INWED18: My journey into engineering and how I’m smashing the engineering stereotype

Our final blog to celebrate International Woman in Engineering is written by Dr Maria Papathanasiou, who tells us about her journey into engineering and how she combines her two loves: science and acting. She wants to empower female engineers to be themselves, regardless of whether or not they fit the stereotype, and help ensure that engineering is an accepting and welcoming environment.

When I saw the invitation to write a blog piece to support INWED 2018, I was certain I wanted to participate in sharing my own story. When I got my laptop, though, and was faced with the blank Word page, I didn’t know where to start. Talk about how and why I love my job? Describe my day-to-day life as a female engineer? Or talk about my experience working in a male-dominated environment? All of it seemed interesting, but nothing alone was enough. So, I decided to dedicate these lines to the journey that has brought me to the position I am in now, for which I couldn’t be prouder.

This is me aged 27 showcasing my work on multi-parametric control in biomanufacturing at the Integrated Continuous Biomanufacturing II in Berkeley, California

Back in 2005, at the young age of 17, it was time to make a choice on the profession I wanted to follow for the rest of my life. That last phrase scared me then, as much as it scares me now. Most of my female friends were going for economics or studies in education to become school teachers. I personally didn’t know what was that one thing that I wanted to study and that would satisfy my inner thirst for knowledge. I knew, however, that I wanted to do something that would give me opportunities to continuously challenge myself and allow me to build a solid foundation of structured thinking and problem solving.

Counter-intuitively, this was fighting inside me with the passion I had (and still have) for acting – and as you can imagine, it was also conflicting with the dreams that my parents had for me. It was exactly at that point when my mother told me “Go for engineering! Engineering is a way of thinking and you can use it however you want afterwards”. To be fair, I didn’t fully understand, nor appreciate, her words back then. Nevertheless, I did my research, and decided to go for chemical engineering as it would allow me to have a broader choice of professional development (from cosmetics to aviation and supply chain) and was also allowing me to combine my love for maths and bio-sciences.

Despite how much I was enjoying my undergraduate studies, I never gave up on my dream to become an actress (or at least attend drama school…!) and so, after my first undergraduate year, I started taking acting classes in the evenings. For me that was a wonderful journey, combining all my dreams and passions.

Here I am performing as Catherine in the production of 8 Women (by Robert Thomas) at Aliki Vougiouklaki Theatre in Athens, Greece

However, early on I realised that for a lot of people around me, I looked strange. Only very few people could accept the fact that I was a girl who was combining a fully practical degree with an abstract and artistic hobby. I think it confused people when I told them that I was studying chemical engineering – I could see the questioning look in their eyes as they tried t work out how it was possible for me to look girly and yet call myself an engineer. I am still not sure if they were doubting my capabilities, or if they couldn’t understand how those two sides of mine existed side-by-side in a very feminine context, or if they simply did not approve my “not-so-feminine” choice career choice of engineer.

Whatever it was, they were facing a case of an individual (one of the many!) going against the stereotype. A stereotype that categorises engineers as men or as a minimum, women that do not look feminine. To some people, anything beyond that was simply neither possible nor compatible. And it is those people who make me want to prove even more, to them and to myself, that studies and professions are not designed to be gender-specific and excellence should be unbiased!

So here I am today, defending the idea that women can do anything they want and be anything they want – whether or not it fits the stereotype! And I will be defending this until I see more women  empowered to follow that path. More women who feel able to combine engineering with fashion blogs, ballet studies, with singing or acting and or with one of the hardest jobs on this planet, that of being a mother, if that’s what they choose to do.

We shouldn’t be afraid to professionally compete with male colleagues at the highest level, challenge ourselves, support our research and raise our voice when we feel that equality is not respected. The magic world of engineering has space for everyone and it is our duty to keep it going and advance it further. I am proud to say that I am a Chemical Engineer, working on supply chain optimisation for cancer therapies, who likes theatre and pink! This is the person I have always wanted to be!

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