Newswise — Four decades ago, an ambitious group of women scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory banded together to help form a group that would empower generations of women to come.

Last week at Argonne, they celebrated the 40th anniversary of that group, the Chicago Area Chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). From this group have emerged women who pioneered careers in science across the country, from life and physical sciences to mathematics, social science and engineering.

With 5,000 members nationwide, AWIS is a nonprofit organization dedicated to achieving equity and full participation of women in all areas of science, technology and engineering.

“Make your own story interesting. Tell yourself you can become a success, pursue your goals and help others along the way.” — Kawtar Hafidi, director of Argonne’s Physics division

“AWIS is extremely grateful for Argonne’s partnership, not only for the last 40 years, but for today,” said Marina Damiano, president of Chicago’s AWIS chapter. “There is no way we could have done this without them; we are extremely grateful to have them as collaborators.”

The Chicago chapter, formed in 1978, has more than 200 members representing government, corporate, private and academic institutions. The chapter strives to provide opportunities for networking and communication among women in science, promote equal employment opportunities and professional advancement for women scientists and publicize the activities of countless women who have influenced science. 

Emily Zvolanek, program initiator for Argonne’s Women in Science and Technology group, was excited to welcome Chicago’s chapter to the campus.

“It’s a great opportunity to show others the research that’s happening at Argonne,” said Zvolanek. “It’s another way to build stronger relationships with women scientists in the city. You never know where the next amazing collaboration might come from.”

More than half of AWIS members have doctorates in their respective fields and hold positions at all levels of industry, academia and government. There are as many reasons to celebrate the history of the chapter as there are members.

The celebration allowed women scientists at all career stages to network and bolster each other’s careers and knowledge in the field. This is especially helpful for women first starting out.

Groups such as AWIS help women navigate the working world, said Jasmine Harris, a Ph.D. student from the University of Illinois-Chicago who shared her research at the celebration.

“It’s still difficult for women to balance work and family,” said Harris. “I want to move up in my career, but I have family obligations. Programs like AWIS help us move in the right direction.”

Over the years, women scientists at Argonne have made outstanding contributions to the field of science. In 1948, Maria Goeppert Mayer developed the “nuclear shell model” to explain how neutrons and protons are structured within atomic nuclei. The work won her a shared 1963 Nobel Prize in physics. That legacy continues today, as the number of women at Argonne increase, as well as the leadership positions they hold. Recently, four women became directors of science divisions, including Physics, Mathematics and Computer Science, Chemical Sciences and Engineering, and Environmental Sciences. 

Argonne has made a focused effort to create a workplace of diversity and inclusion, one reason that women find it a nurturing environment for growth and development.

In 2017, Kawtar Hafidi was named director of Argonne’s Physics division. She originally came to Argonne in 1999 because of its outstanding research reputation. She credits AWIS and organizations like it with helping “fight the good fight every day.” Hafidi shared her journey during the evening’s presentations.

“Success is measured by what you’ve overcome,” Hafidi told the audience, in her encouraging remarks. “Make your own story interesting. Tell yourself you can become a success, pursue your goals and help others along the way.”

Last week’s celebration also included speakers from around Chicago whose work has focused on bolstering female students and scientists, and speakers who have become leaders in scientific fields. One workshop focused on “Overcoming Imposter Syndrome” — i.e., feelings of inadequacy despite evident success — and encouraged women to acknowledge their own accomplishments.

The work for equality is not done, said Cindy Simpson, who led the workshop and serves as chief business development officer for the group’s national office.

Studies have shown, said Simpson, that mentoring bolsters women in their careers; and the Chicago chapter excels at developing and maintaining mentoring circles, she added.

The group’s inaugural Pioneer Woman Award went to Marianne Schiffer, a senior biophysicist at Argonne who has long supported and mentored women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Schiffer began as a student at Argonne in 1961, and is now a researcher emeritus. After 57 years, she still comes to Argonne every day.

“I love it,” Schiffer said. “I enjoy the work, I enjoy working with people, and I still learn new things.”

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.