• English
  • العربية
  • 中文
  • Français
  • Русский
  • Español

Journeys of IAEA Women Leaders

Diversity in leadership and its organizational benefits are important topics for the IAEA. Although women have been leaders at the IAEA for decades, women in senior leadership are still globally underrepresented, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

To this end, the Agency carries out initiatives for gender balance among its professional staff and senior management, and it is mainstreaming gender considerations into its programmatic work.

The first women to lead key areas of the IAEA’s work are listed below. Click to learn more about their journeys.

From a fascination with political philosophy, international law and European institutions, Merle Opelz began her academic career with a bachelor’s degree in government studies from Indiana University in the United States. To further her education, she travelled from the US to France, to study at the Institut d'études Politiques de Paris and Sorbonne University, and to Italy, where she obtained a master’s degree in advanced international studies from Johns Hopkins University.

Merle learned about the IAEA and its mission upon moving to Austria. Drawn by its mandate, she joined the Agency in 1967 as a professional officer in the Division of External Relations and later in the Office of the Director General.  In 1972 she joined the IAEA Office in Geneva until her retirement in 2000 as Head of the Office.  She credits much of her career fulfillment to her interest in the substance of her work and to the advice of various mentors she encountered along the way.

Merle’s advice to young women and future leaders is “to enjoy life, keep in touch with colleagues and friends, and keep up your personal interests.” 

Passionate about mathematics and physics, Jill Cooley started her career with a degree in nuclear engineering. She could not have dreamed up a better career path for herself, she says.

Jill previously held the role of manager of the Safeguards Program of Lockheed Martin Energy Systems in Oak Ridge, Tennessee responsible for technical support to the IAEA and various U.S. federal agencies in the development and implementation of international safeguards inspection approaches and procedures.

Crucial in her career development, she says, were supportive supervisors, who in many cases became her mentors. Jill’s advice to young women and future leaders is to “always seek out opportunities, demonstrate leadership and eagerly challenge yourself to leave your comfort zone.”

A Professor, a Researcher and a Faculty Director are some of the titles Ana María Cetto has held in addition to the position of IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Technical Cooperation from 2003 to 2010.

Key aspects that have aided her career development, she says, have been her solid educational background in physics, peer recognition of her work and the unbridled support of her family. She credits her unique working style as aiding her to overcome gender-related challenges in her career.

Currently holding a research position at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Ana’s advice to young women and future leaders is “don’t abandon your ideals. Defend them, nurture them, and be guided by them.”

Eliana Amaral joined the IAEA to help countries put international standards of radiation protection into practice – seizing the opportunities that come with combining technological developments with the highest standards of safety – and to help improve quality of life around the world. 

Before joining the IAEA, Eliana worked for more than 30 years for the Institute of Radiation Protection and Dosimetry (IRD) of the Brazilian Nuclear Energy Commission. During this period, she was the Director of the Institute (1993–2003) supporting regulatory activities related to the nuclear fuel cycle, healthcare, industry and naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM).

Following the Goiânia accident in Goiânia, Goiás, Brazil, in 1987, when a radiotherapy source was stolen from an abandoned hospital resulting in the contamination of more than 200 people, Eliana coordinated the recovery activities (environmental remediation), as well as the IAEA safety standards related to the accident (2005–2010).

Eliana has returned to the Brazilian Nuclear Energy Commission, as adviser to the current Director, and continues to provide consultancy services to the IAEA. She has published more than 20 papers with a focus on radioecology and NORM and has supervised several master’s and PhD theses. 

Her advice to young women: “Never give up on your dreams, and never be afraid to take on new responsibilities — this will drive you forward.”

The belief that science is a tool that can support policy makers in taking the right decisions, is what drives Maria Betti, who held the position of Director of International Atomic Energy Environment Laboratories from August 2008 to September 2012.

Previously a Professor at the Italian National Research Council and the University of Pisa’s Department of Chemistry and Industrial Chemistry, she also held the role of Head of Sector at the European Commission in 1991.

Resilience is a key attribute, she says, in helping her propel forward her professional career, alongside the steadfast support from her family.

