Better results through equal opportunities

Empa owes much of its success to its investment in women, such as Irene Ferretto

Empa owes much of its success to its investment in women, such as Irene Ferretto, doctoral candidate from the Advanced Materials Processing Lab. Image: Empa

Empa has been committed to creating equal opportunities for women and men for several decades. On the occasion of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2022, the institution presents seven women from research whose contributions have helped strengthen Empa’s reputation on a national and international scale.

Dr. Tanja Zimmermann, Head of Department "Functional Materials" and succeeding CEO of Empa

Why would you encourage girls and young women to work in science?

Working in science means that you can immerse yourself with curiosity, passion and creativity in a subject that really interests you and leads to new materials, technologies and systems. I always felt a bit like I was allowed to pursue a hobby intensively. The best teams were always the mixed teams with men and women.

What do you particularly like about your work?

Firstly, working together in international, complementary teams where each person contributes to the success of the project team with their expertise, whether they are interns or professors. Secondly, the opportunity to design and address real problems of industry partners or society and to develop solutions for them. And lastly, the exchange and promotion of young talents.

Who inspired you to pursue a career in science?

My first boss and mentor during my internship and Master’s thesis inspired and motivated me to do my PhD and follow my path in research. When I was pregnant with my first daughter, he encouraged me - no matter what the percentage - to keep working. I did that and never regretted it.

What advice would you give to young women/girls?

Try to pursue your own path. It doesn’t have to be totally straightforward in every case, and it shouldn’t mean giving up a family. It makes sense to agree with your partner early on how you want to divide up the parenting work and create mutual space for pursuing your individual goals. It is important to build up a good network in your research area. I have had good experiences with being very open to the outside world and have very rarely been disappointed by my research partners, but have often been positively surprised.

Why would you encourage girls and young women to work in science?

I always encourage girls who are talented in math and science to consider pursuing a career in science and engineering because science and engineering fields are a powerful tool to transform our lives.

What do you particularly like about your work?

I like my work as I hope that it will make a difference in how we build roads. In particular, I am working on methods to develop sustainable road materials. Such novel materials will reduce waste, CO2 emissions and energy consumption.

Who inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I was always fascinated by science. From an early age I received science kits from my parents such as microscopes. I loved everything about biology, botanics and architecture.

What advice would you give to young women/girls?

We need your talents in science and engineering. Women look at things differently and can help find science based solutions to problems of humanity that men would not consider or deem important.

Why would you encourage girls and young women to work in science?

My experience is that connected thinking and fine motor skills are particularly important components of scientific development. Linking different topics together and having different perspectives on a project can be very helpful.

What do you particularly like about your work?

Developing new methods towards a goal is very motivating. It’s fun to try different things to find a solution.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

Research for human health covers a great interest of mine, which is why I was interested in becoming a lab technician in biology.

What advice would you give to young women/girls?

Perseverance to work towards your goal will pay off sooner or later!

Why would you encourage girls and young women to work in science?

Girls and women make up less than 20% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering and maths - however, these are the fastest growing areas of the future. So, I believe that if girls and young women are interested in STEM and curious about it, but underestimate their abilities, or have certain stereotypes/fears in their minds, they should let go of them, because regardless of gender, science is seeking bright and creative minds for its breakthroughs.

What do you particularly like about your work?

First of all, I like that almost on a daily basis I have discoveries, from very small (discovering something just for myself), to discoveries that may be significant and in the future can lead to industrial solutions which in the end will be beneficial for society. Second, I like having freedom to think and create - you can set up any scientific hypothesis and go for its approval or rejection. And, lastly, I like international projects with institutions from any part of the world, to be able to travel and to collaborate worldwide.

Who inspired you to pursue a career in science?

In my childhood (age 6-13) my grandfather, who was the leading factory engineer, was the reason for my curiosity in maths and physics! Often, we brainstormed together until late and looked for new solutions. After that (13-17), I had the best physics teacher at high school - his lessons were the most interesting and full of scientific experiments! I am forever grateful to these two bright minds for their passion for science that I can now also call mine!

What advice would you give to young women/girls?

First of all, challenge yourself. Discover, aim high and surround yourself with excellence, with people who intellectually challenge you and accept those challenges. There is an assumption that only people with the highest grades in school or university can work in STEM. But cleverness alone isn’t enough to succeed in science - it also takes perseverance, mental strength and some toughness as well as a desire to prove that you are good enough. It is also important not to shy away from owning how important your knowledge and contributions are.

Why would you encourage girls and young women to work in science?

Science needs bright minds to develop innovative solutions for our future. You can make an important contribution to solving global challenges in the field of energy research, but also in other STEM research disciplines, and I find that motivating.

What do you particularly like about your work?

My team and I get to work on extremely exciting topics that will positively impact our future. The research environment is very international and varied and allows for very independent work.

Who inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I originally had a different career goal. However, during my studies and subsequent work at a chair, I realized that research is my calling.

What advice would you give to young women/girls?

Be open to subjects you don’t have knowledge of yet. Find out where your strengths lie and what drives you. Be passionate about your work!

Why would you encourage girls and young women to work in science? One obvious reason - women make up half of the human population. Getting them excluded or not involved means having just half of the intellectual potential available for advancement of knowledge, technology and society. Moreover, gender diversity and cultural diversity lead to better scientific discussion and this is always better for science.

What do you particularly like about your work? Working in science means being able to exercise some of the largest freedom you can imagine. Not only can you be creative in solving problems (scientific or technological), but you can define the problem yourself! This is perhaps the most important freedom to have.

Who inspired you to pursue a career in science? My husband was my inspiration, when we both were just Master’s students planning our next steps. He brought several things into my life: firstly, an understanding of what is exciting to pursue in chemical sciences. Secondly, understanding that science is not a "warm bath" but a difficult adventure and hard work with an enormous reward at the end of each journey - and thirdly, eternal support in any matter, even when I was unsure whether to continue with my doctoral studies after having a child.

What advice would you give to young women/girls? I would mention one general contemporary problem: Don’t let any pressure to be inserted on you - neither pressure of pursuing career in STEM (we urgently need more girls here, at any cost!) nor the opposite pressure (well-known conservative views). I guess, most women experience one or another, or both. Follow your own heart and talents!

Why would you encourage girls and young women to work in science?

Working as a scientist allows you to understand why and how things work. Working as a scientist also means being able to determine to a large extent what is researched and how.

What do you particularly like about your work?

The moments when I understand a context for the first time. In addition, the feeling of having done a good job that not only benefits me, but advances science in my field. Presenting new findings, seeing the findings of my colleagues and creating something bigger out of it that we wouldn’t be able to accomplish individually.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

My enthusiasm for science and the drive to understand how things work.

What advice would you give to young women/girls?

Study/research what you are interested in and enjoy. Firstly, because in life everything turns out differently than planned anyway, and secondly, because good science only comes from interest and enthusiasm!



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