In the world of academia, women are often under-represented in their field. In light of International Women’s Day, the Sun has highlighted three female professors who have made significant contributions in their field of science and continue to do so, despite facing setbacks.
Prof. Giulia Friso, plant science, has always loved plants. While she has been able to embrace her passions for plants and medicine through her courses and research at Cornell, it hasn’t been an easy journey.
When Friso was an undergraduate, “Women were still struggling in science to get their foot in the field,” she said.
During her time as an undergraduate at the University of Padua, in her native country of Italy, Friso worked in a chemistry laboratory, where she was one of few women in the lab.
“My professor never learned my name, but he learned the names of all the boys,” she said.
Despite holding the same position and qualifications as her male peers, her supervisor would ask her to make photocopies for him.
While working on her first research paper in the same laboratory, Friso discovered after it was published that her name had not been included in the list of authors.
“I was not in a position of power, I couldn’t do much about it,” she said.
While she acknowledged this experience could have completely turned her off from pursuing a career in research, Friso was not discouraged.
“I moved on,” she said.
Friso treated the incident as a learning experience, and was able to avoid similar experiences later in her career.
“It’s not a coincidence that all of my other supervisors turned out to be very respectful,” she said. “It made me more aware and made me fight even harder.”
As for her advice to students who find themselves in similar situations in the future, Friso urges them to not “get discouraged but be aware of what your rights are and look out for support.”
Friso does research in the field of plant proteomics — the large scale study of proteins and their functions. Her research focuses on the study of chloroplasts, an essential part of the plant cell that carry out photosynthetic reactions. According to Friso, the chloroplast has about three to four thousand proteins, with new proteins being discovered every year.
“When proteins are not needed, they get degraded into amino acids and recycled to become new proteins,” she said. Friso’s research studies the enzymes involved in this process, degrading proteins within the chloroplast when they are no longer needed.
Friso is now researching and teaching subjects which she is passionate about, and she encourages her students to do the same.
“I always tell students to follow their passion and pursue [their] interests even if they are very different from one another,” Friso said.
She combines her passions for pharmacology and plants in the two classes she teaches to undergraduates, which explore the important role plants have in human health both in the past and present.
According to Friso,“one-fourth of modern medicine sold by pharmaceuticals are either derived from plants or semi-synthesized from compounds found in plants.”
Her class, Plant Biology 2100: Medicinal Ethnobotany, explores the relationship between plants and native people in various parts of the world.
“When we lose one plant we lose millions of years of evolution,” Friso said, explaining why the preservation of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge is important.
In the course Plant Biology 3100: Medicinal Botany and Drug Discovery, Friso teaches her students the mechanisms behind plants as sources of medicine.
Prior to working at Cornell, Friso did her Ph.D. at Imperial College in London, where she studied biochemistry, and worked as a research scientist at a pharmaceutical company in Sweden.
The plant science professor said students should strive to overcome adversity by following their interests and excelling in their respective fields.
“Empower yourself by mastering competence in the thing you love,” Friso said.
When it comes to careers, Dr. Danielle Eiseman has done it all.
Before finding her home in the Department of Communication at Cornell, Eiseman worked at a children’s hospital, went to culinary school and lived in Scotland for five years, working with the government to shape a new public engagement strategy for climate action policies.
As a postdoctoral scholar, Eiseman worked at Cornell’s Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, where she did research with farmers, went to the Climate Negotiations twice, spoke at the Food and Agriculture Association in Rome and presented at Youth Climate Summits in New York State.
Now as a visiting lecturer at Cornell, Eiseman teaches COMM 2850: Communication, Environment, Science, and Health and COMM 3210: Communication and the Environment. She supervises a student-run podcast and is working on a book with her co-author Prof. Mike Hoffmann, entomology, and Carrie Koplinka-Loehr.
“It was a very wavered path,” Eiseman said, chuckling, as she recalled her path to becoming a lecturer at Cornell. After studying chemistry in undergrad at Miami University in Ohio, Eiseman worked at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for two years, developing genetic therapies for chronic diseases in children.
“When I worked at Cincinnati Children’s, all of the other research assistants on my floor were women,” Eiseman said. “We called ourselves the divas of science.”
Although Eiseman enjoyed the environment of being surrounded by other women, she noted that most of her supervisors were still male and working in a lab felt too far removed from making a tangible impact.
“I made a complete left turn and moved out west to Phoenix, Arizona for culinary school.”
Eiseman worked for five years in fine dining restaurants and hotels, while taking business classes on the side at DePaul University with the hope of eventually opening up her own restaurant.
“During the time when I was working in professional kitchens, I became frustrated with working with men in a very aggressive environment,” Eiseman said. “What you often find is that the more high end the restaurant, the worse it is, in terms of the sexism and harassment.”
Eiseman eventually took a step back from cooking to finish her M.S. in marketing and economics.
“I think people should know what goes on in professional kitchens. There was always a lot of hazing, sexual harassment and groping, and I just had had enough,” Eiseman said.
Through her classes, Eiseman started to learn more about consumer behavior, the environment and globalization.
“Even though I loved cooking, I knew that I could do more to have greater fulfillment,” Eiseman said. “It was one of my professors at DePaul who convinced me to go to Edinburgh, do the Carbon Management program and stay to do a Ph.D.”
