Women in Science
Men with wigs, men with beards, hardly any women. When you think of famous physicists, chemists or other natural scientists, images of men come to mind. We all know Newton and Einstein. Rightly so. But rather less Donna Strickland, who further developed the laser and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2018. The first woman since 1963. Who knows Ada Lovelace, the software pioneer who formulated the principles of computer science as early as the 19th century? Or Stephanie Kwolek, the woman who developed Kevlar, which is nowadays used in bulletproof vests.
The Max Planck Society is committed to advancing women in science and offers a wide range of support services. And despite all the progress that has been made in recent years, there is a lack of women in science as inspiration for young female scientists. That's why we want to introduce female researchers at the MPIE: How did they get into research? What are their motivations or role models and what advice would they give to female pupils and students who consider going into research?
In early 2023, Shelyug joined MPIE through a Humboldt scholarship. Her current focus lies in the improvement of metal yield from hydrogen plasma reduction process. Regarding her work, she explained: “To understand how to make the metallurgical processes efficient and industrially interesting, I'm acquainting myself with the tools at my disposal, such as the arc furnace. In other words, understanding the effect of various experimental conditions on hydrogen plasma through its reduction ability. At the moment, I'm producing numerous samples to optimize the metal yield while minimizing energy and resources expenses. Essentially, I'm varying the plasma parameters each time to determine the amount of metal extracted. It may seem simple, but it's an essential prerequisite for what lies ahead: Understanding the fundamentals of plasma-material interactions. Such a study is important not only for the applications in metallurgy sector, but for the area of fusion energy where hydrogen plasma causes detrimental changes to the construction materials upon interaction."
Balancing career and personal life
For Anna Shelyug, embarking on a research career isn't determined by one's gender, but rather by personal motivation. She believes it's crucial for parents to introduce scientific concepts to their children and treat them equally, irrespective of their sex or gender. She asserts, "Every individual has the right to become who they aspire to be, not confined by societal expectations." Consequently, Shelyug doesn't have a specific female role model but draws inspiration from researchers who successfully balance their research pursuits with their personal lives outside of work: "Achieving this balance remains a tough challenge, particularly for women with children. Some choose to leave their jobs and embrace motherhood, while others continue working or opt not to have children at all. I've witnessed women taking various paths. The crucial factor is that they have the freedom to make life choices that aren't dictated by their families or gender roles. If one regrets quitting or not quitting, it's still possible to alter their plans."
Shelyug understands from personal experience the difficulties of managing both personal and professional aspects of life: "My husband is incredibly supportive of me. Nevertheless, since we both work in the same field and aspire to advance our careers, it requires ongoing negotiation regarding job commitments and our living arrangements. And despite marriage is usually assessed as a search for a compromise or even some sort of sacrifice, I firmly believe that everyone's needs can be fulfilled; it's just that sometimes the path to it may not be apparent in the present moment. "Looking ahead, Shelyug envisions seizing new opportunities that come her way and continuing her scientific journey. She recognizes that embracing these experiences can pose challenges when it comes to organizing one's life, but she emphasizes their tremendous rewards. Not only do they contribute to scientific growth, but they also foster personal development. She concludes, "I highly recommend pursuing such experiences to everyone. They can be transformative, not only in terms of scientific progress, but also in shaping one's character. It's an aspect of personal growth that should not be underestimated in your development.
After her master degree, Bhatt worked as a research assistant at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (Germany) in the field of molecular dynamics and later at the German Aerospace Center on thermoelectrical transport materials using density functional theory (DFT). Gathering first experiences abroad and applying her knowledge to application. Bhatt joined MPIE via the doctoral program SurMat and works in the research group “Defect Chemistry and Spectroscopy” on orbital contrast in Field Ion Microscopy (FIM). FIM is a relatively old technique, but can deliver important insights when combined with newer methods: “FIM allows to picture single atoms on a surface, allowing us to visualize defects or impurities. Specifically, we image ionization contrast that arises from the electronic structure of the imaged surface. Combined with DFT calculations, we work on understanding these chemical contrasts on alloy surfaces and match our simulations with experimental results”, Bhatt explains.
