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STEMinist Profile: Laila Kasuri, Water Policy Analyst

Laila Kasuri

Water Policy Analyst

Global Green Growth Institute


What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I originally wanted a career in a field that I felt would impact the world. I was born in Pakistan, a country where poverty and human rights abuse are part and parcel of life. I found that working in the public sector was inefficient and ineffective, and the only way to move forward was embracing technology. In fact, technology has impacted the lives of people more than any single leader or politician.

I decided to therefore pursue a career in engineering, which I felt would equip me with the technical skills to design solutions to the world’s biggest problem, which an activist, politician, leader, or any public official would still not be able to do without having the pre-requisite skills. Today, I work in the water sector with an international organization that designs solutions for green growth. I presently am working on projects in Vietnam, Cambodia, Jordan and India.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
There are too many to be honest, but perhaps if I had to choose one, it was during my undergraduate, where I worked on an independent research project that looked at the Mississippi River and the Indus River. Both rivers encounter seasonal flooding but the way officials manage flooding was what was more interesting.

I developed a GIS-based decision support tool using hydrodynamic models and GIS which would provide policy makers the necessary information to identify areas that are likely to get flooded, and at what levels. I used this model to look at river stretches of the Indus and Mississippi. The research was also awarded a Hoopes Award of $6000, which is the highest accolade awarded by Harvard University for research.

My entire journey here: https://www.seas.harvard.edu/blog/2017/07/alumni-profile-laila-kasuri-ab-13

Role models and heroes:
A great role model and mentor was my own advisor, John Briscoe, who passed away in 2015. He was a water practitioner from South Africa, and also won the Stockholm Water Prize in 2014. He was a strong force in pushing me to pursue STEM and grow in a field that was inundated by men.

I am currently trying to expand mentors who are more entrepreneurial. Elon Musk is someone I really consider as my hero. I always wish I had the ability to take risks the way he did. I also think that his relentlessness, despite failure is inspirational.

Why do you loving working in STEM?
I really like solving puzzles, and STEM allows me to solve puzzles and also make a difference at the same time. In fact, a simple problem such as sanitation can be solved by engineers who can now innovate and valorise waste to produce energy. Similarly, working on hydropower projects is exciting especially to see how water can be used to run appliances in our homes. It is exciting to know that STEM can be used to solve some of the greatest challenges in the world! I have truly had some very exciting opportunities through STEM!

Advice for future STEMinists?
I advise them to become leaders! All too often, women become followers and hardly ever find mentors who can encourage them to take risks. I really suggest future STEMinists to take risks and also fail. For every opportunity I have gotten, I must have failed at least ten times. For every job offer or fellowship I got, I received at least twenty rejections. It’s certainly difficult to be rejected time and time again, especially if the candidate selected is a man who can visit more sites or work in certain areas, but I am always glad I tried!

Favorite website or app: Google Maps. I’ve managed to explore so many countries alone and experience a rich, diverse live through the ability to navigate!

Twitter: @lailakasuri
Site: lailakasuri.wordpress.com

Blog Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Jacinta Yap, PhD Student – Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellow

Jacinta Yap

PhD Student – Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellow

QUASAR group of the University of Liverpool, based at the Cockcroft Institute. Part of the Optimising Medical Accelerator (OMA) training network.


What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
When I came across medical physics, I realised that it’s got everything that I’m interested in and what motivates me: science, medicine, physics and all the technical aspects from engineering.

Growing up I had an interest in maths and science but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at university. Initially I wanted to do a science degree, but given my dad and brother’s background in mechanical engineering, my parents advised me to pursue something more practical and so I did a major in mechanical engineering. After that I thought maybe medicine, radiology or radiation oncology, and this is how I discovered medical physics.

As a medical physicist, I will be able to use my technical expertise but also do something that would impact people’s lives directly. I would like to work in a hospital and interact with patients, doctors and machines, seeing first-hand the difference I am making.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I am a Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellow in the QUASAR group of the University of Liverpool, headed by Professor Carsten Welsch, and I am based at the Cockcroft Institute, UK. I am also part of the Optimising Medical Accelerator (OMA) training network, and my project is looking at both beam diagnostics and radiobiology.

