"It's Not Just about the Desire to Have Children"

Women in Science: Interview with Iris Dienwiebel and Dr Kerstin Neuhaus

Women in science are worldwide underrepresented especially in the future-oriented MINT subjects – mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology. The International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February, which was initiated by UNESCO in 2015, emphasises the importance of women and girls in science. Dr Kerstin Neuhaus, Research Associate at Helmholtz Institute Münster of Forschungszentrum Jülich, and Iris Dienwiebel, PhD Student at MEET Battery Research Center of the University of Münster, report on their experiences during their studies and their scientific careers and provide an answer how possible obstacles for women in science can be reduced.

Why did you choose to do research on batteries?

Iris Dienwiebel: Sustainability and climate change in combination with chemistry fascinated me. Battery research offers interesting approaches in this field, and MEET Battery Research Center has a very good reputation. That's why I switched to the University of Münster for my Master's degree and decided to complete my doctoral studies in the MEET laboratories. Application-oriented research and interdisciplinarity are important to me. This is definitely possible here.

Kerstin Neuhaus: Originally, my plan was completely different. I first studied geosciences because I wanted to do research on volcanoes. During my studies, I discovered my passion for microscopy. It was important to me, too, that my research had an application orientation. When I was looking for a doctoral position, battery research in Münster was just emerging and offered me the optimal conditions to combine microscopy and application-oriented research.

© HI MS/ Ellermann

What advice do you give to students who decide to pursue a career in chemistry?

Iris Dienwiebel: How important a good mentor is! I definitely underestimated that at the beginning and I can only advise everyone who decides to pursue a career in science. Mutual support and a good network are essential. Be open and approach others. Setting long-term goals for yourself is important as well. You should also complete internships in different areas as early as possible to find out which career path is best for you.

Kerstin Neuhaus: Networking is crucial. Attend conferences and establish contacts. If I need a measurement that I cannot do myself, it helps me immensely if I know who to contact for it – especially through short channels. The second point is: Think outside the box and don't just do what is on the curriculum. During my studies, I had a look at lectures in the chemical field. That is the only reason I am working in battery research today.

Research potential worldwide is not yet fully exploited because there are still too few highly qualified women working in research. How can this situation be changed?

Iris Dienwiebel: It is interesting that the gender mix at universities is still relatively balanced among students and doctoral candidates. That is a good development. Afterwards, science "loses" more and more women. Temporary contracts are certainly a barrier, regardless of gender. There must be greater support here, especially for scientists who want to start a family or care for relatives.

Kerstin Neuhaus: Exactly, especially with regard to family planning, many employees in science lack security. Especially during pregnancy lot of support is needed. I was very lucky that I specialise in measurement technology and was therefore able to work in the lab even during my pregnancy. My lab was specially set up to be "pregnancy-friendly". Work with chemicals that I could not do myself was done for me by colleagues. Unfortunately, so much support cannot be taken for granted. Fixed structures are needed to provide pregnant women with support and to show them how to get back to work. This also includes very simple things like a nursing and baby changing room.

What do you wish for the future regarding women and girls in science?

Iris Dienwiebel: More female professors, so that students already meet appropriate role models in the Bachelor's programme. I only met a few female professors myself during my studies, but they were very impressive. And that caring activities are taken into consideration. Women are mostly responsible for the care of relatives at home. It is not just about the wish to have children when we ask ourselves how women can be won for science and how family-friendly workspaces can be organised.

Kerstin Neuhaus: That women become more visible in science. At conferences, the majority of speakers is still male. The reputation of a scientist is often measured by the number of publications. Scientists who have been on parental leave and have not published during this time automatically lose out. We have to break down this way of thinking and give more freedom for individuality.