Beyond the glass ceiling

Prof Supapan Seraphin on why science needs more women

One of the most vivid childhood memories that Prof Supapan Seraphin can remember was a conversation she had with her mother during a meal at home.

"As a growing child, I ate a lot, and my mother frowned upon that. She asked me, 'How will your future husband support you if you eat this much?', to which I replied, 'Why would I need a man to dictate how much I eat or how much I spend?'," recalled Supapan, now a professor at the Materials Science and Engineering Department, University of Arizona.

She has always had this independent streak in her, as well as a firm belief that women and men are equal. It also helped that she grew up surrounded by women, having four sisters and going to an all-girls school.

"Even when I had a boyfriend in my teenage years, I refused to let him pay for my bus fare because I believed that we're equals."

But choosing to embark on this career path, being a woman in science, has not been a great proof of gender equality. In fact, it has shown her quite the opposite.

After finishing her master's degree in Thailand, she received a Monbusho Research Scholarship to do post-graduate research in Japan. There, she learned that there were places in the world where women had very little choice in their life.

"My sensei [teacher] asked me how old I was. When I said I was 28 and single, he did not look pleased. He said something like, unmarried women over the age of 25 are like cake after Christmas _ nobody wants them. Instead of studying, he said, I should be married and be taking care of my husband and children. That was like a slap on the face, especially because I feel so strongly about women's rights," Supapan remembered with palpable indignant emotions exuding from her facial expressions.

Living in a male-dominated environment in Japan was the most painful experience in her life. Regardless of her seniority, higher education or any other factor, she was often dictated by her gender. In a meeting where she was the only female, although a few other people were many years her junior, she was asked to get up and make coffee for everyone.

"I was a single woman, a foreigner, a Southeast Asian, and funded by the Japanese government, which meant I owed their country. You can't be lower in the hierarchy than that."

Being a determined and self-driven person, she kept her head up and worked hard to prove herself. She had one goal in mind _ to get a PhD in the US, no matter what it took.

"My family did not have much money at the time, but I was really determined to get my PhD. While I was in Japan, every month, the scholarship gave me a cheque. I saved up most of it because I wanted my PhD, and I was going to go to the US to get it. By the time I had to leave Japan, I had saved enough to fulfil my goal."

She finished her PhD at Arizona State University in record-breaking speed _ completing the programme in less than three years, which was the fastest in the history of the department.

After that, she started teaching at the Material Science and Engineering Department, College of Engineering, University of Arizona. There, she broke another record. "I was the first woman in the whole existence of this department, and I remained the only woman in the department for 10 years."

When she first began her work, only 17% of the students at the College of Engineering were women. She said one of the reasons she was employed there was because they were trying to change that number, to remove the gender imbalance in the world of science.

Later, she found an opportunity to combine her passion for women's rights and science _ being invited to join the Committee on the Advancement of Women Chemists (COACh), a US based grass-roots organisation working to increase the number and career success of women scientists and engineers through innovative programmes and strategies.

Recently, L'Oreal (Thailand), in collaboration with the National Metal and Materials Technology Center (MTEC), National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) launched the first national "Career Building for Women in Science" workshop conducted by three professional coachers from COACh,which included Supapan. The two-day workshop was also open for teachers and students in science, with the goal to increase the number of successful female researchers in Thailand.

"I think female researchers in Thailand whom I've met at the workshop are very smart and very nice. I am honoured to spark some inspiration in them and make them feel good about their role, about being a woman," said the professor. "If there are more renowned female researchers, they can inspire other women and young girls by adding visibility of science-related career potential for women."

She further explained that in the US, there is now a realisation that science and engineering needs women.

"Engineering is not limited to working at construction sites. It is not exclusively a man's world. Engineering needs a woman's perspective. Look at all the cars on the road _ about half of the drivers are women, so why shouldn't women have their say in what they want in a car?

"Traditionally speaking, dishwashers and vacuum cleaners are also used by women as well, so it doesn't make sense to let men design them. Science needs women as much as it needs men."

Having said that, she strongly encourages women to pursue their interest without gender bias. "If you like science, don't see femininity as an obstacle. Women might not be as physically strong as men, but we are just as capable of learning. Women give more attention to detail, and that's a good quality in a scientist. Don't let society tell you what career path to choose. I can do it, and you can do it, too."

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