In one of my studies, we are trying to figure out why proton therapy – a new form of cancer treatment – is more effective than conventional radiotherapy at the biological level: why it does more cluster damage to DNA, why this makes it harder to repair, or if it creates more strand breaks… basically pairing up the physics with the biology.

Although significant progress has been made in the use of particle beams for cancer treatment, there are still a lot of unanswered questions in proton therapy.

It’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly why proton therapy is effective overall, because there are so many different factors. One thing that is agreed is that proton therapy can do more DNA damage to the cancer. If you compare the damage with other types of radiation you can see that cells are slower to repair.

Role models and heroes:
For me, I think Marie Sklodowska Curie represents courage; she was able to overcome many challenges and to pursue something fearlessly.

I was actually recently in Krakow, where there has been a long established university, the university Marie Sklodowska Curie wanted to go to. At that time they didn’t accept women so she went to France.

She is probably the first prominent female researcher who has done really incredible things, and it’s because of her legacy that people like me are able to come overseas and pursue our own dreams. She is an inspiration.

Why do you loving working in STEM?
During previous placements in hospitals shadowing medical physicists, I realised a clinic is a very dynamic environment – lots of things were happening all the time. There was a lot of interaction with patients and with other staff – it was really cool to see what happens. Without a medical physicist they wouldn’t have the technical expertise they need to treat these patients. They are right at the forefront.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Don’t be afraid of the challenges! Take each hurdle in stride and view them as learning experiences – its easy to overlook the simple perspective change, just thinking of them as opportunities to learn and grow can do wonders!

Favorite website or app:
Quora – kind of like reddit; question and answer platform but a bit more educational, there’s some really interesting and enlightening topics and discussions on there.

Blog Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Hannah Frerker, Student Researcher

Hannah Frerker

Student Researcher

Greenville University


What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I have always had a passion for science, especially medicine, in high school I had a teacher who really pushed me and believed in me to pursue my double major in biology and chemistry. Since being in college, I have had professors who have pushed me and helped me get to where I am today.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I am currently a part of a Chemistry research project on water quality analysis. It is so amazing because not only are we doing some amazing chemistry, but we are helping so many people with our research! We are doing metal analysis, microbial analysis, nitrate analysis, and testing for pharmaceuticals in Southern Illinois well water.

Role models and heroes:
My research professor is my biggest role model as he works so hard and is always pushing me to my fullest potential. My other role model would probably be the first woman to ever graduate from medical school, Elizabeth Blackwell, as I cannot imagine how difficult medical school was as I am sure she constantly had people doubting her and trying to get her to drop out.

Why do you loving working in STEM?
It is my passion, I love every minute I spend working with any science. The things I can do with STEM, and the opportunities it provides are truly amazing. The doors it has opened up for me will give me such an edge in life.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Stay motivated and work hard, it is difficult for everyone but if this is what you love then it is so worth it.
Also do not underestimate the power of networking! My research project has really taken off simply because of the power of networking and the kindness of other people in the science community!

Favorite website or app:
I love Quizlet, Pinterest, and Twitter!

Twitter: @hanfrerker16

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STEMinist Profile: Elizabeth Blaeser, Infection Preventionist / Science Screenprinter

Elizabeth Blaeser

Infection Preventionist / Science Screenprinter

UPenn Medicine / Fraggles & Friggles


What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
My parents really inspired my love of science. My Dad would read articles to me from Science News when I was really young and my Mom loved talking to me about anthropology and geology (my Dad still sends me articles to this day and I go rock hunting with my Mom). Then, in biology class in high school, it really hit me how much I truly loved the subject matter. I just couldn’t get enough.

