Early Career: Celebrating Women and Girls in Science

Editor’s Note: Thank you to Beyond Benign for allowing us to share these exceptional interviews with some of the many inspirational women in science.

In recognition of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Beyond Benign’s Executive Director, Dr. Amy Cannon, spent time talking with extraordinary women scientists who share their passion for science, green chemistry and sustainability. Their varying backgrounds demonstrate to us the immense talent and vision women are contributing to science. We hope you enjoy these fireside chats.

4567c0da-b425-46ac-9323-f11f2734eab5Kate Horspool, Ph.D.
Program Director, Chemistry
Sustainable Business & Innovation
Nike

Education: 
BS, Chemistry, George Mason
Ph.D., Physical Chemistry, Northeastern University

What do you believe is one of our society’s greatest challenges in sustainability today?
I think there are opportunities to make sustainable advances, but we need to be better at incentivizing businesses to take risks to try something new and to share between industries. And consumers need to be educated that if a company is taking a risk to do something new and different to impact sustainability, then to give them credit by choosing the greener option.

Tell us about your work in green chemistry and/or sustainability.
I am the Program Director for Chemistry in the Sustainable Business Innovation Group at Nike. It is an amazing group of people who are committed to making a difference in the Nike product. Whether it’s in recycled materials or in the chemistry we use or in manufacturing processes, the team is committed to decreasing our footprint and making the best product we can. Specifically, what I do is look at at all chemistries, including how we use chemistry in our supply chain for footwear and apparel and equipment. I help to provide direction to the business on what chemistries we could innovate to get out of and which chemistries are better chemistry options for our manufacturing processes season product lines.

How does your work contribute to sustainability?
I think when people think of chemistry they think of the drum of chemistry and the immediate hazard to the environment and the factory worker. One of the things that we consider when we look at chemistry is recyclability—or the life cycle of the product from a high level view of the chemistry. We look at how the chemistry affects the product and ask if we being intentional. So, the chemistry is not just the drum of chemistry but how it affects the product from the day the product is made to the day it’s put into the landfill.

What is the most exciting or satisfying part of your job?
Seeing our products on store shelves or being out in our supply chain or factory phase and knowing I contributed to making them better is really exciting. It is amazing to encounter an athlete on Nike’s campus endorsing a product that I influenced through chemistry. He probably has no idea that we changed chemistry 1 for chemistry 2, but does recognize the product feels and looks great and is meeting expectations. That is super cool. From the satisfying standpoint—I am coach 9 and 10 year old girls with the nonprofit Girls on the Run. I love watching their faces when they learn that I’m a Ph.D. in chemistry, because apparently I don’t look like what they think a Ph.D. in chemistry looks like. And, then it kind of blows their mind when I tell them I’m a chemist at Nike.

Have you had a mentor, or educator that was particularly inspirational whom helped to influence your career choices?
When I started to working for NAVAIR our department Stephen Spadora was amazing.He was really good at the balance of pushing the envelope and changing the manufacturing environment while understanding all the different groups affected by a change. He demonstrated how to listen and address legitimate concerns. It was not about forcing change rather to obtain buy-in and to get buy-in requires listening and addressing concerns.

Knowing what you know now, are there skills that you would recommend to a student pursuing training in that you wish you had upon entering an industrial career?
I think it is important for students to have some real-world experiences and problems to solve where there isn’t a right answer—or maybe there isn’t an answer at all. And to learn to come up with recommendations based on the information available and to relay those solutions to people who may even be senior leaders. Additionally, I cannot think of one example during my education where we had to find someone in the business department and the industrial engineering department and the chemistry department in order to work together on a problem statement and demonstrate a complete picture of a solution. That happens in industry all the time—rarely will one be successful working in a bubble. I don’t know if we do a good job of stressing this in school.

Have you noticed challenges within your own work/life balance that might be unique to women in professional careers? How have you addressed these challenges?
I believe in creating work-life balance. I think women may be more prone to becoming unbalanced. I think it is really easy for working moms to get the job done, to make sure the children have everything they need, and then forget the things that they need. My girlfriends and I train for triathlons together. We laugh and think it’s insane that 15 hours of training is what we consider “me” time, but it is. I think it’s important to dedicate time to do whatever it is that interests you. I think it makes for a better employee and mom.

