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STEMinist Profile: Julie Kientz, Assistant Professor – Univ. of Washington

Julie Kientz

Assistant Professor

University of Washington


What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I had wanted to be a veterinarian for as long as I can remember, but while I was in high school and doing a job shadowing project, I fainted while watching a dog undergoing surgery! I realized I probably needed to find a new career path after that. I had been spending a lot of time online and chatting with people on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and was amazed by how useful the Internet was in connecting me to places and people beyond the small town where I grew up. One of my online friends encouraged me to try out programming, and so I did. It was really fun and I was hooked! After that, I decided to pursue computer science.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I am definitely really proud of the Baby Steps project I’ve been working on since about 2007. The idea is to help parents of young children track developmental progress in their children from birth through age 5 to help detect things like autism or other developmental delays sooner. The idea is that the information will be stored in a centralized database, so we have been working on ideas to use technology to reach parents no matter how they use technology or what their access to it might be. We’ve been using a software application, a website, Twitter, text messaging, and more to try to reach as many parents as we can! It’s been really rewarding to work on a project that can have the potential to help many different families. Also, now that I have my own daughter, I am finding it fun and really useful to use to track her development.

Role models and heroes:
Growing up, I remember really loving to read about Sally Ride, the first female astronaut. It really made me feel like I could do anything I wanted to, and that there was no job that was beyond reach because of my gender. I’m also a big fan of female computer scientists Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper and of Harvey Mudd’s current president, Maria Klawe.

Why do you loving working in STEM?
I love the feeling that I can create anything in the digital world and use those abilities to help others. Computer science is not just a bunch of math like a lot of people think, but it’s actually a creative process that requires a lot of different types of thinking. Also, the work I do in human-computer interaction involves both working with people to find out what they need and then developing prototypes of that technology and making those ideas come to life. This makes it both challenging and exciting.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Computers touch almost every aspect of our lives these days, and thus there are a number of opportunities to apply computer science to almost any thing that interests you, whether it’s healthcare, art, science, music, games, movies, or more. By combining your work with the things that interest you most, you can definitely enjoy it a lot more and feel good about it. Also, stick to it, even if it gets hard. There are a number of fun things you can do once you get really good at computing.

Favorite website or app:I really love my Fitbit, which I’ve been using for almost 3 years now. When you spend a lot of time with computers, it’s really easy to spend a lot of time not moving. My Fitbit keeps me accountable for making sure I get enough activity, and it also is fun to go back and look at the data and compete with friends for the highest number of steps.

Twitter: @juliekientz

Site: faculty.washington.edu/jkientz

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Emily Mason, Ph.D. Candidate in Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience

Emily Mason

Emily Mason

Ph.D. Candidate in Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience

Vanderbilt University



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I have a long history of wanting to experience EVERYTHING… I was all over the place as a kid! I wanted to be a writer, a large-animal veterinarian, a firefighter. My senior year of high school, I decided that forensic pathology was clearly the place for me so I went to college planning to go to medical school. As it turns out, it only takes a summer of working with corpses to decide not to spend a lifetime working with them and by my junior year I needed a new career path.

I had developed an unhealthy obsession with all of the nerdy media (PBS, NPR, Discovery Channel) and I was fascinated with how the mind works, so I decided to go into neuroscience research. Because science in the media was the inspiration for going into my career, I’m also interested in the communication of knowledge from scientists to non scientists in a way that is engaging for both.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Storytelling is what binds people together, and the older a person is the better their stories usually are. My research interest is Alzheimer’s disease primarily because it strips people of their personal stories and I am horrified by that concept. One of the major difficulties of Alzheimer’s is that diagnosis doesn’t occur until there is already severe and likely irreversible neuronal damage. At this point, even the most promising therapies would only slow the course of the disease.

In my opinion, Alzheimer’s disease can best be studied by examining humans non-invasively and magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is a great method for achieving that. For my thesis project, I’m attempting to validate state-of-the-art MRI techniques that could some day identify people who will likely develop Alzheimer’s decades before they experience any memory problems. These people can be enrolled in clinical trials at a time when treatment is most effective and Alzheimer’s pathology can be drastically slowed, prevented, or even reversed. We are at a time when there are tremendous advances being made in MRI, and it’s exciting to be part of the field!

