Eleni Routoula is a PhD researcher in chemical and biological engineering at the University of Sheffield and the Chair of the University's Early Career Researchers Women's Network


Eleni Routoula is a researcher at the University of Sheffield

Eleni Routoula is a researcher at the University of Sheffield

Eleni Routoula (pictured second from right) is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield in chemical and biological engineering and the Chair of the University's Early Career Researchers Women's Network. Eleni spoke to the Female Scientist magazine about her exciting career at the University of Sheffield and what it's like to be a women in STEM.

What is your background in science?

I did my undergrad in Chemical Engineering in Athens (Greece) because I thought of it as a way to pursue a career in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Soon I realised though that I was more interested in the food industry, so I got my degree with specialism in Food engineering and Biotechnology. During my studies, I became aware of the need for environmental protection and sustainability, so I decided to extend my knowledge on the topic by pursuing an MSc in Sustainable engineering focusing on Chemical processing, in Glasgow (Scotland).

Out of the various options for a research project towards the degree fulfillment, I found closer to my interests a project on designing and testing novel materials and biocatalysts, which I tailored towards food industry. The project was very interesting and eye-opening in terms of potential applications and the pressing need for sustainable solutions, so I decided to invest further on it. I was able to elaborate it to a PhD at the University of Sheffield (UK), so here I am today, looking at novel nanomaterials and their application in environmental protection.

Is your family academic?

Yes. Both my parents were employed in Higher Education and they are both STEM educated, so I remember always having STEM or academic-related discussions while growing up, that sparked my curiosity for science. No wonder I followed a similar pathway!

What is your research focus right now?

I am currently focusing on reducing environmental pollution, more specifically dyes in water, combining expertise gained from my previous and current studies, on material science, biotechnology, and chemical engineering. It is a fact that a huge amount of dyes end up in water streams annually, either during their production, or their application in the textile industry.

There is no associated legislation with specified upper limits of dye (or colour) concentration in water streams – especially in countries where the textile industry is thriving – and due to the aesthetic effect and environmental implications, dye presence in water poses a serious problem. I am researching ways of removing dyes from water streams, using nanomaterials, either as a sole agent or as a carrier for “nature’s little helpers”, enzymes.

The nanomaterials I am using are based on common sand, produced in a fast, economic and sustainable way, inspired by microalgae found in the ocean. What enzymes do is perform chemical reactions very fast and reduce or remove colour completely, but only under their optimal conditions, otherwise they “die”. The use of nanomaterials as carriers for enzymes provides safety and stability for them, and also the ability to be recycled and reused. In this way, in a sustainable approach, we take advantage of what is provided from nature and try to apply it in the area of water treatment.

The difference arises from the choice of nanomaterials and the method of incorporating the enzyme in them. Compared to methods seen in literature, there is not as high associated labour, cost of materials, or time of production. Also, the production of those nanomaterials is scalable, which makes them and their applications industrially implementable.

What is your greatest failure and greatest achievement?

Starting from my biggest failure, it is definitely the fact that I have a tendency to over-worry about failure, fact arising from my denial to fail. Ironic, huh? I do suffer from impostor syndrome –as many other researchers and scientists in Higher Education– which means that I am always competing against myself, worrying that I am not good enough for what I am doing, there are so many other people better than me, I will eventually fail, and so on, leading to me taking so much time to design an experiment, in order to make it full proof and controlled from every possible aspect. However, this does not always work, leading to a vicious cycle…

Of my biggest achievements, is my recognition as an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Award, title awarded for my teaching commitments during my PhD. Simultaneously with my PhD, I am working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant, doing laboratory demonstrations, assisting tutorials, facilitating seminars and providing feedback through marking, for undergraduate students of my university. Another achievement I take pride on is the fact that my science communication abilities got recognised and praised, through awards in various conferences and symposiums and the opportunity to present my research idea in the form of a potential documentary.

What are your interests outside of work?

University of Sheffield PhD research - women

I really enjoy traveling and discovering cultures, new places, or hidden areas of the city I live in. Whenever I have the chance (either through an academic conference, cheap airfare, a friend moving somewhere new), I take the opportunity to go somewhere new. During my PhD I managed to visit Spain - four times!-, Portugal, Switzerland, France, Holland, Italy, Ireland and recently I went to Boston. Furthermore, I enjoy cooking. As a scientist, I “cook” in the lab and I also cook at home. I love combining aspects of various cuisines, creating a fusion between cultures. Specialties of mine are one-pot stews, and also I do have the ability of speeding up lengthy cooking procedures. Last but not least, I love eccentric style; I have made a name of myself as having unique accessories and a preference for coloured mascaras!

What advice would you give to your younger self?

The first thing that comes to mind is to believe in me a little bit more and stop stressing about failure. Even when we fail, there is loads to be learned through it, so failure is in a way a chance to grow. Also, I would say that there is no need to fit into a pre-decided mold, break it and make one for yourself, as many times as you have until you are truly happy with it.

What has been your greatest obstacle to overcome?

50 years ago, when my Dad studied Chemical Engineering, there were only two women in a class of about 50 people. In my time, the percentage was about 50 per cent, not bad, right? However, the percentage of women who manage to progress further in STEM areas, past the 1st level of studies, gets progressively lower. Especially in Engineering, there is still the stereotype of the average male engineer, who can handle heavy machinery, does not have to prove that he is capable in his discipline and does not have to be careful of “what people might think” when choosing outfits, explaining concepts or presenting his work.

In my case, the biggest obstacle I had to overcome was the way I communicate in a professional environment. Given the need for women to always be “nice, sweet and gentle”, it is quite difficult to be taken seriously as a scientist with solid ideas, proposals, and scientific data to show. Learning how to effectively make my voice be heard was very useful and made me feel empowered and more confident when presenting my work, discussing ideas or asking for things to be done. I believe that there is definitely a long way to go until gender equality, not only in academia or STEM, but in general. The system makes it so much easier for men to rise to the top than for women, and although good progress has been made over the years, still, much more needs to be done.

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Disclosure: Where Women Work researches and publishes insightful evidence about how its paid member organizations support women's equality.

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