On 27 February, in the lead up to International Woman’s Day, we at WISE had the privilege to invite Dr Maria Velissariou to talk at our ‘Inspire’ event.

Maria (second from the left), an alumna of the University (she studied her biochemical engineering PhD here, graduating in 1992) is the Chief Science and Technology Officer at the Institute of Food Technologists. She is an influential figure in the Chicago science community and sits on the Chicago Council of Science and Technology. During her time at PepsiCo, Maria was a founding member of the PepsiCo STEM Executive Council and Chair for Million Women Mentors, an initiative of STEMconnector® promoting STEM education and careers among girls and women.

Maria Velissariou WISE

Her talk, not only deeply inspiring, highlighted the importance of mentorship between women in science; a message that is profound and memorable as we celebrate all women today. Our evening also gave Maria the opportunity to make contact with a student, forming a new mentorship going forward. We at WISE are touched and proud that our event has allowed Maria to share her wisdom not just with the audience at the event, but a future woman in science.

As part of WISE Inspire we were delighted to interview Maria on her experiences at University and as a female scientist in industry:

What are your favourite memories of your time at the University?
There are so many...tea breaks were always welcome times to catch up and ideate, having the most amazing equipment creations by the famous glass blower at Chemical Engineering (a true artist) to idle talk in the University grounds on sunny days. But the fondest memory of all is meeting my husband there.

How do you feel being a woman influenced your experience of working in STEM?
It has been a journey of discovery and change, from being a minority in class or the work place looking for the opportunity to make a mark to a much better participation of women. Those formative years at school and work sharpen your intuition and make you more determined to succeed. It was not always plain sailing but when you love what you do, surround yourself with great mentors, women and men, and have a higher purpose you find a way forward. 

So far in your career, have you noticed any changes to how women are treated in STEM, and what do you think the future holds?
The changes are generational and in many ways profound. We see so many more women enrol in STEM degrees, a lot more claim their rightful place in working life with confidence and in increasing positions of leadership. Academic institutions, employers and government recognize the importance of women's participation in STEM as a source of economic and social enrichment. However we still have work to do to achieve pay parity, openly deal with implicit bias, reduce attrition, especially in the early career years, and ensure that women of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds achieve their full potential. I see a bright future for women in STEM, even in fields that traditionally have lagged behind, with new paradigms being generated and equity gaps closing. However, we should not take things for granted and our work is not done yet. Girls and young women still need the institutional and personal support to pursue STEM choices on an equal footing as men. 

What advice do you give to young girls wanting to work in STEM?
I would encourage them to pursue their dreams without fear or hesitation, to listen to their instincts and allow themselves the space to grow, learn and improve; not to settle for second best.

"Feet, what do I need them for if I have wings to fly?"
Frida Kahlo

Find out more about the Women in Engineering Society (WISE) and SATNAV who also collaborated on this interview.