Women in Science

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? 

Huan Zhao

Dr. Huan Zhao

Nobody wants to sit in a plane, in a car or on a ship and experience some structural components break. Admitted: Such catastrophes occur rarely. Flying for example is one of the safest ways to travel. But the structural components of airplanes, trains, and cars are made of so-called high-strength 7xxx aluminium alloys, which are prone to hydrogen embrittlement.

This can cause catastrophic failure if not recognized early enough. So how does this embrittlement occur and what can we do to prevent it? This is a question Dr. Huan Zhao is working on at MPIE.

Hydrogen embrittlement: Causes and how to avoid it

She is working in the research group “Mechanism-based Alloy Design” on the harm-causing effects of hydrogen in aluminium alloys: “As hydrogen is the smallest of all elements, it is extremely challenging to detect on the atomic scale. Thanks to the new cryo-transfer atom probe tomography developed at MPIE, we were able to map the distribution of hydrogen and understand its influence on the mechanical properties”, explains Zhao. But what about completely avoiding the damage hydrogen can bring to alloys? Manipulating the hydrogen trapping sites to mitigate embrittlement is one promising solution researched by Zhao and her colleagues. What she furthermore explores is the specific corrosion behaviour of aluminium to enhance corrosion resistance and improve sustainability of engineering materials.

Behind the data

Digging into the mechanisms behind experimental data is key for Huan Zhao’s passion for her field: “Tracking and trapping hydrogen in alloys is like being a materials detective. And every contribution to the field boosts your confidence, because it is one step closer to improving safety for people in their daily lives.”  
Özge Özgün

Özge Özgün

The world we live in is pervaded by questions. Questions that can only be answered by science. Regardless of what one might do with these answers: Producing them needs scientific theory and practice.  This thought prompted Özge Özgün to spend her energy answering those questions.

The big one: Climate change

Now the question is of course not what causes climate change, nor its catastrophic consequences but rather how to tackle it. We need to rethink our technology and way of life to reconcile our civilization with environment. One major topic has to be the production of steel -  as without steel a modern civilization would not be thinkable: “The steel industry is very important but also the single biggest emitter of global CO2 emissions. So obviously we need new, more sustainable steel production”, explains Özgün. One possible alternative to the conventional steel production is the reduction of iron ores using hydrogen. This is well known, although some questions are still open that prevent the large-scale use of this technology: “The reactions of iron oxide with the impurities in the iron ore at the atomic scale are still not understood. However, this is a central question. Researching this question is my aim as member of our research group on Sustainable Metallurgy.”

A blind spot motivating Özgün. Not only because she is doing her part for the sake of fighting climate change as she explains: “One of the reasons that makes me highly interested about this research is, that the role of impurities in materials has been underinvestigated for a long time and there is no sufficient fundamental knowledge on this aspect.” And where to better research fundamentals than at the MPIE? “MPIE is a great institute that provides a good working environment with latest technology. Here is the best place for those who have a high curiosity about science!”, Özgün adds.

More questions waiting to be answered

There are still a lot of questions out there waiting to be answered by all those choosing the scientific path. Fundamental questions, which give us insights in natural processes or expand our problem-solving possibilities: “There is much to learn and much to uncover in the world around us. All young scientists need is curiosity and no fear to follow their dreams!”

Khushubo Devi

Dr. Khushubo Devi

Materials science is one of the most multidisciplinary research fields today. A mix of professions and methods from physics, chemistry, engineering, life sciences and computational sciences. Thus, material sciences are rapidly evolving.

A constellation awakening Khushubo Devi’s curiosity and fascination for the field: “After finishing my bachelor's degree, I wasn't sure if I wanted to pursue a career in science. However, while working on my master's thesis, I developed an interest in the burning issues of materials research. My heartfelt gratitude goes to my amazing professors as well as my parents. After that, during my PhD, I began to actually appreciate learning completely new topics from diverse fields.”, Devi says.

