Faces of Science: Sarah Sallam
AmorSui’s “Faces of Science” features women in STEM with their own unique shapes, sizes, and stories to encourage current women and future generations in STEM fields to feel comfortable in their skin and empowered to discover the next big thing.
Today we are featuring chemical engineer Sarah Sallam, 2019 Forbes Under 30 Italia, social media personnel, and founder of LadYcona - an international network to inspire, support, and connect women in STEM.
Can you tell us a little more about your journey of starting LadYcona?
I started LadYcona four years ago in 2016. Since graduating with chemical engineering and MBA degrees, I had been working for an international energy company for over six years. I started as a reservoir engineer, a very technical role in a male-dominated industry, and I've had firsthand experience of what it's like to be the only woman in the room. One time, when I presented a project as a lead chemical engineer at an exhibition, a visitor approached an IT guy for questions and mistook me as a hostess. He was surprised that I actually led the execution of such work.
Initially, I was amused by how much stereotypes play in favor of my male colleagues, but after a few years I started to ask myself "why is this the norm?"
In my opinion the reason lies in the fact that our society has a set of ideas and not written rules about how we expect men and women to dress, behave, present themselves and ultimately which kind of work “suits better”. Those rules are transmitted via mass media, tv, films, and in the last years, via social media.
I believe that gender stereotypes are harmful because they don’t allow people to fully express themselves, their emotions, their capability and ultimately, their potential. Stereotypes play on our minds so strongly that it becomes tougher to convince people of their talent in fields where they believe their gender is weak, and this is particularly evident for women in STEM, and other male dominated disciplines.
I was positive that I was not the only woman facing these issues, so I wanted to find ways that would help me connect with other women in the field and hear their stories. It started from an idea, into a website, Instagram community of over 100,000 followers, all together to create a platform where women in STEM, and not only, could share their stories to inspire each other.
The LadYcona Instagram account was hacked last year. Can you describe what happened?
The previous LadYcona account was hacked. The hackers asked for a Bitcoin payment in exchange for access to my own account. Although I paid them, the account was never given back to me. Losing 100,000 followers in just a few hours was extremely painful and sad.
What steps did you take to rebuild LadYcona’s Instagram community? How could women in STEM out there help to make this process go faster?
Although it was a frustrating process to rebuild the account from the ground up after four years of work, I am very lucky that I had other women in my corner to encourage me to keep going. I created a new page and made new connections. However, it has been difficult building the network with the reach that it once had. If anything, you can follow the LadYcona account and tell your friends about it. The more the merrier!
Can you talk more about how you were selected for Forbes Under 30? What was the selection process? Did you nominate yourself or did someone nominate you?
I was selected last year (2019) in the energy category for the Forbes Under 30 list in Italy. I was nominated by a friend of mine who was selected a year prior. After the nomination, I was contacted by a representative of Forbes in Milan and we did two or three interviews about my background and experience. Two months later, I found myself in the newspaper!
How do you decompress?
Exercise! I did gymnastics for 15 years until I had to shift my focus completely to academics. I exercise regularly and go on walks with my dog, Joy. When I need a vacation, I love to travel.
How did you get into science? What inspired you to pursue chemical engineering as your career?
My father was also an engineer. I looked up to him as a role model when I was young, and still do now. I had a natural inclination for physics and math from the start. I am a practical woman, so it made sense to pursue a career where the money was.
At AmorSui, our mission is to make safety available to all through safety certified workwear in extended sizes for women. We want to know more about what you wear at work as a chemical engineer?
My current role is in investor relations, so I wear professional attire, such as a blazer, blouse, and slacks. When I was still a chemical engineer, sometimes I had to wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) which was usually three times my size. There weren't that many options for women when I was working as an engineer.
What’s next for you personally as Sarah Sallam?
I'll keep that a mystery.
What advice would you give to other women in STEM who have faced obstacles in their careers?
I would tell them to wear what makes them feel most confident. More importantly, I would say "focus on how you carry yourself". With the right posture and stance, your body language can shape who you are and how you come across to an audience.
What should any woman do to change gender equality in STEM?
Fight for what you believe in and never compromise on your ideas.
What's something you're grateful for?
My family and my husband who always supports me.