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The CataLyst: Let’s Talk About Role Models

First, I’d like to thank everyone for the warm reception of my first post on STEMinist. I’m very excited to be here and hope to grow with this column and everyone who reads it, gaining new experiences and perspectives along the way. In this post I want to expand a bit on role models and what I mentioned briefly last time:

You can’t be what you can’t see.

To do that, however, I feel I should tell you a bit about my journey to where I am today.

The First Type of Role Model: Awakening Interest
I was always a good student and enjoyed studying. There were no subjects I found particularly difficult, but there were those I enjoyed more than others. In secondary school a new teacher really opened my eyes to maths and science. This teacher was enthusiastic, explained things well, listened to students and was never condescending in how he treated people of different ability levels. During the three years he taught my class, everyone wanted to do well in maths and science; everyone wanted to earn his respect. I knew a lot of my classmates had never enjoyed maths and science before, but now made an effort and thought it was fun to go to those classes. This is the first type of role model, the one that gets a child’s attention, awakens an interest and keeps it.

The Second Type of Role Model: Nurturing Potential
In high school/A-levels I continued my focus on maths and science. I studied in the IB (International Baccalaureate) and chose to do Maths, Physics and Chemistry more in-depth. Here again, I was influenced by three fantastic teachers. My chemistry teacher was a woman in her 60’s and had taught chemistry her entire career. Her experiments in class always failed, but her teaching was structured and guiding. When I struggled, she listened and helped, not letting me resign to ‘I don’t understand‘. She pushed me to get a higher grade than I originally thought I could achieve, and wrote a fantastic personal reference for my university application. This is the second type of role model, the one who sees potential and nurtures it into something more.

The Third Type of Role Model: “I want to be like her”
Starting university was a shock, not only culturally (I moved to a new country) but in the way teaching was structured.  It opened my eyes to just how much ‘man’ was around me. My first two years studying Chemical Engineering, I spent a lot of time questioning whether I had actually made the right choice. Two things made me stick with it (besides stubbornness):

  1. The first was a lecturer who taught some of our classes from the third year onward. This was the first time I’d seen a woman doing what I wanted to do. Not only was she inspiring just by being there, she was also approachable, helpful and understanding. More importantly, she didn’t compromise just because she was a woman. She became my personal mentor and no matter what doubts and questions I had, she seemed to have an answer, because she had been there herself. This is the third type of role model, the one you can directly identify with and say, “I want to be like her.”
  2. The other thing that made me stick with Chemical Engineering leads me to where I am today. I took a year off of university before my final year and worked in an engineering consultancy office for 13 months. This office showed me a mix of 50/50 men and women working together as engineers. Yes, there were issues, and yes there was a vague air of the old boys’ club that sometimes surfaced, but it was a change from university. These women spoke up when they felt things were unfair, and I went back to finish my degree with a different mentality as a result.

Searching for the Next Role Model
Today, I find myself surrounded by colleagues from a wide range of backgrounds, but what I don’t see is that next stage of Role Model to look up to. There are few senior female engineers and even fewer women in senior management.

To a certain extent, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” rings very true during the early years that shape our choices in life. I wouldn’t have ended up where I am today without a lot of guidance and inspiration along the way. But now that I’m here, and know exactly what’s missing, it’s my job to fill that role.

Whatever stage we are in our careers as women in STEM, we have to pave the way to make it easier for future generations of girls to get to where we are. At every fork in the road, when I personally chose to stay in STEM, I know others didn’t because they lacked the right role models.

What inspired you to stay in STEM, and what can we do to make choosing STEM easier for every girl who’s questioning it today?

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Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Kim Geddes, Engineer, Physics Teacher

Kim Geddes

Engineer, Southern Engineering Services

Physics teacher, Cherokee County Schools in Georgia



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I loved my high school physics class and knew that I wanted to study this subject more. Also, while I was in high school, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred, and I began to read a lot about the science behind the accident. This accident actually inspired to pursue a career in nuclear engineering because I believed that nuclear was a great alternative to fossil fuels, and we needed dedicated people to make it a safe alternative for power generation.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
My first place of employment was at the Savannah River Site, a government nuclear production and research facility. I had the opportunity to work with a team to develop a six-legged robot that moved like an insect. The robot was designed to go into areas unsafe for humans and the insect-like legs made the robot very agile, able to transverse uneven terrain, and capable of lifting objects many times its body weight.

Role models/heroes:
Marie Curie, Sally Ride.

Why do you love working in STEM?
Technology is constantly evolving, and there’s something new to learn every day.

Advice for future STEMinists?
I would give them the same advice Christopher Robin gave to Pooh, “You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Favorite website/app:
DrawSomething

Twitter: @kimgeddes

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Amy Del Medico, Assistant Professor Mathematics

Amy Del Medico

Amy Del Medico

Assistant Professor Mathematics

Waubonsee Community College

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Math skills came easily, so I accumulated many math credits as an undergrad and ended up with a BS in Math. Eventually decided I wanted to teach college level students, so went to grad school to continue studying math to earn a Master’s degree. I love teaching and STEM, so this was the quickest way to get into a college classroom.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Currently a Co-PI on a NSF S-STEM grant that provides scholarships to needy students who are pursuing STEM degrees. Very rewarding to help these students.

