Three EESA women received Women @ The Lab awards at a ceremony on July 9, 2018. They are pictured here with Associate Lab Director Susan Hubbard after the ceremony. From left to right: Susan Hubbard, Shi Wang, Lisa Kelly, and Romy Chakraborty.

    

Romy Chakraborty, Ecology Department Head

Romy Chakraborty and Susan Hubbard

Sixteen women at various stages of their careers were honored for making extraordinary contributions to STEM and Operations here at Berkeley Lab at the third Women @ The Lab event on Monday, July 9. Hundreds of friends and colleagues cheered as each woman approached the stage in the B50 Auditorium to receive her award from Lab Directorate Mike Witherell. For Ecology Department Head Romy Chakraborty, walking that particular stage as an honoree made the event particularly meaningful.

Romy Chakraborty in her research lab

Microbiologist Romy Chakraborty began her career at Berkeley Lab 13 years ago as a postdoc. She now oversees the Ecology Department and has her own research team. She is credited with helping make possible a number of important discoveries that have led to a better understanding of anaerobic metabolisms in the environment.

Three years ago when Chakraborty led the WSEC Empowerment Subcommittee and was not yet a nominee for a Women @ The Lab award, the awards ceremony was held on the Cafeteria patio.  From her perspective, that needed to change. “I felt that it was important to treat this ceremony like we would any other meant to honor distinguished individuals,” she says. “When we recognize distinguished people in our Berkeley Lab community with awards, we do so in the Auditorium. Why should the Women @ The Lab awards ceremony be any different?

Chakraborty brings this attitude to every opportunity she has to help advance the way women are perceived here at Berkeley Lab and across STEM. During her tenure on the WSEC subcommittee, it helped her gain support for seeking charter status for the WSEC chapter and for setting up regular meetings to formally introduce the Lab’s upper management to women working across the Lab in early career and mid-career roles whom they might not otherwise meet.

In other words, this woman in STEM makes things happen. One nominator who noted the frequency with which Chakraborty has published remarked that, “Romy’s deep expertise in microbial physiology and biogeochemistry and her clever approaches to tackling hard problems have led to a number of important discoveries, several of which have been published in high-profile journals such as Science and Nature.”

A number of these discoveries led to better understanding of anaerobic metabolisms in the environment. Chakraborty is seen as one of the pioneers in the development of approaches to identify novel microbes and microbial function from diverse ecosystems and in the cultivation of ‘microbial dark matter” and credited with discovering fundamental mechanisms about subsurface and plant-associated microbes that can enable solutions for a wide range of applications.

Chakraborty is seen as one of the pioneers in the development of approaches to identify novel microbes and microbial function from diverse ecosystems and in the cultivation of ‘microbial dark matter” and credited with discovering fundamental mechanisms about subsurface and plant-associated microbes that can enable solutions for a wide range of applications.

Chakraborty began working at Berkeley Lab as a postdoc immediately after finishing graduate studies in microbiology at UC Berkeley 13 years ago.  She admits there are far more women in leadership roles at the Lab today than back then, but is all too familiar with the pressures that exist for women balancing traditional expectations placed on mothers as they make their way up in their STEM careers. If not for tremendous support from her husband, Sujoy Roy, Staff Scientist at the Advanced Light Source, and cooperation from her children, according to her it never could have worked.  

“I’ve pulled many all nighters in the Lab, some as a new mother. Working with microbes requires hours at the lab – it’s not work you can do from home and microbes grow at their own pace. Without a spouse who valued my work as much as I do his I’d never have come this far.”

Chakraborty now has her own research group but hasn’t lost touch with what it’s like for scientists – particularly women – just starting out. While she believes that distinguished female senior scientists are getting more recognition than ever, she isn’t sure that women in early stages of STEM careers earn as much recognition as their male counterparts.

That’s something she’s still looking to help change.

Shi Wang and Susan Hubbard

Shi Wang, Principal Research Associate

Shi Wang is one of those women in STEM in the early stages of her career. She’s already getting some well-deserved recognition.  Like her senior colleague in the Ecology Department Chakraborty, Wang walked the Building 50 Auditorium stage on Monday to accept a Women @ The Lab Award. Wang came to Berkeley Lab six years ago after completing her graduate studies in cellular and molecular Biotechnology in the Netherlands.

As young as age six, Wang was showing signs that she was cut out for a career in the sciences. “I was constantly asking my parents questions: ‘Why are the stars twinkling?’ I’d ask. ‘Why are the oceans blue?’”

She seemed destined to work in a laboratory, but admits she sometimes wondered if maybe a job that gave her more chances to communicate with people was a better fit. At Berkeley Lab, Wang feels fortunate to have the best of both worlds. By balancing the demands of her own research work with the responsibilities that come with community outreach and staff and student mentorship, Wang has become well known in many different circles here throughout Berkeley Lab.

She seemed destined to work in a laboratory, but admits she sometimes wondered if maybe a job that gave her more chances to communicate with people was a better fit. At Berkeley Lab, Wang feels fortunate to have the best of both worlds.

One nominator remarked, “Shi is an active mentor for scientists at multiple levels, including students K-12, undergraduate research assistants and interns, as well as other Berkeley Lab research associates. Shi knows how important it is to engage the public in science and has taken opportunities to be an ambassador for science and the lab.”

