On Wednesday, Sept. 22, the Women’s Initiative Laboratory Resource Group at Fermilab hosted its second Tea Talk of the year. More than 120 attendees gathered to hear about the professional journeys of three of their Fermilab colleagues: Vanessa Peoples, Mayling Wong-Squires and Frederique Pellemoine. The Tea Talks have become the signature program for the Women’s Initiative, and this occurrence was the fourth virtual gathering.
Chief Financial Officer Vanessa Peoples approached her presentation by theme, citing the various work experiences and lessons that shaped who she is today. Peoples oversees all financial activities at the lab, and her credentials include a bachelor’s degree from Howard University, a historically black university and mecca of higher education, and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago. She shared that throughout her career, she has been able to build and leverage professional experiences to provide a broader leadership and strategic framework in addressing financial matters. However, she called special attention to her activities outside the office, including golf, puzzles, vacations and her church community. At the beginning of COVID, she said, it seemed like she was just working all the time, but she has been focusing on the process of finding “life” in the “work/life” balance.
“Things change along the way, and even if you reach a state of work/life balance, you might have to periodically recalibrate,” said Peoples. She also emphasized the importance of debunking some of the myths of being an African-American professional, as well as understanding the key experiences you need to progress in your profession.
She shared key lessons learned, including managing in organizations, understanding the difference between power and influence, and professional self-awareness. She further emphasized balance in understanding the stages our careers may follow. Sometimes when we remain in the same position for a long time, and in this “season of standing still,” we are actively becoming experts and growing roots. As we climb through our careers, these roots and connections help us build our support systems.
With two decades at Fermilab as an engineer in more than one division, Mayling Wong-Squires knows the value of these connections in personal and professional development. Her talk focused on where she’s worked, her projects and the people with whom she’s worked. She is currently head of the Accelerator Division’s Mechanical Support Department, and in reflecting on her career, she said, “The chance to learn new things has kept me here through the years.”
After Wong-Squires graduated from University of Illinois with her bachelor’s in engineering and got her master’s from Case Western Reserve University, she viewed Fermilab as just a steppingstone and had her eyes on Silicon Valley. But the opportunities to learn new concepts and discover best practices kept coming. The advice of and collaboration with her colleagues ensured a natural professional network.
During her talk, Wong-Squires shared some pictures of her projects, such as installing magnets as part of a new accelerator beamline and later working on the design of a pixel detector. She also discussed her work on superconducting radio-frequency cavities and her expertise in operations of the vacuum furnace used to optimize cavity performance.
Wong-Squires also cited the Fermilab professional chapter of the Society of Women Engineers as another significant conduit for networking. The path of her career has benefitted from networking with people of all backgrounds and job categories from all over the world.
The third presenter at the Tea Talks, Frederique Pellemoine joined Fermilab last year as a senior scientist in the Accelerator Division. The chronological telling of her cross-continental professional journey demonstrated the lessons from both Peoples and Wong-Squires on understanding the seasons of our careers, pivoting through changes, and understanding where our networks come from.
The focus of her talk was surviving in undiversified environments, the first of which was earning her degree from Ecole Polytechnique Féminine in France, which was founded as a women-only institution to help women enter technical fields. She then traded one extreme environment for another when she was a part of the first, one-year French polar expedition program that accepted women in Kerguelen Island, Antarctica, where she volunteered for military service as a technical assistant. In the program, there were only a few women out of more than 100 researchers, and Pellemoine described the experience as rich but unbalanced.
Pellemoine returned to France for her master’s and Ph.D. Even when she later worked at Michigan State, she noticed unbalanced gender environments, though there were steady improvements. While she had to work harder to prove herself in science and engineering, she still maintained, “If we want, we really can do it.”
The talks concluded with a moderated Q&A session, as well as thank yous from audience members for the speakers’ sharing their stories and lessons learned.
The Women’s Initiative board continues to organize Tea Talks and are always looking for new networking and professional development opportunities to share with women at the lab. Please reach out with any suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.