Maria is passionate about exploring how nuclear knowledge can support sustainable development and contribute to the security of the planet and those inhabiting it, currently works for the European Commission at the General Directorate Joint Research Centre and after having been Director for Environment and Sustainability, is at present Director for Nuclear Safety and Security.

Maria’s advice to young women and future leaders is to “be yourself because nobody can be you. Trust yourself, and what you do.”

With a career focused on reforming public procurement based on evidence-based policy and practice foundations, Christine Tonkin held the position of Director of the Division of Procurement Services at the IAEA form 2010-2013.

Collaborating with other women in her work environment, she says, has helped to develop her perspectives and confidence as a professional. With procurement traditionally a heavily male-dominated field, Christine says, she has overcome this status quo by developing and communicating a compelling alternative vision to the status quo.

Christine holds a Bachelor of Arts, a Master of Business Administration, a Graduate Diploma in Procurement Management, and is currently co-authoring a book on public procurement reform. To this day, she works in public procurement reform as a consultant for the United Nations Development Programme and the Asian Development Bank.

Christine’s advice to young women and future leaders is to “understand that there is always more to learn, and that collaborating with one another is a powerful path to finding creative solutions to both old and new challenges.”

From the Federal Health Office and the GSF Institute of Radiation Protection in Munich-Neuherberg, Gabriele Voigt joined the IAEA in 2001 as a consultant to develop an environmental programme for the Seibersdorf Laboratories in Austria to complement the marine environment programme of the Monaco Laboratories. In 2002, she was appointed Director of the Agency's Laboratories at Seibersdorf and Headquarters and became one of only two women directors at IAEA at the time. In 2010, Gabriele transferred to the Department of Safeguards where she became the first woman director of the Office of Safeguards Analytical Services to spend the rest of her IAEA career.

An advocate of gender equality, Gabriele joined the Women in Nuclear (WiN) - IAEA Chapter and Women in Nuclear – Global (WiN-Global) in 2004. WiN aims to bring more women and young girls to the nuclear field. Together with the Director General’s office and the Division of Human Resources, WiN IAEA supported the re-established International Women’s Day observance, initiated “Girl’s day” with IAEA and Vienna schools and ‘Bring-your-daughter-to-work’ day for Staff at the IAEA. These activities have become traditions that continue to this day.

Gabriele’s advice to young women and girls is to “chase your dreams and be confident in what you are doing.”

With a family of medical professionals, a PhD and Doctor of Science degrees in medical sciences and radiation safety, and field experience in managing consequences of 1986 Chernobyl NPP accident, Elena Buglova went on to head up of the IAEA’s Incident and Emergency Center, including times when it went into 54 days around-the-clock operations to response to Fukushima Daiichi accident. Elena’s involvement with the IAEA began in 1995 at an IAEA workshop where she shared the results of her research on radiation-induced thyroid cancer risks, which later informed the development of the relevant IAEA safety standards.

A strong supporter of putting gender equality in practice, Elena encourages women to break the glass ceilings in their minds, and highlights professional self-confidence stemming from continuous learning as a key attribute for success. Supportive supervisors, she says, are very important to helping women to pursue their professional objectives, as well as organizational arrangements that promote policy of gender equality that enable women to advance their careers and enjoy a balanced family life.

Elena is currently the Director of the Division of Nuclear Security at the IAEA.

Elena’s advice to young women and future leaders is to “persevere in achieving your goals, and always keep learning to be open to new horizons.”

Read more about Elena's journey.

From entrepreneurship to Director of the Division of Budget and Finance at the IAEA and a continued career in the United Nations, Bettina Tucci Bartsiotas is a quintessential example of professionalism and perseverance.

Bettina established and ran her own audit and accounting business in Washington DC for 10 years, focusing on efficiency and results-orientation. In every career choice she has made, Bettina says, she was guided by her abilities rather than by gender stereotypes.

Her experience in the IAEA, and dedication to the multilateral work led Bettina to senior level positions as Assistant Secretary General, Controller of the United Nations, and Director of UNICRI.

Bettina’s advice to young women and future leaders is to “make gender your strength, because we can bring to the table traits and characteristics that are needed for a balanced working environment.”

