Whether it's unraveling the mysteries of newly synthesized polymers on a microscopic level or finding order amidst the chaos of a busy life, today's guest, Whitney Loo, is always finding ways to integrate the macroscopic with the microscopic. With a passion for discovery, Whitney, an assistant professor of chemical biological engineering at UW–Madison, guides us through her personal journey, offering a glimpse into the complexities of navigating the role of a new professor. Tune in to explore her team's groundbreaking research in crafting sustainable polymers, where every microscopic link holds a world of insight. Reflecting on her own path, Whitney empowers listeners to embrace their own potential along the way.
Michelle Chung | Host
Michelle first joined the Wisconsin Energy Institute in 2020 as a student intern. Now as a communications specialist, she continues to find creative ways to tell the stories of the people and research here at WEI and GLBRC.
Mary (Meg) Riker | Host
Science Writer Intern
Meg is an undergraduate civil and environmental engineering student who seeks to learn about the career experiences of a range of women in STEM.
Edited by: Michelle Chung
Produced by: Michelle Chung
Music written and performed by: Mark E. Griffin
Michelle Chung: Hey, Meg, can you think of a part of your life where understanding the individual pieces changes your view of the whole?
Meg Riker: This is a fun question for me because I never saw myself as someone who would end up doing analytical or mathematical work. But when I look back at my experiences as a kid, like when I was doing volunteering or my first job in a grocery store, I see that understanding smaller elements of details and analytics are always really appealing to me.
Meg Riker: I, like always had to adjust the labels in the grocery store and what you do at the end of the night. So it's more appealing to customers when they come in. And I was always really good at it because I loved making all the labels line up perfectly. In the end, looking back, all of these little elements, stuff like that, that I never would have thought of played a role and would play a role in my life later down the line.
They all melded together to form this property of curiosity about organization and analytics, which leads me to where I am today.
Michelle Chung: Yeah, there's an element of connecting things that brings understanding to that big picture and this whole concept of integrating how we understand the the microscopic, the little things to the macroscopic. The big things is central to the philosophy of our next guest, Whitney Lu, who is an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at UW Madison. From her research to making and understanding new sustainable polymers.
To the list she makes to keep life organized, she finds ways to connect the big and the small. In this episode, she shares the good and the bad of being a new professor, what she's learned as a mentee and a mentor, and the power of committing to yourself.
Meg Riker: From the Wisconsin Energy Institute and the Great Lakes Bio Energy Research Center. I'm Meg.
Michelle Chung: And I'm Michelle.
Meg Riker: And you're listening to Propelling Women in Power, a podcast about the careers of women in energy at the Wisconsin Energy Institute on the UW Madison campus, and our sister institution, the Great Lakes Bio Energy Research Center. Let's dive in with Whitney Lu.
Whitney Loo: My name is Whitney Lu. My pronouns are she, her and hers. And I am an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering here at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Michelle Chung: Your research has two different themes. Sustainable polymeric materials and polymer based energy storage devices. Can you explain what those two huge themes mean and what you're doing to explore them?
Whitney Loo: Yeah, so I would classify myself as a polymer scientist, and I think that polymer and polymer based materials are my real passion. And for those of you who don't know, polymers, are these long chains of molecules that have many repeat units that are typically used today in plastics. So most of your plastic packaging, your single use plastics, a lot of the maybe plastic parts that you come into contact with all day long, those are all made of polymers.
And so right now we're kind of at this crossroad in polymer science where, you know, we've been thinking about how they can improve quality of life, but now we're realizing that it's really hard to recycle them. They kind of last forever, which has been thought as a really good thing when they were first invented. But now we're thinking about how can we make these materials more sustainable?
And so a big focus of my research group is kind of anchored in that idea of thinking about how we can design materials that are more easily processed or recycled or that have their end of life kind of already engineered and designed into the material, or how we can use and design new ways of currently recycling or upcycling the plastic waste that's currently being accumulated or generated.
And then the second theme of my research group is thinking about how we can use these materials to promote sustainability or in sustainable devices. So things like energy storage devices like batteries, so lithium ion batteries that are used today and all of our portable electronics, your cell phones or laptops, you know, how can we make the next generation battery that has better safety, more charge in it to what will last for longer?
Maybe it'll charge faster. So thinking how we can incorporate polymers into those types of devices as well as other types of energy storage. So things like fuel cells as well as things for the energy water nexus. So things like membranes for water filtration to generate clean water more efficiently in those types of devices as well.