What advice would you give to a young woman today navigating a career in green chemistry and sustainability?
To anyone I would say be passionate about what you do. Listen and learn from the people around you. And at the same time do not be afraid to speak up and contribute to the conversation. Be sure to find a mentor or someone you respect and make sure you are making time to connect with them. Finally, check in with yourself. It’s okay to re-evaluate and change paths. I had several different career path before I found the one where I said, this is it!

 

765bbc1d-e3d1-448a-a74a-2264967c383cSonja Jost
Founder and CEO
DexLeChem GmbH
Berlin, Germany

Education:
MS (Dipl.ling) Industrial Engineering/Technical Chemistry, Technische Universität Berlin

Twitter:  @sonjajost

What do you believe is one of our society’s greatest challenges in sustainability today?
We need to convince society that people who are working in the field of sustainability are not at war with them or with industry. Sustainability is important for all of us and we will benefit all from it–on every level; the economy (by obtaining new competitive advantages e.g. through resource efficiency), society (by getting improved products/ materials which are less toxic), and the environment (by being less harmed with waste, etc.).

Tell us about your work in green chemistry and/or sustainability.
I founded a startup in the field of Green Chemistry. It is a spin-off from university research where we discovered that water can be used as a solvent in more reactions than scientists formerly believed. I realized someone needed to convince industry of the benefits to this approach.  Now I am the CEO, but still working on technical projects, whenever I can contribute to them

How does your work contribute to sustainability?
To produce in a resource-friendly way we focus on:
• Reduction and re-using of precious resources (e.g. noble metals)
• Synthesis in aqueous solutions (substitution of organic solvents)
• Improved separation of mixtures (reduce energy and materials)

What is the most exciting or satisfying part of your job?
It is incredible to see how much one can influence. When we started, there was no chemistry startup scene in Germany at all. None of the big companies really wanted to talk to us. Now, everyone knows us–and they are realizing it more and more that there is a big potential market in Green Chemistry. Ten years ago I would have never dreamed of that!

Have you had a mentor, or educator that was particularly inspirational whom helped to influence your career choices?
Probably it was my first chemistry teacher at school. Mentorship is not that common in Germany, but he was inspirational nevertheless. I think I only chose chemistry as a main course later at school because he told me by chance that he thought I should do it. In this way he encouraged me a lot, just because he believed in my skills.

What has been one of the most rewarding achievements that you have realized professionally?
The founding point of our startup was definitely a very happy moment for me and also getting our first customer. Recognition with different startups prizes, or spontaneously being asked to speak at UNIDO are also very special moments for me.

Knowing what you know now, are there skills that you would recommend to a student pursuing training in that you wish you had upon entering an industrial career?
Definitely a training in negotiations–or even better: more than one training. Negotiations can be very tricky. People from industry speak a different language. When you have never worked in industry it can be really difficult to understand.

Have you noticed challenges within your own work/life balance that might be unique to women in professional careers? How have you addressed these challenges?
Well, there was a time when my partner complained a lot that I did not help enough in our household. I was convinced that I did as much and we argued a lot–but then someone told me that there are studies that the perception between men and women regarding this topic differ in general. So, I hired help at home which ended the discussions. I did this because I realized we all have limited energy and it should be spent wisely.

What advice would you give to a young woman today navigating a career in green chemistry and sustainability?
I would give her the advice to try to get a job in the core of the value chain where she can really change things. Pure sustainability departments do not have access to power at the moment but the technical departments have it.

21330543-1ee0-47fe-b11b-dcb58a9aeda0Laura Muollo, Ph.D.
Director, Life Sciences R&D
Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry

Education:
Ph.D., Organic Chemistry, Green Chemistry Option, University of Massachusetts Lowell
B.S., Chemistry, Environmental Studies minor, Stonehill College

What do you believe is one of our society’s greatest challenges in sustainability today?
If benign alternatives to traditional products and processes were glaringly obvious, and zero cost would be incurred by switching to these alternatives, we’d be in great shape. However, usually the benign alternative needs to be discovered, and that takes time and money, which not every person or industry is eager to invest. Unless a regulation or mandate comes down, or a particular traditionally-used material simply is no longer available, the immediate benefit can be difficult for some people to see.

Tell us about your work in green chemistry and/or sustainability.
I joined the Warner Babcock Institute in 2008, and have since worked on dozens of projects spanning a very diverse range of fields. I have led teams which have developed environmentally benign asphalt rejuvenating additives, non-toxic hair colorants, methods for recycling batteries and electronic waste, and methods to enhance water solubility of pharmaceutical ingredients having poor bioavailability, to name a few.

