"If you or anyone else you know has a stent in your heart," Puskas said, "that is my polymer in your heart."
Puskas, now a professor at Ohio State University, continues to pursue groundbreaking polymer research, building on the work that has defined her career. Now she is focusing on breast cancer research, particularly through improving the quality and safety of breast implants. It's work she has dedicated years of her life to, and it's work she knows will require a few more years of focus and financing.
"This is my soap box," Puskas said, "but I will tell you that I have been working on this for 20 years, and I have very little financial support. Very literally, I have been stealing money from left and right."
Puskas never backed down from a challenge. Her career has been filled with them, shaped by them. But she never let a challenge stand in her way. That's what she told those who attended the first WORD Conversation webinar, hosted March 24 by the ACS Rubber Division.
Challenges are nothing new to any professional, and certainly not the women who have built their careers within the rubber industry. Puskas contends that it's the challenges that make us stronger, not only as professionals, but as individuals.
It's sage advice that has been handed down for generations, but the idea of facing your biggest challenges with poise and grit has been proven with time. Challenges and failures are bound to be ahead, Puskas said, but the key is embracing them and learning from them.
"When I was young, I really listened to my grandmother," Puskas said. "She was always giving lots of good advice. … I was told that smart people learn from others' mistakes. Obviously, we have to learn from our own mistakes, too."
Women, Puskas noted, are bound to face particular challenges—misogyny and discrimination cloaked in expectation. She faced plenty of that during her career, and she was determined to succeed in spite of it.
Puskas recalls one manager both she and her husband worked for. Like her husband, Puskas was never afraid to speak her mind and share perspective. But her boss perceived their tenacity and confidence differently.
" 'The trouble with your wife,' " Puskas remembers that boss telling her husband, " 'is she doesn't know when to shut up.' "
That same boss went on to explain that he was impressed by her husband's willingness to speak his mind and to stand his ground no matter what the circumstance. "This," Puskas said, "is a double standard" that she has faced time and again throughout her professional career.
"You have to grow a really thick skin," Puskas said. "This is the advice, perhaps, I didn't get when I was young. When I had these types of bosses and (faced) the discrimination and everything, I got angry. Unfortunately, that emotion is not very helpful. If anything, you (should) avoid getting angry."
If the rubber industry is going to thrive, it's going to take diverse perspectives, ideas and voices. Ensuring diversity and inclusion throughout the industry is a process that will take time to implement. But it starts, Puskas said, with evaluating the industry from the inside out.
Established expectations and practices may be the root of the problem. While traditional, they also may be discriminatory in nature.
"When I was young, it never occurred to me that I wouldn't have children," Puskas said. "… In the younger generation, several women have decided they don't want children. And I don't know exactly why, but one situation could be they don't have enough support."
Women, she said, often face big decisions regarding work-and-family balance. At times, it could mean choosing between your career and your family. Many women have opted only to follow their career goals, while others have chosen to focus solely on their families.
For those who feel a strong desire to reach their biggest professional goals and raise a family of their own, they often feel enormous pressures from both sides. They're the same pressures that Puskas herself has felt.
"First, I was in an industry that was more forgiving to the family," Puskas said, adding that she and her husband were able to get their children to school and after-school lessons such as dance and music classes. But the transition back to academia proved harder from their perspective.
She recalls the hours she spent in her office, the work that never seemed to end. At one point, Puskas said, she was working well past midnight when her phone rang. The caller—a friend and fellow academic in Greece—was surprised she answered.
"He said, 'what the hell are you doing in your office?' " Puskas said, laughing. Of course, she said, it was 6 a.m. in Greece, so she posed the question right back, knowing full well what the answer would be.
And that, she said, is the root of the problem. The pressures and time commitments required in academia are enough to pull many very good, very qualified individuals from those careers. Especially for those with young families, the time commitments required may not be worth the career goals achieved.
"If you want more women or underrepresented minorities in academia," Puskas said, "you have to change the system.
"The system is just not forgiving, even if they give you extra time. You cannot tell your child when your child is sick, 'hey I need to submit a proposal.'"
Changing the system may be the most difficult part, she said. On the other hand, women who have big career aspirations need to pursue them. And they will find their greatest successes are not theirs alone. Establishing a strong network within the industry is key, Puskas said, adding it's a major focus for her.
She rarely turns down an opportunity to network or meet someone new. You never know what you can learn or who will inspire you.
"The networking is really very important," Puskas said. "Find a mentor, that is very important. Find a male mentor—they have more inroads through upper management because we still have a lot of work to do there."