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Women in algae: ATP3 celebrates diversity with ongoing series

Strain selection is all about identifying a one-in-a-million difference that indicates a slight, subtle change in chemistry or morphology resulting in a valuable product. Like in algae cultivation, we take a moment here to celebrate diversity among algae scientists, recognizing that doing things just a little differently often results in spectacular rewards.

This is the first of many stories about diversity and inclusivity produced by the ATP3 team in which we will focus on the diversity of an industry that includes people of all backgrounds, ages, nationalities and genders. This installment focuses on what female scientists are accomplishing.

Senior researcher Lieve Laurens, in the bioprocess research and development group at ATP3 partner National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), encourages current professionals in the algae industry to continue to inspire women to enjoy and participate in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“I get to meet such a large number of wicked-smart women in this industry, often women who are on track to become the next generation of movers and shakers with great ideas and ideals,” Laurens said. “I believe we, as women, have come a long way in the research community, but with more exposure to the real world of research, we could probably get more female students inspired to pursue STEM degrees and maybe ultimately see more women represented in the decision-making positions in research and development programs. Providing more tools, resources and opportunities can go a long way in recruiting the best researchers in our field.”

The purpose of acting as strong role models helps the industry to stave off the remnants of overt discrimination, which sometimes takes the form of subtle remarks or acts, said Amy Landis, an expert in life cycle assessment (LCA) and who is currently conducting LCA for ATP3 and Cellana LLC, ATP3’s partner site in Kona, Hawaii.

“One challenge is recognizing the subtleties; maybe you have a higher service load or engage in more mentoring,” Landis said. “Maybe you’re always volunteered for perceived female-tasks like note taking or snacks at a meeting. I try to always be aware and proactive. I have a high mentoring load because I care about mentoring women in STEM, and I’m not only OK with that, but I bring these activities to the attention of my supervisor so that I get credit for my extra work.”

Strong role models and a focus on diversity are also important to continue to bring women and multicultural experts to the higher echelon of STEM and the algae industry, said Reyna Javar, an analytical chemist with Cellana.

“[We can] improve diversity by opening up recruiting to a larger area with a more diverse workforce, market algae – be annoying, network, communicate, and engage with people, be different,” Javar said. “Find something no one else is doing. Why is it important? It’s beneficial. There’s a potential for problem solving, creativity, innovation. That is success. Embrace it.”

Landis said such efforts can sometimes prove difficult.

“Unfortunately, it takes a lot of strength to put yourself out there as an advocate for women’s issues with a career in a STEM field,” she said.

The extra work, however, isn’t in vain. Diverse teams and networks comprised of people from every scientific background, a variety of institutions, cultural roots and gender display and orientation make for stronger multi-faceted outcomes.

“As we work to design and engineer solutions for an ever-increasingly complex world, diverse teams are essential to creating sustainable solutions,” Landis said.

Ellen Stechel, deputy director of Arizona State University LightWorks and professor of practice in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at ASU said diversity in STEM helps teams to find creative solutions.

“My favorite aspect is interacting with brilliant and dedicated people, who I get to meet and learn from almost every day,” Stechel said. “The ranges of people I meet help me refine the way I think about things and how I do things. I also especially enjoy unraveling puzzles and advancing understanding of the complexities in the world – constantly finding the simplicities and patterns amongst the complexity.”

“We all have filters on how we see the world and how we process information, which comes at us from so many places. We cannot help but create or apply unconscious biases during the course of that processing and if we surround ourselves only with people who look and think like ourselves, there is nothing to challenge our preconceived notions. However, when we bring in and manage diversity that naturally creates mechanisms to cut through or expose the filters. The outcome is more innovation, better problem solving, and a more complete view of the world as it is and not just the world as we are preconditioned to see it.”

STEM fields have impacted nearly all facets of the human experience, and these STEM innovations are inherently linked to those working in the field. Diversity in STEM—in age, culture, gender, ways of thinking and others—broadens the scope of possible solutions as we continue to confront and address complex challenges. ATP3 is a forward-thinking network of talent that values diversity and inclusivity, which is vital to advancing twenty-first century research, business, and technology.

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Senior researcher Lieve Laurens from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory said women have come a long way in STEM industries.
Amy Landis, life-cycle assessment expert and associate professor at Arizona State University, said strong mentors and a proactive ethic are keys to successfully building diversity. Photo courtsey of Jessica Hochreiter.
Reyna Javar, an analytical chemist with Cellana, said STEM leaders should actively pursue diversity in order to enjoy a larger potential for problem solving creativity.
Ellen Stechel, deputy director of Arizona State University LightWorks, said successful industries are open to diverse populations.