What does it mean to foster an environment that truly feels welcoming? For Yiying Xiong, associate director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, it all comes down to treating a team of coworkers like they are part of a family. Xiong spoke with us about her experiences nurturing these families in the hydropower industry and now academic research. She also reveals two factors she thinks make a successful leader: self-confidence and mentorship.
Today's episode was hosted by Michelle Chung, assistant editor and former Wisconsin Energy Institute communications intern, and Mary Riker, Wisconsin Energy Institute communications intern.
Editors: Mary Riker, Michelle Chung and Mark E. Griffin
Producers: Michelle Chung, Mark E. Griffin, and Mary Riker
Music written and performed by Mark E. Griffin
Michelle Chung: Hi, I'm Michelle, and I'm here with Meg. So Meg, who is the woman in energy science that we are talking to today?
Mary Riker: We are speaking with Yiying Xiong, the associate director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, about her experiences in the hydropower industry and now academic research and her advice for being a successful leader using self-confidence and mentorship.
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, a senior undergraduate student studying biology and environmental studies. 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? So, Meg, it's been a couple of days since the interview. What would you say your main takeaways were?
Mary Riker: So to start off, what I really took away from our conversation was the importance of mentorship, being involved in some sort of professional society or mentorship program to get you in contact with people who are involved in your industry or your field. And then also the importance of having your own internal self-confidence and telling yourself you can do it and you can succeed in the challenges that are presented to you in your career, whether you're a woman or not. So this kind of applies to a whole range. And then she she narrowed it down to women needing to have that self-confidence to increase the representation in their field.
Michelle Chung: So let's hear what Yiying has to say.
Yiying Xiong: My name is Yiying Xiong, I grew up in China. I came to the United States for graduate study as many international students do here, I came here in 2001 and never left. I love living here. I studied with the GLBRC In January of 2021, so I've been here for just a little bit over a year. My role here is Associate Director, but I really look at this as kind of being a mother, a sister, friend to everybody here.
So my role is to make sure that the GLBRC family as a whole is happy and things are moving smoothly. My my job here day to day is to help people figure out how to make sure the family is running fine. People are happy with each other and they're all successful in what they do and the GLBRC is successful as a family.
Mary Riker: You said you came to the United States to do your master's degree, correct? Could you tell me a little bit about what you studied to begin with, maybe for your bachelor's degree?
Yiying Xiong: Yeah. So actually my bachelor's degree was hydropower engineering. I started with that major because I grew up near Yangtze River, near the largest dam in the world is the Three Gorges Dam. So that was really the one thing that I knew kind of growing up and knew was great for just people, energy and economy. So I wanted to go in there and actually know more about it.
So I've finished that degree and came to the United States for civil and environmental engineering, specialized in water resources. So it was very similar to what I studied before.
Mary Riker: And what made you decide to come to the United States to do that additional degree?
Yiying Xiong: I always wanted to get advanced degree. So actually I did have opportunities to do that in China as well as coming here. But I always wanted to have a broader view of where the, you know, the industry is going and also what people are doing in other parts of the world. How do they deal with their issues? How do they solve these engineering, you know, challenges.
And obviously, United States has the most advanced technology. And I wanted to learn more about that and I wanted to learn the culture here as well. So it was just a really nice adventure for me to kind of get into and learn about it. And I love staying here, so I stayed.
Mary Riker: So I know you did your master's degree at Marquette. Did you have any maybe mentors for that degree that kind of influenced what you studied your decision to go into industry afterwards?
Yiying Xiong: Yeah. So I consider myself being really, really lucky. I've had a lot of really great mentors throughout my career, throughout my school. So one of my first I would say people that influenced me quite a bit was my advisor back in China. I did my senior project with him. He did his degree in Germany and went back to China, became a very well-known researcher and professor, and he really encouraged me to explore the rest of the world and to look at, you know, how people do different things in different parts of the world.
And he introduced me to actually this professor, at Marquette University, who became my advisor, so my professor in Marquette University also had done a lot of great things to kind of guide me through study and also picking my career and the direction that I wanted to go. And we've actually maintained as friends all these years. I still talk to him and work with him on different things.
So it's been really great journey to kind of learn different things and at the different stage of my life from him and others. I would say one thing that might have helped more was before I got into the industry, or my career would have been nice if I had had mentors that give me more perspective of what it's like working in the industry versus what it’s like working in the research world, you know?
