In honour of International Women's Day (March 8th), we take the opportunity to shed more light into the issues that women in science and academia are facing and explore initiatives that have helped in improving diversity and inclusion. In this interview, Josefine Proll, Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Physics and Science Education at Eindhoven University of Technology, discusses her experience as a woman in STEM and provides advice to women starting out in the space.
I grew up in the Northern German countryside – very idyllic, but not all that much going on in terms of science. So, for the science-interested kid that I was, it was a great day when aged 13 my parents took me to visit the newly-opened Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) in Greifswald, designated to be the new site of Germany’s main research centre on nuclear fusion. Already before I had been quite interested in science, and when I learned about nuclear fusion and its potential for green, nearly limitless energy I was sold – I knew this is what I wanted to work on. Since then, my career choices – from where I did my high school internship (at the IPP, naturally), where I went for my undergraduate degree, to the choices of graduation project topics, were all geared towards landing me a spot in nuclear fusion research.
In the field of plasma physics I can report that we are few, right from the start of the PhD (also during my undergrad there were maybe 20% women). In the beginning it was a bit odd, noticing that I was often the only woman in a room of scientists for certain meetings, but I was never made to feel inadequate because of that.
I sometimes wish there were more female role models around – I’m noticing how having even a few (the head of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics is a woman, and both a formidable scientist and excellent leader) is so motivating. Within Eindhoven University of Technology, where I am an Assistant Professor since 2017, they’ve introduced a – quite heavily debated – rule that new positions should first be only open to female applicants and only if suitable candidates can’t be found they should be open to everyone. As someone who has been on the receiving end of comments like “Ah you only got this grant/this position because you’re a woman and this was a diversity decision”, which surely hurts and is quite destructive to the ego, I am not an absolute fan of the Eindhoven decision, but it sure has been effective! Within my department of Applied Physics and Science Education we now have a significant increase in female staff.
So far, I’ve really felt very valued in the community and like I belonged. I know of female colleagues within the field of plasma physics who haven’t, which always makes me incredibly angry, so it’s not like plasma physics is the perfect place to be. And I know there were many more senior colleagues who have worked hard on making diversity and inclusion a priority. So yes, for me, it’s been good, but I know there are still a lot of challenges.
When it comes to gender diversity, I do believe there has been an increase in awareness, and a few very nice initiatives exist, which have already helped.
I would like to note though that, so far, diversity mostly means gender diversity, and while there are rules for ensuring female speakers’ inclusion in a conference or a panel or during the hiring process, we haven’t really seen the same happening for racial and ethnic diversity, and this is something that should be addressed.
I do believe that having more non-white, non-male scientists around would change the atmosphere and the conditions, and more women and BIPOC would be encouraged to stay in the field.
About Josefine Proll
Josefine is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Physics and Science Education at Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands, and currently a guest professor at the Institute of Advanced Energy at Kyoto University, Japan. She works on nuclear fusion, which promises clean and abundant energy for all. Her research focus is studying how the intricate, twisted shape of the fusion reactor influences the turbulence in the fusion fuel, and how this knowledge can help with the design of future fusion reactors.