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Women in STEM Author Interview: Sancia van der Meij

Posted on: February 1, 2022

Were you intimidated by a predominantly male field?

During my undergraduate and graduate studies I didn’t quite realise the dominance of male researchers and professors in the field, but when I gradually progressed in my career it became apparent to me how few women had senior positions in the institutes I worked in, either academic or management. Many of my male colleagues have been great and welcoming, but I have also had to deal with sexism and was viewed as a ‘token woman’ by some. In recent years my field has become a lot more balanced gender-wise, especially in the lower to mid-career positions. This change is comforting - especially for younger students entering the field - and I hope that in a few years we will see more women in senior positions. Visibility is important and diversity (not just gender-based) enriches the learning environment and workplace.

How many women do you currently collaborate with the in STEM field?

I couldn’t put a number on how many women I collaborate with; my job as an Assistant Professor is a combination of teaching, research and management tasks and I work with many different people. Our team of professors and lecturers is a great mix of men and women from various backgrounds, and in my research I work with many female scientists and graduate students. While many of the more established researchers in the field are still male, we have a large group of upcoming male and female scientific talents.

How can women support one another in the STEM field?

Women can support other women by making sure their voices are heard, and by bringing a different perspective to the workfloor. Most importantly, a lot of women with a career in STEM bring a personal understanding of the consequences of sexism, some of which can be profound (i.e. lost jobs, missed promotions). This recognition and understanding of the consequences that sexism brings to the workplace is needed to help prevent these consequences and promote equality.

What needs to happen in the STEM field to attract more women?

I don’t think it is so much about attracting more women, at least not in my field (marine biology), but it is about keeping women in the field. Our undergraduate and graduate programmes are very well-balanced gender wise, and in some years even skewed towards female students. The number of women in the field starts dwindling after the PhD / postdoctoral level, which probably has several reasons. Balancing private life with academic life can be very challenging. Many people in academia suffer from the two-body problem - when both partners aspire a career in academia where jobs are hard to come by - often leading to one of the partners to drop out of science. Moreover, there might still be (implicit) gender selection bias in search committees for Tenure Track positions, and of course combining an academic career with a family can be challenging. The academic culture is slowly adapting to a healthier work/life balance, and acknowledging the impact of various (international) postdoctoral positions on one’s private life, which I think is key to keep women in the field.

What skillset is beneficial for considering a pathway in STEM?

An innate curiosity to question, discuss and explore is a character trait shared by most scientists, and combined with a strong passion for a specific field or topic this is essential to consider STEM as a career. But to really enjoy a career in science, it is also beneficial to have or to grow a thick skin. Your research is constantly evaluated and reviewed by peers, while you review theirs. As a professor a large part of your job is evaluating student’s work, while you are being evaluated by students and senior colleagues.

What motivates you to learn?

I am motivated to add a piece to the large puzzle of trying to understand what drives speciation in high biodiversity systems such as coral reefs. Every discovery, no matter how small, leads to new questions, which often needs a new approach or analysis to answer. This constant feeling of being able to push the boundaries of our knowledge - science is teamwork - is what motivates me to learn and continue to develop my skills.

When was your “ah-ha moment” when you realized this is pathway you wanted to take?

When I was 18 years old I learned to scuba dive while travelling in Central America. I was immediately fascinated by the diversity of life on coral reefs, and became even more interested when I discovered how little is known about how all these species live together. We don’t know how many species are out there; especially the small invertebrates contain overwhelming numbers of undiscovered and undescribed species. With every step I took in my career this “ah-ha moment” I had as an 18 years old rookie scuba diver has fueled my passion for coral reef research. I don’t come from an academic background, and learned about the possibilities of continuing my education with a doctoral degree along the way, which ultimately led to my current position.

Where should more funding be spent?

In my own field, more funding should be spent on taxonomy and systematics, the science of naming and classifying organisms. In the current funding climate it is very difficult to fund taxonomic projects, while it is the driving force behind a lot of biodiversity research. We all know what a devastating impact we humans have on global biodiversity. More in general, more funding should be allocated to curiosity-driven, fundamental research. History has taught us that seemingly pointless research has led to extraordinary discoveries, some of which have been life-changing. Fundamental, basic knowledge provides the substance for translational research into tomorrow’s practical problems.