What are the pros and cons and how does that play into your work life balance and your long term career goals and your personal development goals? Had I had the, you know, eyes wide open with all the information available, as much as possible anyway, it would have given me a just a little bit more clear direction.
But again, I think I fell into the right place kind of on accident and it worked out really well for me. But for you know most of other people, I think it would really helped to have that information available before making a career choice.
Mary Riker: Sure. So what would you say are the major differences between more of a research position versus an industry position based on the experiences that you've had in your career?
Yiying Xiong: Certainly there are a lot of differences. I would say one of them is the pace of work in the private industry. You know, things are, especially I came from the consulting industry, everything is kind of measured by the time. So you really have to gain efficiency. You are constantly measured by the efficiency that you do and the quality of work you do.
I mean, that's universal, quality of the work you do is universal. But you know, there in the private industry, things are measured by the budget and schedule. You have very, very stringent rules on those kind of things. In an academic world, you're doing a lot of research that are highly risky. Some of the things may not work out.
So you take your time and you put a lot of emphasis in details, making sure you don't miss anything. And there is I would say for me, it feels like there's a little bit less pressure on just getting things done quickly. You want to make sure you get things done right. So the emphasis is a slightly different and your end goal is slightly different because you are not always looking for product.
Products that are going to be used in the real life of some things may not work out. So you have to have that kind of risk taking mindset in the academic world.
Mary Riker: So I'm at a point and I think Michelle is also because she's graduating, I am an undergrad student who's a junior, so I have a couple more years of deciding whether we kind of go into industry or continue to go on to get another degree beyond an undergraduate one. Did you have any factors after your master's? Did you ever consider like going on to do a Ph.D. or did you think that you wanted to go directly into industry?
Yiying Xiong: So that's a good question. When I was in grade school, I would say at that time I felt like, oh, it's really cool to get a Ph.D. and be a researcher and do a, you know, do a degree as high as possible. Then once I got into college, I really felt that I was more attracted to the practical side of things.
I want to see projects where I can see and feel and point to people and say, I built that, I designed it versus, you know, I may have to spend years and years in the research lab and having to also deal with the consequences where certain research doesn't materialize or can be proven to be ineffective or inaccurate, you have to do something different.
I just feel like I'm more into the practical side of things. So at that point I kind of feel having a master's degree is very beneficial. It gives me a more in-depth background. However, having a Ph.D. degree may not necessarily fulfill my personal goals of being able to make a more of a more tangible or direct or a faster impact to the things that I care about.
Mary Riker: You were in industry for like 20 years, correct?
Yiying Xiong: Almost 20 years.
Mary Riker: Wow. So what influenced your decision to come back to the more academic or the management of the academic side of it?
Yiying Xiong: I think there are many, many different aspects of it. Since I was in industry for very, very long, I felt like in a way we’re a little bit settled, I was in the hydro industry and the hydro industry has, you know, we had professional societies and we have a really nice gathering of people, but the different industries, like even between hydro and wind and solar or bioenergy, we are a little bit kind of like living in our own world.
There's not enough cross industry collaboration or just cross-pollination of people or expertise. And I feel like we could have done better if we could pull all the industries together. And also I could have influenced policies to make them collaborate more. So I started thinking a couple of years back whether I could get into a career track where I can make more impact on the more upstream position like where I can impact policies or public outreach, public education, things like that.
So that's when I started thinking about, okay, maybe the academic world or a nonprofit world would fulfill that part of my personal desire to make a greater impact to the community as a whole and pull different parts of the world and different industries together. So that's where I kind of started thinking about switching my career path.
Mary Riker: Are there any points where being a woman or anything else you identify has kind of influenced or changed your perspective on your career and maybe your choices in your career?
Yiying Xiong: I would say I wouldn't of changed my choice in my career. However, I did experience a lot of challenges, sometimes I would say. Sometimes it's kind of an advantage to me, but certainly it is a different experience. So I would make an, for example, when I first started working as a junior engineer at this consulting firm, which hadn't hired any young engineer for a long time, and I was the only female engineer in the Department of Water Resources.