From a keen interest in science and mathematics since childhood, to further studies in chemistry and physics and dedicating her career to the field of nuclear applications, Meera Venkatesh’s career at the IAEA began in 1979 as a trainee.

Ultimately becoming the Director of the Division of Physical and Chemical Sciences, she recognizes the role that supportive supervisors have played in providing her with opportunities to learn and establish herself as a professional in the areas of her expertise. Key attributes that have driven her success, she says, include deep passion for work, patience, a healthy level of self-esteem and firmness, and a support system of family and colleagues.

Since retiring from the Agency, Meera continues to be engaged in activities promoting nuclear applications. She is an editor of two scientific journals, one of which is Applied Radiation and Isotopes, is a member of scientific councils related to radioisotopes and their applications and gives popular lectures on nuclear applications on invitation.

Meera’s advice to young women and future leaders is to “believe in your strengths. Be assertive when necessary. Be passionate about your work. Aim high. Do your best.”

From studying French literature and international law, and then obtaining her Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School in 1991, Peri Lynne Johnson is currently the IAEA’s Director of the Office of Legal Affairs, and the longest serving legal advisor in the IAEA’s history. Inspired by her father, a civil rights lawyer, she pursued her studies in law and has now worked in the United Nations System for over 27 years, after a short stint in a private law firm.

From the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United Nations Secretariat Office of Legal Affairs, to the United Nations Development Programme Legal Office, Peri was drawn to the IAEA in view of its mandate in regard to non-proliferation and the promotion of the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

In addition to a passion for the work, Peri credits part of her success to supportive former supervisors and their belief in her skills and abilities. She highlights supportive childcare policies within the organizations that she has worked at an aspect that made juggling work and her role as a mother easier.

Peri’s advice for young women and future leaders is “to put in the time to consistently master what is required of you. Be open to learning, to new challenges, to living in other countries.”

Her name is Aruni Wijewardane, but in diplomatic circles, she is known as Her Excellency Ambassador Wijewardane of Sri Lanka. At the IAEA, she held the role of Director of the Secretariat of the Policy-making Organs, playing a key role in ensuring the IAEA continued to realize its mandate.

Being the first woman in a specific leadership role is an identity those women are likely to carry with heightened awareness, she says. As a leader, she adds, awareness is a key attribute, because you set standards for others and there is generally a high expectation from you both in ethical and professional terms.

Currently working in the top management of the Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka as Additional Secretary for Multilateral Affairs, Aruni’s advice to young women and future leaders is that “leadership does not end with reaching a senior position – it is an opportunity for you to bring your unique personal contribution to that position.”

Driven by her interest in people, places, languages and governance, Janice Dunn Lee pursued a bachelor in sociology and a master’s in international law and diplomacy. She spent 35 years facilitating international nuclear cooperation in positions such as Deputy Director-General of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris, France, and Director of International Programs for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Janice held the position of Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Management at the IAEA from 2012-2016.

She credits her successful career development to having a supportive family, mentors and sponsors. On reaching a position of leadership, one area of emphasis for her was in the area of gender and diversity hiring. She also encouraged women to study STEM subjects.

Now retired, Janice chairs a Committee of Experts for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on advanced nuclear reactor options for the future.

Janice’s advice to young women and future leaders is “do your job and do it well. Focus on what is in front of you and don't worry about the next level or what you will be doing five years from now. That will take care of itself if you do your best now.”

A long standing personal and professional commitment to international development based on gender equality, social inclusion, and respect for and protection of human rights, is what brought Nelly Enwerem-Bromson to the IAEA as the Director of the Programme of Action for Cancer Therapy from 2014 to 2019. A cancer survivor herself, at the Agency she worked to help ensure cancer patients in low- and lower middle-income countries were able to have equitable access to quality, affordable cancer control services.

Throughout her career, Nelly has benefitted from the support of her family, who, she says, have always motivated one another to test the limits and courageously fight for equality, gender justice and the empowerment of women. She is currently a Senior Director at Building Resources Across Communities where she continues her work to empower people and communities suffering from poverty, illiteracy, disease and social injustice, and to help find economic and social interventions that enable women to realize their potential.

