Ada Lovelace Day: The Materials Scientist

Dr Sujata KunduAda Lovelace Day is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Every year, bloggers all over the world take part by writing something about a woman, or women, in STEM whose achievements they admire. This year I have chosen a wonderful woman who I met through Irreverent Dance classes – Materials Chemist and Science Communicator, Dr Sujata Kundu. Although Suze and I first bonded over ballet, once I started following her on Twitter we soon began to have conversations about the many ways in which fashion and science can meet, via materials. Because I’ve never really got around to asking Suze more about exactly what she does at Imperial College London, I thought today would be the perfect opportunity to find out and share it with you all.

Lori: I know this might be tricky, but… can you summarise what you do?
Suze: I am a Materials Scientist, Teaching Fellow and Science Communicator. I wear many hats! The first is based mostly in a lab, exploiting the behaviour of abundant materials in their nanodimensional form, which is usually very different to their bulk form, to try and solve big problems. In particular, I have devised and optimised a material that can capture sunlight energy and push it onto water molecules to help them split into hydrogen and oxygen gases. The hydrogen can be collected, and used as a fuel. When you burn this hydrogen, the only product of combustion is water, so we start with water and end with water. This gives us a clean and cheap fuel that is sustainable, and is also good for the environment, as we are releasing fewer greenhouse gases.

As a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Materials at Imperial College London, I work with academics to ensure that the lab sessions that the undergraduates on the Materials Science BEng and MEng courses carry out give them a taste of the cutting edge research that is going on in the Department to enrich their theoretical learning in lectures. I also do tutorials and lectures in materials chemistry and nanotechnology, and deliver training sessions to our PhD students in science communication, public engagement and outreach.

As a Science Communicator, I share science with the public, through schools shows for kids and demo lectures for adults, from fun science pieces on the radio to presenting science on TV. I like to call that side of my work the ‘Stealth Science’ approach, as you can explain some amazing science without ever mentioning the S-word, taking people along on your adventure even if they think they don’t really like science.

Lori: Sounds like you’re busy, but having fun! How did you get to be a Materials Scientist, Teaching Fellow and a Science Communicator?
Suze: I have genuinely just carried on doing what I love doing. I was always curious as a child, and have found a way to turn this curiosity into my career. It wasn’t a simple path to becoming a scientist, as I deviated onto a graduate scheme for a year, however I found my way back quite quickly, and have never looked back since!

Lori: What’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated field?
Suze: I have been embarrassingly and famously quoted as saying that I didn’t realise I was a woman until I was a postgraduate. The reason that I said this was because I have been very lucky. I never felt different for being a girl in science, throughout my entire school career and my undergraduate degree also. It was only as a postgraduate, not within my own department but when faced with researchers from across an international field at a conference where is presenting my first research paper, that I realised that women are treated very differently by certain members of the research community. I was thrilled to see that people from my own generation and perhaps the generation above were incredibly inclusive, and treated people as humans, and based on merit rather than their gender. Sadly, a small section of the community made me feel in adequate, and make me feel like I had to prove myself and my place at the conference. Once I had presented my paper, these people were full of questions, however to be faced with an audible sigh and a crossing of arms as I walked onto the stage to give my talk was incredibly off-putting, and made me question I was there.

Within my own department, we are very lucky. Engineering as a discipline is incredible male dominated, with some of the lowest percentages of women compared to men in any profession. Despite this, we have a high proportion of female academics within our department, and also within our postgraduate community. One of the things we need to address is the gender balance within our undergraduates. Imperial College has a reputation for having a gender imbalance, with more men applying than women. This is something that we are keen to address across the College, and we are holding many outreach initiatives to encourage more women to get involved in science technology and engineering, and also apply to Imperial College to study. I have personally been thrilled to run the events such as the National Women in Engineering Day event, which was exclusively for girls who wanted to know more about engineering. Evaluation from this event shows that perceptions was certainly challenged, and that girls left feeling like they wanted to become engineers themselves, and also to come and study at Imperial. Again, within our department, our efforts to create a more balanced working environment through many schemes that support women and men that have children, or other responsibilities, has been rewarded through the Athena Swan Charter, who have awarded us a Silver award for the second time running. As a member of the Athena Swan committee, we are keen to strive to achieve the Gold award in the next session.

Lori: Do you have any advice for young women looking to work in STEM?
Suze: Somebody recently said in an event about diversity in science at the Royal Society, that they want to employ women that are women, and not women that are men. I think this is really important. Having been in a position as a postgraduate where I felt that I had to tone down my own femininity in order to be taken seriously in this male-dominated environment, I realised how difficult this was to keep up, and I realised that I simply wasn’t myself, which made me unhappy. I feel that these days I can be myself, and I feel that my students benefit from that. In my job I’m able to share science and engineering that genuinely excites me, and also share elements of my own personality, which I feel help me share my passion and enthusiasm for my subject, and debunk many of those stereotypes of science and scientists. I guess my top tips would be to always be yourself, and always follow your heart. I could have carried on working through my grad scheme, and be working in the City in finance, but I don’t think I would be happy as I I would always feel quite unfulfilled. Sometimes I have to remind myself that what I do is a job, because it often feels like I’m doing all the things I really love doing, and I’m actually getting paid for it! I have worked hard over the last few years to ensure that my job includes these many facets of science, engineering, education and science communication that I believe in, however having put in the hard work I wouldn’t change anything about what I do because it really makes me happy and I think that really shows.

Image of Dr Sujata Kundu via Imperial College London.

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