So when I first started, my mentor said to me, he said, you are obviously smart, you can do a lot of great things. However, there are two things that are going to go against you and you have to work hard against it. One is that you're a woman because this is a man dominated industry and you have to work harder to prove yourself.
And secondly, you look to young. Again, this industry has a lot of senior people with a lot of years experience. If you don't have gray hair, people don't take you as seriously. And when I first heard about it, I thought he was joking. I didn't really take it very seriously. And later on I really, really felt that with my personal experience sometimes, for example, there was once I went to a meeting with my boss, I was at that time managing multimillion dollar projects,
I had ten, 15 years around my belt, but when we went into the room, I was the only female in the whole room and the client, that was the first time the client met me and the client was just talking to my boss the entire time, didn't even look at me for more than 5 seconds. And he probably just thought I was just one of the young engineers sitting there taking notes and listening to other people.
And we started talking about some specific issues related to my technical expertise. So I started offering my perspective and some suggestions. All of a sudden I just saw his eyes just like brighten up and he said, oh, here's someone who actually knows something. I never thought you had a value here. It was just me feeling from his facial expression.
And then later I did find out he actually called the other, called my boss, and said, hey, I was very impressed with Yiying And she actually knows a lot of stuff. She's very bright. But there was a complete flip of attitude from the beginning to later part of the meeting, whereas I felt like if I was a man or looked older, the attitude probably would have been less drastic.
So it was just very interesting. So I certainly feel kind of the glass ceiling over a lot of women engineers in my industry.
Mary Riker: And to you, how do we kind of crack that glass ceiling, especially for young female engineers like myself, who might be going out maybe into the workforce within the next five or ten years, tricks that you've managed to establish over the years that have worked to make people recognize your benefit to certain projects or your expertise.
Yiying Xiong: Mm hmm. Yeah, certainly there are things you can do. I think there are some external forces and there are some internal forces that you can work on. I would say external forces are the mentors that you can really leverage to help you build those kind of abilities and confidence and help you get more recognized. So certainly my first advice is to find a good mentor or more than one where you work or people in industry that kind of have similar experiences growing up in the industry or people who just have a more broader view and better vision of what the industry is like, who can help you and help you find your place, help you build that confidence.
The internal side of things. I would say you got to feel comfortable with yourself. Tell yourself I can do it right. That confidence is really the key for you to stand out and feel comfortable to be in front of people there. There was a friend that told me there has been a research that was done, a man look at a job posting.
They would apply for a job if they are 60% qualified for what the posting was looking for. However, a woman would have to be overqualified in order to feel comfortable to apply for the job. So I see that very clearly through my own lens and my own experience. I would say you have to overcome that. Acknowledge that there is that difference and tell yourself I can do it and I'm good at this.
Therefore, I should feel comfortable to advocate for myself to apply for these positions. Give yourself that opportunity to network with people, participate in professional societies. What's the most important is how women or if you have a different identity, you present yourself to other people, make them aware of your value, make them aware of you as you, right?
So the self-representation, I think, is very, very important. One thing that I feel that's the very core to my own value is how I can impact people around me, how I can impact the community, whether through my technical work to help build a hydro project in Africa, for example, to have people that don't have access to electricity have a better life.
And another one is to help other younger professionals grow in their own professions by mentoring them and support them so that's really, really important for me. For example, I've been involved in this organization called Midwest Hydro Users Group for the last, I would say close to 20 years. And this group is primarily consisted of the hydro professionals in the Midwest region.
And even till today I would say I'm one of maybe two non Americans, non white people in in the organization. And at first it was a little intimidating. You're in a room with 100 men, maybe there are a handful of women and then I'm the only minority in there. It was a little bit intimidating, but over time, you know, you develop the comfort level and people are really nice.
Those people are phenomenal. I love those people and that's why I've been staying with this organization. And I actually ran for the board of directors a few years ago. And when I went on the stage to give my speech for the election, I said, We have 120 people sitting in this room and I could count the number of women on two hands.
And I said my first goal to be on the board is to help increase the diversity. And if three years from now, we can still count the number of women with my two hands and then two feet, I'm not doing a good enough job. So that's my number one goal. That's my priority here. And at that point I feel comfortable enough to say this and to do this.
And I succeeded. And I think we're in a much better place today.
Mary Riker: What methods did you employ to increase diversity in this organization?
