Written by Judy Meiksin
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been hearing a lot of news of the particular difficulties women in academia have been experiencing. To my surprise, the panelists in the Women in Materials Science & Engineering Keynote Presentation: Perspectives and Take-Aways from the Global Pandemic provided tremendously optimistic views. This began with opening comments by Joanne Etheridge at Monash University in Australia when she said, “I think it’s science that is guiding a path for us to humanity after this whole pandemic.” She emphasized the expertise of scientists that has gotten the world through the pandemic, and that invented, designed, and developed vaccines within 12 months. “What a triumph of human achievement,” she said; “It motivates me actually to be a scientist.”
Payel Chatterjee at Norwegian University of Science and Technology agreed, “Science can save humanity, nothing else can.” The amount of misinformation and pseudoscience, especially in social media, encouraged Chatterjee to go further into public outreach. “I felt it’s kind of part of my duty as a scientist to make people aware of what’s actually going on in the lab,” she said.
Sandra Young of the US Army DEVCOM remarked, further, on the need for scientists to influence leadership. Before the pandemic, she said, researchers stayed in their laboratories and left it up to leadership to “pick and choose what they’re going to highlight.” What she learned from the pandemic is that scientists need to take responsibility to communicate the impact of their work.
The panelists also discussed, of course, the difficulties of carrying on their work during the pandemic, while also balancing the needs at home and their own health and lifestyle changes. The thing is, everyone found a way. Colleagues stepped in as “family” checking in on one another’s well-being, technology found its way to help keep families connected on the other side of the world. The moderator, Rebecca Anthony of Michigan State University, described the way she deliberately divided up time. Instead of succumbing to the kind of perpetual sort of super work—very pervasive in the US, she said, the pandemic led her to enforce boundaries for different activities.
Then Mmantsae Diale of the University of Pretoria wrapped up the session with even more positives. While technology may be talked about in terms of disrupting the status quo, “this time it is COVID-19 that forces you to use technology to your advantage,” she said. Because of technology, Prof. Diale was able to continue working with her PhD students. “I was able to teach them anytime,” she said, “because they can connect with me through What’s App and ask a question.” Everyone learned well how to use the various communication platforms available, and to also carefully plan what they can accomplish in a fixed period of time due to travel restrictions. Another great platform, Prof. Diale pointed out, is the networking platform at the virtual MRS Meeting. “Don’t miss the opportunity to chat with us one-on-one,” she said.