How does your work contribute to sustainability?
In many ways. Re-designing industrial processes to reduce materials, solvent and energy use, in turn reducing waste. Replacing petroleum-derived materials with renewable alternatives. Improving API performance to decrease dosing requirements, resulting in less material excreted into the environment.

What is the most exciting or satisfying part of your job?
I enjoy the variety of projects that I work on. There is no field of research to which sustainability is not applicable, so the number of potential projects is literally endless. I am constantly challenged, and learning new things. 

Have you had a mentor, or educator that was particularly inspirational whom helped to influence your career choices?
Yes, though oddly enough, she was not in the sciences. My high school U.S. history teacher was an incredibly brilliant, funny, strong, independent woman who constantly challenged me to be the very best version of myself. She instilled in me critical thinking and debate skills, a strong work ethic, and probably most importantly a confidence that I could achieve great things with enough determination.

What has been one of the most rewarding achievements that you have realized professionally?
Having led the research teams which generated two different products that are now on the market, Hairprint and Delta S.

Knowing what you know now, are there skills that you would recommend to a student pursuing training in that you wish you had upon entering an industrial career?
I wish I had taken a public health class. Chemistry, the environment, and public health are far more intertwined than I realized as a college student, and having a strong foundation in all of those disciplines can really be an asset, even if your career is primarily focused in only one of those areas.

Have you noticed challenges within your own work/life balance that might be unique to women in professional careers? How have you addressed these challenges?
I’m a mom, so absolutely. I felt that my maternity leave was too short, and felt guilty bringing my baby to daycare as young as he was. Having to figure out when/where to pump breastmilk while on business trips was a challenge, not to mention the guilt I felt about being on those trips in the first place. Now my son is 2, so it’s a bit easier, but I feel like I am neglecting my work when I’m at home and feel I’m neglecting my son when I work long hours. I address the challenge by reminding myself that the work I do is for my son – to give him a better life and improve the world around him. It’s also important to recognize that it’s ok to ask for help. At the end of the day, when my son’s face lights up when he sees me, it’s all worth it.

What advice would you give to a young woman today navigating a career in green chemistry and sustainability?
Stay confident. Science is still a male-dominated field, and while I have encountered little blatant sexism, subtle insinuations that women are inferior still persist. A male colleague may be given credit for an idea you generated. You may have to bite your tongue when a client “informs” you of facts that you already know. When you are referred to as an “emotional woman,” be proud that you are passionate. It is that passion, backed by your intelligence and determination that will change the world.

d2c3b804-bfaf-4433-bf9c-49a8852a91b3-2Kate Maziarz
Junior, Chemistry Major
Mt. Holyoke College

Education:
A.S., Chemistry
Kingsborough Community College

What do you believe is one of our society’s greatest challenges in sustainability today?
There are not enough environmentally-minded chemists in the world to impact global challenges and inform other chemists. We need to teach green chemistry to college and high school students. If we do not start educating chemistry students early on in science education, then we will never build a sustainable future.

Please share your history with green chemistry and sustainability.
My first experience with green chemistry was under Professor Barcena at Kingsborough Community College. He had his students follow procedures using the principles of green chemistry in the classroom and during research. Green Chemistry introduced the concepts of toxicology and prevention, which were interesting and extremely useful.

What was the most exciting or satisfying part of learning about green chemistry?
The most exciting part about learning green chemistry is the overall challenge. Green Chemistry isn’t just about knowing the principles, it’s about critical thinking. When starting a reaction and even before it is important to ask: How can I make this reaction greener? Green chemistry keeps one focused on how to constantly improve processes.

How has what you learned in your academic career and within your research contribute to sustainability?
My education instilled the idea of how important recycling is within chemistry. Once I learned the principles of green chemistry, I understood why I should care about waste. I understood that what I do as a chemist impacts what options are available for others to follow. What is really great is that through green chemistry anyone can contribute to sustainability.

Have you had a mentor, or educator that was particularly inspirational whom helped to influence your education and career choices?
Both in Poland and within the United States, every single educator I have encountered gave me the passion and inspiration to go into the field of chemistry. From elementary school on, my teachers helped to cultivate a love for chemistry. I could actually list all of their names as being a mentor, but Professor Barcena is the one who helped me realize that green chemistry is the future.