Role models/heroes:
This is probably going to sound bad…but here it goes. As an undergrad at Benedictine University (Illinois Benedictine College at the time), my first math course was with Dr. Townsley. She is a tall, attractive, intelligent woman and often wears a flower in her hair (I came to find out later this was from her Hawaiian heritage). Dr. Townsley was the first female STEM educator who was not the stereotypical “earthy, birkenstock wearing, dowdy” professor. She had high expectations, was friendly and fair. I try to emulate those qualities in my teaching.

Why do you love working in STEM?
The discovery aspect – the “ah-ha” moments, both for myself and when my students have them.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Be yourself and be proud of your accomplishments.

Favorite website/app:
Used to be Threadsy, now it’s iAnnotate.

Twitter: @amymathprof

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Claudia Espinosa-Villegas, Lecturer, College of ECST

Claudia Espinosa-Villegas, PhD

Lecturer, College of Engineering, Computer Science and Technology (ECST)
Cal State University, Los Angeles



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Truthfully, I was inspired by the show Star Trek. I wanted to be the Science Officer for one of the Starships, preferably as Mr. Spock’s assistant. It was also one of the ways I learned English. Watching the show made me take my science studies more seriously, and as I grew up on the beach the decision to be an oceanographer was an easy one. While doing my undergraduate degree I became very interested in the issues regarding water pollution and also sustainability, which inspired me to continue my studies and get a doctorate degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering (Iowa, ’08).

I grew up in Mexico, and we lived in an area that frequently had no power or running water. Many times my homework was done by the light of oil lamps. So that instilled a desire to get ahead and I knew getting an education was my best option. Everyone faces challenges; it’s how you respond to them that matters.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Currently I have a class that is designing a low-cost single occupancy home to be placed in an urban environment of a developed country. My students have decided to use cargo containers for their designs, and will be submitting their work to an international competition. It is exciting to see their creativity and what they come up with as they are not limited by what “should” be done.

Overall, the coolest was when I was a whale watching guide in an ecotourism camp in Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California Sur, Mexico. I met a lot of people while living in a 1 sq mile island that had solar power, sea-water enzyme compost toilets, solar water heaters, and no electronics. It was my first experience living such a green lifestyle and I loved it. Also touching the whales was an incredible experience. I can now say I have touched the belly button of a wild gray whale. :-p

Role models/heroes:
U2, for inspiring me with their music and helping me become aware of social justice issues, and both my Abuelita (grandma) & Mom, who pushed me to succeed and get an education.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love seeing my students become aware of STEM related issues, and also when they realize that they truly have mastered material they thought was out of their league. I work primarily with traditionally underrepresented students, so being a role model and mentor is something I take very seriously. Teaching STEM is challenging, as you have to really know the material and be able to explain it so different people can understand. It also keeps you up to date, as keeping the material relevant is important so I am always learning about the subjects I teach so I can put the concepts from the textbooks into context for my students.

Advice for future STEMinists?

  • Believe in yourself, and do not listen to anyone that tells you that you are not able/good enough.
  • Find a mentor(s) and maintain the relationship(s), thank you letters go a long way.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help, it is an incredibly important skill to have and very hard to learn.
  • Apply to everything no matter what it is: jobs, scholarships, workshops, internships, etc. Do not disqualify yourself from anything by thinking you are not good enough. Always apply!
  • Learn to say NO and don’t apologize for it. Guys don’t sweat it, neither should you.

Favorite website or app:
I love Inhabitat for all things green, it is very easy to navigate. I really enjoy Apartment Therapy’s Small Cool contest as it shows how people can live in much smaller homes than what the average person has, and still be comfortable. It inspired me to move to a place that is about 360 square feet.

Twitter: @water_n_science is my professional account, @EnvPhD is the account I use for my classes and students.

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Bryn Lutes, Asst. Director for Teaching and Technology

Bryn Lutes

Bryn Lutes

Assistant Director for Teaching and Technology
The Teaching Center at Washington University in St. Louis

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I have always loved to read, learn new things, and occasionally conduct science experiments at home. When I was in middle school, my parents gave me a microscope kit for Christmas, and the main thing I remember about it is that I refused to follow any of the provided instructions because I wanted to make up my own experiments. I had a decent interest in biology, but LOVED chemistry when I finally took it in high school.

I’ve also always been fascinated with women fighting to break into traditionally male occupations and activities–especially when it involved disguising themselves as men. If I had enjoyed analyzing and not just consuming literature as much as I loved science, my career choices could have been very different.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I can’t say that I’ve worked on anything cutting-edge. My dissertation research fell in the realm of “let’s poke it and see what happens” basic research. I can say that I felt the coolest when working on my undergraduate research project. I was given a project that had already failed for several Master’s students, and I was able to get some interesting results out of it.

