An Interview with Meng Zhang
International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to showcase some of the great achievements of ICL’s female employees. ICL women are making a mark across our key corporate divisions and global enterprises, including in the specialist field of chemistry and chemical product design. Meng Zhang is a leading ICL chemist whose flame retardant polymer research has led to the development of new commercial products.
We spoke to Meng about her personal background, education, and work at ICL. She gave us a fascinating insight into the world of chemistry and provided some useful advice for women who want to pursue a career in STEM fields.
Hi Meng, how did you become interested in chemistry, and what led you to pursue a career in the field?
As a child, I was fascinated by the color and texture changes in chemical reactions. I chose chemistry as my major at college, and then continued my studies and built a career in chemistry.
You also studied overseas, how has living and studying in different countries helped/challenged you?
After graduation from college, I came to the US to do my Ph.D. Studying overseas was challenging because I needed to learn a second language. There were a lot of culture shocks, which I still experience today (even after more than 10 years of living in the US).
Could you tell us about a project or discovery that you’re particularly proud of in your work with industrial products and flame retardants?
Yes, the first project I worked on involved research into circuit boards’ flame retardants (reactive flame retardant for printed wiring boards). This project was very successful and resulted in the PolyQuel® product. I’m proud that I first developed the product in the lab, and contributed to the development of flame retardants in smartphones. This is a nice example of how my research contributes to safer products.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in a male-dominated field like chemistry, and how have you overcome them?
I was initially very shy, not only as a woman but also as a foreigner when I was in graduate school. I didn’t talk much with my teammates, but I soon realized I had to jump out of my comfort zone in order to move forward in my research and find a job.
I gradually pushed myself to be more outgoing and confident in social situations. Now I find I’m more comfortable and happier with myself. My work environment at ICL environment helps a lot. Both my graduate school and ICL recognize and respect women equally.
What do you think can be done to encourage more women to pursue careers in STEM fields like chemistry, especially in the industry?
I used to volunteer in activities for young girls in elementary schools and taught them how to finish scientific projects such as making a rubber band car. A decade from now, they may be researching something like flame retardants use in vehicles. I think starting from a young age and showing the girls how cool STEM is, is definitely helpful.
How do you think your research in flame retardants and other industrial products can contribute to creating a more sustainable future?
For example, the PolyQuel P-100 is a polymer flame retardant that doesn’t leach out from the circuit board like the old-fashioned small molecule flame retardants. This helps to reduce the potential pollution of the environment.
In your opinion, what are some of the most pressing issues in chemistry today, and how do you think they can be addressed?
The whole society is pushing for greener and more sustainable chemistry more than ever. More innovation and investment would help solve our current problem. Within my field of expertise, I can work on recyclable flame retardants. We can really focus on what is SAFR, and use new technology to save lives.
Could you talk about a mentor or role model who has inspired you throughout your career, and how they’ve impacted your work?
My Ph.D. advisor helped me to develop analytical and critical thinking. I learned to think beyond initial results and explore why I actually have the results; are they supported by any reference for example? I’m also continually learning communication and collaboration skills from certain coworkers, as well as how to think outside of the box.
How do you see the role of women in the chemistry field evolving in the coming years, and what are your hopes for the future?
There are many successful women in the field of chemistry and I hope to see them staying and growing in the field and we’ll have more women interested in chemistry in the future.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, what message would you like to share with other women who are pursuing their dreams in the challenging STEM environment?
Be brave and confident. If you feel you’re frustrated or being treated unfairly, don’t brood about it. Speak out, maybe to family or a friend if this makes you more comfortable. Also, remember when you look back, those challenges and bumpy days are valuable experiences that can make you a better person.
ICL is continuing to pioneer advanced polymer flame retardants and other key industrial products. Women like Meng Zhang have a vital role to play in our research and development and manufacturing processes. The world of STEM and science is open to everyone who has an original contribution to make, or who has the talent, energy, and enthusiasm to strengthen a team. If you want to make a difference with life-saving products like circuit board flame retardants and new flame retardants in smartphones, we want to hear from you!