Working better together
Most scientific challenges are not solved in a few minutes or hours, but rather months. However, this process of learning and always trying something new is part of Bhatt’s fascination in doing research, as she explains: “Research, in the first place, is not about earning some degree or money. It is about learning. It is great when your simulations work out and even better when you can contribute something to the welfare of society. But it can be likewise fruitful if something does not work right away.” At MPIE, she found a working environment that supports not only her scientific focus but also her learning ambitions: “You do not sit alone in your office all day. Especially my department encourages coming together and sharing work and ideas. Every week we organize hackathons and meetings where we come together with our different projects, problems, questions and suggestions. I never experienced such a nice working environment before. The way work is done here made it very easy to accommodate at MPIE”, she explains.
Although problems and ideas are discussed collectively, your own motivation is crucial: “You need to be hungry for information and eager to learn new things. If you are hungry, everything looks like food and you stay willing to explore new paths. Even better if you have family, friends or partners who support you in your path.” Someone who walked her path and inspired Bhatt is the physicist Marie Curie: “Without fancy labs, she won two Nobel Prizes and tragically sacrificed her life for her research on radioactivity. Thankfully, nowadays we have better safety standards, but Marie Curie, her effort and dedication remain unforgettable and inspiring for me.”
Implants and robotic armsIn 2021, she joined the department of Microstructure Physics and Alloy Design at MPIE to work in the area of metal additive manufacturing. Her research is about developing 3D-printed low modulus titanium alloys for biomedical applications. “Compared to stainless steels with high stiffness, beta titanium alloys have lower elastic modulus (less than half that of steels). This low modulus allows for better adjustment to the existing bone structure by alleviating the stress-shielding effects, therefore, preventing implant loosening, premature failure, or potential bone loss. This feature can be further improved with 3D printing: “With 3D printing, we can reverse engineer a patient’s anatomy and print a customized part, which exactly fits their body and bone structure”, Tekumalla explains. To understand and improve the performance of 3D printed titanium alloys, you need to dig deep down into their complex and unconventional microstructures. Materials properties like the elastic modulus and fatigue behavior are influenced by the composition of this microstructure: “Usually we understand materials from their 2-dimensional cross sections by polishing the surfaces and performing microscopical investigation. Since additively manufactured materials have really unusual microstructures, having a 3-dimensional perspective can give complete insights into the microstructure and the complex thermal history undergone by the material. At MPIE, we have an in-house built fully automated 3D EBSD system which has a robotic polisher that polishes samples, and a robotic arm that places the polished samples into the microscope to get images. When this process is repeated 200 or 300 times automatically, layer by layer, you get several 2-dimensional maps which can then be reconstructed to a 3-dimensional dataset that is a true representation of the full microstructure. That’s really impressive and helps us get reliable and easy-to-interpret results. Furthermore, automation saves us time and effort in preparing samples by hand.”
Experience is key
Gaining practical experience is something Tekumalla recommends to anyone who thinks about going into research: “Research is greatly rewarding and requires a great deal of patience, especially in a research field that has so many possible applications from cars or buildings to medical implants. To know if research is your cup of tea, start with a short research stint and get a feel for it by gaining some practical research experience. For example, by taking up research projects with professors in universities or at research institutes. With all the advancements and still many unanswered questions, it is a great time to be in a research setting!”
In 2022, Sonawane joined MPIE with a Humboldt Scholarship to work on iron aluminides: “When I planned to apply for Humboldt fellowship, MPIE was my first choice for the host institute. There was no second thought about it. I had followed their papers, particularly their work on small-scale mechanics. Moreover, the experiences of some seniors who spent time at MPIE and state of the art facility available to conduct my research here only reinforced my decision”, she says. Iron aluminides have promising applications in the aerospace industry. Iron is abundant and aluminum light-weight. Alloys made of iron and aluminum are strong and corrosion-resistant thus, promising candidates to work under the extreme conditions of airplane turbines. At the same time, it is still unclear how their mechanical behavior changes, when subjected to extreme loading conditions of high temperatures or high strain rates. Therefore, Sonawane is investigating the micro-compression of iron aluminides using a dewetting technique to design a high-throughput testing route: “Every small change in the alloy composition, changes the alloy’s properties. Preparing traditional samples needs a lot of time and material. We, therefore, prepare thin films of iron aluminides, followed by dewetting them to form microparticles which are then subjected to mechanical characterization under high temperatures and high strain rates. This method is promising in delivering accurate, high-throughput micro-mechanical testing”, Sonawane explains.