 

Shi Wang looks on as fellow 2108 Women @ the Lab awardees accept their honors.

In fact, Wang has taken so much initiative that within four years of starting here as an entry-level research associate she was made a principal RA. She has made numerous research contributions to some of the Lab’s highest-profile initiatives, all while overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Eoin Brodie Lab within CESD as its lab manager. Wang took a lead role in experiments focused on the discovery of phosphorous-solubilizing bacteria as part of an LDRD under the Microbes-to-Biomes initiative. Shi has been an active collaborator and key contributor to several Scientific Focus Area projects including the Arctic Next Generation Ecosystem Experiment (NGEE) and the Watershed Function SFA at both Rifle, CO and Crested Butte, CO.

As contributor to the Earth Microbiome Project Consortium, Wang is a key co-author on a recently published summary of the most comprehensive survey of the earth microbiome, published in Nature in 2017. And for her role in the NGEE arctic project, Wang was a key co-author on a recently published article  describing the influence of arctic landscape topography on trace gas fluxes and the soil microbiome.

Yet on any given day, Wang might be found setting up the Eoin Brodie Lab for a new portable single molecule sequencer , coordinating repairs for the lab’s equipment, or attending an EESA Safety Committee or Building Emergency Team meeting. Likewise, she could be found guiding a BLUR or SULI intern on a project that puts them on a path to success, or teaching preschoolers how and why soils “breathe” on campus at UC Berkeley.

Part of what motivates Wang to take on so much is her natural affinity for getting to know and collaborate with people who have experiences different from hers. “Some research shows that when you have a more diverse community the solution comes better and faster,” Wang says. “When trying to find a creative approach to a situation, instead of having just one single point of view, it’s better to have the opinions and perspectives of people of different backgrounds and experiences.”

Lisa Kelly and Mike Witherell, Berkeley Lab’s Director

Lisa Kelly, EESA Operations Manager

To EESA Operations Manager Lisa Kelly, being honored with a Women @ The Lab award alongside Chakraborty and Wang is evidence that she is helping make a difference in the world. The way she sees it, the operations support team she fostered over the years exists for one purpose: providing scientists with a strong foundation that enables them the time and freedom to focus on groundbreaking research that will preserve or improve our world.

“I want the scientists who are involved in solving some of the biggest problems on earth like clean drinking water — or even sufficient enough water — to have time to concentrate on the big picture, not on the day-to-day administrative tasks such as travel arrangements or their appointment scheduling,” Kelly says.

“I want the scientists who are involved in solving some of the biggest problems on earth like clean drinking water — or even sufficient enough water — to have time to concentrate on the big picture, not on the day-to-day administrative tasks such as travel arrangements or their appointment scheduling,” Kelly says.

In the early 1990s, Kelly made a job change from the paralegal field to a role at Livermore National Laboratory helping launch ESNet. “The Internet was brand new, and not every home had a personal computer like today. It felt meaningful to play a role in creating the wide-area network for DOE.”

Five years later as ESNet program manager, she helped transition the ESNet team from Livermore to its new home at Berkeley Lab.  For Kelly, this was a refreshing change of pace, and it wasn’t long before she knew she would be here to stay. Kelly moved to the Earth Sciences Division in 2006 to work as a proposal manager during a time of transition.

“The funding formula had changed which caused us to revisit how we approached the science. Now that a lot of successful proposals had taken the place of one or two large projects, I watched as scientists had to balance the responsibility of executing their research with administrative tasks.”

Kelly proposed she build a team of program administrators that would help principal investigators by serving as a pre- and post-award proposal administrative coordinator responsible for budget oversight, task management, scheduling and reporting for all the projects in their respective areas, and maintaining relationships with DOE program managers. In essence, they’d help PIs keep their sights set on saving the world.

Later on, Kelly leveraged the expertise of that team of administrators as the division grew into an Area. One of her nominators remarked, “When Lisa first joined ESD, the operations culture was in significant need of change if it wanted to get the best from its administrative staff. Culture change in organizations is recognized as one of the most difficult leadership challenges. But through her leadership, Lisa made and continues to make great strides to enhance the operations culture and broaden her team’s horizons.”

The 2018 Women @ The Lab award winners on stage with Berkeley Lab Director Mike Witherell.

In the past two years alone, the 25-person strong EESA Operations team has created a searchable web tool for identifying EESA scientific expertise based on key terms; a searchable EESA publication list; a PI manual; a communications electronic request form; an EESA electronic suggestion box; an EESA intranet resource for EESA directors; and a method to automatically harvest information about publications, invited presentations, and accolades from PMPs for the EESA database.

For the Lab community overall, Kelly serves as a subject matter expert for ECRP and EFRC proposal development. She also serves on the CEC Terms and Conditions Working Group and Laboratory Support Advisory Committee. Asked what she likes most about her job, she beams, “Staff development!

“I’m almost like a proud parent when I see so many of the people that I have hired gaining confidence and growing into meaningful careers.

“I often think about how fortunate we all are. Who wouldn’t want to be in Operations at Berkeley Lab? We get to go home and say that we make a difference. We are saving the people who are helping improve the world from the worry over administrative details that could otherwise stand in their way.”