Inspiring the next generation of technologists

by Andrew Maynard on March 24, 2009

An interview with Dr. Kristen Kulinowski, Director of the International Council On Nanotechnology

ada_lovelace_smallToday is Ada Lovelace Day—a day when people around the world are drawing attention to women who excel in technology.  Some weeks back I pledged, along with many others (Over 1500 at last count), to blog about one of my “tech heroines.”  The aims: to highlight the role of women in technology, and to establish role models that will inspire the next generation of technologists.

Having signed up to the task it soon became obvious that this was not going to be an easy blog to write for a whole host of reasons – not least the rich and varied choice of “tech heroines”  that I could focus on. In the end, I decided on a good friend and colleague who has successfully bridged the worlds of technology development, implementation and policy: Dr. Kristen Kulinowski, of Rice University

First, the potted history:  Kristen started off as a chemist—B.S. magnum cum laude from Canisius College, followed by an M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Rochester.  For the next few years she stuck to chemistry, mainly focusing on teaching.  Then in 2001 she spent a year in Washington DC as a Congressional Science Fellow—a move that marked a change in direction in her career.

Returning to Rice University in 2002, Kristen became the Executive Director for Education and Policy for the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN)—the first National Science Foundation research center focusing on the environmental applications and impacts of nanotechnology.  Then in 2006, she was appointed Director of the International Council On Nanotechnology (ICON)—a position she still holds.

It’s Kristen’s work with ICON that I want to focus on here.  The International Council On Nanotechnology was founded in 2004, at a time when concerns over the potential health, environmental and societal impacts of nanotechnology were increasing, and opportunities for stakeholders to talk freely with each other were few and far between.  Conceived by Professor Vicki Colvin (another “tech heroine”) and Kristen Kulinowski, ICON was established as an extension of the NSF-funded CBEN program to develop and communicate information regarding potential environmental and health risks of nanotechnology, thereby fostering risk reduction while maximizing societal benefit.

Since its formation, ICON has brought together people from different countries and organizations—including government, business, academia and non-government organizations (NGO’s)—to work on developing safe and sustainable nanotechnologies.  It’s an organization that has played an important role in getting people talking, while addressing gaps in the nanotechnology safety knowledge base and getting information to people that need it in a form they can understand.

As a result, ICON is an organization that continues to play an important role in the development of an economically and socially important emerging technology, and does so under the deft leadership of Kristen Kulinowski.

To me, this is critical.  There’s a real need for people who are adept at generating new knowledge and translating that knowledge into practical uses.  But there’s also a need for people like Kristen, who can help translate potential technologies into socially/economically viable applications—“working at the interface between science and society.”  Without them, it’s going to be increasingly hard to transform good ideas into good products over the coming years.

I’ve known Kristen for some time, and as a member of the ICON Executive Board have had a front-row view of her work with the Council.  But rather than embarrass her (and myself) with a gushing account of her triumphs as a “tech heroine,” I thought it would be more informative to let her speak for herself.  So I drafted up some questions, and spent half an hour on the phone talking with her about her career as a leader in science and technology—who happens to be a woman.  This is how the conversation went:

You are generally seen as a leader in the field of nanotechnology, but you started out as a chemist.  Why science, and why chemistry in particular?

I was always interested in understanding how the physical world works, and got a real buzz out of solving problems.  Of course, I’ve since discovered that not everything has a black and white answer, but that fascination with understanding things and using the information is still a powerful motivator.

At college, I planned to major in psychology and biology—I wanted to do something socially useful.  But an incredibly effective and dynamic teacher opened my eyes to the beauty of organic chemistry.  Through him and others, I became fascinated by how chemistry works at a fundamental level—digging beneath the facts and figures of chemistry to understand and appreciate the underlying mechanisms.

The decision to spend a year on Capitol Hill was an interesting one.  What prompted the change in direction from science to policy?

I was writing letters of recommendation for students to do all sorts of stuff other than traditional bench-science and I thought “I want some of that.”  I’ve always been interested in the bigger picture—how people’s work impacts society—and I was interested in how this fitted in with my interest in science.  In the end, a friend talked me into applying for the Congressional Science Fellowship.  I’d talked her into doing something similar some years previously, so I guess she returned the favor!

How did your experiences in Washington DC change your perspective on science and technology?

The experience was life changing.  I almost didn’t come back to Rice, but I had a great job waiting for me where I could follow my interests in policy.  And my husband was still in Houston of course.

Having spent time on Capitol Hill, I came away with a much clearer impression of the importance and impact of science and technology on society.  It also became very clear that there are well-intentioned people on both sides of the political aisle—that ideally politics is about people trying their best to make good choices in a world that isn’t black and white.  This is perhaps one of the most important things that I learnt—that despite what some scientists think, there are rarely right and wrong answers in policy, and negotiation and compromise are essential to ensuring science and technology are used in society’s best interests.

