Podcast: Redefining Balance with Natalia De Leon

What decisions will you make today? How do you decide what to do and not do? This week, Natalia De Leon, professor of Agronomy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences and Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center researcher, talks about her decision-making process to find balance everyday as a scientist, mother, and mentor. De Leon shares how she fostered her love for plants, people, and field and lab work through her collaborative research in plant breeding and genetics. Finally, De Leon gives us insights on how she creates the space for herself and others to be the best scientists they can.

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Mary Riker: Michelle, do you think you're good at saying no to things?

Michelle Chung: I think I am definitely getting better at saying no to things, but there's definitely those times where someone will ask me to do something that I might not have the bandwidth to do. But there's that nagging feeling of always wanting to prove myself or feeling like I have an obligation to do something.

Mary Riker: It's a lot to think about. It makes sense why saying no can be so hard, but it's definitely a powerful skill to have, and that's one of the biggest pieces of advice we got from today's guest, Natalia de Leon.


Michelle Chung: Welcome 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 Bioenergy Research Center.

Mary Riker: I am Meg Riker and I am a junior undergraduate student studying civil engineering. I am a science writer intern with a passion for meeting people from different scientific disciplines and sharing their stories.

Michelle Chung: And I'm Michelle Chung, former intern and current communications specialist at the Wisconsin Energy Institute. I love finding fun ways to highlight the research and people here at WEI and GLBRC.

Mary Riker: Here we talk about women scientists and engineers, career paths, the obstacles they have faced, and most importantly, their advice for young women, scientists and engineers.

Michelle Chung: It is our goal to highlight their individual experiences, mentors and work life balance while seeking advice for young women in science and asking the question Who and what facilitated your success?

Mary Riker: Today we spoke to Natalia de Leon, a professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison since 2006. She's also a GLBRC scientist who previously worked for Syngenta Seeds. Following her postdoctoral research at Michigan State University, she received her bachelor's degree in agronomy from Argentinean Catholic University and her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We talked to her about a lot of things, including the importance of being able to say no in the process of finding balance, especially as a woman or a member of a minoritized group, and talking about how she looks to both official and unofficial mentors in her life and other advice she has for women in STEM.

Let's give this a listen with Natalia de Leon.


Natalia De Leon: I am Natalia de Leon. I am originally from South America, so I did my undergrad in agronomy in South America and then came to the U.S. to do my graduate career in my field is in plant breeding and plant genetics, and I particularly focus on improvement of plains working with corn. I look at different economically important traits. So thinking about how do we improve productive beauty and additional uses for corn as important economic crop, but also as a model species that that can you know, the information that is generated from a genetic standpoint, biological standpoint can then be used for for other species.

So my involvement in GLBRC was related to using corn as a source of biomass, but also using corn as a model that could help create information tools for other species as well.

Mary Riker: What are some things you enjoy about your work here specifically?

Natalia De Leon: Yeah. So I went into the area of agronomy and agriculture because I was looking for a way. I always like biology and then over the years I learned that I really, really like genetics, but I was really looking for a way to channel that, that that liking into something that would have an impact. I always like the applied aspect of it and in South America, you know, I feel like we have a more, you know, or at least I grew up fairly connected with agriculture.

And so thinking about how can I be an, an entity that helps evolve agriculture into solutions for, you know, economic program problems, environmental problems in how we can use, you know, kind of combine basic science with with the real applied component of it. So that was what I really liked about that. And you know, the work specifically for GLBRC was, you know, very connected to that because it was all about how can we use a very fundamental understanding of biology, modern tools for a very practical purpose. Working with corn,

My laboratory is outdoors and that is super attractive for me. I like I like the idea that I am with the organism in its context so that that is also very attractive.

Mary Riker: You enjoy this outdoor aspect and connecting environmental and economic points of view. Why did you stick with it? Why did you choose this to be your career and your career path?

Natalia De Leon: So my career path was kind of interesting because I actually when I finished graduate school, I did a postdoc after that, and then I actually worked for the seed industry for a few years before becoming-– before coming into my current position as faculty in agronomy. So I actually experience a little bit of both. The reason why I went from one to the other was kind of the opportunities that appear, and they were very practical.

It wasn't really a plan per se, but the thing that really has kept me here, in addition to the fact that I really like my job, I feel like I'm always learning something new that is related to basic science, understanding how tools can be applied, and then they have that practical aspect and the fact that I am outdoors.