What has been one of the most rewarding achievements that you have realized during your higher education?
It was rewarding to realize that I could use the principles of green chemistry in my everyday life as a chemist. Professor Barcena showed us the big picture of how industry could recycle polymers for future products and that a plastic bottle, for example, did not have to become waste. I realized that I gained a special skill that could translate to anything I did within chemistry.

Have you noticed challenges within your own work/life balance that might be unique to women in professional careers? How have you addressed these challenges?
I have learned that I always need to be prepared, believe in myself, and act like myself even when I am feeling otherwise. The perception of women in science is improving, but I think the environment is still very male dominant. When you are the only woman in a room of men, it can be very intimidating. My confidence goes away even if I am prepared. I have attended conferences where it is mostly dominated by men even though the field is estimated to be 50/50 right now. Older men within the field do not come across as supportive. It feels as though you cannot contribute as a female chemist even if when knowledgeable. I selected an all female college which has helped me to find my own voice within the field of chemistry.

What are your future career goals?
My immediate goal is to finish my bachelors of science in chemistry. I want to learn as much as I can through my research. Then, I would like to go for a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and practice what I learn.

What advice would you give to a young woman today navigating an education and career that involves green chemistry and sustainability?
I would say, congrats! Green chemistry is the future! In a matter of time, every university will incorporate greener methods in their teaching, until it becomes standard practice. People may associate chemistry with toxic materials and chemicals, but we can change the way they think by  practicing green chemistry.

b20dd5de-8ee4-4144-862d-6b6db7f222f4Maureen Kavanagh
Technical Manager
Renewable Materials
and Sustainable Adhesives
3M Corporate R&D
St. Paul, MN

Education:

University of Wisconsin-River Falls
BS, Chemistry
The College of St. Scholastica
MA, Management

What do you believe is one of our society’s greatest challenges in sustainability today?
I feel people don’t understand what sustainability is. Simplifying what sustainability is so everyone understands how they can make an impact each day is essential. Sustainability is a broad term to me but encompasses everything from green chemistry, recycling, renewable feedstocks and much more. It takes everyone to make a difference.

Tell us about your work in green chemistry and/or sustainability.
I have always been a champion for sustainability, trying to develop new ways to help divisional customers meet their environmental challenges, along with ways to reduce our products’ environmental impact. I chaired a technical forum within 3M to foster additional growth in Green Chemistry throughout the organization. Also, being part of some great external organizations such as the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3) and the Center for Sustainable Polymers is a great place where others share the same passion for green chemistry and sustainability as myself.

How does your work contribute to sustainability?
My team and I continue to be the experts for the company for renewable materials and strive to meet 3M’s sustainability goals but most importantly working day in and day out to show people how they can make a difference.

What is the most exciting or satisfying part of your job?
As a manager, my number one priority is helping my people build a career path that they are passionate about. My passion is also how to change the way we look at sustainability and green chemistry because making tiny changes does make an impact.

Have you had a mentor, or educator that was particularly inspirational whom helped to influence your career choices?
I have had many mentors and people that have been a true inspiration to my career. They may not even know how much they have shaped me to be excited and passionate about what I do and say each day. I continue to strive to be better each day and continue to take bits and pieces from people who have influenced me along the way. It also has been important for me to be my true self along the way. It just feels more natural that way.  I feel as if I am evolving each day in what I was meant to do for people and the world.

What has been one of the most rewarding achievements that you have realized professionally?
Seeing the growth in my people and leaving the greatness to them. It really is not about me, and once I had that moment of clarity everything else just seemed easy.

Knowing what you know now, are there skills that you would recommend to a student pursuing training in that you wish you had upon entering an industrial career?
You need to have an open mind and be coach-able. School gives you the foundation, industry teaches you application. You are creating your own story so be passionate about the skills that you are building and have a great resume.

Have you noticed challenges within your own work/life balance that might be unique to women in professional careers?
As a woman, I have learned to tell my most challenging stories about my career. Although, it is uncomfortable for me to share my story, I have realized how important this is to make a better path for future women.

What advice would you give to a young woman today navigating a career in green chemistry and sustainability?
We are at a crossroad, humanity and the earth needs your desire and passion to overcome the unsustainable lifestyles we take for granted.  We need highly trained, motivated passionate women to lead the charge of change. Green Chemistry and sustainability is a path that we need to continue to forge ahead with a future that is sustainable beyond my lifetime. You need to continue to teach and educate others on the importance of green chemistry and sustainability. Be persistent. Be patient. Lastly, be you!