Role models/heroes:
One of the reasons I never felt like I couldn’t be a woman in science is because several of my mentors have been brilliant, successful women. My academic advisor in college, Dr. Deb Martin, would wave off any insecurities I had about classes and just say, “Oh come on, I know you can do it, just go for it.” She gave me the confidence to succeed that I would have never had.

When I was working as a tech after college my mentor was Dr. Cheryl Conover. Her work with PAPP-A is incredible, but I admired her the most for the enthusiasm she showed every single day. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and dig into bench work. She is highly respected in the field, but she still made time to talk to me and give me invaluable career advice.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love my own work and find it fascinating, but one of my favorite parts of STEM is talking to and collaborating with other STEMers. Good scientists think their project is the coolest thing on Earth, and their passion makes science exciting.

Advice for future STEMinists?
First, I would say the same thing that my advisor said: “Oh come on, you can do it, just go for it!” Don’t ever let a gender disparity prevent you from pursuing what you want. Secondly, the best way to learn is to teach. Become a mentor for someone younger or less advanced than you and you will not only be helping someone else out, you will get a deeper understanding of your own work.

Favorite website/app:
Following intelligent people on Twitter has really helped me expand my science horizons and keep in touch with what’s going on in other disciplines. It can be great for learning, networking, or just passing the time when an assay is running. There is also a great project for becoming a pen pal to a 7th grader to instill in them a love of science. You’re only required to send four letters a year! You can find it here.

Website: adayinthelifesciences.com
Twitter: @ejmaso05

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Michelle Oyen, University Lecturer, Engineering

Michelle Oyen

Dr. Michelle L. Oyen

University Lecturer

Cambridge University, Engineering



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
It’s hard to remember! I was set on the idea of being an engineer by the time I was 10 years old. I loved math as a kid, and had a computer quite young (a Commodore 64 by age 7). I was always trying to take my toys apart and figure out how they worked.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Although I’ve had the chance to work on a number of very fun projects, including our tendency to use Lego robots in the lab (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBEtUJmp05w), my own favorite research work involves using engineering to try and study problem pregnancies, particularly in the context of understanding and preventing premature birth. People don’t think of engineering and human reproduction in the same framework, but there are actually a lot of very exciting opportunities in this area.

Role models/heroes:
My favorite early role model is Sophie Germain, who worked in both mathematics and elasticity far before it was easy for women to do so. My other favorite is Lillian Gilbreth, who was one of the early female industrial engineers but also famous from the books “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “Belles on their Toes” about raising a large family in the early 20th century.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love knowing that there are so many opportunities for science and engineering to improve the human condition, through biomedicine and biomedical engineering, by using our engineering skills to be better stewards of the environment, and to apply our knowledge to real-world problems facing developing economies.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Be proactive and have a thick skin. I’d love to say that STEM subjects were gender-blind in the 21st century but I don’t think we’re there yet. Amazing change has been taking place since the start of the 20th century, and it’s going to be a few more generations until all of those working in STEM don’t blink when seeing female colleagues in a wide range of roles.

Favorite website/app:
Kindle app. I love having access to so many books (both technical and otherwise) at my fingertips no matter where I am or what hardware I’m using.

Twitter: @michelleoyen

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Orit Shaer, Assistant Professor of Computer Science

Orit Shaer

Orit Shaer

Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Computer Science, co-director of Media Arts and Sciences

Wellesley College



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
My first real exposure to computer science was during a chance encounter with an introductory programming course in my undergraduate studies. The challenge of solving difficult problems, the satisfaction of designing an elegant solution, and the thrill of building something with my own two hands, fascinated me. As the software programs I wrote became more advanced, I was energized by the potential of computing to impact the way we work, play, and learn.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
My current research in Computer Science is in the field of Human-Computer Interaction, an area that is at the border between humans and computers, between the digital world and the physical world. This field is also uniquely positioned at the border between disciplines: computer science, psychology and arts, which makes it all the more exciting.

