What does your success look like? Argonne women leaders share how they chose that fork in the road

During Women’s History Month, women leaders at Argonne talk about listening to mentors, staying persistent and ignoring naysayers when shaping a career path.In 2017, Jessica Durham Macholz joined the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory as a postdoctoral researcher and four years later decided to start a family.
Women leaders:- During Women’s History Month, women leaders at Argonne talk about listening to mentors, staying persistent and ignoring naysayers when shaping a career path.[Newswise]
Women leaders:- During Women’s History Month, women leaders at Argonne talk about listening to mentors, staying persistent and ignoring naysayers when shaping a career path.[Newswise]

Women leaders:- During Women’s History Month, women leaders at Argonne talk about listening to mentors, staying persistent and ignoring naysayers when shaping a career path.

In 2017, Jessica Durham Macholz joined the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory as a postdoctoral researcher and four years later decided to start a family. Then she wondered how such a personal decision to have a baby would affect her career.

Now a principal materials scientist in the Applied Materials division, Macholz realized the lab’s dedication to protocols ensured a safe work environment for her and her developing baby. Then, while the Argonne media team took photos of new equipment in the lab, they happened to include Macholz, who was near the end of her pregnancy.

“I’ve used these photos in recent presentations at scientific conferences and have received enthusiastic feedback,” said Macholz. ​“I think it is important to show aspiring female scientists that it is possible to have a family and a scientific career.”

As the nation celebrates Women’s History Month during March, some women leaders at Argonne, including Macholz, shared their passions and pitfalls as well as mentors and advice that changed their career trajectories. Most of all, they learned the power of teamwork, ignored the naysayers and used persistence to accomplish their goals.

“Decide on what success looks like for you and work toward that, not anyone else’s vision of success.” — Lisa Pocius, Argonne’s chief medical officer in the Environment, Safety and Health division

Such leaders have helped to inspire others in science and operations at Argonne, which has nearly half of its senior leaders as women along with several women as division directors. Argonne also continues to follow the rapidly changing scientific landscape, which is captured in this DOE Science 101 video and in the Association for Women in Science’s (AWIS) 2022 report.

Isabel Escobar, chair of the AWIS board of directors, said in that report, ​“Women and historically excluded groups have unique and valuable perspectives to contribute that will lead to new discoveries and enable more rapid innovation. We need this diverse talent to solve the grand challenges of our time.”

Boosting the next generation of women leaders

Macholz has been the beneficiary of a passionate mentor who was helping to develop the next generation of women leaders. Macholz recalled how she met Lisa Szczepura, a chemistry professor at Illinois State University in 2006. Macholz found it motivating to be a member of a research group led by a female scientist who focused on mentoring underrepresented students in STEM. Szczepura also encouraged Macholz to pursue a doctorate in chemistry, a unique achievement in her family.

“Without the time and effort that Dr. Szczepura invested in developing my scientific curiosity, I would have had vastly different career aspirations and likely not be in the position I am today,” Macholz said.

Since then, Macholz realizes that you can’t do everything yourself and must learn to delegate effectively by establishing a team of trustworthy people with unique skillsets who will complete tasks.

“Empowering a team of people to execute on group needs will allow you to be the best leader you can be and give them valuable skills for their future careers,” said Macholz. ​“As an early career scientist, time management and task delegation involve constant learning and improvement as you figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

Ignore the naysayers

Argonne is the first workplace that Yuki Hamada has been since earning her doctorate in 2010. She cited Strategic Laboratory Leadership Program, Launchpad and Energy I-Corps — professional development programs offered by the University of Chicago, Argonne and DOE, respectively — for teaching her to build leadership, marketing and other skills.

The skills also helped her to evolve from a postdoc to a biophysical remote sensing scientist in the Environmental Science division.

But as new strengths emerge, so will the naysayers, Hamada noted.

“That’s when you need to find your supporters or champions, those who share your passions and ideas,” said Hamada. ​“Because if I was not in those programs, I would have stopped right there. Or I may have thought I needed to do something else. You need to keep speaking to people, discussing ideas and learning how diverse peoples’ thoughts are. You realize it is not the end of it. It is just a data point. You must keep pushing. You must realize it may not work or maybe it could be applied in a different way, or it could be pitched to a different group. Had I not been in those programs, I would have been very discouraged.”

Hamada credits her San Diego State University thesis advisor, Douglas Stow, who encouraged her to become a researcher and suggested she talk to those who can provide her with more information.

Hamada advises women, particularly those who are at their early career, to speak to many individuals at different levels and in various Argonne divisions as well as elsewhere, including at conferences.

“You will make mistakes, but do not feel self-conscious to ask questions. This is your chance to learn,” Hamada said.

When looking for leaders, seek diversity in experience, regardless of their sex or area of expertise.

“They can be well-rounded and balanced individuals to help you stay resilient and nimble in this fast-changing landscape,” said Hamada. ​“I was told that a couple of times, if you don’t succeed in your research area, you are not going to be a leader. Just remember, not everyone successful in the field is a good coach.”