From there I went to college for biology, worked as a research assistant in a pediatric gastroenterology department, went to get my masters in Public Health Microbiology and Emerging Infectious Diseases, worked at the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA), worked at a state health department as an Infectious Disease Epidemiologist, and ultimately, ended up being an Infection Preventionist for a hospital.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
There were a lot of unusual and interesting things that came up while working at the state health department. The coolest was probably investigating a statewide outbreak of Shigella from a crowded 4th of July weekend at a local beach.

Role models and heroes:
I am kind of obsessed with Darwin. I wouldn’t say he was my hero per se, just that he made some incredible discoveries that changed the world forever. My role models are the strong professional women in my life. My current boss is incredible and I really look up to her. She is one of the few female department chiefs in our hospital network, she is incredibly knowledgeable, smart, and confident.

Why do you loving working in STEM?
I learn something new and interesting every day! I know it’s cliche, but it’s so true. Even if it’s not at work, I get to read about incredible discoveries!

Advice for future STEMinists?
Reach out to alumni, friends, professors – anyone who has more experience in the field and the breadth of professional opportunities. Trust me, if you’re interested in science and don’t want to get an MD or PhD, you can still be in science! There are way more possibilities and types of jobs out there that you probably had never even heard of. Go out and explore!

Favorite website or app:
I screenprint punny science-related designs at www.fragglesandfriggles.etsy.com

Twitter: @fraggsandfriggs

Site: fragglesandfriggles.com

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No Surprises at Amazon

This week Amazon became the latest company to join the craze of releasing diversity statistics. While disappointing, the presented figures weren’t at all unexpected, as Amazon joined the other tech giants in displaying a vastly un-diverse picture on their diversity report.

Over a month after the company was pressed by Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition and publications like USA Today to release race and gender breakdowns of its workforce, Amazon quietly responded by posting a page on their website about various diversity initiatives the company is involved with. No official announcement was made by Amazon management about the numbers, and corporate spokespeople have been silent in response to questions about the figures.

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For us at STEMinist, the overwhelming majority of men in the company –especially in managerial positions where just 25% are women– is especially troubling when considering the fact that this is for the company overall. Unlike other tech diversity reports seen in recent months, Amazon chose not to disclose the diversity numbers for its technical staff, which are undoubtedly even more dismal.

While Amazon does sport internal “affinity groups” like AWE (Amazon Women in Engineering), this doesn’t make up for the disparity in proportions. There was no time lost by Amazon in avoiding blame for that problem, declaring it as something that begins in schools.

“We know that in middle school and high school, students are already deciding what professions they want to pursue,” stated Amazon’s report. “More often than not female students and students of color are opting out of technology and engineering.”

They propose to be part of the solution by pumping money and resources into organizations focused on improving the “pipeline” for STEM minorities.

“To broaden our impact, we partner with the Anita Borg Institute to sponsor events such as the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. We also provide resources and volunteers to Code.org to increase access to computing in high school, and we host Girls Who Code to provide hands-on coding education. We actively assist these students to enroll in national programs such as Aspirations in Computing with the National Center for Women & Information Technology.”

While every effort made is something to be celebrated and appreciated, only time (and their next diversity report) will tell if Amazon truly stands behind their commitment to inclusion.

 

 

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The CataLyst: To freeze or not to freeze?

I’ve been meaning to write about this topic since long before the news broke that Apple and Facebook are offering to pay for their female employees to have their eggs frozen. After all, the issue of maintaining a good work / life balance is one of the larger ones when it comes to women in STEM. And the ever leaking pipeline, certainly gets extra leaky around the time when women hit 30+. It’s been heavily debated what these companies’ “true” intentions really are, and many articles have been written both in favor and against.

Before I go onto my little rant about this I would like to point out that I respect any woman’s choice concerning what to do with her own body, and there isn’t a right or wrong choice that fits every person.

