WOMEN’S WEDNESDAYS IS BACK! Interviewing Eleni Routoula!

The Women’s Wednesdays initiative is back. Every month 1 to 2 amazing women in STEM will be interviewed and introduced to you! Our first interviewee for this season is the very inspiring Eleni Routoula.

Eleni is currently a PDRA in the KCL Department of Engineering. She holds a PhD in design, preparation, and testing of novel biocatalysts from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering of TUoS, and has a  MSc in Sustainable Engineering from Strathclyde, Glasgow and MEng in Chemical Engineering from NTUA, Athens, both graduated with distinction. Her research focus has been enzyme immobilisation and product development based on sustainable material manufacturing. She is eager to develop technologies in the lab which can be easily translated in industrial settings. Besides her strong analytical and experimental skills, she also has a strong background in science communication, public engagement, and facilitation of discussions between scientists and various academic or non-academic stakeholders. During her PhD, besides research, she got involved with several extra-curricular activities, such as teaching, running networks, organising events for and training of other PGRs, preparing and delivering material for the Employability module, organising and participating in outreach activities, and generally not sitting still for one second.  

Eleni Routoula

1. How has your experience been as a PhD student?

Definitely interesting and eye-opening. And quite rich in experiences and emotions. This week is my 1-year anniversary since I passed my viva. During this year I had the chance to reflect on my PhD journey (the lockdowns helped a bit with that), and what I realised is that there are several aspects of it that I miss, but also aspects that I would happily leave in the past. Overall I had a good experience, cannot complain too much. There were ups and downs, as with anything we do, I enjoyed the freedom of action, the ability to get involved with SO many activities other than research, the opportunity to meet SO many people and make friends and connections, and above all, the chance I got to create opportunities for myself and abilities I never thought I would have. On the other hand, my PhD experience was hard for me, as it was the first time I dealt with a research project of that length, alone. It showed me parts of myself I did not know about, made me show my vulnerability, made me grow stronger through dealing with uncomfortable situations, made me underestimate myself before realising how far I’ve come. Would I do it again? Having the knowledge and experience I have now, probably yes, but I would focus elsewhere. Would I advise people to do a PhD? Yes, why not. But make sure to know why you are doing it.  

2. What challenges have you faced so far and how did you overcome them?

Hmmm… Interesting question. One of the challenges I faced and I want to believe I overcome, is the language/accent barrier. When I moved from Greece to the UK (Glasgow to be exact, not the “easiest” first experience), I knew how to speak English, at least in theory. In practice, things were slightly more difficult, as I had an accent and people were often asking me what I was saying, making me feel embarrassed. I quickly realised though that same as me, many other people had their own accents, and it was a matter of time for me to get used to them and them to get used to me. Today, 6 years in the country, I do not think about it at all. At the end of the day, I am able to speak 2 languages (plus almost a third), when other people only speak one. Another challenge I had to overcome, was the realisation of how much I do not know. I entered my PhD thinking that I will read the available literature, understand the concept of my research, and solve my given problems. Lol. That did not happen. The more I read, the more I realised that the depth of my research area (a tiny dot on the detailed sector I was focusing on) was way vaster than what I thought. When I thought I was ready to start experiments, I was surprised by my results which were unexpected. It took me a long time to get out of the mindset of ‘knowing everything” and switch to a mindset of “let’s try, see what I find, and try to understand what it means”, which is the essence of research. What I realised after several experiences, was that majority of challenges we face are a matter of our mindset and hurdles we pose to ourselves, based on what we think, what we think other people think, stereotypes, and expectations. Now I am trying to see every challenge as an opportunity to learn something, not as a reason to stop moving forward.  

3. How did you get into STEM? Who inspired you to get into it?

Let me start by saying that both my parents are from a STEM background, mostly around chemical engineering, automation, chemistry, and lab management. Inevitably, I grew up in an environment that promoted STEM as an option for both sexes, so I never thought “oh, I cannot be this or that”. My mum is an excellent cook and baker, and it was our “thing”, for her to cook and me to help out. From a very young age I remember her explaining food chemistry “secrets” such as how cakes and bread rise while baking, why does baked bread smells so good, why eggs solidify upon cooking, how acidic marinade makes meat tender… I was very interested in chemistry, but I thought that I wanted to study something with “chemistry and something else”, hence chemical engineering became an option, especially after I found that food engineering was an option to be pursued with such a degree. I got into uni to study chemical engineering, loved the food and biotech related topics, and I loved the problem-solving focused engineering mindset I developed during my undergrad. Although there was never an issue of me studying an engineering degree, I was not aware of the uncountable shades of engineering and engineers, meaning that I started as someone looking up to their parents, only to realise that becoming an “engineer” is not something set, you engineer your own way and your own title (see what I did there?). There is such a variety of engineering sectors, degrees, sub-categories, courses, experiences, that at the end of the day two engineers will not be the same.  

4. What would you say to inspire young girls to get into STEM studies?

My advice to young girls who want to get into STEM studies, is to do it regardless of what other people say. Go for it, try it out and see if it works for you. Keep in mind that “STEM”, or “engineer”, or anything else is not a strict “title” that you will have to carry for the rest of your life, but it is only the beginning of an open-ended road. Try to listen to your needs, not fulfill those of other people. Be curious and take risks, even if they don’t pan out the way you expected, you will definitely end up richer in experience. Another important piece of advice, it to know your rights! No matter where you are, ask, read, find out about your rights and fight for them, don’t expect other people to do it for you. And last but not least, remember that gender gap is a reality, but you are able/allowed/requested to challenge it. You can do and be anything you want, your path/career is in your hands!  

Thank you Eleni for your interview! We wish you all the best!

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