Nelly’s advice to young women and future leaders is to “believe in yourselves and always empower others to brave the odds, reach up high and be true to themselves and their aspirations.”

Before joining the IAEA as Director of the Division of Human Health, Abdel-Wahab – a graduate of Cairo University – had over 30 years of experience in patient care, teaching, and research in the field of radiation oncology, specializing in prostate and gastrointestinal cancers. She served on advisory boards, expert panels, and professional journal editorial boards, worked at the National Cancer Institute – Cairo University, was a co-lead of the Lancet Oncology commissions studying cost and access in oncology , and was part of national and international committees, such as the United Nations Joint Programme on the Cervical Cancer Control Steering Committee, and chair of ASTRO committees on diversity, disparity, access to healthcare, and integrated healthcare enterprises, addressing equity, access and quality issues.

Prior to joining IAEA, she was Professor at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner School of Medicine, Case Western University and section head of GI Radiation Oncology at the Cleveland Clinic, USA. At the IAEA, she leads a team that supports radiotherapy and diagnostic imaging centers globally, educates and trains specialists, supports quality assurance, conducts multi-institutional research and produces guidance on codes of practice, radiotherapy and other areas.

She believes in setting lofty goals, and that good mentors are the gold standard for career development, as are supportive parents, inspiring children, and great friends: “It takes a village,” she said.

She gives priority to mentoring the next generation of men and women. Abdel-Wahab’s advice to future leaders is to “embrace challenges and learn how to grow from them".

Salwa Dallalah was drawn to the IAEA’s mission of promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear science and technologies and held the position of Director of Conference and Document Services from 2015-2020. She says her rise to leadership positions was the result of focus, confidence, passion and hard work. Being able to fall back on a resilient support system, she says, was key to helping her manage the many challenges along the way.

Salwa is currently an Ambassador for her home country, Sudan. Salwa’s advice to young women and future leaders is to “always stay one step ahead, because the only sure formula for success is hard work. There are no shortcuts to the top .”

After graduating with a master’s in international relations, Ana Claudia Raffo Caiado returned to Brazil from the USA and joined the Brazilian Nuclear Energy Commission.  She did not intend to enter the nuclear field, but her international relations background was needed, as Brazil and Argentina had negotiated the Common System of Accounting for and Control of Nuclear Materials and the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA in 1990. Ana then joined the newly created Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC). There, she received hands-on technical training and learned the ‘why and how’ to apply safeguards in nuclear fuel cycle facilities. 

After more than a decade at ABACC, Ana transitioned from working in safeguards verification to technical cooperation at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States. She developed collaborative programmes with regional safeguards organizations to strengthen countries’ safeguards systems.

After 25 years in the nuclear field, Ana joined the IAEA’s Department of Technical Cooperation in 2013 as a division director. She was fascinated by food irradiation, radioisotope production for medical applications, non-destructive assays, and research reactors, and she wanted to contribute to the impact of nuclear technology and techniques towards countries' socio-economic development. In 2018, she was assigned to the Division for Europe and Central Asia becoming the first woman to lead TCEU.

Her advice to young women: “A professional should never shy away from the opportunities that life presents. Always be curious and open to new ideas. One's professional career evolves just like history – an action followed by a reaction and ultimately resulting in growth.”

Najat Mokhtar has made history at IAEA, becoming the first women to hold two leadership positions in the Agency: first, as the Director or the Division of Asia and the Pacific, and since 2019 as the Deputy to Director-General, Director of Nuclear Sciences and Applications.

Fascinated by how simple molecules like hormones affect our bodies and our lives, Najat turned her passion for biochemistry into her profession. She devoted twenty years of her life to teaching and researching and obtained a PhD in Endocrinology and Nutrition.

Najat’s advice to young women and future leaders is “don’t fear challenges. Rather let them provoke, inspire, and fuel your energy and motivation.”

