Keziah Garba, an intern at the Center for Energy Research and Training in Nigeria, says her own example illustrates the yawning gender gap in the nuclear sector. In an institution which hosts the country’s first nuclear research reactor, she is one of only five women out of more than seventy scientists, technicians, and engineers. “It is important for women to be in the field because diversity brings more perspectives and from different backgrounds,” Garba says.
More perspectives and different backgrounds is exactly what Garba saw come together at the inaugural edition of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) Global Forum Rising Stars Workshop hosted by MIT NSE. Garba was part of a cohort of 40 participants from around the world who attended the two-day event, where she discussed the case for inclusion of women in the sub-Saharan nuclear industry.
The event could not have taken place at a more opportune time: A 2023 NEA report, Gender Balance in the Nuclear Sector, highlights the paucity of women professionals in the industry. Women constitute only one-fifth of the sector’s science and engineering workforce and a far lower percentage occupy leadership roles.
Professionals at the Global Forum within the NEA, including Aditi Verma, assistant professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences at the University of Michigan, and NSE’s Anne White and Ben Forget have been participating in several of the forum’s working groups.
White and Verma joined the Gender Balance working group where ideas had been thrown around for ways to create a sustainable pipeline of women entering the nuclear science and engineering sector. The Rising Stars program at MIT, where students and early career professionals present papers and posters and network and learn from peers and mentors, has been a successful launching pad for many women professionals.
The idea for hosting a similar “Rising Stars” program under the aegis of the NEA began to be tossed around, reports White. “What if we take this programming that we know works locally and we scale it up and amplify it and we do it globally,” White asked. The weight of the NEA Global Forum would add heft to an outcome-based program.
To create a template for future editions and to share the knowledge for running the event, MIT NSE used a departmental gift to host the inaugural edition.
The inaugural version promised professional development and resume-building opportunities and introductions to cohort groups and mentors. Verma, herself a graduate of MIT NSE, was one of three mentors. Mentors received guidelines for expectations from them: “We’ve all committed that when a rising star reaches out to us, we’re going to have a conversation with them,” White said.
Garba found much to take away from the talk that Dr. Gail Marcus gave at the Rising Stars workshop and was relieved to hear that not all careers need be linear, but can instead follow both “highways and byways.” “The talk allowed me to have some kind of introspection into my situation and made me realize that even if my career path is not straight, if I can keep my passion alive and keep pursuing milestones and contribute in small ways, then I can eventually make a big impact.”
Participating in the Rising Stars program, Garba says, has made her even more inclined to pursue advanced studies abroad and “return and give back to my country.” Garba was also motivated by discussions with Professor White and Bill Magwood, the Director General of OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), about the gender imbalance in the nuclear sector in Nigeria.
Cohort member Dr. Sarah Weihmann also found much value in the Rising Stars event. At the RWTH Aachen University in Germany, Dr. Sarah Weihmann researches implications for storing nuclear waste underground. So at the inaugural edition of the NEA Global Forum Rising Stars Workshop, she appreciated the mutual learning experience from the exchange of surface and subsurface nuclear science and engineering research topics, says the post-doctoral scholar. Whether it was experimental science to investigate fusion or work on the legal aspects of nuclear energy, the range of topics covered was wide.
Weihmann delivered a talk related to her research and appreciated the opportunity to network with women peers and mentors.
For her part, White has been delighted by the event, which achieved early goals. “First, we wanted the experience to be a positive one for all our attendees, which we have anecdotal evidence that it was,” White says. The second goal was to garner enough momentum to ensure that the 2023 edition of the Rising Stars event would not be a one-off occurrence. Indeed, Seoul University in South Korea will host the 2024 version and the University of Michigan offered to do so in 2025.
The third goal, one that can’t be measured right away, is to measure long-term outcomes for the participants, White says. This will ensure that the NEA has data confirming the validity of the pipeline program and its success, she adds.
The takeaway for Verma is that “this is a community of people that we need to grow and nurture, an event that needs to happen again and again.” Verma was struck by the constructive feedback participants had for each other’s work. “That was empirical proof that having a diverse field also makes the spaces more open and welcoming for everyone,” Verma said.
Verma was heartened to see the cohort taking the networking advice to heart. “It was only two days but I could see people going from being shy and reserved to being really enthusiastic and approaching people, it was great,” she said. “It really felt like people had found among the participants, a community they wanted to sustain over time,” Verma said.
White agrees. “My biggest takeaway is that there’s a real desire for women to be a part of these events and in spaces where they are meeting and supporting each other,” she said.
Garba’s advice for future cohorts: “Have an open mind and your expectations will be surpassed,” she says, “there are a lot of mentors to help advise you and peers to network with. I have really been transformed mentally and professionally. My motivation and optimism about what the future holds is even better than what it was before I came to MIT.”
September 2023. Written by Poornima Apte. Photo by Gretchen Ertl.