Role models/heroes:
I have “met” so many amazing women via twitter that they definitely warrant a mention here. I also have to include Sophia Hayes, from my dissertation committee, who is currently the only female tenured faculty member in that chemistry department.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love learning new things, and I love that my background in chemistry helps me easily explore new topics in more depth than I could otherwise. One of the things I love about my current job is that I have projects that require learning new things all the time. My next project to tackle is in the computer programming/web design realm, and I am really excited to get started.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Keep on keepin’ on, girlfriend. Do what you love, and don’t ever feel like you have to be someone you are not in order “fit in.”

Favorite website or app:
My favorite app is definitely Evernote (though it also exists as a website), and at the moment my favorite website is Lifehacker.

Twitter: @technobryn

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Charlyn Partridge, Temporary Assistant Professor, Biology

Charlyn Patridge

Charlyn Partridge

Temporary Assistant Professor, Biology
University of South Alabama



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I have just always loved science. I remember being around 6 or 7 and my parents bought me a little play microscope. I would go out to our swimming pool during the fall and winter (when we were not cleaning it constantly) and dip out water and just stare at all of the microscopic life it contained. When I was 13 I decided that that was what I wanted to do forever.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project thus far has probably been the main project from my dissertation. I looked at how a particular endocrine disruptor, EE2, impacted secondary trait expression in pipefish. Pipefish are sex-role reversed so sexual selection acts stronger on females than on males. Because of this, females have evolved both permanent and temporary bands that they display during courtship. We found out that when you expose males to EE2 for as little as 10 days they develop these secondary sex traits and that females tend to avoid mating with exposed males. Currently we are looking at how this may impact the strength of sexual selection on a population scale.

Role models/heroes:
As a scientist, I would have to say Barbara McClintock. She had a passion for science that I envy. Adam Jones and Ginger Carney: Adam was my PhD advisor and both he and his wife, Ginger, have an incredible ability to balance both their work and family life. As a mom, I have yet to discover how to excel in both areas at the same time.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I think the main reason why I love working in STEM is because I get the chance to answer questions that no one has ever asked. That is really a cool thing.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Do something that challenges you and always continue to learn. Once you become stagnant it is very hard to get back in the game.

Favorite website or app:
Evoldir. Love that site.

Twitter: @sciencegurlz0

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Melissa Weber Mendonça, Professor of Mathematics

Melissa Mendoca

Melissa Weber Mendonça

Professor at the Department of Mathematics (Ph.D. in Applied Math)
Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (Florianópolis, Brazil)

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Well, I’ve always been very curious, and since I was very little I used to say I would be a scientist when I grew up. I started out wanting to be an archaeologist, then a geologist, then a physicist…When the time came to decide (when I was 16/17) I was seriously considering engineering (my father is an engineer and I always appreciated that he helped me study math).

But then my high school math teacher recognized that I had an interest and started giving me extra work. After a while I fell in love with math, and along with my love of computers and programming I became an applied mathematician. Since in Brazil all it takes for someone to be a professor at a University is an exam, I took the exam in 2009 and have been at the math department ever since.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Well, math is a complicated subject in that we don’t necessarily have projects but work sometimes on the same project for 20, 30 years. My work is mainly on optimization, and it’s hard to explain to anyone why what I do is cool/inspiring. I loved all of my projects, I would say though that currently I’m in love with teaching! I think it is truly inspiring to teach and to help others see the beauty that I see in math.

Role models/heroes:
Well, I could say the same famous names we hear all the time but I’m going to cite someone who had a personal impact on my life: Anne Lemaître, from FUNDP (Belgium). She comes to me as a role model in that she showed me that it is possible to have a successful career and also have a family. Also, Gina Trapani is a big “geek” hero of mine!

Why do you love working in STEM?
In my case, it’s a matter of personal taste, really. I think I agree with the people that say math is like art; I like it because it is beautiful. It so happens that it is also useful, and to me that helps motivate me in my everyday work. Doing math is a bit like playing with LEGOs: once you have a few blocks on your hand, you can use that to build other (bigger) blocks, and eventually you’ll have built a complete figure. That’s what it feels like to work: it feels like playing! And having fun on your job is priceless.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Don’t try to be perfect. Don’t measure yourself by what others do or by what you think they think of you. Be sure that you are doing the best you can, and that will be enough. If you ever feel alone, especially if you’re a minority in your workplace, be sure that you don’t try and carry the weight of all minorities in the world. You don’t have to feel responsible for not perpetuating stereotypes, and you don’t have to justify yourself for being there. You are just as worthy as everybody else!

Favorite website or app:
Right now, I’m going to have to go with Wunderkit, which is just amazing for managing big projects at home or work. I also really like Wolfram Alpha, but I’ve been a little disappointed that they started charging for some features, I used to indicate it to my students so they could check their answers while studying.

Twitter: @melissawm
Website: University profile