Sometimes experiments fail or do not deliver useful results. Therefore, perseverance and self-motivation are two of the most important character traits a scientist should have. As the Indian-born American astronaut Dr. Kalpana Chawla once said: “The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it.” This attitude and the quest for learning new things motivated Sonawane to continue her journey in science: “To the girls who want to pursue a career in science, I must say that your motivation has to ultimately come from within you. You might face setbacks on this path but your patience and passion will keep you focused. Also, throughout the journey, there are always people who will inspire you. For me, everyone I met who encouraged my journey and taught me new things is a role model - my school/college teachers, Ph.D. and postdoc advisors, and also my husband now. They strengthened my determination to follow my dream.”
Connecting the micro- and macroscale
At MPIE, she studies magnesium alloys that are widely used for light weight automobile parts. Kanjilal aims at understanding the micromechanics of fracture in brittle intermetallic phases in magnesium rich alloys: “The micron size intermetallic phases dispersed in these alloys strengthen it. At the same time, crack formation in these phases can lead to failure of the component during service. Understanding more about the processes and properties of these intermetallic phases can help develop more resistant and safer materials.” explains Kanjilal. She performs fracture tests of microscale specimens of these intermetallic compounds guided by in-situ loading inside the microscope: In-situ testing can be a powerful tool to link the local microscale response to the global macroscale behaviour of a material. It is exciting to actually see what is happening during the deformation of materials at the microscale in real time. Now that I am working here, I have the opportunity to perform such experiments using state of the art experimental facilities and exchange with excellent scientists. Pursuing my postdoctoral research here at the institute is something I am really happy about.” Additionally, by extending the fracture experiments to elevated temperatures in conjunction with post deformation microscopic analysis, she tries to understand the role of temperature mediated plasticity on crack propagation and failure and its effect on the fracture toughness of these intermetallic materials.
Understand more to fear less
Science never “stops”. There is no point where everything is known. Although research gives us answers, it is always open-ended and provides you with further research questions. So, todays generations of scientists can build on the work of the generations before: “I consider myself very lucky to be part of a family where two of the closest women in my life—my mother and my sister—have pursued a career in academia. Their determination and encouragement have motivated me to follow the path of science and continue to do so even today. I am sure that if you are pursuing a career in science you will also become a role model and inspire more daughters and sisters out there. As the famous quote by Marie Curie goes: "Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.", says Kanjial.
She joined MPIE in 2021 and is working in the Computational Materials Design department. The atomistic simulations reveal the behavior of different lattice defects in metals and alloys. Smirnova is working on Ni-based superalloys, which are for example used in turbine blades and are developed to maintain prolonged durability and strength at high temperatures. Understanding the defects in the material is an important groundwork these alloys. This fundamental research has its own merits, as Smirnova describes: “Fundamental research, by itself, is a unique combination of rather specified practical tasks, fundamental basics of the discipline, and creative working. The most exciting thing is, that a piece of your work, being prepared and published, may sooner or later find its place in a whole puzzle of knowledge and further be used, or resonate somehow in other way with completely independent research.”
A scientific career can offer many valuable experiences and possibilities: “I am especially happy to see that the natural sciences are less and less considered a male dominated sphere. So, if you feel interest and curiosity, find a field that encourages you to search for answers. This not only provides your research basis, but gives way to interactions. And interactions are the most valuable in science. People from all over the world come together and you have high academic mobility through conferences, exchange programs and international grants. This is something great and really beneficial to your career.”
As an undergraduate, Chakraborty was drawn towards physics and mathematics. It felt like connecting the pieces to complete a puzzle: “I knew I wanted to do research in physics, initially in theoretical physics. However, now I feel more motivated to work with topics related to current issues of our time. It has been an age-old problem to understand material properties to minimize the detrimental effects when they come in contact with environmental elements such as hydrogen. I work on aluminum alloys, which are widely used in the aerospace industry. Therefore, my work is extremely important in terms of safety,” says Chakraborty. Hydrogen can dissolve in most metals and alloys, and its interactions with the crystal lattice are detrimental in e.g. iron, steel, nickel, zirconium, and aluminum. During her Ph.D. she studied the effect of hydrogen in zirconium and zirconium hydrides. The results were promising and had many interesting openings, which needed further investigation. After joining MPIE, she started a systematic evaluation of various types of metal-hydrogen interactions in crystal structure and at interfaces of defects. Her atomistic modelling helped to understand that specific metallic solutes in alloys might be useful in decreasing the detrimental effect of hydrogen in aluminum. One study on zirconium and hydrides revealed that solutes may enhance defect formation that play an important role in understanding the overall performance of an alloy during its use.