Michelle Chung: So there's many different applications.
Whitney Loo: I think polymers are really everywhere and that's what makes them such a fascinating thing to study because they have so many different applications and purposes and we come into contact with them so often in our daily life.
Michelle Chung: When I was talking your Twitter, you said something about, Oh, our lab just designed its first polymers. I've never been so excited to see like a pile of glue. So you've made your pile of Google. What do you do from there?
Whitney Loo: Yeah. So, you know, my I have two graduate students right now who just started and our lab is still under renovation. So we're, you know, working in some other people's labs and training them on some of the basics of the research that we're going to do. So I think a few weeks ago, they synthesized their first polymer. They broke a bunch of glassware, lost a bunch of it.
But that is that's how chemistry goes. And it's great for them to learn how to make these mistakes because they're they're unavoidable. And that's how you learn and you grow as a scientist. So they've synthesized some material and now it's their job to go and characterize it. So we specialize in characterization techniques that go all the way down to the nanometer or super, super small molecular resolution.
So we are focused on understanding how to connect, you know, angstrom or sub nanometer. So things that are very, very tiny. Instead of thinking about the polymer as a long chain of many links. We like to look at single links themselves using different types of characterization techniques to understand how that monomer structure relates to those macroscopic properties. So the things that you touch and you feel, how does designing air on a chemical level change those properties?
Michelle Chung: Wow, really interesting. What would you say out of everything that you do? What's the most exciting part?
Whitney Loo: I think for me, definitely working with the students, whether that's my graduate students in the research lab or teaching the students, I'm teaching an undergraduate course this semester. Teaching the students in the classroom, I think is definitely the most exciting part of this job, is being able to either teach them how to think, how to approach problems, or even just new concepts.
Michelle Chung: Is this your first time teaching or have you taught before?
Whitney Loo: This is my first time teaching my own class, So, you know, being in charge. I did get quite a bit of teaching experience during my graduate school and undergraduate time.
Michelle Chung: Exciting. So you knew you liked it before and now you get to do teaching as a huge part of your job now.
Whitney Loo: Exactly.
Michelle Chung: Awesome. Going back to the beginning. Do you remember what sparked your interest in chemical engineering and why? Focus on polymers?
Whitney Loo: Yeah, you know, I think that's a that's a really great question. I think for me, what I was really interested in chemical engineering is to me it's more about how you approach the problems and how you go after these these complex concepts versus what problems they're actually solving themselves. So I think of chemical engineering more as a as a mindset.
They use a really systems based approach to go after complex problems and processing and manufacturing and in chemistry. And they really do a good job of connecting the micro-scale all the way up to the macroscale. And I think for me, that's what really interested me, because we see that motif of connecting micro and macro and polymers as well.
So I think for me that's what really sparked my interest in these fields, is understanding how you can draw out chemical structures on paper and say, This is the molecule I'm going to design, I'm going to synthesize and I'm going to pick this chemical structure because I want these macroscopic properties at the end. And so being able to connect things that you can physically feel or things that you can see like toughness or elasticity or strength in your material and connecting that down to the chemical structure that you draw out I think is really interesting to me and really kind of drives my passion in this field.
Michelle Chung: Mm hmm. Like all of science, you're trying to understand things, but when you can, like it's tangible. That's really interesting. That's exciting.
Whitney Loo: Yeah. No, I think it's really helpful in motivating yourself and your students when you can touch and see and feel these properties that you're going after and you're able to connect some of these more fundamental and complex concepts, you know, on small link scales to stuff in the lab that you can visualize or you can experience yourself. You know, I think that's one of the most interesting parts about doing this type of research.
Michelle Chung: I see a little bit of your teaching philosophy coming out with that. Can you talk about your path to UW Madison?
Whitney Loo: Yeah, so I did my undergraduate at M.I.T. and when I got there, I knew I was really interested in materials and research and going after questions that didn't necessarily have answers, which is what research is all about. And, you know, when I was there, I really fell in love with the lab being on this kind of adventurous and discovery pathway of learning things that nobody else had learned before.
So from there, that led me to graduate school to get my Ph.D., which I did at UC Berkeley out in California. And again, that's where I really fell in love with going after these complex questions, designing my own experiments and taking a lot of ownership over the work I was doing in the lab. You know, sometimes science doesn't work very well, but saying if I don't get my butt out of bed and go do these experiments, nobody else will and nobody else is going after these questions that I'm asking.
