Women professors at DKU on success and challenges in academia

To mark International Women’s Day, we asked seven Duke Kunshan University professors to reflect on their achievements and the hurdles they encountered along the way.

They share their accomplishments and insights, and what it means to be a woman working in academia today.

Dr. Renee Richer: Associate Professor of Biology

Q:Could you give us a brief introduction to your field of study and tell us about your proudest achievements in this field? How did you manage to achieve outstanding success in your field?

A:My work is looking at how organisms respond to extreme conditions so it is particularly relevant to climate change adaptation. I have always been interested in extreme environments and because of that I was able to accomplish some “firsts” in the field which has promoted new lines of inquiry.

Q:As a female scholar, what challenges have you encountered on the path of education and research? How did you overcome these challenges?

A:We all face challenges and set-backs. We just need to look forward and keep moving forward. Allow yourself to cry for a day or two and then get up and start again. There is no secret solution, only perseverance. Find support where you can, from family, colleagues or friends.

Q:How do you think women should leverage their strengths in academia?

A:Each person should leverage their own strengths. I don’t think males or females have a sex specific set of strengths. But each one of us, every human being, has their own unique collection of strengths to draw upon.

Q:Do you have any successful experiences or advice you could share with young female scholars to help them succeed in academia or their fields of expertise?

A:Show up every day and do the work. Having the strength to work consistently while eating well, sleeping and getting exercise will pay off. If you feel you have a weakness, don’t run away or avoid that area. Work on it! Be prepared when your opportunity appears.

Q:Do you have any messages or expectations for future female scholars or professional women?

A:Enjoy working hard and relish the intensity of your field.

Dr. Selina Lai Henderson: Associate Professor of American Literature and History

Q: Could you give us a brief introduction to your field of study and tell us about your proudest achievements in this field?

A: As a scholar of American literature and literary history, I am always on the lookout for what fascinates me intellectually, what remains vastly under-explored, and how the alchemy of the two presents a lacuna in the field that I find my work and vision to be of value. My recent publication, “‘You Are No Darker Than I Am:’ The Souls of Black Folkin Maoist China” (PMLA Sep. 2023), for instance, gives me the space to challenge established academic understanding of the American intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois and his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois’s text has been studied for over a century, yet no prior research has situated his work (and the first official Chinese translation of his work) in the frame of China’s call for Afro-Asian solidarity in the age of decolonization. The essay has won the 1921 Prize in American Literature in the tenured category – the field’s recognition of my scholarship gives me a great deal of momentum to continually engage with work that is transnational, translingual, and transdisciplinary.

Q: As a female scholar, what challenges have you encountered on the path of education and research?

A: Being a woman in academia has a unique set of challenges, ranging from working with the constraints of social gender norms (women with a Ph.D. are often perceived to be too smart for their own good, for instance), systemic gender inequities often found in institutions of higher education (male-dominated departments and in leadership roles, biased teaching evaluations that default men to be voices of authority, are just a few to name), to being a mother in academia (juggling an academic career and fulltime child caring can be awfully challenging). How do I have my voice heard in meetings in a room full of male colleagues that are readily vocal? In what ways can I communicate challenges of motherhood in an environment that is increasingly all about research “productivity”? How do I articulate related challenges in lucid terms that are demanded of us as a part of a larger culture that often privileges the appearance of reason and logical thinking over empathetic listening – the false assumption that they are mutually exclusive? Recognizing that these struggles are real goes a long way to laying a foundation on which we can all build a more sustainable environment because of our humanness.

QDo you have any successful experiences or advice you could share with young female scholars to help them succeed in academia or their fields of expertise?

A: We often hear “success stories” in talks and across media channels, but notions of “success” are so often skewed to corporatized and goal-oriented metrics in such a way that overshadows alternative views of success that do not get represented in these stories. I find myself very lucky to have a community of colleagues – both women and men – who are supportive of one another, who are ready to share each other’s challenges and accomplishments, and we need more of this for us to be successful as a community, not just as individuals. We are not successful until we recognize with full honesty that systematic gender inequities are in place; we are not successful until we are attuned to the challenges facing women and minoritized people in order to make a real difference at a place like DKU.

Q: Do you have any successful experiences or advice you could share with young female scholars to help them succeed in academia or their fields of expertise?

A: As cliché as it may sound, these words have stuck with me – listen to your own instincts and be extra supportive of other women. If you are ever asked to choose being a mother or a scholar: you can have both. The illusion is, we are in for a race with people in our field or in our workplace; truth is, we turn out better running at our own pace that our body and soul find the most nourishing.

Dr. Binbin Li: Associate Professor of Environmental Science

Q:Could you give us a brief introduction to your field of study and tell us about your proudest achievements in this field? How did you manage to achieve outstanding success in your field?