Yiying Xiong: I think first one is to send a signal that we have women that are in leadership roles. This organization has been around for 40 years, and until about three years ago we did not have a female president. So the time I was in, we had seven board members and three of us were women, which was a big improvement from before.
It wasn't by design, it was just because the industry is very men dominated. You know, most of the people in that organization were men. So that was just what happened. And then all of a sudden we had three women that stood up and wanted to run for the board. And, you know, the people voted for us and we had almost half of the board consisting of women, and one of them became the president.
And that just sends a really positive signal to the profession. And we did a lot of just good work to talk with other women and encourage people, and also through the women in Hydropower mentorship program, we really reached out to people and promoted, you know, their their value in the industry.
Mary Riker: I know GLBRC has a mentorship program and it's kind of aligning with what you just said. Could you tell me a little bit about that and how you kind of started it?
Yiying Xiong: Yeah. So I'm as you can tell, I'm really passionate about mentorship. I think that's really the key to help anybody grow in this age. So before I came to GLBRC I was part of the women in Hydropower mentorship program for a year. I actually still am. I was on a steering committee for a couple of years until I joined GLBRC, and I just feel like that's really a nice platform and it was extremely effective.
And actually when I interviewed with the GLBRC position, I feel like that was one of the key things they're looking for for this position anyway. So it was a really perfect alignment with what I wanted to do and what you obviously are looking for. So it was kind of just a very natural thing. When I came here the first day, I said, let's, you know, start a program, let's think about how we can get this started.
So luckily I was able to borrow a lot of the experience from the other mentorship program, and they also shared a lot of the materials with me and that kind of got me kickstarted. And of course we customize it to fit what we have here at GLBRC. Yeah, that's how we started. And we had, you know, 40 some applicants for the first round, so we considered it as a pretty good success.
Mary Riker: That sounds pretty successful to me.
Michelle Chung: Yeah.
Mary Riker: That's great. And if people wanted to get involved with that, should they reach out to you or you said there's an application?
Yiying Xiong: Yeah. So we try to run in a somewhat structured way. So it goes from September through May that kind of lines up with the semesters when people are actually on campus and available. So every August ish we’ll come out with application open calls and people can sign up. But we try to do kind of a one on one match so we can make sure that people's needs and, you know, their criteria are being met.
So we actually have people putting in different criteria’s and their goals. So we'll match the mentor mentee that have common interest areas together.
Michelle Chung: Can I jump in here for a second? What are the things that you prioritize like emphasizing as a mentor? Like what do you tell your mentees or like what do you want them to know?
Yiying Xiong: So I would say, you know, the very important thing for me as a mentor is to be a good listener, not a good teller, because everybody's life goals are different and their situation is different. So I don't tend to tell people what to do. I first listen to them, listen to their situations and listen to their their concerns, their worries, and then ask some good questions just to help them think through what their situation really is like and what they really care about.
So a lot of times without me offering a specific suggestion, they kind of figure it out as we walk through those questions together. So I think to be a listener and being a supporter is really the most important aspect of being a mentor.
Mary Riker: Is there anything you would like to see changed in the future for women in your field?
Yiying Xiong: Well so one of the biggest struggles I've had in my personal professional experience is the lack of flexibility. When women have family, have kids, it comes with a lot of responsibilities and sometimes there's conflicts between work and family and just that acknowledgment, you know, it's getting better. But it wasn't quite where it needs to be in my opinion. One thing that I see is that women are very good multitaskers and that ability needs to be acknowledged more because sometimes people see women having to do kids duties or have to work from home, then they tend to think, oh, they're not being as productive.
But as a matter of fact, I think a lot of us are very good at being productive. So I think acknowledgment of that ability and also providing the flexibility to accommodate the family responsibilities of women is very important.
Mary Riker: That's going to lead me into something else I wanted to discuss with you, work life balance. How do you in your life balance your position with maybe your personal life? And are there points at which that's conflicted and how did you handle that?
Yiying Xiong: I would say I'm not the best person to talk about work life balance because I don't think I have achieved a perfect work life balance yet. I continue to try and I think I'm making progress. Also one thing that's really key to work life balance is prioritization. We all have thousands of things going on. We all have, you know, responsibilities on top of each other and we just need to at any given point of your life, in a given time of the day, you need to constantly prioritize what's most important.
So what I like to do I've been doing for years is that I have a list of things either in my mind or on the paper every day on my way to work when I'm driving and think about, okay, here are all the things I need to do, what's the most important one? So I make kind of an order of the day and I'll go, you know, through my order in the day.
And then when there are bigger conflicts, I do the same thing. I go through the big things in my life and figure out what's most important in this stage of my life. Therefore, I'll make a compromise for the other things that are lower on the priority list.
Michelle Chung: Something that has come up a lot in our interviews is the importance of representation. Whether it's in industry or academia. And your background is interesting because you're an immigrant, coming to a new country. I wonder, like, did you have representation in the field that you were going into or was there anyone that was on the path ahead of you that you could relate to?
Yiying Xiong: Actually, not really. It was an interesting experience how I came here, but what really happened was that I didn't know anybody here. I didn't have one acquaintance or any student that had been here before me that I knew that I could suggest I'll get advice from. So I didn't really have a role model to go by, but I just always felt fairly comfortable with my identity.
I'm fine, you know, just walking on the street, I acknowledge that I look different than some of, most of the people on the street. I maybe carry an accent. It's fine. I may have to ask more questions because I don't understand how banking works or how certain things work. I just ask questions. I feel comfortable asking questions, and I feel comfortable acknowledging that, okay, I don't know this word, you have to tell me because you know, I'm not a native English speaker.
So just having that comfort level with yourself. I think another aspect of which I have not touched on is the empathy side. You know, it it comes with your natural personality, but it also comes with the desire to be a good leader, to be a supportive leader.
And don't put yourself over the people you work with. You actually really put yourself under the people that you want, you want to support. So have the empathy and relate their personal experiences with your own personal experience. Constantly put yourself in other people's shoes and genuinely really care about what they are, what they're experiencing, what they need to solve that.
So I'm not pretending or forcing myself to do something for them. I really want to. I want to do that for them. So it's like being a mother or being a sister. Like I said, I just want to be that person to help you resolve your problem. And as a result, I grow in myself too. And I learn things myself from this experience.
Just being a parent really cultivated that sense of empathy, a sense of responsibility, and that really helped me carry that sense of responsibility into my job, my role here.
Mary Riker: I was wondering what your thoughts on our conversation were.
Michelle Chung: Her advice on mentorship was really practical and also something that, yeah, everyone could use in their own lives. And same with her views on self-confidence. I really liked her one story in particular, the one where she was the youngest and only woman in the room and she like used that to her advantage almost. Where she took people by surprise.
And I think that's a really great perspective. Like she walked away from that experience not feeling alienated, which is I think like another way that could have gone, but really like taking away from it that like your identity can be something that is advantageous to you. You can surprise people and have them learn that who you present yourself as doesn't define your skills and abilities.
Mary Riker: Yes. And the fact that she recognized that that was happening, but there were no negative emotions associated with it. It was more like, okay, this is who I am. This is I know my abilities and here, let me show you, rather than just getting upset or angry about it.
Michelle Chung: And I think that her ability to do that stems from her self-confidence, like she said.
Mary Riker: Absolutely. And having had those mentors that made her aware of the fact that that might occur in her field. So like she said earlier, having your eyes wide open about these kinds of things is sort of a power in and of itself.
Michelle Chung: Mm hmm. Exactly.
Mary Riker: And speaking of power, here is Yiying’s superpower.
Yiying Xiong: I would say my superpower is to help people acknowledge their own superpower, their own potential.
Mary Riker: That's beautiful. I love that. This is the leadership we need.
Yiying Xiong: I hope I'm not just saying this. I'm doing this.
Mary Riker: No, I absolutely think you are. I'm sure that the people who work for you think that. Thank you so much.
Yiying Xiong: Thank you guys.
Mary Riker: This has been a great experience and we've learned so much.
Yiying Xiong: Oh, that's great. And I'm really glad. And again, I learn a lot from you guys, too. And really good luck with the rest of the interviews.
Mary Riker: Thanks for listening to our show today. Were your hosts Meg Riker
Michelle Chung: And Michelle Chung.
Mary Riker: The show is produced by us and Mark Griffin and edited by myself and Mark Griffin. Thanks again to our guest, Yiying Xiong, the associate director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.
Michelle Chung: And see you next time, on Propelling Women in Power.