She joined the MPIE as a postdoctoral fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in January and is working in the department of Microstructure Physics and Alloy Design. Her study is mostly focused on green steel production. “Researchers all across the world are looking for strategies to reduce CO2 emissions. The steel sector accounts for 8% of global emissions, and this figure is expected to rise further. Given the critical nature of climate change, we urgently require industrial-scale sustainable alternatives.”, Devi explains.

Her main focus is the reduction of iron ore under hydrogen atmosphere. This reduction process is known and promising, but certain fundamental concerns remain, for example about the processes at the microstructural and atomic scale during the reduction. Devi and her colleagues want to address these concerns: “The current working idea seeks to comprehend the precise kinetics of direct reduction of iron ore pellets by pure molecular hydrogen, followed by the intermediate production of additional iron oxide types. The findings will provide microstructural and atomic-scale insights into the composition and phase changes that occur during iron ore reduction by hydrogen using environmental in-situ TEM (note from the author: TEM: transmission electron microscope) studies, paving the way for a better understanding of the thermodynamics and kinetic barriers of this critical process”.

One of the motivations for joining the MPIE was its reputation as Devi states that "the Max Planck Society is widely renowned on the international stage for solving several significant scientific subjects. They develop a unique atmosphere where perspectives and ideas may be shared crossing cultures and ethnicities. Furthermore, MPIE has provided a plethora of inspiring personalities who have demonstrated their dedication to research in order to uncover something new.”

Devi herself does not have any female scientific role model. At the same time, she certainly considers her mother as a role model. Her mother has no formal education, however recognizing the importance of education. She always encouraged and supported Devi in her pursuit of further education and scientific progress: “While embarking on an unchartered path like research, it is necessary to keep an eye on your goal. It is not necessary to be exceptionally intelligent in order to tackle any outstanding topic in research. It requires a great deal of patience and continuous effort, as there are more failures than successes, which are the greatest teachers", concludes Devi. 
Bárbara  Bellón

Dr. Bárbara Bellón

We all know from experience how small changes can have big impacts. Same goes for material sciences: Small changes in the microstructure composition in materials can significantly affect their properties. This aspect in material sciences fascinated Bárbara Bellón even though it was not her initial first choice.

“I didn’t actively plan on going on this path. I remember that I was looking for a diploma thesis and I was offered one in materials science and I completely loved it. This investigation of the microstructure, composition and how a very small change will affect the thermomechanical properties, corrosion or the performance of the materials just kept me in.”

As technology advances there is a clear shift towards miniaturization as Bellón explains: “In materials sciences, there is what is called the size effect: The smaller the stronger, but even though this is known, there are still some gaps in understanding this in the context of extreme situations.” Therefore, Bellón's main research focus is to study the mechanical properties of nano- and microscaled materials in extreme conditions. Compressing different small-scale particles or pillars at very high speeds and through a wide range of temperatures. As not only the composition can impact materials' properties, but also the conditions to which they are subjected. 

Her work is never the same, it is a continuous challenge, keeping Bellón busy. Finding the reasons for different behaviour, interpreting experiments, solving problems and creating experiments from scratch. And even if experiments do not work they still give her information about what is happening and she can test her ideas. Bellón appreciates this creative process and also the work environment at the MPIE: “Before applying here, I knew of the reputation and well name of the MPIE. I spoke with different colleagues that have worked here before or have tight relations with the institute and they recommend it to me. Here I can work independently but also together with colleagues in an international environment which is something I appreciate.”

In her scientific path, Bellón had no specific scientific role model, although meeting very amazing women in her career. In the materials department where she did her diploma thesis, the professors were only female and meeting more amazing women during her PhD inspired her to fight for what she wanted. This was something she learned from her mother, who has always been a great inspiration to her: “There is something my mom used to tell me: The one who wants is more able than the one who can. So don’t ever let anyone tell you what you cannot or should not do. That should come from your inner feelings." Bellón adds: "When you want to go into science I would also recommend to join supporting scientific women groups, where you can share your experiences and learn from others”.