A: My research field is biodiversity conservation research, with a special focus on the protection of wild animals. I will conduct interdisciplinary research in combination with ecology, socioeconomics and other directions. We have been exploring the reasons why some wild animals are on the verge of extinction or their habitats are lost and fragmented, and are actively looking for relevant response solutions.

Two studies particularly impressed me. The first is a study of the impact of grazing on panda habitats. In this study, in order to reduce the damage to habitat caused by grazing while maintaining the livelihood of local residents, we selected a protected area with the most serious impact of grazing, proposed and implemented targeted remediation measures, and effectively alleviated this local problem.

The other study is about urban bird strike prevention. As a long-term project, we hope that by participating in surveys and conservation actions, more people can pay attention to this issue, enhance citizen science awareness, understand the value of evidence-based conservation actions, and work together to find feasible solutions.

Q: As a female scholar, what challenges have you encountered on the path of education and research?

A: At work, women are often seen as more nuanced than men. But this results in women having to take on more menial, support tasks than men, regardless of whether these tasks are suitable for them and within their functional scope.

For example, when it comes to the role of university teachers, because women have the impression of having stronger empathy than men, students are often more inclined to seek help and tell their troubles from female teachers, while male teachers are often absent. This undoubtedly increases the workload of female teachers and squeezes their scientific research time. I think that men should also exert their own strength in these aspects and share the responsibility of being teachers with women, so as to create a more equal and harmonious working environment.

QDo you have any messages or expectations for future female scholars or professional women?

A: For future female scholars or professional women, I think the most important thing is to believe in yourself. In the current male-dominated workplace environment, women may lack self-confidence and always want to seek external affirmation of themselves, but the answers or suggestions given by others may not necessarily be suitable for us or better than our own ideas. Just like a project I once proposed was rejected by others twice, but I still chose to stick to my own path and finally achieved satisfactory results. We need to learn from the experience of our predecessors, but we cannot be restricted by this and consume our own creativity. If we believe in ourselves and the power of women, we will achieve more comprehensive growth and create more fruitful results.

Dr. Anastasia Tsigkou: Associate Professor of Biology

Q: Could you give us a brief introduction to your field of study and tell us about your proudest achievements in this field? 

A: My greatest achievement in my research career to date was the development of novel antibodies that led to the development of a sensitive immunoassay ELISA with 95 percent sensitivity and specificity for the screening of ovarian cancer in postmenopausal women. The development of this immunossay (Inhibin) has led to successfully licensing of the antibodies. This marks my greatest impact in the field of oncology and reproductive biology resulting in productive collaborations as co-author on papers.  

Q: How did you manage to achieve outstanding success in your field

A: I had a great mentors Profs Nigel Groome, Felice Petraglia and Fernando Reis. In addition, dedication, patient, a great research team and family support.

Q: How do you think women should leverage their strengths in academia?

A: Having strong female mentors who have navigated the challenges of a male-dominated field is invaluable. Female in the field of STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] could provide mentorship frameworks tailored support, addressing the unique obstacles that women face. This is something I personally would like to be involved in, that would provide comprehensive programs, resources, and guidance to mentors and mentees in collaboration with other universities in China. 

Build strong collaborations, have passion and love in what you do and apply for grants specific for girls in the STEM field sector are great opportunities to build the foundations for growth. 

Dr. Eunyu Kim: Assistant Professor of Biology

Q:Could you give us a brief introduction to your field of study and tell us about your proudest achievements in this field? How did you manage to achieve outstanding success in your field?

A:My research at Duke Kunshan University, where I’ve been leading the Climate Resilient Crop Design Lab since July 2022, centers on improving plant resilience against the challenges posed by climate change. For this, our research has centered on how plants respond to environmental stress such as heat, drought, and disease, focusing especially on cellular compartments like stress granules and lipid droplets. The multidisciplinary approach we employ, which includes molecular biology, genetics, cell biology, and bioinformatics, has been crucial in our research successes, such as the discovery of phase-separated compartmentalization in plants under environmental stress conditions.

One of my most significant achievements in this field is the extensive research that has resulted in high-impact journals like Nature Plants, Plant Cell, Developmental Cell, and Plant Physiology. Additionally, obtaining 23 international patents, including in the US and Europe, marks a significant milestone in my career. My lab’s research was recently recognized with prestigious awards like the International Yong Scientists Award by the National Natural Science Fund of China (NSFC) and the Kunshan Shuangchuang Talent Award, providing to significant funding for our ongoing and future research projects.

A key to achieving outstanding success in this field has been my philosophy of working closely with colleagues and students, creating an environment that encourages, respects, and supports, similar to a family setting. Embracing challenges and applying for opportunities, even in the face of low probabilities, has been a driving force. This resilient mindset, combined with a deep passion for my field, has guided me through difficult times. Looking back, I see a path marked by struggle, but one that has led to where I am today. I’m deeply grateful for what I have achieved and am committed to giving back to the society that has supported me in this journey.

