Today at Berkeley Lab

Profiles in Diversity: Berkeley Lab Marks Women’s History Month

— By Keri Troutman

Elizabeth Bautista, National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC)

bautistaIt was not easy for Elizabeth Bautista to get where she is. Her parents didn’t support her passion for pursuing a career in computers. She was often one of just a few women in her computer science and engineering classes. And she often felt alone in her chosen field.

“As a Filipino woman, I see very little representation of my personal background in the computing sciences and engineering world,” says Bautista, now Group Lead for NERSC’s Operations Technology Group.

No wonder that she has been so passionate about expanding workplace diversity and inclusion throughout her 16 years at Berkeley Lab. She currently serves on both the Lab’s Diversity and Inclusion Council and Computing Science’s Diversity Committee. She also started a community called Filipinas in Computing through the Anita Borg Institute, which brings together Filipino women who have an interest in, work in, or are studying computing technology or STEM.

“My goal is to help minimize some of the barriers that I faced,” she says. “I try to think back to what kinds of things I would have benefited from as a young woman considering a computer science career.”

It was a challenge for Bautista to reach her academic and career goals. She managed to put herself through school and eventually move into roles at Berkeley Lab that allowed her to pursue her interests, working in systems administration for many years before she took on more managerial roles. She returned to school in 2007, while working at NERSC, to earn her MBA.

When she joined the Lab she was the only woman in her group of nine. She is now Group Lead of that same group but is still the only woman.

“I feel like I’ve seen some progress in getting more women and minorities into leadership roles at the Lab, but I think the implementation of policies in this area needs more concentrated effort all around,” she says. “The idea needs to be in the forefront of peoples’ minds, in recruiting and hiring especially.”

Bautista was instrumental in coordinating a recent NERSC internship opportunity for a group of students from a small minority serving community college. The young students, who had never even written a line of code before arriving at NERSC, were so successful with their project that two of them will be presenting their results at a symposium at this month’s Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) conference.

Bautista says she’d like to see the Lab set an example in this area. “We are trying to solve the big-challenge problems of our century, and I think that requires thinking out of the box, from a variety of perspectives,” she says. “In order to achieve that, don’t you need people from various backgrounds who have varied life experiences?”

Maram Kassis, Environment/Health/Safety (EHS)

kassisMaram Kassis says people are often genuinely surprised to hear that she has a Ph.D. in chemistry, expecting that she would have a degree in a more traditionally “female” scientific area such as biology or life sciences. Now she’s glad to be putting that degree to use in the EHS Environmental Waste Radiation Protection Department.

“When I was in graduate school, I studied research done by Berkeley Lab scientists; it’s great to now be a part of that,” says Kassis, who started at Berkeley Lab 15 years ago.

While she occasionally finds herself the sole woman at meetings, she says she feels driven to succeed, partly to show her three children what a science education and a good work ethic can lead to. “It is a constant battle to work at such a high level at such a prestigious institution as the Lab and also have a young family,” she admits. “The life-work balance is difficult, but we manage.”

After earning her Ph.D. in Chemistry in Australia, Kassis moved to the U.S. to do postdoctoral work in organometallic chemistry. She spent eight years working in private industry before joining Berkeley Lab, where she provides programmatic and technical management and leadership to the Waste Management Group. Kassis has risen through the ranks in her division at the Lab, from her start as a waste management certification specialist, to team lead, and now to her current position as the Waste Services Team Manager.

Kassis sees opportunities to inspire more interest in science from an educational perspective as a powerful means to draw women into largely male-dominated scientific fields. She credits her early interest in chemistry to an elementary school science field trip. “I find it very disheartening that science education is so poor in this country, and there are so few science fairs and science field trips for kids,” she says.

Despite the challenges women still face in the scientific workplace, Kassis credits the Lab as a great place to find female role models. “I love to see successful women at the Lab—Natalie Roe, Nancy Brown, and the late Pat Durbin are just a few of the women who’ve been inspirational to me,” she says.

Mary Sidney, Energy Technologies Area (ETA)

sidneyAfter a 15-year hiatus, Mary Sidney is enjoying a second career at the Lab. While she has a new job title, going from budget specialist to Deputy of Operations for the Energy Technologies Area this time around, she has found herself serving again on a Lab diversity committee, this time the Advisory Committee of the Diversity and Inclusion Initiative.

Though there have been impressive changes since she first joined Berkeley Lab in 1989, she finds the diversity committee is still dealing with many of the same issues they were tackling her first time around. “What that tells me is that we’ve got to do something different if we want different results,” says Sidney, who returned to the Lab two years ago after 15 years managing a scientific research foundation for San Jose State University.

“I still see tremendous opportunity for growth in opportunities for women at the Lab,” she says. “While change is very slow at the Lab, it was heartening to see some of the women who were leaders or emerging leaders when I left continue on in leadership roles and mentor others.”

Sidney sees more promising changes in the Lab’s business roles, with more women holding higher-level positions. “I must say that the picture appears to have improved on the Operations side, and that is encouraging,” she says.

Sidney points to a particularly promising program that the diversity committee is developing. It would create an ambassador program where Lab representatives would attend conferences with diverse populations and provide education about the Lab. “So many people just aren’t even aware of what the Lab does and the opportunities here,” she says.

As far as her own career, Sidney credits her parents, her approach, and management support. “Both my parents had a real entrepreneurial spirit and worked really hard and taught me that I could become whatever it was that I wanted to pursue,” she says. “I’m such a driven person that I don’t necessarily see inequities as stopping me, but rather real challenges to be addressed and managed.”

Sidney sees fellowships and internships as great avenues for women to gain more opportunities for growth at the Lab. She has taken many opportunities to expand her skill set and advance her career at Berkeley Lab. “One of the things I have really appreciated at the Lab is that I was able to work my way up through the ranks,” she says. “I was able to chart my course, but the opportunities and management support had to be there as well.”