Rasa Changizi

A good storyteller is as powerful as their story. Some stories are about a lifelong passion, and an inspiration for others. The stories of famous scientists like Einstein, Newton or Edison, their discoveries and passion for science inspired Rasa Changizi to choose the scientific path. Knowing that the scientific lifestyle was not going to be easy, but she wanted to be a part of creating a better world for all human beings.

“Doing research makes me feel like I am a modern-day storyteller with the characters being my particles, tools and theories. Sometimes I feel like I am solving a riddle and that requires me to work on something for days but the moment that it is solved, that happy moment, is totally worth it.” says Changizi.

She works in the independent research group “Nanoanalytics and Interfaces” headed by Prof. Christina Scheu. There, Changizi analyses lanthanide doped semiconductors. As a physicist she was always intrigued by the physics behind the light. The particles that she studies have light-producing properties which she tries to enhance even more. The detailed microscopes at the institute enable Changizi and her colleagues to investigate the materials on the nanoscopic scale and check how the atoms behave and change in different conditions and determine which conditions are most favourable for applications in industry.

Coming back to inspiring stories and personalities: A great inspiration for Changizi comes from her group leader Prof. Christina Scheu: “Working with Tina is very pleasant and always engaging. Her love and dedication for science is beyond words. And this passion and energy spreads to all her students including me. I hope that one day I can be a kind and caring leader like her.” Going into science not only offered a career path but also personal development: “Personally speaking, doing science really boosted my confidence. It gave me the wings to be stronger, patient and self-confident in everything I do. I believe for being successful and happy in life, one needs to develop these characteristics.”


Some riddles you take home with you. While cooking or on the subway, the question remains: What is the best way to approach my experiment in the lab? Challenging thoughts that turn into satisfaction and pride once experiments work according to plan. Challenging thoughts and feelings that Saba knows very well.

Saba works at the MPIE in the Transmission Electron Microscopy group. There, she conducts research on developing unified correlations of atomic structures of grain boundaries with their properties. Grain boundaries are one of the most important components of polycrystalline materials and play a crucial role in influencing material properties such as fatigue strength or corrosion and thus the overall behaviour of the material. Saba and her colleagues use transmission electron microscopy and atomistic simulations to study the structure and phase transformation of special grain boundaries in aluminium. They explore the influence of impurities on the structure and properties of grain boundaries and how these can be used to influence the phase behaviour of interfaces.

What fascinates her most about her work? "Here at the institute, I get to work with state-of-the art microscopes, which is pretty cool. Thanks to MPIE, I'm one of the few people on Earth who gets to see aluminium structures down to the atomic level."

Her enthusiasm for science began in school. Her own interest in understanding how the world works and teachers who encouraged curiosity were her impetus to work scientifically, "What deeply impressed me when I was growing up was that science can help you make a real difference in society. It makes you feel independent and innovative." Consequently, her path into research continued to the Max-Planck-Institut für Eisenforschung. “It’s not only the institute's fantastic international reputation, equipment and interdisciplinary focus, but it’s also about the many inspiring people here who put themselves at the service of research to discover something new, potentially world changing.”

Her path to research is one that cannot be taken for granted when you compare today's world with the conditions 50 years ago: "My grandmother's generation was never allowed to study. My mother had to give up her studies when she got married to take care of the household. Now the world is changing around us, and science is the main driving force, especially technology. Today, there are so many exciting opportunities for women, especially in science." More flexible work schedules and supportive initiatives alleviate the challenges that prevent women in particular from pursuing careers in science, Saba added: "You can be involved in revolutionizing the world while having fun discovering new things."
Lena Frommeyer

Lena Frommeyer

"How does it work?" A simple question with far-reaching consequences if you want to answer it comprehensively. Things do not just happen. Not even in the world of materials. To really understand processes and what's behind them, motivated Lena Frommeyer to go into science.