Eiseman lived in Scotland for nearly a half-decade while working on her second master’s degree and Ph.D. She worked for ClimateXChange for roughly one year, where she worked with the Scottish Government to deliver reports to inform policy.
ClimateXChange is Scotland’s center of expertise on climate change, funded by the Scottish Government. The center focuses on providing public agencies and policy makers with research and analysis.
“Last year, I did a project for the Scottish government looking at the ways that we try to understand and segment the population,” Eiseman said. “The Scottish government has a very aggressive climate change policy: they’re planning to go net zero by 2045.”
Eisman said that the Scottish government is now using her work to change its public engagement strategies in order to help gather support for its climate policies going forward.
Despite the progress made in Scotland, Eiseman expressed that there is still room for growth in climate change policy.
“At the climate negotiations that happen every year, many of the panel experts are older white men,” Eiseman said. Eiseman explained that despite the prevalence of ‘manels’, a panel of experts consisting of only men, it is often women who are doing the work on the ground, implementing climate action policy.
“There’s this invisibility and a lack of voice when it comes to women working in climate change, which is disheartening, and it’s hard to navigate that,” Eiseman said.
At Cornell, Eiseman supervises a student-run climate change podcast, Down to Earth: Cornell Conversations About…, created in the fall of 2018 with the goal of increasing climate change literacy.
“We’re an all-female team, and yet most of the people that we interview as guests are white older men. It can be quite difficult to find those unseen voices,” Eiseman said.
Still, Eiseman expressed gratitude for the community that she has found working as a visiting lecturer at Cornell.
“The women that I’ve been able to work with at Cornell have been supportive and inspiring; in particular, Dr. Allison Chatrchyan, Dr. Shorna Allred and Rebecca Morgenstern Brenner,” Eiseman said.
“Mike Hoffmann has also been a great mentor, and we are about to publish a book on food and climate change,” Eiseman said. “It’s a celebration of food in the first aspect, and it’s also a discussion of how our menu is changing.”
Eiseman, Hoffmann and Koplinka-Loehr’s book, “Our Changing Menu: How Climate Change is Affecting the Foods We Love and Need,” will be published by the Cornell University Press in a year and discusses the global food system, what researchers are doing to adapt to climate change and advances in farming technologies.
The visiting communication lecturer also acknowledged the importance of women supporting one another. “The women in my family have always been supportive and encouraging. My grandma especially helped me develop a certain independence, which probably had the biggest impact,” Eiseman said.
Prof. Rong Yang,Chemical Engineering,came to Cornell in July 2019 and is one of five female professors in her department, including visiting and associate professors.
“We are [currently] studying the interactions and the exchange of matter and energy at that interface between synthetic and living things,” Yang said.
Yang’s research specializes in the interactions between surfaces and bacteria. Specifically, Yang studies how bacteria and synthetic materials, like plastics, are ubiquitous in our modern life, yet how we generally know little about the influences they have on each other.
“Our research allows us to develop new treatments for infections that differ fundamentally from existing antibiotics and are thus less prone to drug-resistance,” Yang said.
Yang had an interest in STEM from very early on. Growing up in China, Yang attended several math camps and ever since middle school, started participating in various math Olympiad competitions.
“These competitions made me increasingly attuned to the STEM way of thinking,” Yang said.
Despite her early interest in STEM, Dr. Yang did not know she wanted to be an engineer originally. She was forcibly elected to study chemical engineering when she did her undergraduate studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
“I got assigned to chemical engineering because I took a lot of college-level chemistry classes in high school,” Yang said. “But in retrospect, that was the luckiest moment of my life. I have been in love with Chemical Engineering ever since.”
After her undergrad, Yang studied chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I very much enjoyed my PhD years. Although research is hard and uncertain, there is always someone on campus you can talk to no matter what questions you have,” Yang said.
Yang partially inspired to become a professor by her Ph.D. mentor, Karen Gleason. Gleason is the principal investigator of the lab bearing her name, studying the interaction of chemical vapors in sensors and biotechnology.
“Karen [could] always extract the fun science out of engineering problems, and that made working with her a wonderful experience. I essentially became a professor because Karen showed me how to have fun in research,” Yang said.
Looking back on her educational pathway that led her to teach at Cornell, Dr. Yang reflected on how her mother inspired her when she was growing up as an accountant who is avid for new knowledge. Yang also admires how her mother is always up for a challenge.
“When my mom visited me [in Ithaca] last year, she spent most of her time learning English at the age of 60 Yang said. “By the end of the visit, I was pretty sure she was eavesdropping on my conversations with my English-speaking friends!”
When giving advice to younger females who dream about pursuing STEM, Yang shares an important piece of advice she learned from one of her mentors.
“Never rule yourself out of something because there are plenty of people that would do that for you,” Yang said. “If you think you don’t deserve this award so why apply, or that you won’t get into that program, or you are not good enough for this career path, pursue it anyways.”
Yang admits that she never thought she would be a professor because neither of her parents went to college and she knew nothing about the career path.
“It wasn’t until a few years into my Ph.D. study that I thought maybe I could be a professor because I really liked learning new things and thinking about new problems. Sometimes, we have to root for ourselves if no one else will.”