I mean, so the job itself is attractive. But what it really keeps me going is the people, my students, the members of my my group and the connections and the interactions with my colleagues. I mean, I, I realize how rare, you know, the vast majority of the world's population and they have jobs that they just have to work.

I feel very fortunate to have a job that actually allows me to hang out with people that are as passionate as I am about certain things in that I can have conversations about work and we are actually enthusiastic about having that conversation is not something that we have to do, is something that we want to do. And you know, that includes the students.

It's a very big, important part for me, not for not only my students in my program, but just interactions with the students. And I just came back from a conference last week and, you know, just walking through posters and getting to meet people and learning what they are doing and hearing about the enthusiastic experiences that they are having.

It's just so rewarding. It's it's refreshing every time.

Mary Riker: So it sounds like for you, work environment is really important for your career.

Natalia De Leon: Very critical.

Mary Riker: Yes. What do you think specifically in a work environment helps draw people with these passions and these conversations, ability to communicate?

Natalia De Leon: Oh, I mean, I think primarily just respect for everybody and our differences. I mean, that's where universities, I think, have to play a very important role because this is you know, that is almost like by definition, what we should be doing is giving people the opportunity to share ideas, which means that we are not going to agree to everything that they say.

And sometimes it might take longer to get us to where we want to get because we do have to respect everybody's opinions. And yeah, it, you know, having the maturity to actually hear, listen and then process and then be willing to say, you know what, I was thinking about that for years and years and years, but you convince me that maybe I should consider something else about that.

And so that exercise is not easy, but I think it's it's very important. So respect, first of all, and then the the ability to empower people to, you know, have ideas and opinions and share them. It's it's really important.

Mary Riker: When we talk about empowering people. This podcast focuses on empowering women. Are there any ways that you see this occurring in your life or in your career? In the past, yeah.

Natalia De Leon: So I feel very, again, very fortunate that throughout my career I've had really important people that mentor me and encourage me to keep doing what I was doing. And some people were pretty obvious mentors, some others. As I get older, I realized that they were my mentors without really being my, you know, like official mentors, people that gave me the freedom to be who I wanted to be.

I think that was the most important thing. So those are the informal mentors, but I did have some really important mentors that you no formal mentors that taught me how to be a good scientist, how to be a good, I mean, as best as I could. I never had formal training on how to be a good teacher. They showed me how to how to embrace and empower other people.

And so in my job, I consciously I mean, I think that is a very important part of what I do. And I'm learning every day how to try to make it better. So I work in agriculture. Women are notoriously minority, a notorious minority in the majority of the agriculture related fields. So it's not rare for me to be the only women or the, you know, one in a few women in you know, in the work that I've done, both industry, academia, the different activities.

And I should say, as I progressed in my career, the numbers become less because there is also I mean, and this is not news to anybody that there is also significant attrition of women as they go through through their professional careers. I think we are making significant improvements, but the reality is that we still have a lot of work to do.

So what I do is always be present. I think it's like anything in life. 99% of it is just being there. And then I think my biggest two messages to anybody that I mentor, but especially woman, is believe in yourself. And that sometimes is hard to do. Don't don't try to be perfect. Because that's also another common misconception that, you know, we feel like in order to be impactful or be meaningful, we have to be perfect.

No. And then just being there in in the little things, I you know, sometimes I realize how important it is. If a student of mine is giving a presentation, you know, 5 minutes before the presentation, you know, look in the eyes and say, you can do this, you know, so that is, one, believe in yourself and don't feel like you have to–

It has to be perfect from a practical standpoint. Women will be asked because we sometimes, especially in agriculture, in my world, we tend to be minority. We get asked to do a lot of things. So the second biggest thing that I've learned over time is that, you know, it's like it’s is almost like an everyday decision making. Where should I invest my energy?

Where should I invest my time? And I think for women, that is especially hard. So how to decide what are the places that would have a greater potential to be beneficial to you? And then when there are the times that it doesn't feel like it is the best fit or something that would really be beneficial to empower those women and anybody really to just say no and not feel guilty about it and that, you know, like you said, it will come in big decisions and it will also come into small decisions is, you know, at some point I need to leave the workplace and go to my house.

I shouldn't feel guilty to say, you know, this is important for me. And so I realize over time how hard that is and how important it is because it's like, I'll on time kind of process that you're making decisions and those decisions are important and in every little one will have consequences. So I've tried to talk about that with my students and people around me.

Mary Riker: So how do you decide when to say no and when to take something?