I think that's very motivating. That's kind of those ideas in this self-discovery is what also led me to pursue, you know, a job in academia and become a professor, because I think that having that type of ownership and going after what types of questions you want and what you think is interesting and important is really powerful. And that's one of the greatest perks of doing this job.
Michelle Chung: So now you're here at UW Madison, you're starting a new lab from purchasing your first expensive piece of lab equipment to now mentoring your first graduate students. How is it going? What are the exciting parts and what are the maybe not so exciting, challenging parts?
Whitney Loo: I would say the common theme of how it's going is overwhelmed. I think one of the most unique parts about being a professor is the quantity of different hats you have to wear. There are so many different roles that you get to step into during this job, whether that's a researcher or a mentor, you know, a teacher in a classroom setting.
There's a lot of different roles that you get the opportunity to do and some people might find it a burden. But what I think is interesting is because there's so many different things you have to do means that, you know, you're not going to be great at everything. No one person can do all of these different jobs really well.
I think these different roles require different personality traits and different interests, but it also means that every single day there should be at least one thing that you really are excited about doing and that you think you're really good at. So I think for me, what I find most exciting is, is working with my students. Getting to interact with them in the lab and, you know, teach them not only hands on skills of how we do these types of experiments, how we synthesize these materials, but also think about how do we ask questions, how do we frame scientific questions to go after?
How can we design experiments that answer those questions? And how can we always be motivated by this idea of discovery and going after these new ideas? I would say on the flip side of the other part of the job, you know, there's so many questions I have about starting this new job and being in this new place that I would say the least exciting part of every day is I have all these questions, whether they're about science, whether they're about administration or administrative duties or teaching, figuring out who is the right person to ask to get those questions, answer, I would say, is the least exciting part of my day because normally it requires me trying to get the answer from several people, and then you figure out who the right person is to ask. And then I would say the most challenging part of my day is actually figuring out, you know, what are those questions to ask? Becoming a professor is an experience unlike any other, because you step into a role that is very different from your training.
You know, as a Ph.D. student, you are really learning how to do research, you're learning how to ask scientific questions. You kind of continue that training during your postdoctoral work and you really get good at doing research. Now, as a professor, you're not necessarily the one that's really doing the research. You're the one that's mentoring, you're the one that's training your students.
And so it's a very different role than maybe what you've had training for. And so with that comes a lot of questions that you might have on how to be, you know, the best manager, the best mentor. And so figuring out what those questions are is actually very challenging. Mm hmm.
Michelle Chung: What are those spot where I'm struggling and understanding what questions you need to ask to get the solution. That's really interesting. You're now a mentor.
Whitney Loo: I am.
Michelle Chung: And in your journey, who were your mentors and what did they do for you?
Whitney Loo: Yeah, so I've been I've been really lucky to have a lot of really great mentors, both formal and informal. Once, you know, I would say my formal mentors, my post-doc advisor and my Ph.D. advisor, they did a really great job of creating good environments and safe environments to conduct really strong research in and go on this path of scientific discovery.
And I think that is one of the most important things a mentor can do, is create and secure that welcoming and safe environment so that you can really go after and kind of do your job and they can foster and create that. And then I think, you know, I've had a lot of informal mentors throughout this academic journey of people who can either answer these questions is silly, maybe more administrate, have questions, or these more deeper philosophical questions of what am I doing?
Why am I doing this? Which I think is a very common theme that happens in research. Like I've mentioned, you know, you are going after these questions that nobody has asked before. And so sometimes that can be very isolating and lonely. And so it's been great to have informal mentors of people who, you know, not only can help answer some of these more scientific questions, but are just there to help you when the experiments don't work or when your hypothesis is wrong, you know, remind you that you are not your research and you are not your science and that this is just all part of the journey.
Michelle Chung: So you said that one of the things that your mentors did for you was create a safe environment for you to work in. What is a safe environment to you?
Whitney Loo: Yeah, that's a that's a really great question. You know, I think I think the the basis of a safe environment is having a set of ground rules or a set of expectations of, you know, not just how people are going to behave while they're there, but it's about how does it look when we respect each other's time, how does it look when we respect each other's ideas or identities?
