Women in STEM: dr. Eleni

dr. Eleni in the lab

My 17th guest is Eleni, a newly Dr. chemical engineer.

Hi @curleni! First of all would you like to tell us something about you?

Hi! Glad to be doing this interview! SO, a few things about me… The meaning behind my account name is a combination between my actual name (Eleni) and my curly hair, which usually acts like a trademark for me. I am originally from Greece, but have been living in the UK for over 5 years now. I am close to 30 (sounds so scary and so exciting!) and I have one furry child. I recently finished my PhD in chemical engineering (yay!) and so far my education has been around chemical engineering, but always with a twist. My undergrad was in chemical engineering, specializing on food technology, my MSc was in sustainable engineering specializing in chemical processing and my PhD was in chemical engineering, with many aspects of materials science and biocatalysis. Other than chemical engineering, my hobbies are cooking, extreme makeup, traveling and exploring new places, and recently, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, I am indulging in online courses!

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

I started my Instagram account about 2 years ago, (actually my first post was on Feb 2018!). Initially it was a personal account with photos of my everyday life, but about a year ago I realised that I really enjoyed talking about my research/PhD experience, so I changed my focus to these areas. Still, quite personal though, me and my hair are all over my feed. Seeing my previous posts, I feel I have grown so much and talking about the experience of my PhD in my posts definitely helped me a lot. This is one of the key messages I hope to pass on to people, talking is always better. The other key message I am trying to pass through my account is that research/academia/a PhD does not only offer technical skills, but it also offers valuable transferable skills! These unfortunately usually go unnoticed, as the “weight” of “4 years in a lab (or a desk, or whatever other people are researching)” is too heavy to look away from it, past the technical expertise. Employability of PhD graduates is a topic very close to me, as I am one of those people who enjoyed their lab experience -for the most part- but now want to move away from it.  

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

Doing a PhD means that this balance is very fragile, usually ending up to no private life at all. There were periods where I was going to the office or the lab in the morning and I would go home at night to sleep. It takes a while to find a balance and it needs A LOT of effort to maintain it. Unfortunately, research, especially in academia, is not a “structured” job, meaning that there are not set rules about the amount of hours of work you have to put in. Having been through a rough couple of years with late nights, I decided to move the balance closer to a 9-5 job. Still, I would leave the office around 6pm, after a full day of lab, data analysis, meetings etc, but then the rest of the day was for me. I joined the gym, met friends, cooked, enjoyed the spring/summer sunshine (a rare view in the UK, what a waste to watch the sun through the lab window, right?). Having more “structured” working hours also meant that I could not afford not focusing in work while I was in the office, which helped me with time and project management. 

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

I would say that during all of my academic experience the men/women numbers in the student cohort were quite balanced. However, I could not say the same for the academic cohort, especially in higher grades. In all 3 universities I have been, women lecturers were fewer than men and women professors were very (very) rare. This phenomenon is called “leaky pipeline”, where while starting off balanced, women do not progress as fast/high as men, due to biases, career breaks and inability to promote themselves the same way men are “entitled” to.

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

Luckily, I cannot say I have experienced that (definitely not in an academic environment), although a few times I thought that it might have been easier if I was a man. I believe that I would have been more demanding as a man and definitely more direct with my wording, not overthinking how I sound etc. Harassment, biases and sexism is unfortunately a very tough reality that many women are suffering and although things are changing, we are not close to full equality yet. 

How did you become passionate about science? 

From a little girl I remember cooking and baking with my Mum, and her explaining why we are adding certain ingredients, how they make a difference, how exactly they work… My Mum studied food technology and my Dad was a chemical engineer. So chemistry, was a big part of my childhood, and my parents explanations made me curious on how things are made, why certain reagents react with each other, how substances change upon addition of something else etc. Choosing to study chemical engineering seemed like the only appropriate option to me, as it combined my love for chemistry, with the practical aspects of engineering, real-life applications and a bit of everything on every science (from all sorts of engineering, to physics, maths, biology, economics, design and so much more)!

Could you like to talk briefly about your job?

Currently my job situation is not fully settled so I will talk around it. I recently finished my PhD, being in research for the past 4 years. My topic was on the interface of chemical engineering, material science and biocatalysis. I was looking into developing a novel composite based on bioinspired materials (basically fancy sand) and enzymes (Nature’s little helpers) in order to apply them as uber-sponges to remove dyes from water. Simultaneously with my PhD, I became interested and actively participated in researchers’ development! I participated in various committees and networks, contributing towards the organisation of networking and training events, setting up networks for early career researchers, working for mental health awareness within postgraduate researchers cohorts and generally speaking up for matters that mattered for us. I also worked as a teaching assistant for various courses around chemical engineering, doing lab demonstrations, assisting with lecturing, providing feedback and support when needed. After my PhD was over I got a few contracts for jobs around the university, the most recent ones being to create informational and communication content for a research symposium, and help with the revamp and operation of a module on employability of chemical engineers in undergraduate and postgraduate level.

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

That is a very interesting question, everytime I am asked I add more points in the list! I would definitely advice you to not allow any title scare you. There are not (or at least there should not exist) gendered STEM careers, anyone could be anything they want. There are MANY brilliant women out there excelling in “traditionally masculine” careers such as engineering, physics, maths etc. You are able to become whoever you want to be, try out things and see if they fit you, do not let anyone discourage you! Another piece of advice is to be curious and take risks. No-one ever did something amazing by following a known road. Make your own choices, evaluate the risks and always keep moving forward. Also, remember that everything is an open-ended road, especially in STEM, disciplines are interconnected, so choosing to study one thing does not mean that you cannot move to something else afterwards. Last but not least, maybe the most important piece of my advice to any girl interesting in STEM, is that gender gap is a reality, but you should always challenge it! The fact that it exists, does not mean that it should stay that way. Learn your rights and be ready to ask for them and fight for them! Your future belongs to you and should be moulded by you, no-one else! There are many resources out there, where you can have a look and take inspiration of what you can achieve from choosing STEM, learn about all the different options for studies and careers (there are SO many) and connect with people who might be able to help you decide, show you how a day in their life/profession is and so on. Take advantage of the social media and online material and dive in the amazing world of STEM!

Find dr. Eleni on Twitter @EleniRoutoula and on LinkedIn is Eleni Routoula.

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