CERION NANOMATERIALS BLOG | JULY 6, 2020
Women in Science: How I Ended Up Working in the Nanomaterials Industry
by Nicole Swimline, Cerion Research Scientist
I was always good at math…
Growing up I always had a strong interest in mathematics and excelled at that form of problem solving. There’s just something about solving a challenging problem by making the numbers and materials work together that is so thrilling and satisfying. I guess this might explain why my childhood friends thought it was strange that I didn’t completely dread solving puzzles or doing math homework. Seeing my potential, a high school teacher suggested that I consider engineering for a career. My response? “That’s a boy’s job” … yep it’s true, I was already under the impression that engineering was not a field for women because any examples I had seen of engineers up to that point had been men. But when I mentioned this to a family friend, he agreed with my teacher and encouraged me to look into chemical engineering. At that time, there still wasn’t a strong emphasis on STEM in school programs let alone highly encouraging girls to pursue a future in STEM. Looking back, I realize how lucky I was to have a teacher and family who saw my talent and took the time to offer guidance. Because of their confidence in me I continued to research the field throughout the remainder of high school, ultimately deciding that I can and will be a successful woman in engineering.
Starting to break the mold
I began my college education pursuing a BS in Chemical Engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). The degree starts with the basics – process block diagrams, thermodynamics and fluid flow. I wasn’t yet in the bulk of my degree, but I was already enjoying it because all these courses were heavily math-based. The introductory courses were full of students; mostly male dominated which didn’t surprise me based on the impression I had going into this program. But as course levels progressed and became more disciplined, classroom sizes shrank and the student demographic balanced out a little more. No matter how outnumbered I was as a female engineering student, I was always motivated to prove my ability and potential to myself, my peers and my professors – so I spent endless hours reviewing notes and solving practice problems. This allowed me to earn exceptional grades, which I could tell surprised some of my classmates. On top of that, the Department Head, Dr. Steve Weinstein, was very involved in our education and easy to approach. In fact, he played a large role in my decision to pursue my Master’s degree when he told me of a proposed BS Chemical Engineering / MS Material Science and Engineering dual degree program during my third year. If I’m being honest, the initial appeal for this program was that I could obtain my Master’s in the same amount of time as my Bachelor’s. Since this advanced degree was in the early stages, I had limited knowledge of what it would entail but I decided to trial the program with the introductory course. I’m happy that I did, because I enjoyed the challenging course load that the Master’s degree provided, but also the increased understanding of materials beyond what I would learn in the Bachelor’s program.
Bit by the research bug
When preparing to begin the research portion of the advanced program, Dr. Weinstein introduced me to Dr. Brian Landi, someone who would become a mentor in my professional development. Dr. Landi, a professor at RIT and PI at the NanoPower Research Laboratories (NPRL), gave me the opportunity to try out the world of research and offered me a full-time summer co-op position working on carbon nanotubes. The problem solving that research entails was different than what I had experienced in engineering courses – there isn’t always a clear approach or answer that you need to reach – but I enjoyed it just the same. After that summer, you could say that I was bit by the research bug and continued to work with Dr. Landi during my remaining semesters at RIT. Dr. Landi switched my research project and gave me the opportunity to lead his anti-biofouling research efforts. I was nervous being given a leadership role because I was worried my other team members wouldn’t take me and my technical opinions seriously. But Dr. Landi’s encouragement and advisement helped me grow tremendously as a researcher, leader and problem solver. Most importantly, he also helped me gain confidence in my ability to become a woman who can make an impact in science.
Paving my path
As I approached graduation and began searching for a career, I wanted to stay around Rochester, NY because my hometown is nearby. I tailored my search to companies that focused on research and development of materials, stumbling upon Cerion Nanomaterials in the process. When I looked into the company further, I couldn’t help but think it was perfect for me – there is a clear focus on materials, as well as research and development, but I could also see opportunities for me to use my chemical engineering knowledge through scale-up and manufacturing. Also unique to Cerion in my job search were the number of female scientists leading projects and teams within the company. It told me that Cerion is a company who supports all scientists and gives female scientists leadership roles. Those aspects of Cerion are what initially drew me in, not necessarily the nano focus – I wasn’t aware of that yet!
Realizing that nano is what’s next
My nanomaterials focus seemed to happen subconsciously. What had always motivated me in science and research was creating better designed and better performing materials that would positively impact society. When I started at NPRL, my research began with a focus on nanomaterials and I also spent some time working on perovskite solar cells, a microsystems technology. My previous research did not necessarily lead me to nanomaterials, and I did not seek it out, but I can reflect and see why I enjoy this area of expertise now! Part of the nano advantage is that the nanoscale structure can lead to materials exhibiting unique optical, mechanical and/or electronic characteristics. I realized quickly during my time at Cerion that nanomaterials are having a larger impact in products that perhaps I was aware of (think automotive, aerospace, optics, pharmaceuticals, medical technologies, energy and more). Equally exciting is the unrealized potential of nanomaterials that our customers are looking to harness for their next big product breakthrough. My work at Cerion is focused on producing metal, metal oxide and ceramic nanomaterials that are specially designed, scaled and manufactured to be high performing in our customers’ products or systems. I have grown passionate in studying the varying nanomaterial characteristics that can be achieved and am motivated in learning something about a material that is not yet known not only for the sake of scientific discovery, but also to help our customers achieve a competitive advantage. I also enjoy working in a company where nanomaterials are being commercialized and put to use in customer products every single year – something that doesn’t happen with most companies in this field.
What’s next for me and other woman in nano?
Although I didn’t seek out a career in nanomaterials upon graduation, I can honestly say that I am glad my experiences have led me here! Thanks to those professors, family members and colleagues who supported and encouraged me – I am proud to say that I am a woman working in the nanomaterials industry, creating materials that are impacting society and disrupting various industries. I look forward to expanding my understanding of nanomaterials and continuing to deliver for our customers here at Cerion, while also advancing my career to be a Senior Scientist. In the long term, I intend to diversify my professional qualifications by obtaining a Project Management certification and taking on more of a leadership position. I also strongly believe having more examples of professional women in nanotechnology and a big push for young girls in STEM will help there be more growth and diversity in this already growing industry.