Back to academia, and you took on a leading role in the emerging field of nanotechnology.  How do you feel your previous experience equipped you for this new role?

My new role was very much at the interface of science, technology and policy.  Coming back from my time in Washington, I had a much clearer idea of how government works, and the potential role of government in managing—and possibly hindering—development.

As CBEN got off the ground, there was a big public conversation getting underway on nanotechnology development.  Different groups were beginning to take different postures—ranging from pro to precautionary—and it was becoming increasingly clear that government decisions, as well as stakeholder actions, would have significant consequences on how the technology developed.  In particular a complex landscape was emerging that needed more than just scientific knowledge to navigate and work within.

Some of the big challenges being faced then—and still being faced—were how to translate promising and important technologies from the lab to the market; technologies such as new medical applications, or new approaches to cleaning up pollutants and reducing environmental footprints.  Ensuring society saw the benefits of these technologies would mean navigating regulatory hurdles, and finding new ways to identify and solve problems—not things that a traditional science training equips you for!

As Director of ICON, what have been some of your greatest challenges as a “technology facilitator?”

The biggest challenge has been balancing the perspectives and agendas of four very different stakeholder groups—government, industry, non-government organizations and academia.  The dynamic is complex because these groups are not monolithic—people involved in ICON bring their individual perspective to the table as well as that of the group they nominally represent.  At some point, I’ve run afoul of each of the four stakeholder groups—which represents a kind of balance, I suppose!

The space within which ICON works is much more crowded now that when we first started out.  More people are aware these days of the challenges to translating new science into effective technology-based solutions, and are getting in on the act.  I would like to think that ICON has played some role in this growing awareness.  But it does mean that it’s harder to get people’s time and attention—especially when budgets are tight.

And how about the successes you are most proud of?

ICON has achieved a lot that I’m proud of over the past few years—things like the publications database, the workplace practices survey, the Good Nano Guide that we are currently working on.  But I think the thing that I’m most proud of is that we have nurtured a community of people from very different backgrounds and perspectives who are enthusiastic about working together to ensure that this emerging technology is developed and used safely and effectively.

I’m not sure I am allowed to ask this one, but I’m going to anyway:  in what way (if any) do you feel that being a woman has prevented or enabled you to achieve what you have wanted to?

At the end of the day, I feel that I got to where I am and have achieved what I have through my abilities, not my gender.  Superficially, it’s easier to get noticed in the physical sciences if you are a woman, if only because there are still too few—but I have many tremendously bright, successful and inspiring colleagues who are also women.  It has been a challenge juggling a career and family—especially when maternity leaves have meant spending some months away from a job in a rapidly moving field I have even been asked explicitly by colleagues whether my job is compatible with motherhood. I decided to find out for myself.

And the answer:  Most definitely, yes!

Certainly from my experience, if you want to follow a path in science and technology and you have the ability and drive, the opportunities are there—no matter what your gender.

And finally, do you have any advice for women who are interested in following a career in technology—whether on the technical, commercial or policy side of things?

Very simply, follow your “joy.”  I’m extremely happy that my career has brought me to where I can work at the interface between science and society, but I could never have charted the course I took in advance—it certainly isn’t a traditional career trajectory.

I would also add, marry well—not rich, but well. ☺

What else could I possibly add to that?

(You can follow Kristen Kulinowski on Twitter, at @Kulinowski)

Postscript

This was a tough blog to write.  I wasn’t entirely convinced of the merit of singling out women excelling in technology.  But I do concede that as a man it’s difficult for me to have an unbiased perspective here, and so I am more than happy to take it on advice that highlighting women “tech heroines” will help inspire more women to pursue a career in technology.  And perhaps more importantly, it will encourage those who want to follow this career path to “follow their joy,” and not be inhibited by unnecessary barriers.

I was also concerned that writing as a man about women in technology could end up being intensely patronizing.  Hopefully the format I chose avoided most of the traps here, but for where I might have inadvertently offended, I ask the reader’s forgiveness.

Selecting a single person to write about was not easy.  As Kristen notes above, there are many inspiring women in science and technology, and I have had the privilege of working with a number of them.  I selected Kristen because her work straddles science, technology and social boundaries in a way that I am particularly interested in—and because she is extremely good at what she does.  But I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention her colleague Professor Vicki Colvin, who is the executive director of ICON, as well as the director of CBEN.  If no-one has written an Ada Lovelace blog on Vicki, they should have—she is a major player in the field of developing safe and sustainable nanotechnologies, and was the driving force between CBEN and ICON becoming established.  Definitely another “tech heroine.”

And finally, there are a lot of people writing about women in technology today as part of Ada Lovelace day.  You can track them on the Ada Lovelace Day Collection Mash-up.  Alternatively, look out for tag ALD09post on relevant posts.  And if you want to know more about the day, the person it is named after, and the person who set the whole thing in motion (Suw Charman-Anderson), please do check out http://findingada.com.

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