I think a safe environment allows everyone to really be who they are while they're at work and is very respectful of people's ambitions, of people's motivations and of people's time. Because I think coming into one of the greatest parts about working in an academic environment is you get to meet and work with people of very diverse backgrounds and even more diverse career goals or motivations or reasons for why they're there and doing those things.
And all of those reasons are valid and all those backgrounds are very important. And so it's about creating a safe and respectful environment where you can do your work in a way that you feel represented in a way that's going to allow you to achieve what you are looking to get out of it.
Michelle Chung: Mm hmm. So a safe environment is is kind of one where, like, you have no barriers for what you can do.
Whitney Loo: Exactly.
Michelle Chung: So we've been talking about mentoring. You've had these great mentors that have created a safe environment for you. You're now in this role where you are like an official mentor to your grad students in your postdocs. What would you say now is the secret to a good mentoring dynamic?
Whitney Loo: I would say ground rules. You know, I think a lot of people have different ideas of what mentoring is, and a lot of mentees go into that relationship wanting different things out of this mentor mentee relationship. And so, you know, before you approach someone and ask for them to be your mentor or ask to mentor someone, it's always important to understand, you know, what are what are we trying to get out of this?
I think traditionally a lot of people think that knowledge or information or advice only passes from mentor to mentee. But in the relationships I've had on both sides, I find that information and advice kind of passes very freely in both directions. And so it's important that, you know, all parties in that relationship are aware of the goals. What are we trying to get out of this and that it is a beneficial relationship for all parties involved.
Michelle Chung: Have you ever thought like no more new polymers? Goodbye Energy storage solution ends. You don't want any of that. You just want to change career paths. Have you ever thought maybe the chemical engineering background wasn't for you and you wanted to switch to something else?
Whitney Loo: Oh, probably more than you would imagine. You know, I think doing this type of research can be isolating. I think a lot of times science science is going to do what science wants to do. It's not cooperative. It's unforgiving. It doesn't take your feelings or your needs into consideration. And so it can be challenging at times, especially if you haven't done the necessary work that one might need to do to separate yourself from your research.
So I spent a big stint in grad school away from the lab and away from, you know, the academic environment actually teaching yoga in the community because I really felt like I wasn't making a big impact and a big difference through my research when all the experiments weren't going well. And I really wanted a time and a place where I could make an impact, improve someone's day, have a positive change, you know, on my local community, on the people I was interacting with.
And so I needed to find another outlet to do that, to maintain my mental health, my sanity, keep myself in a more positive light when sometimes graduate school or just research isn't, is it necessarily providing you with that positive reinforcement you might need? So, you know, there have been times where I said, you know what, Maybe, maybe this is not the right path for me.
I'm really lucky though, now in my current job that because I get to wear all these different hats and have all these different roles, you know, I get to go and teach a class a few times a week and see that impact I can have on those students. And I think the mentoring relationships I have with my graduate students, you know, I can see the impact on how I can help them and improve their life and so kind of lessen some of the blows of when the science doesn't work because you have these other outlets and these other ways to have impact and improve society.
And I think, you know, that is really what engineers want to do, is make the world a better place than the one that we were given when we were born. And so some people think that's going to come through with the research and changing the world in those ways. You know, I really think it's about people. And the people I come into contact with are going to be more impactful than myself could ever be.
So getting to have that in this new role every day is really helpful in maintaining the sanity of knowing that you're in the right place.
Michelle Chung: MM hmm. I see how, like, this professorship type of role is good for you. Like, you have way more of that people aspect. Knowing that these people, you're directly interacting with, you can have a positive impact on.
Whitney Loo: Yeah, no, definitely. I think it's one of my favorite parts so far about the job is getting to interact with people at different stages of their life, their career, seeing how I can be helpful, how I can help them and actually having, you know, a little bit of power and a little bit of influence to to actually make that happen.
Michelle Chung: Yeah. You now with all these different hats, it's almost like not all of your eggs are in one basket. So if there's like a little bit of failure in one place, you still have like many other things that can be fulfilling.
Whitney Loo: Exactly. If one chicken's not laying any eggs with all the other chickens that you have to take care of and manage and deal, you will find an egg or you will find happiness or joy out of some of those other roles.
Michelle Chung: Mm hmm. So talking about, like all of the many hats that you wear, you do a lot. You are building up your lab, you're getting acclimated to new city and university and taking part in a podcast and doing other engagements. What strategies do you have to stay balanced and grounded?
