Why mobility in STEM is important

Written by Cátia Bandeiras

Hi all! It’s been a long time since I last wrote but I’m glad to come back. As my feature’s name states, “Journeys of an European PhD student”, I am always up for a journey. And now, my scientific journey took me to Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, where I started as a visiting student at the MIT. I’ve only been here for a week, but this is such a vibrant community, with lots of events and resources. But there’ll be enough time to talk about my experience here in the USA. This time, I want to talk to you about the importance of mobility in the STEM field.

I want to start with a very curious coincidence. In the plane from Lisbon, Portugal to Boston, I sat right besides an American lady from Los Angeles. We were chatting a little and she said “Oh come on, you’re going to the MIT, you must be very smart! And you are programming, so great! We need more women in those areas!”. This is, in fact, the whole point of the Women in STEM movements, like Women of Science is. I started thinking how engaging into mobility programs could increase our profile as women in the STEM field, so I will come up with some reasons why you should, at least once in your life, engage into a mobility program, or even move to a different city in your country for a temporary/permanent job:

It will make you a more well rounded individual

This is the basis for every mobility program. In the European Union and other associate countries, we have the awesome ERASMUS program that takes students to other European countries to make a part of their degree. During the last year of my MSc, I spent 5 months in Prague, Czech Republic. While the coursework quality was not exactly the greatest, it was one of the best experiences ever because I got to live outside my parents house and my country for the first time, and I met incredible people from all over the world. I studied Biomedical Engineering, so I met plenty of inspiring women (and men) from different engineering fields and architecture as well. Sharing our cultural, study and work experiences is something that plays out in your favor. It definitely helps to break stereotypes, and also to spread the word about women in STEM in different countries. If you are working already, there is also the Erasmus+ programme to engage into training activities in other affiliate countries.

It will help you learn things you wouldn’t learn in your regular environment

I still saw quite little of MIT and, even though I know already the opportunities for networking are huge and I am starting to take part in those actions. So, I’m going to talk about my experience of internal mobility. I completed my degree in the University of Lisbon, and my family lives in the area, so I didn’t have to move out of my comfort zone. However, one year after I graduated, an opportunity to work in the field of tissue engineering showed up at the University of Aveiro. I was chosen for the fellowship and was working in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Apart from figuring out how to cook good meals and making friends in a city with a different lifestyle, this experience was very valuable, apart from the different methodologies I learned, because the university itself had a different dynamics and, even in the same country, you’ll find differences in how women in STEM are doing. Since I was working in a male-dominated department, I was surprised by both seeing quite some women with interest in the field and being successful, and how a lot still has to be done to break stereotypes like “mechanical engineering is a degree for men”. Therefore, if you have the chance to work for some time in a different city, you’ll still get a great experience both in hard and soft skills.

It will improve the quality of your work

During a PhD, it is quite common to have a stay in a different lab at some point during your research to take advantage from an equipment or methodology. For some of us, it happens overseas. I have to admit, even though it’s not my first “mobility” experience, it’s the first time in the USA, especially in a time where scientists feel quite apprehensive. However, I really felt I should go, since my supervisor here in the USA works in a complimentary field to the one I work in Portugal and I will be better advised than by video conference and e-mail. I will try to make the most of my stay and build connections and I hope it plays to my expectations. However, if it doesn’t, I already know from my own experience that the quality of your work will also depend on building resilience on situations that are not like envisioned. So, the fact that you have access to different resources and environment will have a two-way effect on your work.

It will help you get to know other Women in STEM movements, or bring them to your country when you go back

Or lack thereof! If you are interested in how to bridge the gender gap in the STEM field, being outside your regular environment will help. I don’t know why this happens, but for me, when I’m away from the same places I see since childhood, I become more sensitive and curious about the world around me and want to go to many events. I was already engaged in some way with the women in STEM movement in Lisbon, and in Boston I plan to explore much more! I already registered for the mailing list of the Graduate Women at MIT and for the events of the ladies’ club of my regular programming language (Python). There is no club yet in Portugal, so I might try to take it. I look forward to get to know more about the situation of women in STEM in the USA and to compare it with Portugal. However, if you go the reverse way, where less events supporting women in STEM happen, it could be a valuable experience to understand what are the factors that prevent women to choose and advance in those careers and find ways to help them.


Hopefully I could inspire you to look for a mobility experience in your career and please let us know about your experiences with mobility. See you next time!


Read more from Cátia in this blog post she wrote for us last year, by checking out her blog, and following her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Rhys Archer