I have recently accepted a job offer which will (hopefully) advance my career. This opportunity though, means moving countries, and asking my fiancé to leave his current job and find a new one in order to come with me. I’ve done this now because I feel I need to get as far ahead in my career as possible before starting a family, so that when I eventually do want to get back to work, I’ll be in the best possible situation to do so. If only life was that simple… For me, whether you’re positive or negative toward the idea of this new ‘job perk’, Apple and Facebook’s plan has highlighted just how different the world is for men and women, no matter how much we try and pretend it isn’t.

I’m not going to take this to any extremes here (and those examples always exist) and I don’t see the evil Big Brother plot to control women’s lives which some have hinted at. I don’t think that the perk on face value is a bad thing. Giving benefits that include paying for infertility treatments or adoption costs is a way to show that families are important and as far as I’m concerned, the more options the better. BUT… the underlying message that this perk sends out is that motherhood is viewed as a liability.

The age at which most men and women start progressing their careers happens to be the same age most women begin to have children, and in a majority of cases, childcare responsibilities mainly falls on the mother. The consequence of this is that many mid-career women who want to get ahead (such as myself) are faced with the choice to either advance in their careers, or start a family. Facebook and Apple claim to be addressing this issue with their new offer, saying that it’s enabling women to delay pregnancy, while focusing on their career goals at the same time as their male counterparts. But I see this as a problem rather than a solution.

It seems a bit of a slippery slope, offering to pay women to freeze their eggs for career purposes. Firstly, I think it tells women that the only way they can succeed in the career is by not having a family. Secondly, I think it might scare women into believing that if they do choose to start a family in their early 30’s, they will have very little opportunity to re-enter, let alone move up in their careers. I would even go as far as saying that this perk is in fact perpetuating gender inequality and only contributing to the problem.

The fact that starting a family is a liability to a woman’s career but not a man’s is what the problem here is. Women should have an equal shot at success regardless of how they spend their personal lives. Companies need to allow flexible working environments, better maternity and paternity leave (after all, a problem shared is a problem halved right?) and childcare benefits. If we allow working moms and dads(!) to integrate their family and work lives, and sharing the load, women will have a much greater chance to succeed.

The money that is supposed to be spent on freezing eggs ($20,000 per woman) could pay for full-time childcare for up to a year (even in London!). Or companies could use the money and to build nurseries in their offices and staff them with day-care workers. The message that a company sends a woman when egg freezing is a benefit, and the fact they don’t see that message, is an example of how far we still have to go.

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Will the Women in Tech Please Stand Up?

Unless you’ve been living under an internet-less rock for the last few months, you’ve probably noticed the huge increase in attention that the tech gender gap has gotten recently. The latest conclusion that the online community has reached is that women just don’t want to work in tech.

That statement seems a bit misleading. Saying that women don’t want to work in tech implies that there is something inherent in the technology itself that women just don’t like. There isn’t. We’re finally seeing more women choosing to enroll in STEM programs, so the interest is there. The myth that women aren’t as good at math and science as men are has long been debunked. So what exactly is keeping the ratio in technology so highly in men’s favor?

It’s true, there is the ever-present “boys’ club” mentality, and it hasn’t gone away. The “brogrammer” culture is unfortunately as strong as ever, meaning any woman who wants to try to balance a career with family life (or any sort of life outside of work and work parties) automatically has a lot on her plate. Add to that the fact that companies like Facebook and Apple seem to think that paying for a woman to freeze her eggs is more helpful for the female population than arranging for maternity leave and childcare, and you’ve got a doozy to deal with.

These are definitely problems, and ones that need to be solved. However, the best way to do that is to show these companies that women are active players in the technology arena and are here to stay. That brings us to the next problem facing ladies who are trying to get started in the industry: Where are the women who have already made it?

Where are the ladies who have hunkered down and shown the brogrammers that we can play ball? Who out there has found a tech job that allows them to have the work-life balance they need? How have women already in tech negotiated for higher salaries and better benefits?

These women exist, so where are they?

Jane Porter, from FastCompany, looked at why women seem to be leaving STEM jobs in droves and unsurprisingly honed in on a sense of isolation, biased evaluations, a lack of sponsors, and a lack of women mentors as some of the top reasons. All of these can be easily solved if the women who are already anchored in the world of technology look out for those just getting started.

