CamAWiSE Women in STEMM series – Karen Stroobants
What is your current profession/background?
I am currently a policy adviser for the Royal Society of Chemistry. In this role, I gather evidence, through commissioned research, literature review and/or surveying the chemical sciences community and develop policy recommendations informed by this evidence. I develop relationships with key stakeholders, which can be MPs and civil servants as well as other organisations or members, and communicate my recommendations to influence, directly or indirectly, policy direction and new regulations. Part of the projects in my current portfolio fall under the ‘policy for researchers’ umbrella. These projects require me to make sure the views of the chemical sciences community are considered, and most of the evidence I rely on hence is in the form of surveys in this case. Other projects that I am working on can be classified as ‘research for policy’. These projects cover themes that require specific input from chemical scientists to enable the best decision making, and the evidence I rely on most here is research input from experts in the community.
What point in your life led you to pursue a career in STEMM?
My interest in science started when I was quite little. I remember I had a toy microscope and my mum often tells about my vet practise; I made an ‘X-ray machine’ out of a cardboard box to scan my stuffed toys. I’d put tracing paper over an animal skeleton in my animal anatomy book and include a fracture in my own drawings (‘X-ray photos’).
When I started chemistry lessons aged 14-15, I immediately really enjoyed them. I also noticed I was good at the subject, and quite unique in my class in that respect. I think it’s when I heard the amazing story of this young Polish women, Marie Sklodowska-Curie, who won two Nobel Prizes, that I decided I would pursue a career as chemist. I obtained a Bachelor, Master and Ph.D. degree in chemistry, and my last role as a practising chemist, before transitioning to policy, was as a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow, I had come full circle in a way.
My biggest aspiration is to improve research environments and make them more inclusive. Before joining the Royal Society of Chemistry, I had worked on the research culture programme of the Royal Society for seven months, and this made me think about a range of themes that I had always been interested in, including ethics & integrity, inclusion & diversity, collaboration & open science and researcher careers, much more holistically. This has led me to believe that addressing the narrow definitions of success in academia is what one could refer to as ‘the Holy Grail’ for improving research culture. There are many other cogs in the big machine that is the research environment, and I aim to seek out opportunities that will either enable me to gain further understanding of the system, or allow me to develop, implement, evaluate and improve strategies to better it. I recently launched a blog (@MetisTalk – www.metistalk.com) to provide a space to discuss, debate and test ideas around research culture and encourage readers to pitch blog posts (firstname.lastname@example.org) if they have ideas towards improving research culture or aspects thereof, that they want to share.
What advice would you give to aspiring female scientists and engineers?
To every aspiring scientist, I would say; choose who you work for carefully. Academia in particular is an environment where you can to large extent choose who you will work with. Talk to collaborators and former students when you are deciding which PI or research group you’ll join for your PhD or post-doc. Seek someone out who is well-known for supporting and mentoring junior members of the lab, rather than for publishing in Nature and Science. For female scientists specifically, do not underestimate yourself. There are plenty of studies showing that while men tend to overestimate themselves, women tend to do the opposite. Just being conscious about this has encouraged me to present myself more confidently and this has made the difference at a number of occasions, from successfully applying for prestigious grants and to participate in the 2017 Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting to being offered my current role. One of my current side projects is to develop a programme to ‘confidence’ coach women who are transitioning from academia and pursuing their first role in a new sector, I am happy to be contacted to give more information about this at email@example.com if of interest.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I am already spending a lot of time working towards my aspiration to contribute to better research environments. Or at least, I am trying to be involved in conversations about what needs to change and how this can be done. I spend quite a bit of time on MetisTalk as well as volunteering for the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA). I am vice-chair of the policy working group for the MCAA and in this capacity am advocating for and representing researchers in consultations and conversations that contribute to research policy development at European level. To distract myself from science and policy, I go for a run three times a week, I try out new recipes on a daily basis, and settle down in the sofa with a book at least once a week; my last read was Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez (highly recommend it!). I also love spending time with my family in Belgium and with my partner’s family a bit closer by in the UK, as well as with old and new friends in Cambridge and London.