Balancing both – Thin film materials and family
Dr. Maïssa Barr was born in France in 1989. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in physics and chemistry at the University of Aix-Marseille and did her Master’s in materials science, including electrochemistry and the study of materials for advanced technology. After an internship at the Atomic Energy Center in Grenoble, she knew she wanted to pursue academic research with nanomaterials. She earned her PhD in 2016 and, after another year as a teaching and research assistant in the south of France, decided to do a postdoc abroad. It made sense to come to FAU, as her institute had a long-standing collaboration with the Department of Chemistry of Thin Film Materials. However, two days before she left for Germany, she found out she was pregnant …
Junior group leader Maïssa Barr: Balancing both – Thin film materials and family
What did you do in this situation?
As soon as I had the confirmation from the doctor, I told my future boss and hoped that it would not be a problem for him. For me, I had decided to go to Germany and see how it would go. Fortunately, my professor has done everything to support me all along the way so that I could continue my scientific career at FAU and have a family at the same time. The institute, the Welcome Center, and the Family Service at FAU also supported me a lot during this time.
How did you manage your career as a mother and researcher?
During my pregnancy, I had student assistants to help me with lab work, which was a big help. Additionally, the whole group stepped in to show my students how to run experiments when I was unavailable, so somehow everyone was involved at different levels. When I came back from parental leave, my son was four months old, and even at that point, I was able to work out my schedule so that I could go to work and still take care of my son part-time. This was doable for me because my partner was at home taking care of the child. After some time, I got more responsibility in my department and am now a junior group leader, which means I can do my own research. To be completely independent, I still have to provide my own funding. But I have been used to taking care of myself since I was a young student.
Tell us a little about your background
Since I don’t come from a wealthy background, I always had to combine my studies with a part-time job. I have worked as a waitress, a cleaning lady, and in a retirement home. Originally, I even planned to study medicine because I wanted to help people. I come from a very old Berber family originally from Algeria. One of my grandfathers was a shepherd in the mountains. Even though my parents immigrated to France before I was born, I am still able to speak the Berber language. But unfortunately, I can’t read the beautiful Berber script, which is reminiscent of the hieroglyphics in Egypt and other regions of North Africa. Given my background, opportunities to leave Europe – at one point I even had the option of continuing to an American university – were always difficult because I didn’t have enough savings.
Was a career outside of academia ever an option for you as well?
Yes. In fact, I recently received an offer to be a director of a chemistry department for a start-up company. I also did consulting for an industrial project. But I’ve decided to stay in academia for now because there I have the freedom to do the research I love to do. And fulfillment in work is so important. For me, there is nothing worse than being bored at work.
What career options would you have had in France?
At university, there are essentially two options: Either you choose pure research and become embedded in hierarchical research groups. Or you choose the traditional professorship with teaching and science. In contrast to French universities, research at German universities is more closely linked to industry, which I really like. At French universities, too, the higher up you go, the fewer women you’ll find. For me, a change of location was the best decision for my professional development.
What fascinates you about your scientific work?
For me, finding sustainable solutions to energy problems is a major concern. I believe that research in this area helps democratize access to energy supply with low cost and low environmental impact. I also like thinking about a problem and finding a solution that can be applied in practice. One of the things I do research on is semiconductors. These have an impact on the performance of batteries, LEDs, and solar cells, depending on their thickness. The thinner the material, the more resource efficient it is. I also appreciate working at the interface between chemistry and physics. I enjoy seeing how a really tiny change in morphology or chemistry can drastically change performance. That’s why I try to advance from fundamentals to applications. I also enjoy investigating new concepts to either create new materials or develop processing methods.
What do you like most about FAU?
I really appreciate that I found a lot of support as a junior researcher. I had access to funding such as the Emerging Talent Initiative, I was supported by the Cluster of Excellence Engineering of Advanced Materials (EAM) and by the ARIADNE mentoring programme, to which I now also contribute as a mentor myself. The research conditions are really good at FAU, because there are many excellent researchers with whom I can collaborate and exchange ideas, or use facilities. Networking has been facilitated by my contribution to the EAM cluster. Regarding funding opportunities, I think young researchers are supported, but moving to a permanent position is difficult.
As a woman, what hurdles have you had to overcome in your scientific career?
I’ve always had difficulty balancing my personal life and my work. Also, in a research field dominated by white males and a lack of diversity, I feel more pressure to succeed the higher I go in the academic hierarchy. After my maternity leave, it was somewhat difficult to catch up. I also felt that I was seen less as a researcher than as a mother, so I thought I needed to prove more that I was a good scientist. Sometimes I had the impression that some people thought I should stay at home longer and take care of my son, which seems to be a strong opinion in Bavaria. I had the feeling that for some fellow researchers my opinion doesn’t count as much as theirs. But maybe I think too much about all that.
What can be done at your professional level to attract more women to STEM subjects?
I think this is an important societal problem that requires larger responses. In research, there should be an effort to support female students and members of staff, by paying attention to what is said and how something is said. People who work in academia need to recognize biases related to gender. Perhaps training for professors and others who work with female academics at FAU would be useful, as would sharing concrete solutions regarding work schedules, flexibility, and women-friendly personnel management. I really hope that after a certain time, gender or origin will not matter anymore and that everyone can be seen as a researcher only …
Where do you see yourself professionally in five years?
I don’t think that far ahead. Things will fall into place. I will follow my inner voice and continue to do what I want to do. That’s also my advice to future female STEM researchers.
This article is part of the brochure “The Sky is the Limit”
Brochure “The Sky is the Limit”
Diverse, inspiring and innovative, the brochure “The Sky is the Limit” introduces female researchers in STEM subjects from the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Sciences in a series of varied interviews.
Other interviews are available on the Research website.