Evolution through example and action
HTC PhD candidate Nina Wexelblatt is among the 2023 cohort of Graduate Women of Excellence. Forty-one women were selected as 2023 MIT Graduate Women of Excellence, organized by the MIT Office of Graduate Education.
“May we breathe life into the values we espouse as a community,” enjoined Senior Associate Dean Blanche Staton at a recent reception to honor MIT Graduate Women of Excellence.
“May we bring our minds, hands, and hearts into our places and spaces, and may we continue to lift up our graduate women and all our students so that they can bring and give the best of themselves to the world.”
Staton spoke to the honorees, faculty, and staff who were present to celebrate the 41 women who have been selected as the 2023 MIT Graduate Women of Excellence, a biennial celebration organized by the Office of Graduate Education (OGE). Faculty, administrators, and fellow students nominated women who have been counted as leaders among their peers in their example and actions; who have been dedicated to serving the MIT community to improve the graduate student experience; who have provided thoughtful and constructive feedback when asked for advice; and who have been a catalyst for change when challenges arise.
The OGE formal celebration of graduate women began in 2010, growing out of a desire to elevate the outstanding nature of these students as a partial antidote to a number of negative lived experiences. OGE staff had heard anecdotes from graduate women who were not invited to present at major conferences, or who were relegated to stereotypical tasks such as providing the refreshments for their research groups. Some women shared that they had experienced rejection and felt unwelcome during group work. By showcasing vital facets of their lives and MIT experiences, the staff hoped to both encourage students and shift culture.
Since the first celebration, similar events have been held every other year to shine a light on those who have made a meaningful impact on their department and/or the broader MIT community. At each celebration, the honorees display posters detailing their path to MIT; their involvement in work and community; their vision for the future; and their advice for the next generation of graduate women.
The honorees represent each of MIT’s five schools and pursue diverse disciplines. Many of the selected women sustain deep engagements as teachers and mentors. All are eagerly enmeshed in their academic pursuits.
The honored women also affirmed that they seek life balance through involvement in endeavors outside of work. Some are activists. Some are dancers, hikers, or knitters. One woman recently played guitar for a student-led musical theater production called “AcadeMIA the Musical.” Another enthused that spending time with horses remained “the best mental health break [she] could imagine” during her graduate tenure.
When asked what drives them, Veda Khadka revealed, “I am motivated by the idea that my research could lead to direct improvements in patients’ quality of life.” Said Natalie Golota, “I am passionate about building instrumentation that allows me to push the limits of what is possible in science and engineering.”
A focus on inclusion and helping others rose as a strong theme running through the honorees’ statements. Kate Reidy declared her commitment to making science at MIT “more open, welcoming, diverse, and community-oriented.” Taylor Baum shared her passion for “empowering women and gender minorities; queer communities; sexual assault victims; and low-income communities, as [she is] a part of each of these communities.”
“Graduate Women of Excellence personify the value of what I often refer to as a 'whole student education,'” said Chancellor Melissa Nobles, who was present to celebrate the women. “They explore their passions inside and outside of their research groups and departments. They strive for work-life balance. And they believe in the power of being lifelong learners and teachers. I commend this year’s honorees, and I am certain they will continue to lead personal and professional lives that are rich in meaning and impact.”
Staton was heartened by those making time to attend the celebration. She expressed her deep hope and desire that the MIT “community of scholars and good, caring individuals will continue to do the hard work of ensuring that none in our family will feel devalued or unwelcome or alone, or despised for any reason.”
In her remarks, Staton noted that while we still have work to do, MIT has made strides with regard to enrollment of women — from 25 percent of the graduate student body at the beginning of her MIT career to 39 percent now, with more than half of newly admitted graduate women choosing to attend.
As exemplified by the Graduate Women of Excellence, Staton observed that MIT women graduate students today are more visible as award recipients, and they are offered more opportunities to showcase their research contributions in various venues. They are often leaders of student organizations and represent their peers on important committees.
Via their posters, these accomplished women took the time to frame advice gleaned from their experiences. Given the intense nature of graduate education, it’s not surprising that many relayed the importance of taking some time away from work; another strong theme urged investing in relationships.
“Combat loneliness and make lasting connections by collaborating on projects (or just bouncing ideas around) with your cohort,” Nina Wexelblatt offered.
With regard to professional relationships, Vibhaalakshmi Sivaraman highlighted one of a student’s most important relationships with specificity: “Establish clear communication lines with your advisor early,” she suggested. Golota encouraged paying mentorship forward: “Strive to be the role model and mentor [most] like your own mentors who helped you get to where you are today.”
Another theme proposed methods to stay grounded through the academic journey. “A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint,” reminded Sivaraman.
“Remember that science (or your respective research field) is supposed to be fun,” wrote Katie Walker. “You’re learning even when research isn’t working.”
“It’s okay to admit that you’re struggling,” assured Charlotte Farquhar. “Everyone struggles in different ways in graduate school, and it can be hard to pull yourself out alone.”
“Trust your gut and bet on yourself,” Chelsea Onyeador maintained. “Take up space.”
Khadka endorsed a certain amount of boldness: “Be ambitious, and never be afraid to ask for what you want, even if the answer is no!” Similarly, Ufuoma Ovienmhada recommended, “Lean into your passions. Don’t be afraid to go against the grain.”
What’s next for these amazing women? True to their record, many plan to continue to serve as mentors and leaders, extending encouragement and affirming spaces to other women in their fields. “As a teacher,” Eliza Wells added, “I hope to continue challenging students to incorporate ethics into their lives.”
One aims to work in clean energy and power transmission, and eventually to start her own company. Another hopes her research yields new insights into better diagnostics and a cure for tuberculosis. A third will teach cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
Several shared broad mission statements, such as helping to reduce economic inequality and increase opportunity. Another example: following a career path that allows the asking and answering of questions about our environment and the natural processes occurring all around us — “There is always more that we can learn!”
Regardless of each woman’s planned path, Wells wants everyone to remember: “You contribute to your field because of your distinctive perspective and experiences, not in spite of them.”
And Laura Weiwu affirms, “The most meaningful goal in life is to be fully yourself.”
Story originally published June 6, 2023, by Heather Konar, Office of Graduate Education for MIT News.