Four Illinois students were among the 40 elite graduate and postdoctoral women invited to the Rising Stars of EECS workshop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last month. The participants were made up of students at the top of their respective subfields of electrical engineering and computer science, all nominated by faculty members, and the event brought them together to discuss research and the steps into and throughout an academic career.
The caliber of the participants was manifest the first day during research presentations, which were exclusively given by students. Topics ranged from microfluidics to lossy data compression, from magnetic resonance imaging to explanatory text analysis. “I was absolutely blown away by some of the presentations there,” said graduate student Yemaya Bordain, one of three ECE students selected for the workshop. “I thought, are you already a faculty member? How’d you sneak in here?”
In part, the presentations provided a networking opportunity for the students, many of whom are bound for faculty careers. “It helped me broaden my sense of how my research can contribute to the general field and the benefits of collaborating with people in very different fields,” said Katherine Kim, an ECE graduate student, who presented her research on hot-spot fault detection for solar panel systems, developed with Professor Philip Krein. “If I am ever colleagues with any of these people, I will be ecstatic.”
Some collaborations and exchanges even began there, at the workshop. Bordain’s research pertains to innovative probing techniques for atomic-force microscopy, conducted under the direction of Assistant Professor Gang Logan Liu. There was another participant who had encountered a roadblock using the same kind of microscopy. “She had a problem that she did not know how to solve. So I was able to offer her advice on a solution…[Those interactions] made it even more rewarding.”
There were also opportunities to interact with junior faculty members and discuss the challenges of establishing a research laboratory, while also maintaining a healthy balance with other responsibilities. “You need to know which is more important than others, and also, you need to learn how to offer help smartly and effectively,” ECE graduate student Yafang Tan reflected on the conversation. “That was a sentence that had been mentioned many, many times…not to be overwhelmed by too many duties, but meanwhile, to smartly manage your load.” Tan researches with Professor Brian Cunningham and presented on nanoscale fabrication for biosensors.
The junior faculty members also exemplified alternative career paths, including one who had previously worked in industry. “People say, when you go to industry, it’s very hard to come back to academia because you cannot really publish,” said CS graduate student Hyojin Sung, who is researching parallel computer architecture with CS Professor Sarita Adve. But the faculty member stressed that academic potential was not simply a matter of publication. “What really matters is that your paper has an impact on the community, not how many papers or where you are publishing from,” Sung said.
The students participated in workshop courses that addressed the arc of a faculty career, from formulating a mission statement and giving job talks, to the prerequisites for faculty promotions and tenure. “Many faculty preparation workshops emphasize how to do your application, how to get into the job. But not what to do once you get in,” Kim said. “Tenure is about five or seven years down the line, and it helps to know what to expect.”
Each of the students pointed out that, while the workshop comprised only female graduate students and postdocs, many of the issues facing young faculty members are universal, regardless of gender. “I don’t think it’s really more specific to females because everyone [has these] concerns,” Tan said.
As these 40 women begin their professional careers, perhaps as faculty members at leading institutions, there is no doubt that the “rising star” metaphor will hold true. “I am most honored to have met these other women, and to now…interact with them and watch where they go in their careers,” Bordain said. “I think that might have been the best part of it for me.”
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