Being a woman in engineering

In light of the upcoming International Women in Engineering Day, Daniela Thrän, the Editor-in-Chief of Energy, Sustainability and Society, talked with us about her life as a female environmental engineer. She told us why she chose to follow this career, provided insights into her daily life as an engineer, scientist and mother, offered some advice for young women interested in engineering and more.

Daniela, please tell us a little bit about yourself, your career path and what a typical working day is like for you.

My daily work looks like the work of a typical scientist: analyzing problems, teaching methods, supporting doctoral candidates, discussing results with other scientists, but also with decision makers in the fields of energy policy. Otherwise, I look like a typical mother: my five sons are between ten and twenty years old, and four of the five still live with me and my husband and have a lot of questions and ideas to which I also dedicate a lot of time.

What did you want to do when you were at school, and why did you choose to become an engineer?

When I was in elementary school I was faced with the big pollution problems in the Main River in Frankfurt – swimming in the river Main was forbidden in the seventies. When I was sixteen, I went to a river water quality workshop for school children where, on the first day, we analyzed the water quality of the upper Main and on the second day of our workshop we could not go outside any longer, because of the accident in Chernobyl. After this I made it my mission to find solutions for environmental problems. This being said, the option of studying technology did not cross my mind given that I could not even repair my bicycle! I started by studying medicine, but recognized that it did not offer me the clear, case related type of thinking I was looking for or the proximity to global challenges that I was seeking. After two years in medicine I was able to switch into environmental engineering, which aligned much better with my mission.

What do you love about engineering?

I love the systemic and solution oriented thinking that this profession requires.

Technical innovations have influenced our human societies dramatically in the past, and they will do so even more in the future. In my opinion, clean technologies are the key to supplying the demands of the nine billion people on this planet. And, I love the systemic and solution oriented thinking that this profession requires.

What is it like being a woman in engineering? Have you ever had any difficulties in your career due to your gender? Are there any advantages?

Difficult to answer. I have only really been on this one career path, and it is difficult to say what would have happened as a man. I had two happy coincidences during my early years as an engineer: the German “Energiewende” (political decision to move towards renewable energy) had just started and was not seen as a career booster yet, meaning that the competition was not too intense in this field. I was also lucky that in the beginning of my career my (male) supervisor was very supportive: he promoted me to management positions even in my part time position and he was flexible with my working time – which was essential when my children were small.

As a female Editor-in-Chief of Energy, Sustainability and Society, have you noticed any positive or negative reactions? Do you think female and male scientists approach research differently?

Energy, Sustainability and SocietyFortunately, the times where people reacted to research based  on gender of the research seems to have ended. I got negative reactions as a young scientist: I was often confronted with the question as to whether my children get enough attention. Nevertheless, I do think that female and male scientists typically approach research differently, and they also sell their results differently -but this is for another interview. And I think that we do better research if we consider both views: the male and the female one.

Do you have any advice for women who are considering pursuing a career in engineering?

If they are fascinated in engineering themes they can be self-confident: riveted engineers are strongly needed.

About Prof Dr-Ing Daniela Thrän:

Today, Daniela Thrän is Head of both the Bioenergy Department at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research GmbH (UFZ) and the Bioenergy Systems Department at the German Biomass Research Centre (DBFZ), and is also Chair of Bioenergy Systems at the University of Leipzig. After studying Environmental Engineering at the TU Berlin, her career has included representing Germany on the ISO Committee “Biogenic Solid Fuels”, coordinating and supervising research for the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi)-funded  “Biomass Energy Use” program and participating in the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Extended Leadership Council.

She has published more than 200 pieces of research and took over as Editor-in-Chief of the open access journal Energy, Sustainability and Society in 2017.


More Women in Engineering interviews:

– Celebrating Women in Engineering


Related blog posts:

– Interview with the Editors of Energy, Sustainability and Society

– The Importance Open Access in Creating a Sustainable Society, by Daniela Thrän


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