Women in STEM: Chiung-Wei

The chemist Chiung-Wei

Today I publish my tenth interview with women in STEM. Meet Chiung-Wei, a chemistry PhD student and mother of two, working on nano-spectroscopy.

Hi phd.passion.lab! First of all would you like to tell us something about you?

Hello! I’m Chiung-Wei, a chemistry PhD student at the University of North Carolina studying nanoscience and semiconductors for solar fuels. I was born and raised in Taiwan where I completed my BS and MS in chemistry. After graduation, I worked as a research assistant whileas I tried to apply for PhD programs overseas. But I ended up staying in the country and working as an engineer in an optronic company. After three years of staying, I realized that it’s not quite the career I had imagined so I decided to return to school and now I’m in my 5th year of PhD!

When did you start your blog and your Instagram account? How did you get the idea?

Before I realize a world of digital science communication exists, I’ve been taking photos of my experiment as a way to document my research progress. The idea of creating a scientific channel popped out was when my husband, also a PhD student in chemistry, showing me pictures of his lab work. I feel urged to share those interesting colors he’s been producing. I decided to try start Instagram as a way to challenge myself, which is one of the best decisions I made in science communication effort. In the long run, I hope to add a new representation of Asian women to this digital scicomm space!

Can you tell us something about how you balance work and private life?

I try to live in the present. When I’m at work, I focus on tasks that are important for research and career. When I’m with my family, particularly when I watch the kids, I turn off anything research-related in my brain. As a parent of two small children, the past few years I’ve learned how to maximize my productivity by making plans and prioritizing tasks. With goals in my work and personal growth set up, I find it easier to maintain the balance on both sides. Additionally, my PhD supervisor understands how important it is to be present when life happened, and I feel privileged and supportive in being able to plan a life that works for me.

Chiung-Wei with her two kids

During your academic experience how many women were in course? Why in your opinion?

I find that, typically, about a third in the class are women. The number is pretty constant across my bachelor’s and master’s degree in Taiwan as well as PhD school in the US.

The gender composition in the lab, however, is interesting. The lab where I worked in Master’s was dominated by women – four students out of five from my year are women. The women-dominated ratio was reversed when I visited a few years later. The lab I’m currently working at also exhibits a similar variation – this time last year, half of our members are women while now we have 25%. The vibrant number is, in my opinion, positive. Since chemistry has evolved into a multidisciplinary field of study, it introduces all kinds of STEM-related professionals to be involved.

Have you ever felt harassed or being kept apart as a scholar because you are a woman?

Before college, a lot of people discouraged me saying science and engineer is not a world for girls and women. In Taiwan, or in many Asian cultures, girls grow up with the expectation to do arts rather than science and engineer, and I guess no one has ever expected me to pursue a PhD degree in science. Fortunately, such discouraging words started to dissipate after I made it to college and until to graduate education.

How did you become passionate about science?

My curiosity toward science started when I was in junior high school. I was obsessed with watching the National Geography channel, particularly on the documentaries about whales. I’ve wanted to be a marine ecologist back then. With this intention, I chose to pursue science and engineer in senior high when later my chemistry teacher inspired me taking an interest in chemistry. The interest continued and went stronger during my master studies as my thesis advisor demonstrated how to be a great scientist. During my current grad school, I’ve met amazing mentors and women scientists who have inspired me to keep working on science.

Would you like to talk briefly about your job?

Our lab works on developing near-field optical spectroscopy, or nano-spectroscopy, to study the optical and electronic properties with the nanometer-scale spatial resolution. We’re interested in understanding how the tiny-scale properties affect the large-scale function. This technique is powerful and gaining a lot of insights about electronic materials that the standard methods can’t access. Most of my time is spent standing by an optical table where I try to make the instrument behave well and collect a bunch of data. Otherwise, I’d sit in front of my laptop plotting the figures, running simulations or designing the parts that my experiment needs.

Thank you so much for your time. Lastly, can you give any advice to girls interested in STEM?

Like many other professionals, science needs a lot of work and practice. You don’t have to be the smartest to pursue science. Go try and build the passion that makes you happy!

Where to find Chiung-Wei on the net:

Personal Website https://chiungwei.wordpress.com/

LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/chiungwei-huang

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/phd.passion.lab/

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