From working in the field with the United Nations peacekeeping missions to becoming the Director of the Office of Public Information and Communication, Sophie Boutaud de la Combe is passionate about how our actions in life impact each other, and the planet. Sophie pursued Environmental Law at university and worked with the United Nations in peacekeeping missions in Haiti from 2004 to 2010 and 2013 to 2019. She became a certified coach in 2017.

Her rise to a leadership role was also built on her prior experience as a navy officer and outside of work with the Junior Chamber International, she says, and finding a work-life balance was the most difficult part due to a lack of flexible working arrangements in some of her jobs. She credits much of her success to her husband: “He was the one making it possible not to choose between raising kids and having a career.”

Sophie’s advice to young women and future leaders is to “define your added value. Develop your own leadership style and walk your own path. Be authentic.”

From a 35-year career as an Ambassador of Nigeria to her current position as Director of the IAEA Liaison Office in New York, Vivian Okeke is driven by the ideals of maintaining global peace and accelerating sustainable development.

The key to her success, she says, is education. With a background in international relations and political science, her motivation is to make a powerful impact on the lives of people. She credits her ability to effectively deal with unexpected challenges – such as the COVID-19 pandemic which coincided with her taking up the IAEA position – to her learned skills, as well as the support of her colleagues and family.

Vivian’s advice to young women and future leaders is to “let yesterday’s struggles build your strength. Make enthusiasm your trademark. Embrace opportunities even if they are clothed in a myriad of challenges.”

Successfully navigating work-life balance and recognizing the value of an enabling working environment, Director Michele Rogat currently leads the IAEA’s Division of General Services.

From a technical officer in the US Air Force to an auditor at the US Agency for International Development, a general services specialist at the US Embassy in Bonn, Chief of the General Support Section at the United Nations Office in Vienna, Michele has recently joined the IAEA. Michele credits her career path success to her learned skills – she holds Bachelor and Master’s degrees in business management – and the support of her family and colleagues in the organizations she has worked.

Michele’s advice to young women and future leaders is to “persevere in chasing your dreams and always believe in yourself, no matter what.”

With over 25 years of experience, Lydie's professional trajectory has witnessed her contribution in various public institutions in France, among others the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) as Commissioner and the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Environment, before joining the IAEA as Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security in April 2021.

Holding an engineering degree in energy engineering, two master’s degrees in oil and gas operations and public administration, Lydie has combined her technical interest in physics with public affairs, to engage in a career that covers many technical topics. "I actually believe that developing a holistic approach that combines technical matters and public affairs is crucial for finding solutions to complex issues," said Lydie.

Of most importance, Lydie says, is to be well suited for the position, to help the organization move forward through your personal capacity to bring new thinking, experience and constructive approaches to solutions. "Being passionate about your work is also the best way to do a great job," she says. Lydie considers working for the IAEA as very rewarding and finds it fascinating to apply her technical expertise in a diplomatic context and to work in an international environment with multi-cultural teams.

Lydie’s advice to young women and future leaders is to be "open to new professional environments and do not fear experiencing challenges, it’s always very rewarding. Be the inventor of your own life! Follow on your inspiration, trust yourself, and you will find your way."

Read more about Lydie's journey.

Rola Ghneim Khreis serves as Director of the IAEA Division of Information Technology and Chief Information Officer. Motivated by her passion for science and technology, she studied computer science and mathematics which led to a career in information technology (IT) spanning 35 years, including 25 years at the IAEA.

Leading the use of cutting-edge technologies at the IAEA, Rola describes her role as an enabler of progress, leveraging digital capabilities to empower colleagues to do their work more effectively and to drive operational efficiency. By collaborating closely with stakeholders across the organization, she understands their business needs and ensures that IT investments are closely aligned with the organization’s strategic goals.

Rola attributes much of her career success to her unwavering persistence and the ability to recognize opportunities. Convinced that women have immense potential to contribute to this exciting field, she is a strong advocate of girls and young women being encouraged to pursue studies in information technology. “I truly believe that diversity creates excellence,” she stated.

Rola’s advice to young women and future leaders is to “embrace your passion and be resilient. While obstacles and setbacks are natural parts of any career, don’t let anyone stop you. Be confident and remember that challenges often create great opportunities.”

Read more about Rola's journey.

Stay in touch