During Women’s History Month, it is important to remember the role women have played in the fields of science, nuclear energy and radiation applications.
Ground-breaking discoveries by remarkable women scientists, such as Marie Skłodowska-Curie and Lise Meitner, have advanced fundamental knowledge in the nuclear field and laid the foundation for the modern technologies in development today. However, despite substantial progress in recent years, women are significantly under-represented in technical and leadership positions in the nuclear sector. And this lack of gender diversity may have substantial impacts on the future of nuclear energy in NEA member countries. Therefore, the Agency encourages its members to explore ways of recruiting and retaining women in science and technology, as well as new approaches to improve gender balance in the nuclear sector.
We spoke with the women scientists and leaders of the NEA on their studies, careers and reflections on the role of women in STEM. These views highlight how women at the NEA contribute to the Agency’s mission and enrich the nuclear field on International Women’s Day – and every day.
Martina Adorni is a Nuclear Safety Specialist at the NEA, with a PhD in nuclear and industrial safety from the University of Pisa. She has always been fascinated by science, but what really inspired her to explore her interest in STEM was an amateur astronomy society in her hometown. “I started to attend their courses of astronomy, because I found their information in a small part of the local newspaper,” she said. “Once I started to attend those meetings, I became more eager to study science.” Based on her personal experience, Martina highlighted the importance of encouraging girls to explore STEM at an early age. “The issue is about giving equal opportunities to women. We will never be able to reach equal representation if we do not start doing this earlier, like at the high school level, or even earlier,” she said. “In this respect, I think that the NEA’s mentoring workshop can be very inspiring for countries that aspire to achieve gender balance in STEM.”
Daniela Foligno is a Junior Scientist at the NEA Data Bank, with a background in energy engineering and a PhD in nuclear particle physics from Aix-Marseille University. Her motivation to join the STEM field emerged from a desire to understand the fundamentals of how things work and the physics of everyday life, which transformed into a career where she feels like she is making a difference. “During my studies, it felt difficult to always be part of minority,” she noted. “If there are 250 people in your class and only 10% of them are women, at some point you start asking yourself some questions like: What am I doing here? Am I intelligent enough to compete with these brilliant men?” Foligno encouraged female students and young professionals to pursue their interest in STEM despite these inner thoughts. She also added that she is inspired by her women colleagues and managers at the NEA. “When I first arrived at the NEA, I was really surprised to see so many women working in the nuclear field, especially in leadership positions,” she said. “Most of our heads of division are women and I feel very motivated by that.”
Jinfeng Li, Radioactive Waste Management Specialist at the NEA, has a PhD in environmental science from Peking University and is the first Chinese expert to join the NEA’s main secretariat staff. She made up her mind about becoming an environmental engineer when she was just twelve years old. “When I was little, I knew that there are many other people around the world who suffered from water pollution, air pollution and soil pollution,” she said. “I wanted to solve the environmental problems in China, and all over the world. I believe nuclear power is a good solution for these issues, so I joined the nuclear industry.” For Li, women scientists and leaders can play a key role in this process. “Female leaders show their potential and abilities to manage all these resources and produce high quality products,” she said. “I think female scientists can also play an important role, because I feel women have more empathy and can understand other people’s needs and fears more easily.”
Julie-Fiona Martin, Nuclear Scientist at the NEA, has a PhD in nuclear physics from Paris-Sud University. After realising the significant impact of energy production and consumption in the society, she decided to pursue a career in nuclear science. “I really wanted to play an active role in our society and I loved math and sciences,” she said. According to Martin, the nuclear sector is not fully balanced yet, but is making good progress. “I think we embrace the issue and, for this, I’m very proud to be part of the NEA: we talk about it and work on it,” she said. “You can see in our daily operation that we pay attention to many, many details, we’re improving things, both in the way we work and also for the member countries.”
Elena Poplavskaia, Nuclear Scientist at the NEA Data Bank, graduated from the National Research Nuclear University MEPhl (Moscow Engineering Physics Institute). By choosing to pursue further studies in the nuclear sector, she followed the footsteps of her parents who were scientific researchers. “There were 25 classmates in the group, so we, the three girls in the class, were the minority,” she said. “But at the same time we were involved in many discussions, and had very respectful relationship with the professors. They encouraged us to participate in many tasks and projects, and it was a very good and interesting environment.” Elena also highlighted the importance of role models and mentors in encouraging girls to study STEM. “I think the NEA follows the best practice, because this is one of the important tasks globally, how to improve the situation regarding women’s involvement in science and technology.”
Belkys Sosa, Nuclear Safety Specialist at the NEA, graduated from the University of Maryland with a Bachelor of Science in nuclear engineering. “I was fortunate to know at a very young age what I wanted to do. I love math and science courses and was good at it,” she said. “Therefore, it was natural for me to gravitate to engineering, as I got older.” It was not easy to be the only woman in some of her nuclear engineering classes or the only female engineer in some of the companies she worked at early in her career. “But I’m a big believer that excellence at work speaks for itself and that we should all be recognised for our accomplishments regardless of gender,” she said. “My advice for girls today is to not be embarrassed or afraid to ask questions in class and if they love math or science to enroll in STEM classes, as early as possible. In general, they should pursue the love of knowledge in any subject they like.”