Dr. Jillian Cadwell, a researcher at Washington State University, joined The Science Coalition to celebrate International Women and Girls in Science Day and talk about her work empowering students from diverse backgrounds for a future in clean energy.

Women and minoritized students in STEM fields often face a variety of barriers when entering the field. Dr. Cadwell benefited from connections she formed amongst other women in her field to buoy her progress in her field – and she wants all students to have that kind of support. She wrote the following letter to aspiring researchers to provide advice (and a bit of emotional support) as they pursue their dreams.


Dear Future Researcher,


Please take a deep breath. You belong in your field, and you should be proud of the effort you have put in so far. The students and faculty may not share your values or look like you. That can feel isolating and like you do not belong in your field. But you do belong.

When I began college as a civil engineer, I didn’t feel like I fit the engineering mold. It always takes time to find your footing. I immersed myself in community service, which brought me to people who shared my passion for the environment, and I was able to find mentors and create lasting friendships and connections from there.

It is not easy to persist along your pathway when a challenge or barrier arises—and there will be many! It is what you do to keep moving forward that matters.

Mentors may not only take the form of advisors but can also be peers facing similar challenges and finding ways to navigate them with you. As you continue to find your footing, my advice is to look for students, faculty members and industry professionals, in your discipline or a related area of study, with whom you can share not only your interests, but also your struggles and successes—and who are vulnerable with you as well.

Finding diverse kinds of mentors for the varied experiences you will inevitably have as a researcher can make all the difference in the world. Mentors are likely to pick you up when you are extra hard on yourself. They can even partner with you as you work through research problems. Or they might just sip a warm drink beside you as you take that breath.

Over the years, the connections I maintained with my colleagues at other institutions became an informal peer-mentoring group to help us navigate challenges we face. This same mentoring group built the NSF-funded ‘Women in STEM Education Network’ (WiSEN) co-mentoring collaborative network. The purpose of WiSEN is to facilitate critical dialogues and relationship building for STEM students to help enact change in STEM higher education institutional spaces.

Federal funding has the power to create systemic change in our U.S. institutions and workforce by investing in transformational research and programs that address some of our biggest challenges, such as shortages in STEM-educated professionals. By funding research and programs that support accessibility, collaboration, equity and inclusion in STEM careers, funders, like NSF, have the potential to help expand and enhance our STEM workforce.

Typically, federal grant programs fund researchers and programs that have a history of successfully running a grant. This can make it challenging for new primary investigators (PIs) to be awarded. This is where mentorship can really make a difference. For new researchers and/or program coordinators, it helps to join forces with an experienced grant awardee who is willing to partner on the grant and provide mentorship along the way.

Fortunately, STEM fields are increasingly interdisciplinary, particularly clean energy. There are many ways for people to meaningfully participate in the clean energy sector and many different professionals to learn from. If you’re hoping to bring new findings to your field, I recommend doing a landscape analysis of the existing body of research. Highlight what is unique about your research plan and how it will bring new insights to the field of study. It’s also useful to explain why funding is needed to elucidate how important this research is for the community you hope to serve – in my case, it’s about helping students like you!

This year, I am looking forward to seeing the people I am helping thrive. It is always gratifying and inspiring to see students that are passionate about improving the world around them and choosing majors that they find are purpose-driven in this way. I am excited to continue cultivating pathways for researchers like you, that reinforce that you belong in your program, at your institution, and in your future career.


Warm Regards,

Dr. Jillian Cadwell, Ph.D.
Research Associate Faculty, School of Engineering & Applied Sciences
Co-Chair of Million Women Mentors Washington
Washington State University, Tri-Cities Campus



Learn more about Dr. Cadwell’s work: