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3 Questions Interview

Dr. Jie Qiao is the founder and chairwoman of WiSTEE Connect, an organization that connects women in science, technology, engineering and entrepreneurship (STEE). She’s also a tenure-track associate professor at the Center for Imaging Science at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York state.

After graduating from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, Qiao worked to develop technology in the areas of optical metrology, optical instrumentation, short-pulse laser systems and applications, and photonics for optical communications. She also has a master of business administration degree from the University of Rochester’s Simon Graduate School of Business, and co-founded optical technology company Aktiwave LLC.

Photonics Spectra recently asked Qiao three questions about the formation and growth of WiSTEE.


Q: What are you working on?

A: After working in both private companies and national-lab-like settings for 14 years, I came to recognize that there were few women in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields advancing to high levels in either academics or private industry. My awareness and view on this have evolved over time, and I finally felt that it was the time to do something about it on my individual level.

I have established [WiSTEE] to provide mentorship, connectivity and leadership opportunities to women who aspire to succeed in science and entrepreneurship. WiSTEE’s vision is to promote women’s leadership in STEE; bridge the gap between science and entrepreneurship; provide a forum to learn, connect and lead; and help women faculty, students and engineers to gain regional connections and global impact in the STEM fields.

WiSTEE has held three very successful events this year: Being a Woman in STEE, Sharing the Shaping Moments of Your Career, and Path to Entrepreneurship – Intersecting STEE. Each of the events brought 35 to 40 women across about 20 academic units, across local industries, and across career stages. The cross-disciplinary connectivity function that WiSTEE means to serve was evident from the broad background of the participants. The different career stages of the participants make WiSTEE a perfect platform for women to identify role models, [and] connect with and learn from them.

We have also established the WiSTEE-Boni travel grant (thanks to Mr. Robert Boni and Ms. Diane Boni) to provide WiSTEE members with international exposure and perspectives, and to enhance their academic and research experience. The grant has enabled an undergraduate student at the University of Rochester to present her research at the 2013 International Summer Session on Optics Design, Engineering and Fabrications, which was held in China and hosted by The Optical Society (OSA) and the Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics.

WiSTEE has grown rapidly and solidly since its creation. I am working toward growing WiSTEE into a regional organization, WiSTEE Connect, to gain regional connections and global impact. I envision that WiSTEE Connect will horizontally or locally connect regional WiSTEE groups across universities and industries. It also will vertically or globally connect with different professional societies to identify and provide opportunities for WiSTEE members.

Q: What are the implications of the work for the industry or society?

A: Women scientists and engineers are shaped in schools and universities by the environment around them. The lack of midcareer women role models could have negatively impacted the number of female students and professionals in STEM, including optics and photonics. Therefore, there is an urgent need for growing stronger [female] leadership in these fields to provide role models for the new generations. Furthermore, none of the individual science and engineering departments within a single regional university or company has critical mass of women faculty, students, engineers and researchers – and many “techy” women often have the feeling of being lonely or isolated.

An organization like WiSTEE would be an innovative solution for the collective advancement of women. In some sense, every faculty member is an entrepreneur who balances project management, fundraising and human relations on a daily basis. Students who have business knowledge make better decisions. It would be empowering for women faculty and students to learn and bring entrepreneurial thinking, strategy and practice into their professional lives.

Q: What’s next for that work?

A: To establish WiSTEE Connect, I am in the process of discussing with a number of enthusiastic women faculty and engineers from the University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology, Nazareth College, Roberts Wesleyan and other private companies. The regional connection would allow networking and collaboration across universities.

Since WiSTEE members work in distinctively different disciplines, we strive to connect them globally within their discipline to enhance career advancement opportunities. This is being done by partnering with various professional societies, including with the group Minorities & Women in OSA. WiSTEE Connect is seeking funds to build infrastructure and provide scholarships to its members for advancing their careers while maintaining a balanced life.

The feedback received after each WiSTEE event clearly indicates that WiSTEE Connect is serving an unmet need. I am confident that it will grow into a national [or] international organization. Its societal impact would be profound and groundbreaking.


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