
Already after earning her master's degree, a move into the business world beckoned, winner Brigitte Lamers says enthusiastically. "For my graduate internship, I deliberately sought a connection with industry. I like working in an innovative environment, and although I have a passion for developing new materials, it is precisely the people that give me satisfaction."
But with the master's degree fresh in her pocket, doubt surfaced. "I noticed that I didn't have a clear picture of my role within the business world. That more women feel this insecurity is something I hear now that I talk about it more. I particularly missed the visibility of role models like the ones I met during my master's, successful women in good positions within the university. In industry, especially in my field, men tend to hold the senior positions."
An interesting doctoral research project within Professor Bert Meijer's group eventually prompted Lamers’ decision to stay at the university for another four years. With success, she emphasizes. "A period in which I learned a lot about project management and supervision. I saw how valuable it is to get more out of people than they thought they could do themselves. I knew that was what I wanted too." The dream of a career within business was rekindled. Now, a year later, Lamers knows she has found her place. But she wants more.
It was also clear to Zhang that she wanted more. Whereas Lamers describes herself as a people person with a helicopter view, Zhang, with her eye for detail, likes to delve deeper. During her PhD at the Chemical Engineering & Chemistry department, she has been working within the ONE-FLOW project with professors Jan van Hest, Timothy Noël and Volker Hessel on making chemical processes more sustainable.
The focus of her first postdoc at TU/e in Professor Niels Deen's group also lies on 'green chemistry,' using new technology to remove microplastics from the environment. The social relevance of this project is driving her to now look for a so-called 'close-loop ecosystem' for disposable plastics, she explains enthusiastically.
"It is as a passionate scientist that I would like to broaden my horizons. For applied research arising from social issues, the link with industry is essential. I would like to perform such a bridging function and am keen to develop further in this respect."
She will therefore spend the money she has won as runner-up within her new project, using it to work with the independent Flemish research institute VITO to seek a connection with industry.
'I'm curious to see how you experience that," says Lamers. "I didn't think the difference between men and women in the industrial world would be so large. But unfortunately, especially within management, you still see very few women." And, Lamers suggests, it seems as if women are also less likely to speak out that they aspire to a high position.
"At the end of my PhD, I noticed that men were much more likely to be able to clearly articulate what they wanted in terms of the next step in their careers. With female colleagues, it usually stuck to an 'I'll see.' But surely you have an idea, a dream? It was precisely because of such a modest attitude that I did not dare to state my dream."
A major benefit of the Marina van Damme Grant is the associated women's network of former winners, notes Zhang. "These women know what they want. Sharing experiences helps you feel stronger. Because still too often we have to justify ourselves, for example how difficult it is for a woman to combine work and private life. A man is never asked that.'
More openness among women
Lamers is keen to emphasize that greater openness among women can certainly help. "A group of like-minded people with whom you can discuss your dreams, but also very practical matters. What opportunities do you have within academia and business, what positions exist and, not unimportantly, how much do you earn? Men often still earn more than women in the same job in 2022. By talking about this with women among ourselves, we create a better starting position in salary negotiations and can better address inequality."
Both Zhang and Lamers still have close ties with their old department at TU/e and hope to transfer their knowledge to the new generation of scientists. Lamers: "I show them that a job in industry is also a possibility after your master's or PhD, and tell them that you can dream. I am now a point of contact for PhD students within my old group, but it would be nice if we could expand that into a department-wide network, for example." Zhang adds, with a laugh, "That way we become the role models we ourselves were missing."
Leader with sensitivity
To become that role model, Lamers already envisions her trajectory. With the Marina van Damme Grant, she will take a professional leadership course so she can continue to develop independently. "I learned to mentor students, but that's very different from being the team leader I am now. And in ten years or so, being in a leadership position within R&D of a medium-sized multinational company. How do you turn individual employees into a team, how do you deal with different roles, how do you stand firmer in a discussion? Men sometimes lack a little empathy. I would like to grow into a resolute as well as sensitive leader."
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