In my research group, the Wellesley College Human-Computer Interaction Lab, our goal is to invent and study easier, more effective and more enjoyable ways for people to interact with vast amounts of digital information.

One of our coolest projects, which we are currently working on, is to help biologists to analyze and manipulate large amounts of information so that they can develop scientific insights and make discoveries. We utilize advances in human-computer interaction such as multi-touch, tabletop and tangible interfaces to design and build new user interfaces that allow scientists to better organize, relate, and share information. It is exciting to see our interfaces used by scientists and students to study diseases such as Tuberculosis.

Role models/heroes:
I was fortunate to meet some incredible men and women throughout my career. My advisors at Tufts University, Rob Jacob and Diane Souvaine inspired me in their leadership of their professional community and their commitment to educating and mentoring a next generation of scientists.

Why do you love working in STEM?
Computer science in general, and human-computer interaction in particular, are inherently interdisciplinary fields. My research draws upon multiple area of expertise and perspectives, so I often work with a diverse range of collaborators. Each new project presents a new range of problems that require learning new topics and skills, applying creativity, and facing new challenges. I love the intellectual stimulation and the life-long learning.

Also, being engaged in human-computer science research allows me to get insight into the future and to participate in shaping it. In my field of study, science and innovation are tightly coupled and many of the current investigations in human-computer interaction will inform the tools, gadgets, and devices that we will use in the future.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Attend talks and conferences in your field to find out what are the current trends in research, make connections, and inspire your creativity.

The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) is a fantastic 3-day conference that brings together women in computing from various backgrounds, from undergraduate students to top industry and academia leaders. It is a great opportunity to network, attend workshops on academic and professional development, learn about and share your own experiences with other women.

Favorite website/app:
Springpad: a smart notebook that provides a great way to organize and share documents.

Website: http://cs.wellesley.edu/~oshaer
Twitter: @oshaer

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Nicola Derbyshire, Ph.D. Student, Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry

Nicola Derbyshire

Ph.D. Student, Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry

University of Leeds



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
A general interest in sciences and being told I was good at it by a chemistry teacher at secondary school.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I spent a large portion of my PhD working on the application of aptamers in biosensors which could lead to some really cool diagnostics applications. It’s not there yet but the future of this project looks “cool.”

Role models/heroes:
Not sure. I have an amazing mentor, the post doc that I currently work with who is supportive and inspiring. Ultimately I admire anyone who is able to be happy in their work and personal life at same time. Many people sacrifice one for the other and I don’t feel it has to be this way.

Why do you love working in STEM?
It keeps my brain ticking and I love solving the puzzle. I trained as a biomedical scientist first and though I loved the job I realised it would very quickly become routine and monotonous leading to boredom. Being in research instead means I am always engaging my brain, having to consider the small niggling problems and also the bigger picture.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Pick your project wisely. If you aren’t inspired by it before you start it will be extremely difficult to keep up the momentum when things aren’t going so well.

Favorite website/app:
Twitter. I get all my social and science updates in one place, have made new contacts and solidified existing ones. It has enabled me to gather advice from essentially complete strangers and encourages concise communication, something I (and many other scientists) seem to find difficult.

Twitter: @Nic_Derbyshire

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Janna Eaves, Student, Materials Science and Engineering

Janna Eaves

Student, Materials Science and Engineering

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
When I started developing a passion for the environment, I wanted to do something to really make a difference. At first I leaned toward the arts, and then the sciences, and when I saw the Solar Decathlon going on in Washington DC, I realized I could make a more concrete, lasting difference in engineering. Reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand also instilled in me an appreciation of production that couldn’t be satisfied in the liberal arts.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Now that I’m in college, I’m working on a Solar Decathlon entry with the University of Illinois team, so I get to participate in the very thing that inspired me to pursue engineering in the first place! I’m on the grey water team, finding ways to sustainably re-use water from the house. This is definitely the coolest project I’ve ever worked on, even surpassing nanoparticle research.

