IWISE event gathers US-Irish women in science and engineering

28 Feb 20142 Shares

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Participants of the recent IWISE event in Washington, DC, discussed how to encourage women in science and engineering.

What's the collective term for a gathering of highly successful women in science and engineering? The dictionary writers might want to sharpen their pencils after a special event that took place in the United States earlier this month.

It involved several high-profile women in science in the US and Ireland, and the focus was on how to encourage more young women to choose subjects and careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

The event, which was hosted by the Embassy of Ireland in Washington, DC, included a panel discussion on 'Irish Women in Science and Engineering (IWISE): Pathways to Success'. According to organiser Cathy O'Connor, the main purpose was to highlight the achievements of US-based Irish women in STEM sectors in the hope their success stories would encourage younger women to choose STEM subjects leading to careers in these sectors.

O'Connor, ICT, energy and science counsellor at the Washington Embassy, has been working with the Wild Geese Network of Irish scientists in the US and was inspired to make the IWISE event happen after she attended the Women in Science Lunch at the UCD Earth Institute Gathering last November.

Go for the T-shape

The guest speakers at the February event in Washington were astronaut and acting NOAA administrator Dr Kathryn Sullivan and Dr Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary at the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

The importance of role models, mentoring and sponsoring were common themes in the discussion. "Women should actively sponsor and advocate for other women when opportunities and openings arise," said Sullivan, who advised young women to become a 'T-shaped' person, someone who complements deep knowledge and mastery of a subject or skill with a broad understanding of the world around them.

Network and create opportunities

Jones, who is also US chair of the US-Ireland R&D Partnership, acknowledged the impressive talent and accomplishments of Irish women working in the STEM and medical fields in the US, and some of those successful scientists were in attendance.

Sullivan and Jones were joined at the event by a panel of US-based Irish women, including Ann Kelleher, VP at Intel, who encouraged networking and face-to-face meetings and emphasised the importance of ensuring your efforts and results are seen.

Dr Julie McEnery, an astrophysicist at NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center, and a project scientist for the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, commented on the value of creating opportunities, and not being afraid to take risks and to try new things.

Prof Margaret Murnane, distinguished professor in physics at University of Colorado, encouraged young budding scientists to take risks, to follow what you love, and to be willing to stand out. "Whatever you think you can do alone, you can do much more if you have partners and collaborators," she said, noting it is not always the work of the leader but also good communication within the team that determines success.

Participation of women in science

Prof Eileen Drew, director of Women in Science, Engineering and Research (WiSER) at Trinity College Dublin, emphasised the importance of national and international collaboration and the need for cross-institutional action to promote women in sciences. She spoke about the FP7-funded INTEGER project and her belief these efforts will contribute to gender equality and research excellence.

Ambassador Anne Anderson, who is the first woman ambassador from Ireland to the United States, spoke about the importance of exposing young girls to science early in their education. Referencing a recent report from Accenture and Silicon Republic, she spoke about the talent shortage in STEM areas, not just in Ireland but around the world, and noted that this shortage will not be addressed without much stronger female participation.

Change in the air

Former head of the National Science Foundation Dr Rita Colwell was at the event, and a number of scientists travelled from Ireland to attend.

One was Dr Patricia Maguire, a senior lecturer at UCD College of Science and a founding member of the UCD Women in the Sciences (UCDWiTS) Committee.

Speaking to Siliconrepublic.com, she described how she would like to see greater national and international recognition for higher-education institutes that encourage gender equality, and at the event in Washington, DC, she got the sense that change is imminent.

"Irish women are coming together in science and engineering and it's going to be a global concerted effort to move forward," she said.

"We are on the cusp of real change and it's exciting to be involved."

Photo (left to right): Ann Kelleher, VP, Intel; Cathy O'Connor, Embassy of Ireland (organiser); Julie McEnery, astrophysicist at NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center; Rita Colwell, professor at UMD, former head of NSF; Kathy Sullivan, NOAA administrator, and renowned astronaut; ambassador Anne Anderson; Dr Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary, U.S. Department of State; Eileen Drew, director of Women in Science, Engineering and Research (WiSER), Trinity College Dublin; Deborah Brosnan, professor at Virginia Tech; Barbara Murphy, transplant nephrologist and chair of the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai NY; and Sinead Farrell, assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland. Prof Margaret Murnane, distinguished professor in physics at University of Colorado (not pictured), also served as panellist at the event

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. On 7 March 2014, we will kick off the campaign’s second year. Let’s change the ratio.