Whitney Loo: So this does not work for everyone? We'll start we'll start with that. And I think, you know, developing these strategies and these coping mechanisms for the everyday stress of life that you're going to encounter regardless of what you're doing is is super important to maintaining a healthy mental health and balance. So I highly recommend for everybody to do some work and figure out what is best for them.
For me, I'm a big time list maker. I make lists for literally everything, you know, not just in my profession or life, but also in my personal life. So things like restaurants, bars and Madison that I still want to go check out and have it made it to list for equipment I need to buy for my lab papers that need to be read, Netflix, TV shows.
I need to watch everything. You know, I think for me, building these lists is a way to distill a lot of the chaos that happens in this world and in my life. And to see, you know, these are all the different things that I need to do or I can do or I want to do. And being able to be reminded of that.
I know for a lot of people, lists are very stressful and overwhelming, but that's just something that I have found, you know, really helps me, you know, just lay out and see the different things that are going on, the different things that I want to do and not to get even so overwhelmed and wrapped up in work that I don't take time for myself.
It's like, well, I said on this list that, you know, I want to start this new show. I want to go to this restaurant. So by somehow putting it down on a list, it makes it seem justifiable to take time out of your day and go do some.
Michelle Chung: You're like creating to do lists that you can do outside of work.
Whitney Loo: That's that. Yeah. My my notes app on my phone is a lot of lists. Yeah. A little overwhelming. I find a lot of comfort in it though.
Michelle Chung: Yeah. Okay. This question I have been adding just for fun, but I know it can be a tough one to answer. This podcast is called Propelling Women in Power. Can you think of any specific moment or decision that you made that was an integral part of you finding your power?
Whitney Loo: Yeah. I mean, I think this is an interesting and quite personal question, but I think for me it was when I really decided that I was going to take the plunge and try to become a professor and really go after this academic life. You know, I think up until then there was always a certain amount of imposter syndrome and doubt in my life of whether or not, you know, I was good enough, I was going to be able, you know, even to get a job like this or be successful at wearing all these different hats just because it's so different than things I was doing before.
And a lot of times in research, you know, it's a little bit more abstract on are things going well? Are you doing well? So I think for me, you know, committing to myself and saying this is something that I think I would be good at, I think I would enjoy as a career and I think I'm good enough to do this.
And taking that plunge and applying for these positions I think was a really integral part in my life where I said, you know, I am a powerful person. I am good enough to help other people achieve their dreams. And so I should, you know, try to achieve mine as well.
Michelle Chung: Was that a hard process to go through? What kind of like what sparked this decision?
Whitney Loo: I think it was I think many things sparked this decision. So I finished my Ph.D. kind of right in the middle or right at the beginning really, of the pandemic in 2020. You know, I think at that point in time, a lot of us were we were starting to envision different futures for ourselves than what we had thought, you know, maybe six months or a year ago, just how the world was changing and adapting to these new things that were arising.
So I think for me, there was a moment of thinking, you know, do I want to move farther away from my family to a to go be a professor, or do I want a really stressful and busy life, or do I want to take a job that may be closer to my family? Maybe a little bit less impactful, but a little bit has better, you know, work life balance.
And I thought I had always wanted to really be a professor, but I was starting to get a lot of doubts creeping in. Maybe this is a sign that you should I don't want to say take an easy way out because I think all jobs have impact and all jobs are meaningful. But I think the process of going through the applications and the interviews to get on a fact faculty and academic job is a very vulnerable one.
You are really putting yourself out there and opening yourself up to a lot of criticism and doubt, either from outside or within yourself. And so I was more saying, you know, maybe, maybe we just won't do any of that. That sounds really hard. Maybe maybe we just won't do that. But, you know, I think as time moved on and really sitting down and thinking about, you know, what did I want to do, what impact did I have, what was motivating me?
It said, you know, I think I think we still need to try even even as the number of positions is, you know, 20% of what it was the year before, we still need to give it our best shot and only until we try will we know if this is the right thing for us.
Michelle Chung: If you never try, you won't ever know exactly. You had to acknowledge the resilience in yourself and know that even with the hard interview process and like the obstacles to come that, you know, you can persevere through it and this is what you want.
