Lessons from Inspirational Women in STEM: “It’s incredibly important to learn to fail” with Vanessa Sanchez and Penny Bauder

Penny Bauder
Sep 23, 2019 · 12 min read

It’s incredibly important to learn to fail. While working on a project in developing textile electrodes, I tried many approaches to pattern conductors: soft etching, using different release films, cutting with fancy lasers. I thought some approaches were exciting because of the technical beauty of the processes, but these were not moving forward in a promising way. It’s hard to stop a research direction, especially when you love the science behind the process, but learning to let go and stop sometimes is what ultimately moves you forward that larger goal. I ended up making my electrodes on a very low-tech laser and this was the process that worked! Admitting failure to yourself can be especially hard when the culture of academia is like a highlight reel where we form our successes into a logical narrative in talks and papers. It’s important to remember that the full story is often not told, and through failing we accomplished something very important — learning — so we should not get discouraged in the face of failure.

As a part of my series featuring accomplished women in STEM, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vanessa Sanchez. Vanessa is a second-year graduate student in the Whitesides Lab and the Walsh Lab where she incorporates what she learned as an undergraduate student at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Fiber Science program at Cornell University. Combining fashion design, fiber science, and robotics, Sanchez engineers what she calls “garment-based tech.” For example, fabrics filled with sensors could track the minute movements of our limbs, joints, and fingers. Vanessa is no stranger to awards either; she has won a GEM Full Fellowship, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) Award, and a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship from the Department of Defense.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I took a non-linear path to become a materials science graduate student. I have always loved creating and working through problems, but in the context of art. Even though I was pretty nerdy, I mistakenly believed that art vs. science was an either/or choice and that being interested and skilled in art meant science was not an option. (Recent studies on women’s perceptions of humanities and math-related fields have shown that this type of viewpoint is common.) I started my higher education in fashion school but realized I was looking for a different way to innovate. On a hunch that new materials may provide this innovative outlet that I wanted, I transferred to the Fiber Science program at Cornell. Immersed in research there as an undergraduate student, I fell in love with the scientific process. I even realized some of what I learned in fashion was more relevant to how I conducted research than I ever expected. Now, as a graduate student, I’m able to work on developing state of the art materials for use in assistive garments to help people with limited mobility.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early on in research (before I even started my PhD) I caused a small laser cutter fire. It was probably one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever dealt with — I was involved in an accident with a tool I use every day. This mistake even made it into the mandatory annual safety refresher course presentation (they kept me anonymous, but I’ll own up to it). I clearly remember a professor asking me “what happened,” and me describing my mistake while his young daughter danced in moon boots in the background; I had never considered where path of the laser beam was routed, assuming it must be safely tucked behind a metal housing. Fabric I had allowed to pile up landed directly in the path of the exposed laser beam and was rapidly set ablaze. Through this mistake, I learned the hard way how valuable it is to understand fully the equipment and systems I’m working with. Sometimes it’s nice to consider our tools as black boxes — systems that just work for the intended purpose — but this lack of understanding can lead to accidents (like the lab fire), or a lack of ideas on how to respond when things go wrong. This mistake made me want to fully understand not only what I’m developing but what tools I am using to do so.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think that the Walsh and Whitesides research groups I belong to stand out in their interdisciplinary approach to research. These labs are so unique in how they bring together people within the fields of science and engineering — chemists, physicists, and engineers from mechanical to electrical — and beyond, like functional apparel and industrial designers. I think this interdisciplinarity enables us to do creative and exciting work. Having all of these people working together, and having an environment where our curiosity is fostered, we can have respectful discussions across unlikely fields to develop really new ideas!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I recently finished the CAS Future Leaders program, during which I learned a lot about communication. CAS Future Leaders consists of an elite group of Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers from around the world who work to blaze a trail toward scientific leadership. CAS arranges two weeks of opportunities for the Future Leaders to forge connections with potential research partners, gain exposure to global perspectives and be inspired by some of the best young minds in chemistry — this opportunity for inspiration could potentially help many people. I’m really excited to be a better supervisor for undergraduate students and share what I’ve learned about leadership with other graduate students. In academia we’re often placed in a position where we need to mentor and, at times, manage others. These placements are often not based on our success with these skills, but rather our success in terms of scientific research, which means we may not have this type of training at all. I’ve learned through the “coaching” approach how to be a better leader, and how to empower and inspire the students that I lead while doing so. Instead of telling students what to do, this approach lets them determine the approaches they will take, enabling them to build up their skills and continue their success and personal growth as scientists.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

