Focus on your goals and find support
Don't worry about the "nay-sayers"; for women in engineering, it's critical to focus energy in moving forward
I am Maryam Raeeszadeh-Sarmazdeh, and I joined the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering in Fall 2019. My research is focused on biomolecular engineering. Proteins play a key role in several natural processes, but the natural toolbox of proteins is limited. To solve major health, energy, and biomaterials problems and improve human life, we need to engineer proteins. In simple words, we make small changes in building blocks of proteins that translate to larger changes in protein function. There is so much we can learn from nature, and there is a huge interest in bio-related research.
My father, an electrical engineer himself, first got me interested in engineering. He always encouraged me and my siblings to excel in math and science to pursue engineering. He brought me to his work when I was a little girl and engaged me in the engineering thought process from an early age. My dad was my first mentor, but I couldn’t get here without several other great mentors along the way. I went to special middle and high schools with a heavy curriculum that required multiple advanced and specialized tests, and I went to the Sharif University of Technology, which is known as the MIT of Iran, afterwards to study chemical engineering. The teachers and professors were great, and interestingly, we had more girls in our class than boys. I never felt girls couldn’t do math, science, and engineering. It was great that this seed was not planted in my head.
I had great PhD and postdoc mentors as well. My PhD advisor, Dr. Eric Boder, showed me how to think independently and creatively. We were always discussing papers and projects, and he would always ask for my input. You know how it is when a project is made from scratch, you start thinking and putting the puzzle pieces together, and then you reach that “aha moment” when everything comes together. It was such a joy. Dr. Wilfred Chen, one of my postdoc advisors, also encouraged and supported me to pursue a job in academia. It is very important to give your trainee confidence, but this does not mean being easy on them or spoiling them. My other postdoc advisor, Dr. Evette Radisky, was a female scientist as well. I remember when she presented at conferences, she always had my picture up and introduced me to everyone. I am grateful for my mentors, and I would like to pay their generosity back to other young scientists, especially female students. I would like them to overcome their struggles and to see the beauty of science and engineering.
My mentoring philosophy is based on clear expectations, getting the best out of my trainee, and personalized mentoring. In my opinion, mentoring is not a “one-fits-all” plan. It should be tailored to each individual. Mentoring young students is the most joyful, yet the hardest part of being a faculty member. I have had the pleasure of mentoring several talented students in the past decade. All have continued in STEM education or gone into industry. Some of them pursued studies in the Caltech graduate school and the Yale MD/PhD program, with the majority of them being female students. Young female students should have the opportunity to grow in engineering and science. I always enjoyed watching young students grow over time and, with dedication, become independent thinkers, innovators, and researchers.
Being from a chemical engineering background, it was a challenge for me at the beginning to start on bioengineering research at the intersection of life science and engineering because it required vast knowledge and skills of molecular biology, (bio)chemistry, immunology, structural and cell biology. It was not easy to get myself trained in this new exciting field and switch gears to learn all the new topics; however, it felt amazing when I learned how to apply my engineering mindset to biological matters.
There are many challenges that one needs to overcome to succeed, and it might be harder for minorities who don’t always receive enough support. If I could give a piece of advice to my younger self it would be: Recognize what you can change and what you cannot, and put all your energy to move forward and move on. You can use this advice for anything, but the wisdom to implement it doesn’t come overnight. Don’t worry about bias and “nay-sayers”. There are always things and people you cannot change. Focus on your goals and find your support.