Whitney Loo: Yeah, no, I think resilience is a is a great way to put that. I think it's about knowing that you are strong enough and also not being afraid of not being so attached to what the outcome is. You know, it's not about I have to get this job or else I won't be anything. But it's about understanding that, you know, if you never try, you're never going to have that opportunity.
But even more so, you're not going to know what this position is, what this life really is until you dive into it and try to even get one of these positions.
Michelle Chung: Take the leap.
Whitney Loo: Exactly.
Michelle Chung: When we think about ways to increase gender diversity in STEM representation obviously plays a huge role. Can you talk about the role that representation has played for you?
Whitney Loo: Yeah, so I've been extremely lucky and privileged in the realm of, you know, seeing gender representation in these in these types of fields. When I started graduate school and I was deciding which advisor and which research group I was going to join to pursue my Ph.D., I found this research group working and, you know, this field of polymers science, and it was mostly women.
I think there was I think the women outnumbered the men after I joined about 2 to 1, that environment was very safe, very welcoming, very understanding of, you know, what was happening kind of outside in other groups and just kind of in the field in general. It's very sheltering. I don't think I really realized how special of a place it was until we went to our first conference.
It was a a very big physics conference in Baltimore, and it was the first time that I had ever seen in my life where the men's restroom had a line and the women's was empty. And I said, Oh, you know, that's that's kind of weird. And then I realized, Oh, well, that's that's probably because of the demographics of who are here right now.
That's not because, you know, at this place, you know, men are going to the bathroom more than women. It was there just really weren't that many women in the room. And in the conference. And I think that was the first time that I really realized about this lack of representation or how the gender ratio was really skewed and in the field that I was working on.
And so I think for me, you know, having that representation at such an early stage of making this choice to to join this field made it very easy to to leap in and say, yeah, I can do this just because I saw so many other amazing women doing this type of research. And so I think that it is really important.
Michelle Chung: Do you see any other obstacles that you might want to talk about?
Whitney Loo: Yeah. So, you know, first I want to just point out that as a Asian-American woman in STEM, you know, I can speak to my own experiences, and that's really all I can speak to. So I think there are a lot of obstacles other than gender representation for women in STEM. You know, I think these obstacles are unique to STEM.
Whitney Loo: You know, I think there's a lot of obstacles kind of about a gender disparity in the workforce. And that comes from things like our maternity leave policies, how we do tenure clock and those such things that generates these kind of obstacles that just make it harder for women. But I don't necessarily think that's unique to STEM. I think that is everywhere.
Michelle Chung: Kind of going off of these like challenges and thinking of potential solutions. What changes would you want to see to make STEM more equitable?
Whitney Loo: Yeah, So I you know, I think that is a question that we could chat for hours about. And so, you know, I just want to provide one example kind of from my perspective as as a professor. But I think, you know, one way to make STEM more equitable is to really think about how we can make changes to current curriculum that provide a little bit more context for what we are learning and update or modernize some of the applications or the real world problems that we are trying to solve in these classes, especially in these classes where we learn, you know, so much about fundamentals.
So for example, in the semester, you know, in this polymer science class that I'm teaching, you know, we had a very short, brief discussion just about, you know, the Norfolk Southern train derailment and East Palestine that released a bunch of vinyl chloride into the the environment. Vinyl chloride is a is a monomer that is used to make polyvinyl chloride or PVC, which is a plastic that's used a lot in construction.
So if you go to the hardware store and see that, you know, thick white plastic piping or those types of things, that's all that's all PDC And so, you know, just providing that context to my students, you know, we're learning right now how to polymerases, you know, free, radical polymerization. One of these monomers that we use is, is vinyl chloride, you know, out in the world outside of the classroom.
This is something that happened with this material and why we need to think about ethics and why we need to provide context for what we're learning in the classroom. I think that can really help make STEM more equitable. You know, like I mentioned, I think most engineers, their goal is to kind of make the world a better place.
Unfortunately, you know, you could also use engineering to do a lot of harm to the environment, to society. So it's important to provide context and ethics into the classroom and the curriculum so that we can train our engineers, you know, how to be more equitable really from the start and provide, you know, kind of that those critical thinking skills to them, as well as learning how to do calculus and solve differential equations and mass balances.
But there's a whole other side that, you know, they need to be thinking about and how they answer and approach these questions.
Michelle Chung: Mm hmm. Yeah, I like that. There's a part of like your training is going to be obviously those technical skills, but it's also learning about the the good, which is very obvious. But then like mentioning those implications that we don't often think about, that could be bad, right?
