Spotlight: Lei Cheng

July 2022 Edition

Lei Cheng, Chemist, MSD

Growing up in China, Lei Cheng had hoped to travel and see the wide range of wonders throughout the country. By the time she was old enough to do it, she was an undergraduate chemistry major at Qingdao University. Money she might have spent traveling was earmarked for advancing her studies and pursuing professional dreams.

Cheng, today a chemist in Argonne’s materials science division and the focus area lead for JCESR, has been living and working in the United States for at least a dozen years. But, she still dreams of taking that trip.

“If I had a month to do whatever I wanted, I’d probably go to China to visit my family and travel,” she said. She spoke from a hotel room where she had quickly dialed in after a domestic flight and a rushed drive from the airport. When asked if she would take her two young daughters, ages two and six, along for the experience, she reflected that she’d probably go on her own.

“During family time, I really focus on quality and try not to think about work in order to reduce my stress,” said Cheng. “I take my responsibilities at this stage of their young lives very seriously, but it’s important that my daughters see that I have a life and that [women] can advance their professional careers at a lower intensity. We don’t give up.”

Cheng has always been drawn to chemistry, math and physics. They seemed “more real” to her than other subjects, and her curiosity and interest were encouraged and rewarded. Developing a career, she became involved in battery research at Argonne. The field has proven to be a satisfying way she can accomplish her personal goal: make meaningful, concrete contributions to society and improve how people live through the advances of chemistry.

“I am a research scientist developing materials for next generation batteries so I get to work with knowledgeable colleagues in a multidisciplinary team to advance technology,” she explained. “Collaborating and accomplishing big things is fun. I believe if you work on what interests you, you will persevere.”

Her advice to other women interested in pursuing careers in science and technology is to be open and proactive when interested in advancement.

“Too many times I hear people say, ‘I didn’t know she was interested,’” said Cheng. “Take the simple step of letting leadership know your career goals and ambitions.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cheng has been unable for three years to travel internationally or see distant family. But, as restrictions lift, it’s likely Cheng will meet her goal sooner rather than later. She continues to try to work efficiently, set small goals, give each area of life its due, and know when to say no. With that approach, it’s easy to believe Cheng’s dream of exploring new parts of the world is just a matter of time.

Spotlight: Susan Babinec

July 2022 Edition

Susan Babinec, Project Lead, Stationary Storage, ACCESS
Anyone who follows sports has likely heard the advice, “the best defense is a good offense.” It’s a pithy way to encourage athletes to take control of the pace of a game and not sit around waiting to react or change direction.

Susan Babinec, project lead of stationary storage in PSE’s ACCESS division and a competitive athlete, seems to have adopted this attitude and applied it to a long, varied and successful career in science, even when the scientific field wasn’t especially diverse.

“In the 1980s, women in science were very significantly disadvantaged due to gender,” said Babinec. “I just kept going and never used discrimination as an excuse for not pursuing my interests and achieving my goals.”

Sports, it turned out, were a simple but key way to connect with male colleagues.

“I love talking about sports,” said Babinec, who put herself through school and earned a master’s degree in chemistry and electrochemistry from the University of Wisconsin. “It did help me relate to male colleagues in a friendly and familiar way. It was natural for me.”

Today, Babinec works out daily (preferably outdoors), playing tennis, swimming, running and using her rowing machine inside during the worst weather. She hasn’t ruled out the possibility of training for a triathlon someday. Babinec is also a lifelong musician, having begun playing classical piano when she was very young.  She cultivates this passion with her husband and they attend concerts year-round, including favorites during the summers at Millennium Park and Grant Park. She is ever mindful of dedicating time to family and friends she holds dear.

“I always aspire to do a better job balancing my personal life and my work life,” she said. “There are a lot of distractions and I am very focused on my work, but you have to prioritize and make time for what is most important. Be very attentive to friends and family; call your friends, stay engaged, don’t get disconnected. Personally, I ‘walk the talk,’ which means I am always chatting with someone when I’m walking outside”

At Argonne, Babinec develops and implements high-impact technologies that can help slow climate change and ultimately result in a deeply decarbonized world.