Natalia De Leon: Well, that's a great question. I you know, it's hard. One of the things that I that I have learned to do is I try not to give answers immediately. Like I had a tendency in the past that if somebody would ask me something, I felt obliged to just on the spot make a decision. And I learned that that's really not a good idea.

So having a just a little bit of time to think about it and maybe consult with somebody else and, you know, if you have that that ability has helped me sort of see, you know, things from outside and has helped.

Mary Riker: Another thing that popped into my head when you were talking about that is fatigue. So evidently, this is a way to kind of make sure that you don't get too fatigued. But another thing that I've been thinking about recently and I think I've talked with Michelle about this, is how do we ensure that the women or minoritized groups that we talk to don't get too fatigued or burned out talking about their experiences? And when do we should we just take their advice and move forward with that instead of just continually asking for advice?

Natalia De Leon: Yeah, I mean, that's a very, very big and important issue and one that I struggle a lot. So in order to promote women and minority, we are having them participate more in activities. And it's a huge responsibility. So first of all, when I invite some somebody from some for something, I always start by saying it is totally okay to say no, I would never be offended.

I want you to feel like it is your right. I'm inviting you because you know, I would love to have you participate, but please feel free to say no. The other thing is that I try as much as possible to figure out ways to compensate people for that effort. It's not always possible. You know, monetarily is one way.

So if you're inviting somebody to give a talk or give a presentation, but even more so if you're asking somebody that you know is very busy and, you know, it's going to be putting a lot of mental and emotional involvement into a presentation because all of these conversations can be quite draining. You know, it could be money, but it could be also, you know, if you're going to come here, I can connect you with people that could, you know, help you in certain things or or ask, is there is there anything that would help you?

It's not always possible. Women, I have to say, is one of the easiest categories to sort of say, okay, I want to work on promoting women. So it's more obvious.

Mary Riker: It's a bigger population.

Natalia De Leon: Population is more obvious. People walking on the street, they might be underrepresented minorities for different things that are not necessarily obvious. So how do you give the opportunity for people to really share what is important to them? And so I have become really sensitized to the fact that there is the obvious and then there is everything else.

Mary Riker: Sometimes everyone's been the only person of their type in a room, but you might not think about it even like men. You know, I'm sure there's something that keeps them–there's a characteristic that makes them the only one of themselves.

Natalia De Leon: Yes. And, you know, I, I have this memory of actually a friend of my my dad. I was having this conversation, you know, a white male. He had lost his job at the age of 61 and didn't have really good retirement plans. And so I remember, you know, just kind of he said he was forced to retire and he felt like the minority in this set up that he he was you know, so I really you know, it was one of the first times that I you know, I that I have the recollection of thinking like, oh, you know, I would have never thought that you felt marginalized because you were, you know, a more senior person.

Mary Riker: So were there any factors or obstacles in your life or career or academic track that made it more difficult for you to succeed in your field? And was being a woman one of them, or did that influence anything?

Natalia De Leon: I'm sure this is not going to surprise you. There is still a lot of unconscious biases. And I feel and I always say that, you know, every time I feel, like disheartened about these issues, I remember something that my mom told me once and she's like, you know, you're better than I was and I'm better than your grandma was.

So there is progress that is being made, but there is a lot of unconscious biases. And I feel like being sitting in a room and making that comment and then somebody else making the same comment and my comment was ignored is a pretty common thing. You know, it takes more work. I feel like I you know, I could have moved through things faster or better, less painfully if I wasn't a woman.

But I'm here. And so, you know, it's it's like I said, I think progress continues to be made. We see more women coming into positions. I think there are more representation of women in most fields, more assistant professors, and assistant professor is more associate professors that more associate professors than full professors. And in industries, I mean the same thing.

We don't have as many female CEO, 500 whatever fortune CEOs but there is more than there were ten years ago. Yes.

Mary Riker: So as we see, as you go further up the pipeline, we are seeing more women, but it's still kind of like a pyramid.

Natalia De Leon: Very, very I mean.

Mary Riker: Yes. How how do we retain women and minorities groups in these roles or how would you would you approach it if you had a say in it?

Natalia De Leon: Well, I mean, I think it's a little bit like we talked about when you invite people that are feeling fatigue. I mean, I think women and minorities, especially in those positions, the more we can acknowledge that. And one sort of myth that I think needs to be at least consider is that the best mentor for a woman is not necessarily a woman.

The best mentor for a particular underrepresented minority in an organization is not necessarily an individual from that same underrepresented minority. We are not making as a favor if we, you know, kind of follow that path. We really have to make sure that we engage the entire society. There will be margins of this society that we will never be able to engage.

