Women Behind Innovation: Kristin Persson

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(Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)

Known as a pioneer of materials genomics, University of California, Berkley, Associate Professor, Kristin Persson, has been leading a multi-institution, multi-national effort to compute the properties of all inorganic materials and provide the data and associated analysis algorithms for every material researcher free of charge. This project is called the Materials Project.  The ultimate goal of the Project is to drastically reduce the time needed to invent new materials by focusing costly and time-consuming experiments on compounds that show the most promise computationally.

The Edison Awards recently spoke with Persson about what its like to be the in material science, misconceptions of female scientists, and her greatest achievements thus far. Here’s what she had to say: (edited for brevity and clarity)

What was it like to be a woman studying in your field? Did you feel supported and challenged in a positive way? Did you have a network of people to reach out to?

Both yes and no. You get more attention and occasionally more support, but it is not always the ‘right’ kind. Several times, I was so excited as I made ‘famous people’  in my field ‘wake up’ or pay attention when I took the podium at a conference (bc of the novelty of a women speaking) or spoke in a meeting; only afterwards to hearing through the grape vine that they just commented on my looks. Honestly, it is a very double-edged sword, being different in any way. Immediate attention is yours, but many times – no matter how well you do and how you perform – you can’t sway the inherent prejudice. I imagine that is the same for any field when you are not mainstream.

What do you like about your field and what you do? Do you think people have any misconceptions about what it’s like to be a scientist or engineer or about the field itself?

I love the original honesty and logics of science. I grew up with two parents; one in STEM and one in comparative literature. It used to frustrate me that in the social sciences there is no absolute answer and endless discussion always ensued; I think that speaks to my nature and personal preferences. Obviously, as science is practiced, it is not always honest or straightforward, but the red line of truth is there; if one searches for it.

I also love that I feel I can (hopefully) make a difference in the world. Materials Science is a vastly undervalued field, but it underpins everything from the advancement of renewable energy sources to your latest cell phone. Without it, we wouldn’t even have moved on the hunter-gatherer stage of human history.

Yes! I think most people have the wrong conceptions about what science/scientists are. We are not the stereotypical ‘Big Bang Theory’ nerdy guy scientists, but of course, there are aspects that I recognize As a mom of two teenage daughters who grew up in suburbia where most moms are not professors in STEM, I constantly feel the need to ‘re-calibrate’ for people what it means.

How is your company bringing innovation to the forefront?
UC Berkeley/LBNL is the forefront of innovation in Materials Science and Engineering, and without their support, I could not have succeeded.


To date, what project is your greatest success? What is the story behind that innovation?

The Materials Project. I think the best answer I can give is through a recent presentation: https://insidehpc.com/2016/12/materials-project/ Pictures speak a thousand words.

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