She had no mentors in science during college. In fact she was frequently and openly discouraged.  However that changed once she entered the workforce, where she connected well with several senior male scientists who counseled her over many years. She has seen a real improvement for women in science and technology within the past 15 years or so.

“I don’t think the path I walked has much to do with women today,” she said. “It’s important for women to have other women to talk to and relate to, but I wouldn’t limit the possibilities and benefits of a good mentor to women. Some men can be as supportive as women.”

Babinec said she mentors several women and cares about them and their careers deeply, but she warns them they need to be realistic.

“This can be a very demanding career,” she said.


Spotlight: Maria Chan

July 2022 Edition

Maria Chan, Computational scientist, PSE
One of the biggest barriers to women achieving their dreams can be the stereotypical expectations of others. This was the case for Maria Chan, a computational scientist in the Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM) in the Physical Sciences and Engineering (PSE) directorate.

“My parents did not expect me to become a scientist, my math teacher in high school said I was ‘pretty good for a girl’, and some professors expressed surprise that I was good at physics,” said Chan. “One manager was startled that I work in theory and modeling. Another colleague told me that women should not be managers. I am not sure I have overcome these attitudes; it’s a work in progress.”

To motivate herself, Chan leans on her intrinsic need to solve puzzles, a desire to help accelerate scientific discovery, and the exciting potential for solving societal problems.

Chan uses quantum mechanical simulations and artificial intelligence/machine learning to understand and design materials. She enjoys the interdisciplinary nature of her work at Argonne, and its many collaborations.

“We bring together physics, chemistry, materials science, applied math, statistics, and other perspectives and approaches,” she explained.

Chan was inspired at a young age to pursue physics when she read a book on special relativity in her native Chinese. The book introduced her to the enticing idea that logical reasoning and mathematics can be used to carry out scientific thought experiments.  “Counter to stereotypes, scientists don’t all wear lab coats and handle test tubes,” Chan said.    When she inquired about a research position as an undergraduate, she faced mostly rejections, and one professor told her, “You know, not everyone can do research.” Fortunately, she found mentors in notable professors Nina Byers at UCLA and later Millie Dresselhaus at MIT, who made a point of encouraging her and other women to pursue physics. “Without their support, I cannot imagine being able to become a scientist,” said Chan.

The best professional advice she thinks she received came from her PhD advisor who pointed out to her how important it is to avoid a defensive reaction when someone criticizes her work. “If the reviewer did not seem to understand the merits of our work, that means we could have explained it better,” said Chan. “We need to think about it from the other person’s perspective and address their concerns.”


Reflecting on Science Careers in Search of Women 2022

A message from the SCSW Co-Chairs, Lauren Boldon & Emily Zvolanek:

Science Careers in Search of Women (SCSW) was held virtually on Friday, April 29th for more than 110 high-school girls across the Chicagoland area. The goal of SCSW is to inspire young women to pursue careers in science, bringing them virtually to Argonne for a day of lectures, tours, career booth exhibits, and mentoring.

While the virtual atmosphere is different than in-person, the students remained engaged throughout the day and were excited to see the virtual tours and videos of the Materials Engineering Research Facility (MERF), Advanced Photon Source (APS), and EcoCar. Additionally, they were very interested in the experiences of the keynote speakers – Dr. Lori Ann Post, Director of the Institute for Public Health and Medicine at Northwestern University, and Michelle Larson, President and CEO of Adler Planetarium.

The students connected with Argonne scientists in fields of interest to them via the career panels and career booths, as well as in small group sessions with scientists. Meanwhile, teachers were provided an opportunity to listen to lectures from Argonne scientists, as well as network and engage with each other in a parallel teacher panel.

SCSW could not have happened without the support of the broader Laboratory community, but WIST would especially like to thank the Organizing Committee, Career Panel and Booth presenters and moderators, and the small group session volunteers.