But there are big portions of the society that that can contribute. We can't alienate anybody. I think it's the same things we need to acknowledge those individuals that are representing a certain group in certain situations and try to value that participation by highlighting it, by saying, you know, what can they what can I do for you? Because you are doing something that is very special.

Mary Riker: I think that's a great point of view, having this empathy for everybody is key. So do you have any support networks that you lean on when your professional work becomes difficult or overwhelming?

Natalia De Leon: Yeah, I mean, most of them are personal my support networks are friends and family. I again, I feel very fortunate that when I leave work, I have something outside of work that means a lot to me, which is my family. So I get home and I have all these issues and problems and and then I get there and my son is like, I can't find my soccer socks! Where are they? He is like I can't go to the game with white ones! It has to be black.

And whatever the huge problem I had just turns into nothing because I need to find the black pair of socks. And so having having that balance, you know, it's with kids. And I've also learned to also take time for friends because, you know, work is very busy, family's very busy. And I've realized that I need to also have something for my for myself, my, my book club or my, you know, time to exercise and because that is also a way to maintain mental sanity.

When I have a bad day, when I am lost, it's my family and friends that I go to.

Mary Riker: So that kind of hits on the point of work life balance. I think I'm slowly coming to that realization. Yes, you have to take time for yourself or else it's going to come for you. It will.

Natalia De Leon: Most definitely. And I have to say, like the word balance, I personally don't like it because there's no such thing as balance. I mean, oh, my gosh, is that daily decision making? Daily, hourly. And most of all, it's I think I alluded at the beginning not feeling guilty about that hourly, daily decisions you have to make decisions about, okay, where am I going to invest my next 4 hours or when am I going to invest my next day or my week?

And that's how, you know, the balance comes from that. But it's not really a balance because it's like high, low, high here, low here today, high here, low here. So you never get you never feel like your balance is justified. I think it's learning not to feel guilty about how unbalanced it would be. And then the only the only time that it becomes a balance is over a period of time.

But that period of time for some people might be a week, for some people may be a year for some people might be a decade. So I you know, it's it's I'm trying to find another term. And I think all it boils down to is guilt free decision making. The thing that I also think about, too, is that my decisions are my decisions, but the things that I do are being seen by other people.

If I, if I don't take the time to do the things that are important, you know, I can't just talk the talk and walk the walk.

Mary Riker: But being a role model to.

Natalia De Leon: Yeah, I mean, again, big words but yeah yeah. What people see I definitely have learned to respect and to know how much I don't know and come to come to terms to, you know, on that particular feeling. That's an important recognition. I you know, not all the time I feel like I am being an imposter, respecting the fact that there is a lot that I don't know.

I also feel like part of being present, even when I cannot be as impactful, is empowering other people to say, okay, I can be part of it too.

Mary Riker: So you said that you have seen noticeable changes to the numbers of women in your field. What, if anything, would you like to see changed in the future for women in your field?

Natalia De Leon: Well, I mean, I think, you know, numbers I we we we are making progress, but we are definitely far from, you know, population is about 50% women, 50% men. And we are definitely far from 50% women represented in a lot of in agriculture related fields, certainly, but in many fields. But I also the question that you ask, I think is key is between now and then, between today and getting there, it's going to take significantly more work for those individuals to continue to fight through it.

And my mom is right that, you know, we are doing better than their generation was in general. Her generation was doing better than the previous generation. But the pressure is enormous for everybody. I mean, I think it's not coincidence that we are seeing enormous amounts of mental mental illnesses, related situations. And, I mean, the last couple of years have been very hard you know, more so than than the average.

And I think part of it is because it there is a lot of pressure. There's a lot of you know, as the world advances and we are also interconnected and anything that you do is distributed through to many more people, the pressure is enormous. And so if the pressure is enormous on the average population, and I think it is I think the pressure keeps growing because of the nature of the world for those people that are, you know, that I represented in smaller numbers in in society, in certain groups, in certain situations that I mean, that makes it even harder.

Right. And so how do we compensate for that? How do we acknowledge that? And part of it is just saying, I notice that there is only you, but then some systematically acknowledging and recognizing and finding ways to compensate for that. What can I do for you? You know, how can I help you have a successful next step.

Mary Riker: So what advice would you give to young women entering your field?

Natalia De Leon: I mean, I sort of alluded to it. My two ones is believe in yourself. You can do it. The second one is make decisions as much as you can. Pausing, considering, and not feel guilty about it. There is a tendency in my experience of women that they feel like they have to do it all. And, you know, from a practical standpoint, never feel like that's the case.