She is doing her doctorate at the MPIE and is analyses how materials function at the atomic level. To this end, she is investigating grain boundaries in pure copper in the department of "Structure and Nano-/Micromechanics of Materials." Grain boundaries are interfaces within metals that form, for example, during the transition from a liquid to a solid state, and determine material properties such as electricity, hardness or plasticity. However, it has not been possible to demonstrate the atomic structure of such interfaces experimentally for a very long time: "It requires extremely high-resolution microscopes, which are not available at all institutes. However, the MPIE has the proper equipment that allows us to really understand the world of materials from the atomic level.", says Frommeyer.

Frommeyer's decision to work scientifically came during her master's thesis. A basic prerequisite for scientific work is the willingness to deal with a topic in a persistent and comprehensive manner. An additional attraction is the opportunity to analyse something that has not yet been researched and to gain new insights. After reading some of the MPIE's publications during her research for her master's thesis, an event at the institute offered her the opportunity to do her doctorate here: "Not only does the institute have a good scientific reputation, it's fun to work on a problem together with so many different colleagues from all over the world."

However, the path to a science degree and research is not self-evident, particularly for young women: "Especially when choosing a physics degree, you experience uncertainty and self-doubt. You ask yourself whether you are good enough to succeed in your studies. But you can't let your own insecurity stop you from going your own way and doing what you enjoy." At the same time, the path to research is also associated with challenges, such as balancing family and career through fixed-term contracts or the need to relocate more often for a scientific career.

There are also fewer good motivations for going into science, which should not be considered: "Going into science for financial or prestige reasons makes no sense. You need the willingness to become familiar with new topics and the ambition to learn to understand the world. Then research is exactly the right thing to do, because understanding the world around us is the first step towards changing it."
Laurine Choisez

Dr. Laurine Choisez

The path to a climate-neutral economy will have much to do with our energy production. Overcoming fossil fuels in favor of renewable energies remains a technical challenge. What if the sun doesn't shine? The wind doesn't blow? The question of alternatives and storage technologies is a central issue for tomorrow's energy supply.

A question that also Dr. Laurine Choisez deals with. After studying engineering and earning a master's degree in materials science, she initially worked in a different field of materials science. However, the increasingly pressing climate issue followed her: "I wanted to devote my energy, my time, to finding solutions for a sustainable future. That's why I applied to the MPIE, which has an excellent scientific reputation and good equipment to do optimal research.", Laurine says.

Sustainable metallurgy

She recently joined the “Sustainable Synthesis of Materials” research group in the department “Microstructure Physics and Alloy Design”. There, she is working on the microstructure of iron powder at the atomic level. Iron powder can be used as a recyclable fuel. Analyzing the microstructure of materials shows how small changes at the atomic scale can have a huge influence on the material properties and on the efficiency of subsequent processes applied on this material. For Laurine, the appeal of the work lies not only in contributing to climate protection: "The field has hardly been explored and there is so much more to discover. That's what makes the work here so exciting. Iron powder as a fuel has been worked on by engineers, but there is a lot that can be brought to this research topic from the material science part." The idea of this approach is to use the iron powder as a kind of refillable battery. Burning iron produces energy, and the burned iron is converted into re-burnable iron powder using renewable energy. A process that can also be used to store surplus energy from solar and wind power.

Following one's own interests

The low percentage of women in engineering studies has not stopped her. A brochure from the university advertised the study of engineering presenting many women. The brochure thus broke with the "male-heavy" reputation of the study and presented possible female role models as a matter of fact. For Laurine, however, studying and working in academia always meant following her own interests and matters of the heart. An advice she also gives to others who are interested in scientific work: "Don't be afraid to be the only one somewhere. Do it! And if you like what you do and follow your interests, you'll be good at what you do."
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