Woman and the Wind: PhD around the world 2

“When I first visited my current university, I gave a talk and while speaking I felt something was off. Then I realized I was the only female in the room, facing a room with 13 men and that has never happened to me before” said Ka Ling Wu, a second participant in my PhD Around the World Project.

13576328_10157134222160230_31558353_nKa Ling Wu is currently a PhD candidate at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland and – the only woman in her lab. That is the only one other than the secretary. I was blown away by the complexity and technical character of her PhD project. Ka Ling uses computational simulations to study turbulence generated by wind turbines and wind farms and its interaction with the atmospheric boundary layer.

Her route to her current position was a winding road. “I started with studying economics. Later because of my interest in environmental issues I added a concentration in chemical engineering. But it required doing organic chemistry and that was not my thing!” she described her path. In the end, she completed a degree in civil engineering and a subsequent degree in fluid and thermal sciences. While her “interest in making the environment better stayed, what shifted is how [she] works on it”.

Her confession of her non-linear path made me calmer. Often, we portray our careers as straightforward and logical on our resumes. But taking detours, and finding out you don’t like organic chemistry, is equally important. Maybe, one day I will figure out how my brief detour of working in transport and logistic of beer helped me in pursuing my PhD. Like many of us, Ka Ling “never thought she will do a PhD. It seemed like such a long and specialized journey, like a path of no return”.

Ka Ling with Jennifer Franck on graduation day

Yet, she is walking on that path now, partly thanks to a mentor she met when writing her bachelor thesis at Brown University. Her mentor, Dr. Jennifer Franck, recently finished her own PhD at Caltech and was a new professor at Brown at the time. It was very inspiring to see a female professor who succeeded at a very technical university in my field and receive her approval and recognition on my work” said Ka Ling about this nudge to continue in her research career. And she sounds like an excellent supervisor, coming to Ka Ling’s graduation to support her. Moreover “she was one week away from giving birth on that day, I was very touched by her showing up just to present me the prize!”.

The role of mentorship is often lifted up as a key strategy for career development. Hopefully it can also improve gender balance higher up in the academic ladder, where women are still underrepresented. At Karolinska Institutet a formal mentoring requirement for PhD students is in place. Every PhD student needs to formally select at least one mentor outside of the PhD project. And selecting a female mentor may be beneficial, as both I and Ka Ling agree that “different questions come up with being a female in academia”.

For example, the gender ratio may change the work environment. “The style of work and communication is bit different at my lab now, maybe partly as a consequence of the gender ratio. It is more sharp and there is more pointing out the facts and bit more individualistic than what I have experienced before.”

combined Ka Ling
Left: Ka Ling during Master’s graduation    RightCanstruction Competition at a Structural Engineering Conference. Ka Ling’s team used over 2000 food cans to build the beer sculpture. The food was afterwards donated to local food bank.

But this does not seem to be hindering her and I believe she soon will be another inspiring mentor to women in her field. She is not only engaged in her research, but also aims to use her skills for the social good. Ka Ling is involved with Ingénieurs du Mond, an organization trying to connect academia with developmental work. And aspires to follow similar path in the future, aiming to work on “filling the gap between scientific research and market innovation in the renewable energy field”.

Myself, I feel very honored to have had amazing mentors on my life. Two weeks ago, I attended my undergraduate university reunion and my professor’s approval (loud exclamation of “I am so stinking proud of you!”) warmed my heart. I hope one day, I will be able to pay it back and be equally good mentor to others. What are your experiences of mentorship? What qualities does a good mentor have? Please share your experiences so we can learn from each other.

Practical information I have learned about PhD at EPFN from Ka Ling

  • Length: approximately 4 years
  • Financing:  “If you get into the PhD program you get funding for a year. Within the first year 9-12 month you do a candidacy exam, presenting a proposal for the PhD project that can be accomplished in four years. Then you need to get into a lab to complete the project and during this time the funding is provided by the lab. Formally, we are employees of the school, expected to work around 41 hours a week. For example, I am here on a work visa, I have employee benefits and so on. But I have to renew my contract every year.”
  • Teaching: “This depends, and since I am still pretty new, I am not entirely sure. My advisor is the director of the program, so there is some flexibility dividing my time between teaching duties and research”
  • Coursework: “Most people come in with a master’s degree, so there is not a large coursework requirement. We do approximately 12 credits, and one course full semester length is 2-3 credits”

  • Thesis format: Published articles and then introduction which links them, but exact format can differ a bit by department.

  • Fun facts/Projects: EPFN is one of 200 universities worldwide that participates in science communication competition “My thesis in 3 minutes”, where you are supposed to succinctly summarize your project in for a mixed audience

For more experiences and advises about PhD from around the world follow my future posts. 

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