Whitney Loo: And a lot of times these implications that could be bad or are not, you know, I don't think we're teaching or training the next supervillain, you know, of a marvel movie or that sort of thing in this classroom. It's just about not considering these worst case scenarios or what could happen if you make a decision or how that might influence local communities or other different, you know, more disadvantaged people is really thinking about when you're designing new processes or new plans as chemical engineering.
Chemical engineers often do really putting that context into consideration at a very early stage. You know, why would you choose process or process over process? BE Is it more cost effective, but is it more, you know, energy efficient? Is it what type of energy is being used and really providing the context for these problems that we're learning how to solve in the classroom?
You know, I think can help influence them to be make more equitable decisions going on later in their careers?
Michelle Chung: Mm hmm. Okay. Knowing all of what you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Whitney Loo: You know, I think, you know, standing here and I like to say that this this job was my first adult job, even though I you know, but an adult for a while. And now I guess so. I think for me, I would love to go back and tell my younger self like, don't compare yourself to others. As hard as that may be.
I think a lot of times when we're stuck thinking about your self in respect to others, you're really limiting how you view yourself. If you're only viewing yourself in the context of how you view other people. When I was younger, I never I never thought I could be a professor, you know, not because I was a woman and not because, you know, I was Asian or or any of those things, but because I didn't think I was I didn't think I was the type of student that would go and be a professor.
You know, I used to take exams and turn them in as soon as I thought, you know, that was enough. I didn't sit there and use all the time available double checking and re crossing every i r t and dotting every I re plugging in the numbers into my calculator over and over again until you know there was no other extra time left.
I thought that that was, you know, someone who was more methodical than myself, someone who had better attention to detail than myself. You know, those were the people that were going to go off and be professors. And that was a very kind of limitation mindset, you know, that none of those things were that important or matter to being successful in this job.
But with comparing myself to others in every way imaginable, I was really just setting up those limitations for, you know, what I could do and who I could become. So I think that would be the biggest thing that I would, you know, tell myself not to do.
Michelle Chung: Finally, what advice do you have for young women in STEM that want to enter your field?
Whitney Loo: So I would say broadly, you know, my my field of either chemical engineering or academia or research or polymer is I think the one thing that I would encourage all young women to do is to ask questions. I really live by the idea that there's no such thing as a bad question or a question that's too dumb or are too silly.
I think by asking questions, you remain curious, You question everything, and that is when you allow yourself to learn and to when you allow yourself to affect real change by questioning, you know, what is the norm, what is happening. And I think it's also what allows yourself to value your time. If you go ahead and ask that silly question.
Hey, hey, Michelle, where's where's the bathroom in this building? It says that my time is valuable. I don't want to waste 15 minutes running around and looking for it when I know that there is someone who can point me in the right direction. And I think taking that ownership over your time is taking ownership over your worth and is really helpful to claiming your power.
Meg Riker: What stood out to you about your conversation with Whitney?
Michelle Chung: Throughout the whole episode, I kept thinking back to this concept of resilience because a lot of the women we've talked to, they share some like pretty grueling experiences sometimes, but we always end with an air of optimism. And I think that's something that we should really focus on. There's some stuff that happens, you know, when you're participating in a system built not for you, but the fact that these women are talking to us about their experiences and still sharing advice for future women to join their field, I think really talks to this community of resilience with Whitney's, with her journey in particular.
Like one thing I'm really going to take away is remembering that in those tough moments where you're doubting yourself, it's really an opportunity for you to remember your why and commit to yourself and claim your power. And that's our show. Thank you to all of you listening in and thank you to today's guest, Whitney Loo, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
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Meg Riker: You can find the Wisconsin Energy Institute at energy.wisc.edu and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at glbrc.org
Michelle Chung: This episode was produced by Michelle Chung and Meg Riker. We'll see you next time on Propelling Women in Power. What is their superpower?
Whitney Loo: I think for me, you know, my superpower is really my ability to distill complex things down, whether that is for time management purposes in my to do lists, whether that's taking really complex problems that we see in the lab or in the classroom. But this idea that, you know, things are always made up of parts. And if you're able to take something that seems really overwhelming or really chaotic but pull out its components or what it's made of or the questions inside of that bigger question, you know, you can really break things down into more digestible and smaller pieces.