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Building bridges

Mentoring connections can span generations for women in technical fields




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Nathan Cahill

RIT students Amanda Ziemann, right, and Selene Chew attended a conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, and connected with seasoned industry professionals.

By the time she reached midcareer, scientist Jie Qiao knew something was fundamentally wrong with the science-and-technology workforce. She was struck by the dwindling number of her female colleagues presenting at professional conferences or assuming leadership positions.

“There are a lot of reasons why women drop out of science,” said Qiao, an associate professor in RIT’s Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science.

Many women feel isolated, lonely and taxed by competing demands of work and home, she noted. Others feel in need of mentorship, out of the loop, excluded from informal decision-making opportunities and disliked for their successes.

Qiao knows the scenarios firsthand as a woman in the male-dominated field of optics and photonics. She established her career developing technology for photonics, optical instrumentation and laser systems in laboratories in the corporate and academic sectors.

Outside of the laboratory, Qiao has a growing reputation as the founder and chairperson of an organization that brings together women in science, technology, engineering and entrepreneurship called WiSTEE Connect. Qiao launched the networking organization in 2013 at the University of Rochester and brought it to RIT later that year. The group has quickly grown into a regional organization.

“Promoting women and science is not my job, not my research,” she said. “I am doing this because of my passion for science and technology. I want to use my talent in my field and I also want other women to be able to use their talents. But there is a challenge for women to stay in this field.”

The response to the professional networking events Qiao has organized in China, UR, RIT and at an Optical Society of America conference confirms her belief that junior faculty and mid-career women need more support.

“Mid-career women are the bridge generation for connecting with more senior and more junior people,” Qiao said. “You have continuity. You look up and you see someone in front of you; you look back and you see your past. And that is motivating because you see the overall picture; you’re not isolated.”

Entrepreneurship is another key aspect of WiSTEE Connect.

“I wanted to introduce entrepreneurial thinking to the academic world,” said Qiao, who earned her MBA from the UR’s Simon Business School. “I recognized how important global marketing, strategy and leadership are to scientists and engineers. It brings a different perspective to a woman’s career. Entrepreneurial thinking helps academic women achieve a balance of opportunities, team and resources.”

WiSTEE Connect is a multidisciplinary and cross-ranking platform for providing an environment to foster a “mentorship ecosystem” and collaboration in the spirit of “cooperative advancement,” she said. Qiao envisions it growing into a national organization for women to share experiences, knowledge and strategies for mentoring, collaborating and navigating their careers as well as for overcoming unspoken stereotypical expectations.

“There is a lot of effort to get girls in science and engineering,” Qiao said. “But there is no point if they cannot grow through the field and have a fruitful career through their life.”

For more information about WiSTEE Connect, go to www.wisteeconnect.org.

Connections in action

Jie Qiao had RIT students like Amanda Ziemann and Selene Chew in mind when she founded Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Entrepreneurship Connect. The professional networking organization provides concrete support, mentorship and collaboration for students and young women on the cusp of their professional lives and through the rest of their careers. It bridges women at the junior and middle levels with those in leadership roles, said Qiao, an associate professor in RIT’s Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science.

Ziemann and Chew gained professional perspective, opportunity and visibility—goals central to WiSTEE Connect—while attending the Workshop on Hyperspectral Image and Signal Processing: Evolution in Remote Sensing in June with their mentors, RIT professors David Messinger and Nathan Cahill, respectively. Ziemann, a Ph.D. student in the Center for Imaging Science, presented a paper and co-chaired her first session, while Chew, a third-year computational mathematics major and honors student, gave a poster presentation at her first international conference.

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Nathan Cahill

RIT students Amanda Ziemann, right, and Selene Chew attended a conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, and connected with seasoned industry professionals.

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Jie Qiao