Yvonne Fonken is a third year PhD student in Neuroscience at UC Berkeley. She is one of the organizers of the new group Bay Area Women in Machine Learning and Data Science. Their first UC Berkeley event will be on January 28 – there’s still time to sign up!
BA: What inspired you to create this event? What do you hope to achieve?
Yvonne: Just over a year ago a few of us got together to talk about starting a machine learning group for women. Some of us already had taken part in similar women’s groups (pyladies, Women Who Code), and their experience was really positive. These types of events are just like most other events, in that they provide a space for people to learn and connect. What makes them special, however, is that the attendees are predominantly female, something that practically never happens in male-dominated fields such as machine learning and data science. After attending work meetings, workshops, conferences, etc. where sometimes women are outnumbered ten to one, it is very refreshing to be surrounded by women and talk about things related to your field.
We felt that the Bay Area, with its combination of a large tech presence and top tier universities, was the perfect place to start a group like this. Erin Ledell, another UC Berkeley grad student in the Statistics department, finally got the group off the ground. She has organized three meet-ups in San Francisco already, and the meet-up on the 28th will be the first one in Berkeley.
BA: How do you feel about jobs outside of academia and the current resources available for educating PhDs and postdocs about these job opportunities?
Yvonne: I am definitely interested in jobs outside of academia. I think that there are currently a good amount of resources to learn about job opportunities, Beyond Academia is a very good example. I’m in the third year of my PhD, so I haven’t been exploring the different resources too much, but I definitely will start to.
BA: What about the resources for academic job opportunities?
Yvonne: For academic job opportunity resources and support I haven’t really seen that much advertised, now that I think of it. I think graduate students get a lot of opportunity to learn about the process from postdocs that are applying, and get support through their PhD advisor.
BA: What do you think are the top skills and traits that PhDs acquire during grad school that can be applicable and valuable in a non-academic setting? Do you have any advice for someone just starting graduate school?
Yvonne: I think I would advise people starting graduate school to invest in skills that can be used beyond their specific (sub)field, especially if they’re not sure what they’ll do after. Transferrable practical skills such as data analysis, statistics, and programming can be used on all kinds of data and applied towards a wide variety of purposes. Other skills we acquire during grad school that are very useful in becoming a professional are mentoring/teaching, effective communication, organizational and problem solving skills, and time management.
BA: What are your thoughts about gender roles in more technical fields such as data science, computer science, engineering, etc.? Do you think gender roles differ between academia and industry?
Yvonne: First of all, I am in Neuroscience, which has a pretty good gender balance overall and is possibly less affected by gender roles. I did get a more technical training as a Biophysicist in the Netherlands (my home country), but I find it hard to speak about gender roles in the field because the environment is different in the Netherlands. Gender roles aren’t as pronounced there, but there are still a low number of women in the more technical fields.
Whether gender roles are different in academia vs. industry is a very interesting question! Hopefully one of the speakers at our event will be able to answer this question.
BA: What can be done to bridge the gaps?
Yvonne: Some things I think will help are awareness of women’s issues, encouragement of women in male dominated fields, community and good mentorship.
BA: Finally, what do you see yourself doing after graduate school?
Yvonne: I think I want to pursue an academic career, but I am also becoming more and more interested in what else is out there. I still have a few years in my PhD, so we’ll see!
BA: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions!