Letting her scientific achievements and skills speak for themselves

Dr. Ahu Arslan Yildiz is one of many inspiring young women scientists who are making a real difference in their fields. She is currently working on developing innovative and affordable diagnostic tools that can be used in remote parts of the world and she also happens to be an expecting mother! This Turkish researcher, who has learned to thrive in a typically male-dominated field, speaks to DiscovHER about her professional challenges and what drives her.

DiscovHER: In your experience, what is the most challenging aspect of being a woman in science?

Ahu Arslan Yildiz: Being a woman in science is challenging because most of the time you feel the pressure because of your gender. You have to convince others that you are equally as good and as talented as a man, and you have to show that you are able to do as much as a man can do.

In addition, you can encounter certain difficulties when collaborating or continuing your research projects, because you must convince other researchers of your abilities. In some cases it is not an easy task to show them you are not only standing there or talking as a woman, but as a scientist. What I believe and try to keep as a golden standard is “gender equality is obligatory” for any activities such as applying for a position, initiating a collaboration, or applying for funding, and the significance should not be your gender but your scientific background and skills.

DiscovHER: Describe to us one of your most difficult moments or a time of doubt during your career. How did you overcome this moment?

Ahu Arslan Yildiz: I have been through a “mobbing” experience (group bullying) before and I can count it as the most difficult and doubtful time of my career. At the beginning I was always asking myself “what did I do wrong?”. But later on, I figured out that sometimes just the fact of being a woman scientist is enough and maybe it is the only reason I am being put through this. It was not easy to overcome, but it gets smoother after realizing you aren’t doing anything wrong, you are just a hardworking woman scientist. I was lucky to solve the problem with help from my superiors and by separating my work environment.

DiscovHER: There is a lot of discussion about the difficulties of balancing work life with private life, science career with family. How do you maintain a balance between these two aspects? Is it particularly difficult for you?

Ahu Arslan Yildiz: Of course it is not an easy task, but one should consider nothing is as easy as it seems in life, especially in the science area. If you give up one of these two things, either science or family, you might end up being an unbalanced and unhappy person in the end. So although it is difficult, it is possible! Many women scientists are doing it. So, why can’t others?

I am lucky because my spouse is also a scientist and he understands all the ups and downs very well. His support and encouragement is the most important driving force for me and helps me to maintain the balance. And now we are also expecting a baby while doing our research at the same time, so I am one of the solid examples to show people both science and family life can be maintained together.

DiscovHER: Your research has strong social implications – providing affordable diagnoses to people in developing countries and other remote locations. Have you always been interested in mixing science with social goals?

Ahu Arslan Yildiz: I have always believed that science and technology help people to get better and to make things easier. So, it is a really nice opportunity for me to be able to use my scientific background to solve problems. If the challenge is related to public health it is even more exciting. There are also other ways to help the community; I am always motivated to share knowledge and take responsibility of helping to educate the younger generations, and I believe it is another way of making social impact. In other words, whatever you do for the community, for people, or for the sake of world, it is actually a way of paying back what you received from the world.

DiscovHER: What advice would you give to girls in middle school and high school who are interested in science?

Ahu Arslan Yildiz: I advise them not to give up! As a human being we always have ups and downs and as a woman it is sometimes much more difficult, but there is no reason to give up. You learn a lot from all of your failures and it is actually what science really is. I also advise them to believe in their abilities and to believe in themselves, women can do as much good as men. Science is not about gender. It is all about knowledge, ability, creativity and will.

Dr. Ahu Arslan Yildiz (Middle East Technical University & Division of Biomedical Engineering, Harvard Medical School, USA) received a UNESCO-L’Oréal International Fellowship in 2014.