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IBM researcher Heike Riel wins SVIN Award 2012.

This article was translated from a Q&A conducted by SVIN managing director Brigitte Manz-Brunner. See also the external press release.

Zurich physicist Heike Riel

The Swiss Association of Women in Engineering (SVIN) honored Heike Riel, physicist at IBM Research – Zurich with its 2012 “Technical or Scientific Innovation” award. Heike’s work focuses on nanoscale electronics of new materials and nanoelectronic devices for future energy-efficient computers.

Women still make up only a small percentage of professionals in technology and the natural sciences. Why did you choose this field?

I always had a flair for mathematics from my earliest school days. It’s one of my passions that I was determined to pursue, even though it’s generally assumed that girls have less aptitude for math than boys do.

I was fortunate to have the freedom to study what interested me the most, so I chose physics. Physics is fascinating because it’s about applying mathematics to better understand our world and to find innovative technical solutions to the challenges we face.

Did you encounter resistance as you pursued your career?

I never really encountered much resistance, to tell the truth. Of course there are always those people who make dumb remarks about anything unusual. As a female physicist, one is a bit out of the ordinary and sometimes people don’t know how to gauge you. There’s only one solution: persuade with performance.

Were you supported in your choice of careers? Who are your role models?

Oh yes, I enjoyed a lot of support. It’s often the little things that really help, such as receiving important information or good advice in order to make the right decisions along the way — and the freedom to try something out or to find your own path.

I would say that my father was my strongest role model throughout my childhood. I originally wanted to follow in his footsteps and become an engineer before choosing physics.

I am grateful to have met so many very interesting and impressive people throughout my career from whom I was able to learn.

Please share one or two memorable experiences from your career so far.

There have been so many wonderful experiences! One that was decisive for my career was a student internship at the Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in Palo Alto, California, which was my first exposure to working in an industrial research lab. That’s the reason why, after my internship, I applied to the IBM Research – Zurich Lab, where I’ve been ever since.

Perhaps an interesting side note is that HP accepted my internship application not because of my academic record — they have plenty of top-notch applicants from right around the corner at Stanford University — but because I was the only applicant who had also learned a trade. (Before studying physics I completed an apprenticeship as a cabinet maker.)

What advice would you give to young women interested in a career in technology or the natural sciences?

In my opinion, the most important thing is to find your own path. Don’t let others discourage you with clichés such as “girls aren’t good at math” and other nonsense. This requires a certain measure of self-confidence that you’ve got to develop along the way to this career. Mentors can be a big help in this respect.

Talk about being a mentor, especially about your activities within women’s networks such as SVIN.

In my function as a group manager and mentor, I support both men and women. I try to stay active on all levels of career mentoring (here at IBM, and out in the community). It starts by supporting someone interested in the natural sciences. For example, I have participated in locally organized TechDays and have been invited to speak at schools.

I try to give young people insight into my research by giving talks and lab tours. This outreach has enabled me to motivate several young women to pursue their Master’s or PhD degrees. As a mentor, my job is to provide support in many ways — for example, by introducing a mentee to someone who has a similar background.

What is your opinion of SVIN’s push “to foster society’s understanding of practical technological applications by strengthening the ability of our school systems to encourage students to use technology in a sustainable, ethical and socially compatible manner”?

I agree with this statement whole-heartedly. People need a certain level of basic technical knowledge in order to be able to manage technology in their everyday lives.

The basics of the technology we use everyday is grounded in mathematics and physics. These subjects are the key to understanding the world around us because they train you to think logically. It’s never too early to learn that.

What does the SVIN award mean to you?

I’m honored to have received it in the category of innovation. This award is not only a recognition of my work in science and technology but is also a real motivator to continue down the path I’ve chosen. It also encourages me to continue fostering more young women’s interest in pursuing careers in the natural sciences or engineering.

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