Importance of passion

Annette Martinez, external communications and outreach strategist for Argonne’s Communications and Public Affairs department, was guided by resilient and inspiring women leaders, who generously shared their wisdom and supported her growth into leadership roles.

But like so many others, she encountered instances where leaders didn’t foster a positive work environment and, instead, had a negative effect on morale. Even in those challenging experiences there were lessons and valuable insights about leadership and its impact on culture and team dynamics.

“Reflecting on my journey, I’ve come to realize that both positive and negative experiences can play a crucial role in shaping one’s perspective on effective leadership. Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of working alongside talented leaders who have demonstrated a multifaceted skill set, encompassing strong communication, sound decision-making, genuine empathy and inspirational leadership,” said Martinez. ​“These experiences have been instrumental in refining my own leadership philosophy. I am grateful for the guidance and mentorship of exceptional leaders, as their influence has inspired me to prioritize those qualities in my own approach.”

Throughout her career, she has had several exceptional mentors whose guidance influenced her.

“One recurring theme among the advice I’ve received is the importance of passion. ​‘Love what you do, and you’ll never be bored,’ stands out as a fundamental principle,” said Martinez. ​“This is a reminder to find joy and fulfillment in your work that fuels your enthusiasm and serves as a source of strength. Even when facing challenges, your passion for what you do will help empower you to persist and overcome obstacles.”

Another crucial lesson has been the encouragement to be bold and believe in yourself.

“Too often, we underestimate our capabilities or hesitate to step outside our comfort zones,” said Martinez. ​“Embracing this advice has helped me to take calculated risks, look for opportunities and pursue goals with confidence.”

Martinez also believes authenticity is the cornerstone of effective leadership and relationship-building.

“By staying true to oneself, we cultivate trust, foster genuine connections and inspire others to do the same,” said Martinez. ​“This emphasis on authenticity has guided my interactions, both professionally and personally, leading to more meaningful collaborations and impactful outcomes.”

Argonne is dedicated to advancing the trajectory of women and other underrepresented individuals. Through a range of initiatives including mentorship programs, specialized training, leadership courses and STEM education initiatives, the lab actively creates opportunities for professional growth and development. These programs empower individuals to excel in their careers and to also contribute to a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

“Look for the opportunities that will help expand your horizons,” said Martinez. ​“Seek to work on projects that may seem beyond your current role or outside your area of expertise. Stepping outside your comfort zone accelerates your personal growth and exposes you to diverse perspectives and skill sets. Embrace these opportunities — they’re not just about enhancing your abilities but also about building a network that spans the breadth of our organization.”

What does your success look like?

Lisa Pocius, Argonne’s chief medical officer in the Environment, Safety and Health division, worked as a physician in a hospital, where the lives of people are at stake. It was a journey that reinforced in her that she could tackle difficult situations.

“A doctor is trained to lead, and that is where I first experienced leadership,” Pocius said. ​“Another positive I’ve experienced is learning that I could stretch and grow. As my roles have changed over time, I have had to learn new skills. For the most part, I approach learning new skills as challenges and growth opportunities.”

Working at Argonne has shown her the value of collaboration and teamwork. Being in a leadership position has placed her in some amazing teams, and working in those teams helped her become more collaborative and efficient — which then developed her leadership capabilities and opened new opportunities.

But like many, Pocius’s pitfall has been burnout. She learned to take vacations, some other time away or just enjoy a ​“guilty pleasure” with Netflix. She also has had a few experiences with ​“impostor syndrome,” where suddenly a person feels like they are not competent or qualified when they absolutely are.

“I think many leaders have experienced this but are reluctant to talk about it,” Pocius said. ​“I’ve found that acknowledging that those type of thoughts are occurring, accepting them, and then taking stock of the situation and reviewing needed actions — either on my own or with a trusted colleague — resolved the situation.”

Some of her impactful mentors were teachers, including fifth-grade teacher Mr. Hertko, who told her: ​“You can be whoever you want to be. There are no limits.” That affirmation stuck with her, and those words came to mind whenever she reached a crossroads in her career.

She met another role model while in college and working a part-time job doing data entry for a manufacturing company. It was a small company with a woman CEO, who counseled her to explore all possibilities and decide what success really meant to her.

“Rather than thinking just about making money or even helping people, she told me to envision what a good and productive day would look like for me,” Pocius said. ​“Would I want to have a team under me? Would I want a career that would allow me to work from home sometimes? What little things would signal to me that I was successful? Everyone defines success differently. For her, it was being able to afford a new bouquet of fresh flowers on her kitchen table each week. Really drilling down on what feels like success to me has been very helpful as I grow in my career.”

She advises young professionals to believe in themselves and to remember that others believe in you. ​“Decide on what success looks like for you and work toward that, not anyone else’s vision of success,” Pocius said. ​“And be a lifelong learner. Every person you work with has something to teach you.” Newswise/SP

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