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Energy Future

Energy Frontier Research Center

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Frontiers in
Energy Research
Winter 2015

Perspectives on Women in Energy Science

EFRC directors and early career scientists weigh in on diversity in energy fields

Michelle A. Harris


Top row from left to right: Esther Takeuchi, Cynthia Friend, Kaitlyn Faries, Yanwen Zhang

Bottom row from left to right: Maureen McCann, Eva Zarkadoula, Dick Co, Laura Gagliardi

Women have historically been an under-represented group in science, technology, engineering, and mathematic, or STEM, fields. Encouraging women in energy-related fields is a widespread issue but also very personal to many already in the field. Several Energy Frontier Research Center, or EFRC, directors and early career scientists have contributed their opinion on the subject, ranging from advocating the role of women scientists in solving global issues to perspectives on youth outreach.

Resolving long-standing global energy issues will require a wide range of perspectives that come from encouraging a more diverse environment. Esther Takeuchi, director of the Center for Mesoscale Transport Properties (m2M), put it best: "To solve problems that are currently considered intractable, it may be critical to involve people who are historically not participants in the scientific process, especially women."

This sentiment pervaded the Women in Energy meeting at the 2015 EFRC Principal Investigator Meeting. The discussion was led by Patricia Dehmer, acting director of DOE's Office of Science; Sunita Satyapal, director of the Fuel Cell Technologies Office in the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy; and Cynthia Friend, director of the Integrated Mesoscale Architectures for Sustainable Catalysis (IMASC). Friend emphasized that the amount of diversity in energy fields has changed over the past few decades, but it is still necessary to push for equal opportunities for all scientists, especially early career researchers. She encourages that to achieve this, women need to support each other and also encourage male colleagues.

Echoing this idea, Laura Gagliardi, director of the Inorganometallic Catalyst Design Center (ICDC), believes that collaborating is crucial to addressing biases in STEM fields. The percentage of women who have senior faculty positions in the physical sciences has increased from 3 to 16 percent since 1973; however, women are roughly half of those graduating with a Ph.D. in the physical sciences that contribute greatly to the energy field. Gagliardi advises that women need to educate themselves about the bias and that people should speak up to overcome the obstacles. She said, "Women should explore their career opportunities as long as they can before making any choice between their personal lives versus their career so they can make more informed decisions when required."

Kaitlyn Faries, a graduate student in the Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC), has noted the disparity between women and men in senior scientific positions, especially in physical science departments. On a path toward a career in an energy field, Faries recommends, "Don't get discouraged, but get angry and use that to fuel your own ambition."

Similarly, Yanwen Zhang, director of the Energy Dissipation to Defect Evolution (EDDE), prefers to view any perceived challenges as opportunities. Zhang advises young scientists, "You are gifted with innumerable modern technologies and educational possibilities; please take advantage of them all to be prepared for the opportunities that will undoubtedly come your way."

Prejudice against women interested in STEM fields extends to future scientists as well. Maureen McCann, director of the Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio), runs an energy academy through C3Bio for high school students and teachers that incorporates role models from under-represented groups. Programs such as hers begin to remedy the large disparity between the number of female and male students interested in the sciences at a young age. "Female early career scientists as well as EFRC directors need to model the pathways to and in STEM careers," said McCann.

To address gender obstacles on a broad level, Eva Zarkadoula, a postdoctoral researcher in EDDE, encourages workplace discussions to correct biases on historically and unnecessarily associating certain careers with a specific gender. "To remove stereotypes of 'female' and 'male' jobs, not only in STEM but also for a wide variety of fields, we need diversity training." She states that to promote diversity in scientific research, support for diversity needs to pervade the field as much as possible.

Dick Co, director of operations for the Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research (ANSER) Center, also recommends that we shouldn’t expect scientists to assume a preconceived gender role, but rather give them the opportunity to choose their own path. He chose a more flexible job to support his wife’s choice of a more demanding career in industry and to help raise their two kids. On how changes in the field could help, Co said, "One facet that I feel is often overlooked on this issue is the need to support all employees so that men and women have options to pursue meaningful careers, build strong families, and achieve a work-life balance."

Increasing opportunities for under-represented groups in STEM is a critical issue that requires both individual strength and grander networks to assuage the problem. The directors leading EFRCs are at the forefront of energy research and play a crucial role in impacting the landscape for future generations of all scientists. By approaching the cause of equal opportunity in a variety of ways, senior scientists can promote a future of outstanding and diverse scientists who can lead us to new directions in the energy field.


The Energy Frontier Research Centers are funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

About the author(s):

  • Michelle A. Harris is a postdoctoral researcher in the Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research (ANSER) Center at Northwestern University under Michael Wasielewski. Her research involves ultrafast spectroscopic studies of charge transfer in DNA hairpins and in donor-acceptor molecules for solar fuels applications. She received her B.S. in integrative biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2009. She did her dissertation research under Dewey Holten in the Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC) and received her Ph.D. in chemistry from Washington University in St. Louis in 2014.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.