For women to finally close the gender gap, we need not just sponsors and mentors, but true role models. So will the women in tech please stand up?

Are you a woman already making waves in STEM? We want to feature YOU on the STEMinist site! Stand up and help inspire future female leaders in STEM by sending us your information HERE. Keep up the amazing work!

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The CataLyst: Are We Better Together?

About a month ago Scotland decided to remain part of the UK, and the “Better Together” campaign celebrated that a 300 year old union was not split up. I’m not going to get into politics here or my opinions about the Scottish referendum, as this is not the place for it. Instead, I want to talk about the concept of “Better Together”, the campaigns, how it’s left two groups of people very divided, and what we can learn from all this.

In any given group of people – be it family, work, school or randomly selected in public – you’re going to get different opinions about anything. So in a workplace that’s diverse and has representatives from all different backgrounds you could assume that people would think differently. This is natural as we have different life experiences that have shaped who we are. In the case of Scotland (a bit of an extreme to make my point, I’ll admit), we have two distinct groups with opposing opinions about their future. So, even though the “Better Together” campaign won, Scotland is now a nation where nearly half the population (45%) would rather have left. I question how good that is for unity.

Now let’s translate that into a work environment, a research group at university or a school class. How good is it to have such opposing opinions working together (by force or by choice)? I think it creates a very distinct “us and them” mind set. And this is where I think we have something to learn from Scotland’s predicament. The referendum campaign in Scotland was very harshly pushed from both sides. There was very little room for listening and trying to understand the other camp’s point of view. And where there was opportunity for compromise, many people were shouted down by those most extreme on either side. All of a sudden, there wasn’t a reasonable “middle” anymore, there was just black or white, us or them, yes or no.

I’m sure the people of Scotland have a whole range of diverse opinions, but when put in a situation where there are only two choices, people easily turn to an extreme. Likewise, in a workplace with a diverse group of people, we have to ask ourselves if everyone’s voice is being heard. Is it always the loud one who gets an opinion across, and do the people in charge take the time to ensure everyone gets involved? Maybe the quiet person who is a bit shy has a really great idea or solution, but no one ever asked them? Maybe the minority female staff have some ideas on how to increase equality, or make it easier to bring up diversity issues?

Any group of people can be diverse, and I think it’s great that we’re all working towards a world where the makeup of our society is reflected at every stage. BUT, a diverse society/family/workplace/school is nothing if we don’t use that diversity in an inclusive way, where everyone’s experiences are allowed to be heard. So are we better together? Of course we are, but the key is to not forget we come from different places, and can contribute different things. We need to continually work against our own prejudices (which we all have), if we are to move forward.

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An Interview with Computer Science Professor Dr. Rebecca Wright

This summer, while at the NJ Governor’s School for Engineering and Technology, I was able to meet one of the keynote speakers, Dr. Rebecca Wright. After the program ended, I was also able to interview Dr. Wright about her experiences and insight into engineering. Dr. Wright is both a professor and researcher at Rutgers University for computer science, cyber security, and communications security. She attended Columbia University for her Bachelor’s degree and Yale University for her Ph.D.

As a little girl, both of her parents went to MIT and she was surrounded by female engineers. She was raised thinking that this was the norm, and that there were a decent number of women working in STEM fields. In fact, those women that she was surrounded by were a vast majority of female engineers and scientists in the world. Nevertheless, they collectively influenced Dr. Wright’s early decision to work in the computer science field. In high school, she chose computer science over playing the piano, deeming musical skills something that she needed more inherent talent for and engineering skills something more practical that she could work hard towards.

And indeed, a computer science degree was a hard major to work towards. I, based on my dramatically mind-exploding experiences in calculus, felt obliged to ask if the majority of the math classes she took in college were inapplicable to her current research and career. Dr. Wright admitted that the certain theoretical math classes were not useful, but the math learned from computer science classes was very important. In her first year of college, the discrete math requisite is what thoroughly fascinated and solidified her passion for computer science.