QDo you have any messages or expectations for future female scholars or professional women?

A:To future female scholars and professional women, I advise blending resilience and determination with a deep understanding of how gender identity can impact workplace dynamics. Face challenges as opportunities to grow and pursue your goals fearlessly. Each difficulty is an occasion for learning and building stronger resolve. Additionally, creating a solid support network is key, as these relationships provide essential guidance for career success.

This approach to resilience should be coupled with a conscious mindset about self-perception and gender equality in the workplace. Focus on your professional abilities and achievements, rather than defining yourself primarily by your gender. This perspective helps shape how colleagues see and interact with you, creating an environment where you’re appreciated for your skills and qualities, not just your gender. By viewing yourself as equal to your peers, you set a standard for fair treatment. This strategy, which weaves gender equality into the broader theme of professional growth, ensures a more integrated and effective message. Your path, marked by persistence, integrity, and a commitment to excellence, will serve as an influential model and contribute to a more inclusive professional landscape.

Dr. Wenting Ji: Assistant Professor of Chinese Language

Q: Could you give us a brief introduction to your field of study and tell us about your proudest achievements in this field?  

A:My research field is Chinese literature in Ming and Qing dynasties, with a particular focus on exploring the literary expressions of niche genres from the perspective of sensory writing, including Tanci novels written by women. Women’s literature, especially the culture of talented women in the Jiangnan region during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, has received more and more attention from academic circles in recent years and has become an important part of my research. The focus on women’s literature is also closely related to my identity as a woman.

Q: As a female scholar, what challenges have you encountered on the path of education and research?

A:As a woman struggling to survive in the fiercely competitive academic world, I can especially relate to the struggle between family and career of the author of the novel “Tanci” and the heroine in it. This sensitivity to women’s writing can also be transformed into the advantages of female humanities researchers, helping to find new ways to explore a large number of research directions outside of mainstream research. For example, one of my previous journals discussed the pain of foot binding in the Qing Dynasty Tanci novel “Zai Sheng Yuan (Rebirth)”. This pain itself is obviously unique to women, so it can show the unique friendship between female companions and the relationship between mother and daughter at that time.

However, in reality, the current academic environment in both the East and West is still full of challenges, and there are still many unfriendly places for female scholars. Only when more young people with gender awareness join the academic community can we hope to gradually change the status quo step by step.

Q:Do you have any messages or expectations for future female scholars or professional women?

A:What I want to say to future young female scholars and professional women is, thank you for your efforts. Your existence itself is already hope. To further use my unique vision and experience as a woman to supplement or even rewrite the history of various classic literature and culture will be a very meaningful and worthy life-long undertaking.

Dr. Weiwei Shi: Assistant Professor of Material Science

Q: Can you briefly introduce your field of research and tell us what you are most proud of in this field? How did you achieve excellence in your field?

A: I am mainly engaged in the research of bionic smart materials to achieve high performance and advanced functions, such as special wettability, anisotropy and dynamic response. One of my proudest achievements is the design and manufacture of the “Wu Qin”, which can collect water from fog to solve the problem of water shortage in arid areas. This research work has been featured in CNN, Boston Globe, Digital Trends, and many other mainstream media in the United States. At the same time, I was fortunate to be a finalist in the “American University Inventors Competition” held by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and won the top six outstanding results. “Wu Qin” was awarded a U.S. patent and I was invited to participate in the “Creativity and Innovation Festival” held at the National Museum of American History, and I won the “Innovation Award” from the Institute of Creativity, Art and Technology. I’m lucky that I’m doing research in an area that interests me, and that’s one of my biggest motivations. Research in the field of bionics is closely linked to the high-performance behaviors and advanced functions of the natural biological world. By actively observing and discovering surrounding phenomena, combining cross-learning with literature in related fields, and transferring it to your own field of bionic smart material research, you can constantly enrich your knowledge and experience. Accumulating this helps to further research and innovation.

Q: What messages or expectations do you have for future female scholars or professional women?

A: Along the academic or professional path, you are bound to encounter various challenges and biases, and it is crucial to maintain a firm belief in your abilities, believe in your own value and contribution, while constantly pursuing personal and professional excellence. The world is constantly changing and new knowledge and skills are emerging with each passing day; seeing ourselves as lifelong learners, constantly expanding the boundaries of knowledge and mastering new skills is very necessary to maintain our competitiveness in any field. While pursuing career success, don’t neglect your physical health and hobbies, such as fitness and travel, find work-life balance and make space for personal interests.

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Email: gareth.mcpherson@dukekunshan.edu.cn

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