At a Thursday night panel, female professors from India and China shared the challenges they faced on their journeys to Yale — from overcoming cultural barriers to obtaining grants for their research.
The event, which was intended to be a forum for women from foreign countries teaching and learning in STEM fields at Yale, was organized by Women in Science at Yale and the Office of International Students and Scholars. The panelists — astronomy and physics professor Priyamvada Natarajan and chemistry professor Elsa Yan — discussed some of the struggles that women of international backgrounds face. They then offered encouragement to the women in the audience.
“If I can make it, I’m sure you can make it,” Yan said.
Yan and Natarajan both said the most important things to keep in mind when pursuing a career in a foreign country as a woman are to stay positive, to pursue what one loves and to learn how to clear hurdles in the field. The roughly 10 women who made up the small audience, ranging from masters students to postdocs, were able to participate in the discussion and share their own research projects.
Athena Hadjixenofontos, a postdoc in the department of neurology who attended the event, said that because she is not a U.S. citizen it is very difficult to obtain research grants. The panelists addressed these concerns and stressed the importance of producing high-quality work in order to form connections.
“If you’re enthusiastic about what you’re doing, this will happen naturally,” Natarajan said of building relationships within an academic field.
Panelists extensively discussed the challenge of cultural difference. Natarajan, who came to the U.S. to attend college at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the greatest struggle was being unfamiliar with American cultural norms, such as the customary way of addressing a professor in an email or pop-culture references among her peers.
Emine Altuntas GRD ’17 also said American students expect everyone to have the same experience base. For instance, Altuntas said, at times her peers will make her feel uncomfortable for not being familiar with a song or movie that is widely known to Americans.
Beyond the panel, several faculty members interviewed said they faced exceptional challenges as women from foreign countries.
Shirin Bahmanyar, assistant professor in molecular, cellular and developmental biology, said that when she and her husband were looking for academic jobs, she felt a lot of pushback from both her friends and her colleagues. Many assumed that she would be the one to stay home if the job search proved to be difficult, she said.
Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunobiology and MCDB, said careers in STEM are very fast-paced and competitive — particularly for women.
Despite the challenges of pursuing a career in the academic field for international women, and a STEM career in particular, faculty members interviewed said they are happy with their decisions to move to the U.S.
Iwasaki said the United States offers wider opportunities for women to do research than other countries. She said the cultural attitude toward women in her home country, Japan, is stifling — and that the sexism in academic fields hinders women from pursuing their careers.
Bahmanyar said that ultimately, her passion for the subject is what keeps her motivated.
“I love it. I’m in that game because I love it,” Bahmanyar said.
Women in Science at Yale was founded in 1991.