To be honest, no. Although my perspective is limited to academia, I feel that we have quite a long way to go. For example, research has shown women have to spend additional time proving their competence in the sciences. Oftentimes those in power cause and perpetuate problems like these due to implicit bias. Unfortunately, as these biases are unconscious, they are not easy to correct for. We need more women in academia as mentors and role models, and we need all faculty to critically reflect upon their actions and how they approach their mentoring relationships with women graduate students: Am I encouraging all of my students equally? Am I asking for more groundwork and proof of substance from women than I require from men? These are hard and uncomfortable questions; they take time to think through and may reveal some unsettling answers that take some emotional bandwidth to work through. But it has been shown that once people in the sciences have been confronted with their biases and consider the effects on women in STEM, they change their actions, resulting in more equitable treatment of women. I think we should encourage that these changes come from within. Unless people in power take their responsibility seriously, ask such questions of themselves, and use their power to enact positive change, the status quo will remain.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Based on what I’ve learned in the past: make sure to establish a good culture within the team. Although it isn’t always mentioned as a responsibility of a leader, making sure to set community of respect, openness, and collaboration (and maybe even a little fun) is important. Even when we get busy with deadlines, making sure that this positive culture remains in place is critical to a healthy and happy working environment in which the team can do their best work.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Listen with respect, but stand your ground.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have used my success to give back by volunteering for Open Style Lab (OSL), a nonprofit that works to develop and advocate for universal design in clothing for people with disabilities as well as teach the next generation of designers, engineers, and occupational/physical therapists how to collaborate to develop garments that solve problems with clothing that people with disabilities face every day. In the OSL summer program, I share my technical expertise and mentor and guide student fellows on how to think about effectively using textile materials in their design process for their garment solutions.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. You need to be willing to take on new challenges and change your internal dialogue from “that can’t be me” to “I should try that.” To accomplish this change, I’ve found success in making pacts and holding myself accountable to specific goals. In college, I would add courses into my enrollment that looked really exciting to me, only to drop term before the first day of class because I was intimidated by the online syllabus. In my graduate career I made a pact with myself that every class I found interesting and relevant I would try for two weeks — a small, realistic goal. Since establishing this goal and being more open to trying challenging things in small doses, I’ve really surprised myself with how much I can accomplish. This effect as snowballed for me, and not just with regard to course selection. For example, during the CAS Future Leaders program, I noted to a colleague that I’d never asked a question during a large conference session. After a short discussion, I realized my internal thoughts were my barrier, so I made a similar pact to ask one question. That decision definitely opened the floodgates to my question-asking during the rest of the subsequent ACS conference, with thousands of attendees.

2. It’s incredibly important to learn to fail. While working on a project in developing textile electrodes, I tried many approaches to pattern conductors: soft etching, using different release films, cutting with fancy lasers. I thought some approaches were exciting because of the technical beauty of the processes, but these were not moving forward in a promising way. It’s hard to stop a research direction, especially when you love the science behind the process, but learning to let go and stop sometimes is what ultimately moves you forward that larger goal. I ended up making my electrodes on a very low-tech laser and this was the process that worked! Admitting failure to yourself can be especially hard when the culture of academia is like a highlight reel where we form our successes into a logical narrative in talks and papers. It’s important to remember that the full story is often not told, and through failing we accomplished something very important — learning — so we should not get discouraged in the face of failure.

3. During CAS Future Leaders program, Kate the Chemist stressed how important it was to be memorable. For me, this translated to being authentic. I initially tried to hide my fashion background when I switched to science. I was almost ashamed I did not have the traditional background, that linear path of STEM degrees that all my coworkers seem to have followed. Being comfortable with myself and actively embracing and employing the different skillset I’ve learned from being in design (like my presentation style, my approach to problem solving, and desire for “beautiful” simplistic approaches for research solutions) has made me comfortable and confident in my work and helped me communicate my research in a way so that people have remembered it; over a month after I gave a talk a colleague went up to me and said that he was still thinking about it.

4. You should strive to make meaningful connections. Make them with people within your field, people outside your field, people who are in higher-up leadership positions, and people who are at the same stage or earlier in their careers. You’ll soon find yourself among a network of advocators, supporters, mentors, celebrators, and just plain friends. This network is the reason I am in my current lab; I received a 2am email from a colleague who thought a job description fit me. Even though she had no connection to this lab and sent it on, I never would have known about this lab found my “research home” without her message. And this example is not isolated — so many opportunities that I’ve had were because a colleague or friend passed on an email they thought could be interesting. The other side of this coin is to pay it forward — I share opportunities with those in my network and take time to mentor and advise students who are earlier in their career in research. Seeing their success makes me feel my work is worthwhile, and I hope to continue this cycle!

5. You can’t please everyone, and sometimes you just need to brush off the haters. Sometimes I’ve had a bad feeling about an interaction and felt disrespected once I shared my background. Usually these can be worked out, but I think we’ve all met some rare people who won’t budge in their opinion. I would previously try to accommodate and help these people to try to get them to change their viewpoint. I think as women in STEM we sometimes take up extra burdens like this as we aim to be representative for women in this struggle. But these “duties” end up being overwhelming. I’m not saying to stop challenging adversity, and we should definitely work to make things better, but wasting time on these bad eggs who probably won’t change prevents us from focusing on and succeeding in our science. So yeah, shake them off.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I think I would inspire a movement in which we made sure people in academia (and just people generally) celebrated success just as much as gave critical feedback. In academia it’s important to be critical and challenge in the form of feedback for researchers to grow and develop sounds thinking, but if we only focus on the negatives, how can people know they’ve done something right if they’ve never heard so? I think this also really encourages people to be the best version of themselves. Maybe I just want to spread more love.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Although this quote by Eisenhower had a very different context, I think it’s useful when doing research and living life. It’s important to have direction and think through your goals to create a vision and consider what challenges could happen. At the same time, it’s important to know that things can and will go wrong. And when things do go wrong you have a clear idea where you want to go back on track.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

I would love to have a breakfast or lunch with Grimes. Humankind has developed technologies they can envision, and oftentimes such visions of the future are fed by the creative imagination in arts and entertainment — be it in science fiction stories or music videos. Grimes has such a clear and fantastic vision, and I think I’d really enjoy chatting with her about her perspective on what the future holds.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

Penny Bauder

Written by

Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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