It's totally fine to rely on others. That doesn't show weakness, that shows that shows the strength and that will help you not go crazy, not get sick. I mean it's just so in from the really you know basic things to the most complicated more complicated. I mean one of the best decisions I've ever made is, you know, I need help with certain things that don't require my presence.

So I take advantage of services, resources, whatever it takes, that doesn't show weakness that shows that shows the strength. Yeah.

Mary Riker: That's a great point. And, Michelle, do any questions that you would like to ask? You do have a question. All right.

Michelle Chung: Hello? Hi. Okay. So clearly believing in yourself is like a learning process you've gleaned into parts of this yourself in your own growth. What was that process like for you? Like how did you come to be this person that's so confident?

Natalia De Leon: Well, so I think it was again, I mean, I am very fortunate. I think my family always made me believe that I could do it, which is I, you know, realized that how lucky how lucky I was to, you know, just be you. Of course, there were rules and, you know, things that you are not supposed to do. But I could be myself so that, you know, that was very important. And then as I started my professional career, that's what my mentors were so critical. I remember my– I had a teacher in high school that she was the only the only teacher that actually would meet with you. Well, we were getting to the end of, you know, high school experience back in South America.

And she would ask the question, you know, what do you see yourself being in the future? And and she was very much like maybe she didn't really realize all the things that all the possibilities. But she's like, Oh, that sounds great. And yes, you can do it. And look at these, you know, and she would do research and, you know, find things about the world that, you know, could could be helpful.

And then my graduate scientific advisor was another person that from the very beginning, I remember when I started thinking about job opportunities that I will come with, you know, what I thought was the perfect fit for me? And he's like, How about this? And I’lll be like, Oh, that's such a shot in the–and he's like, No, you know. You have to know already. So why? You know, that was sort of the feeling that he always gave was like, you you have the knowledge already, so why not try it? And then the other part is that not only I mean, in in in all those cases, these are people that don't just told me to do it. They were there with me all the way.

Right. Because that you can you can tell me about it. Believe in yourself, do what you want and then turn around and leave. Right. That doesn't work. There are those key decisions that if somebody tells you I mean, I remember, you know, particular situation with my my Ph.D. advisor. I was, you know, thinking in all these jobs that, you know, now looking backwards, it was like I would have been more out of my mind.

And he's like–

Michelle Chung: No.

Natalia De Leon: You know, just think about these other things. And in that was key.

Michelle Chung: Mm. Yeah. The support along the way. Mm.

Natalia De Leon: They support along the way.


Mary Riker: Michelle, is there anything that jumped out to you initially about the things that she said?

Michelle Chung: Yeah, a thing that we've brought up a lot is that minorities get asked to do a lot of things. Yes. And to to have any bandwidth you need to take a break and not feel guilty about it.

Mary Riker: Yes, that was a big thing that she discussed here, was not feeling guilty. And I think because minoritized groups, you know, are in the minority, they might feel like they are obligated to fulfill certain roles or talk about their experiences, but that can be exhausting and trying not to feel guilty about that, because if you're doing the best you can with the energy that you have, that's okay.

Mary Riker: Yeah, that's good. That's great. That's what you can contribute. Yeah.

Michelle Chung: Part of her solution was like creating a space where people don't feel obligated. Yes. To do things, having it be a comfortable space to say no.

Mary Riker: I also liked when she was talking about her advice for others. Her first one is: you don't have to be perfect. And I thought that's something that maybe we could speak to for women, especially because like trying to be perfect in all different spheres of life, like being a maybe a mother and, you know, a Ph.D. student or an undergraduate or something like that.

Michelle Chung: And she didn't like that word balance. And it's really just a matter of just like, what decisions are you going to make for yourself today? And it's going to be different every day.


Mary Riker: And that's our show. Thank you to everyone listening where your hosts, Meg Riker.

Michelle Chung: And Michelle Chung.

Mary Riker: This show is edited and produced by us and Mark Griffin. Thanks again to our guest, Natalia de Leon, a professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a scientist at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

Michelle Chung: And see you next time on Propelling Women in Power.

Mary Riker: What do you consider to be your superpower?

Natalia De Leon: Oh. Um. Oh, I need to think about that.

Mary Riker: Okay. I would have to think about it, too, if I got asked this.

Natalia De Leon: I mean, I, um, I can read people. Yeah, yeah, I can read people. So I think I didn't realize how much of a superpower that is. Yeah. Yeah.