As a postdoctoral fellow at MPIE, Chakraborty commented on her experience: “MPIE facilitates accessibility to more people (across disciplines) and equipment than would have been possible otherwise. The collaboration and communication in between the departments are a very unique feature of MPIE. One gets to learn from so many experts in one place. Looking at a problem from the perspective of all these different fields is the most useful way to come up with a holistic solution.” On her position here, Poulami noted “I have independence to work on interesting scientific questions that really matter to me. The research groups that I primarily work with (Baptiste and Tilmann groups) also encourages me to independently explore my ideas.”
One of Chakraborty’s role models is the mathematician Emmy Noether. In a time when women were not allowed to habilitate, she became one of the most profound mathematicians with her theorems in theoretical physics laying the foundations of modern physics. Although the situation of women in science improved since then, there is still a gap between women studying and being professors or leaders: “It is still a challenge, especially when women start having families. But there are opportunities for support and I think we should use them. And to any women interested in science, give it a go, give your best and do not let anyone tell you it is too hard, complicated or scary. Science is challenging, but this is also what makes it interesting and fun. We always need more role models, so be that role model.”
Abu-Muhfouz is working in the “Microscopy and Diffraction” research group at MPIE. She is using correlative electron microscopy and atomistic simulations to study β-FeSi2-based polycrystalline thin films. These films are used for photovoltaic applications necessary to build a sustainable future: “To understand the materials and develop them further we need to understand the microstructure formation mechanisms and their functional properties. This is what we are working on using the advanced methods at hand here at MPIE”, explains Abu-Muhfouz.
The state-of-the-art research was what motivated her to join the institute. The well-equipped laboratories, cutting-edge technology and passionate research departments. But at MPIE she found more than that: “Beyond the equipment and the technical stuff I found support here, I found friendship, outstanding colleagues and meaningful research. That is the core of MPIE”.
To pursue a scientific career, you need to know yourself and what you want very well. And there are some things Abu-Muhfouz would recommend young women who want to go into science: “Don’t limit yourself. Be aware of and appreciate every single phase, be it fails, obstacles or successes. Not limiting oneself also come with planning your options early. Like joining scientific societies, participating in competitions or voluntary social works. Because as Paul Brandt impressively said: “Don't tell me the sky's the limit when there are footprints on the moon!””.
Dr. Elisa Cantergiani’s fascination for science already started in school where she was curious how nature worked: “When it was time to choose the university, it was kind of logical to choose a path in science or engineering. Materials Engineering had a balanced mixture of physics, chemistry and industrial applications”. After graduation, she worked in the automotive and packaging industry for five years before going back into research and pursuing her PhD. Now Cantergiani is working as a postdoctoral researcher at MPIE in a project on aluminum: “From the beverage cans to automotive and aircraft parts, aluminum is key for modern industry. I am working to optimize its texture and microstructure, so it can be more formable thus more useful for applications” she explains. Cantergiani performs crystal plasticity simulations to predict the microstructure and texture evolution as well as how to optimize the material during hot and cold rolling.
Her fascination for research goes back from her will to understand the world and take new paths to achieve this understanding: “In research and engineering, it is very exciting to walk on knowledge paths that nobody has ever tried before. It can be also frustrating because when something new is started and nobody has done it before, you can do many mistakes. But here comes perseverance into play. In the end you will be rewarded with satisfaction and being the first in trying something new. This is what makes up the excitement.” The same can be said as advice for young women considering a career in research: “Believe in yourself, your skills and hold on, even if a project does not go as planned or you find yourself working in an environment where women are under-represented. As a woman working in men dominated environments, sometimes you feel you have to prove yourself more than your male colleagues. That’s difficult, but also trains you in following your goals no matter what.”
A symbol for resilience and perseverance
Some inspiration for this way comes from one of Cantergiani’s scientific idols, the Italian neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini: “She is an example of perseverance, passion and resilience in life. Despite the anti-Jewish laws enacted during fascism in Italy at that time that prevented her to access research laboratories in universities, she still kept her strength and motivation. She built up a small lab in her bedroom to keep doing research in biology and medicine until she was able to immigrate to the US, where she developed most of her career, finally receiving a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1986.”