One of Dr. Wright’s most recent research projects focuses on human mobility modeling. Cellular networks provide the necessary data. She inferred home and work locations from each caller ID to create a model of users and their call behavior. Then, she created synthetic users with their calls based on the model. It effectively reproduced the real life population density distributions. The second project examined privacy on social media. Dr. Wright introduced a concept called side channels— information channels that are secondary to the intended communication channel but convey additional relevant information.

To examine side channels, Dr. Wright created an experimental Facebook account and discovered many “loopholes” or side channels that revealed information intended to be blocked (ie. friends’ restrictions). She conducted a survey to determine user awareness and concern about these side channels. One survey question asked if the user was aware that edit history was visible to anyone who can see the post. This type of research enables Dr. Wright to find and solve cyber security problems.

Outside of research, Dr. Wright has been to several leadership summits in Europe, China, Malaysia, Israel, etc. Communication, above all, is key. Thus, in response to my mentioning of the stereotype that engineers are bad writers, Dr. Wright laughed and stated that whether it was true or not, writing is crucial to engineering; after all, the discovery or invention is worthless
without effective communication.

As for personal advice, she underscored the work required to pursue such a career. Speaking from the experience of rushing to finish a research paper, completing arduous and sometimes arcane math classes, and many sleepless nights, Dr. Wright was sure to remind me that the path to becoming an engineer was not nearly as easy as she made it out to be. Laughing, I stated that I had and would never underestimate the effort.

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The CataLyst: National Women in Engineering Day Report

A couple of weeks back, on the 23rd June was the inaugural National Women in Engineering Day (NWED) here in the UK. This is a day organised by the Women in Engineering Society (WES) to celebrate their 95th anniversary and to promote women in engineering.

WES was founded in 1919 after the First World War to deal with the issues concerning continuing employment of women engineers who had contributed to the war effort. It faced opposition from government, the industry and unions across the country. It’s aim was:

To promote the study and practice of engineering among women; and, secondly to enable technical women to meet and to facilitate the exchange of ideas respecting the interests, training and employment of technical women and the publication and communication of information on such subjects.

Several branches across the UK were active, and the first issue of “The Woman Engineer” was published in December 1919. It seemed they faced many struggles until the Second World War when all of the sudden women were needed again, but at the end of that war in 1945 many of the prominent women were expected to go back into the role of wife and mother.

Today, women in engineering still face similar obstacles that the women of previous generations did. Yes, we have manged to enter the workforce and legislation against sexual discrimination exists in many countries. But today discrimination is subtle and covert, and a lot of the time women are left questioning whether they interpreted a situation correctly or not.

As part of celebrating NWED my office held an open panel debate about Women in Engineering which was attended, through online help, by 15 offices across the country. The panel consisted of senior women and men within the company talking about what it was like 10 years ago, what changes there have been, and what challenges we still face today. It was a great discussion and many brilliant points were made.

One that I would like to touch on in particular is communication. With governments and many companies today continually improving policies and terms and conditions for workers, it’s important to keep yourself up to date with what rights you have. Examples were made where managers had denied staff certain privileges because they didn’t know the law or the company policy on the matter. In other cases employees hadn’t asked for what they were entitled as they weren’t aware that they had a right to it in the first place.

This can be anything from maternity (and paternity) leave, to flexible working hours or how to raise complains about sexual harassment and what support is offered at work. It is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that staff are aware of any changes in terms and entitlements, but as employees we can also be proactive in keeping up to date with new legislation as well as company policy changes.

Another thing about communication, and an issue with these kinds of events is that I personally feel like, a lot of the time we’re preaching to the choir. The people attending these events (mostly women) are already aware of the struggles and difficulties that we face. How can we make sure that we educate those who’s minds have not yet been opened to these issues? That’s one of the biggest struggles for me, as many of those in power are just the ones who could use some more insight.