Role models/heroes:
Ayn Rand, Rachel Carson, Anais Mitchell, Elsie Eaves, my mom.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in STEM because I work magic on a daily basis. I can do things today that people used to attribute to spirits or gods or fantasy in the past. If you work hard enough and use a little bit of logic, there’s an answer to every question.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Stress is your worst enemy. The most important thing to do, whether you’re studying for a hard exam or working in a research laboratory, is to keep your cool and continue on.

Favorite website/app:
Twitter. I use it as a news source for only things I care about.

Twitter: @ask_jeaves

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics

Athene Donald

Athene Donald

Professor of Experimental Physics and the University’s Gender Equality Champion

University of Cambridge



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I just always knew, from the time that I had my first physics lesson at around 13, that this was what I wanted to do. I don’t think I thought in terms of a career when I went to university, and I’m sure I didn’t really know what careers were open to physicists. I didn’t think about pursuing an academic career until encouraged to do so by my supervisor during my second postdoc. At each stage I simply knew that I was enjoying what I was doing and feeling challenged. I have never regretted my decision.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Whatever I am working on now is always the coolest project. Working in a university, I have a lot of freedom in what projects I pursue, and I wouldn’t choose a project unless it excited or intrigued me. But the field of work I work in has changed constantly throughout my career. I started off working on the failure properties of synthetic polymers – ‘plastics’ – and now work on cellular biophysics and protein aggregation. Each transition from one topic to another has seemed logical at the time, and the tools I use tend to be similar. My current project on protein aggregation tries to use principles from physics to look at generic factors that determine the types of aggregates that form, but which may apply to very different proteins,including those implicated in diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease.

Role models/heroes:
My physics teacher at (high) school who was always willing to give me her time to stretch me.

Why do you love working in STEM?
Because it’s a constant challenge, with so many things to be curious about and to follow up. There’s always more to discover and be intrigued by.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Don’t believe so many of the myths that float around about why women ‘can’t’ succeed in STEM, and don’t give up at the first setback.

Twitter: @athenedonald

Web: http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Cristy Gelling, Cell Biologist, Univ. of Pittsburgh

Cristy Gelling

Cristy Gelling

Cell biologist
Department of Biological Sciences, University of Pittsburgh



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
In high school I read a book called “The Panda’s Thumb” by Stephen Jay Gould and another one called “The Making of Memory” by Steven Rose. The ideas in those books changed my life. Actually, I wrote a blog post about it.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Right now I’m doing some pretty weird science on a common genetic disorder called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD). People with this disorder usually develop lung problems, but about 15% of them end up with liver diseases, like hepatitis. We are trying to understand what factors predispose those particular people to liver disease.

The weird part is how I’m doing that. I’m using bakers’ yeast cells (yes, the kind you use to bake bread) as a stand-in for the liver cells of people with AATD. I have genetically engineered the yeast cells so that they make the mutated protein that causes AATD, just like a liver cell, and then I study what happens to the yeast. Understanding how the mutated protein affects yeast cells can help us understand what happens in liver cells. This works because there are certain activities that all cells do in a similar way, like make new proteins and dispose of old proteins, so how those activities are affected by the mutated protein will be similar in both yeast and liver cells.

But yeast are much easier to do experiments on than liver cells are; they are super fast to grow and it’s easy to make changes to yeast genes. By using this unusual approach, I can gather lots of data very quickly and then test some of the most interesting ideas with more complicated experiments in liver cells. The bakers’ yeast act as a kind of rapid testing ground for different hypotheses about this devastating disorder.

Role models/heroes:
My intellectual hero has always been Charles Darwin, but my role models have been the people I have met and worked with. Like my high school maths teacher, Ms Maseladahni, who showed me that not being very good at maths didn’t mean I couldn’t love the intellectual challenge. Or my PhD supervisor, who placed a high value on curiosity and creativity in science.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love making discoveries about the world. There’s not much that can compare to the feeling of generating knowledge! The other thing I love is all the creative and passionate people that you get to work with.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Think about your job prospects but think most carefully about your interests and your personality. Whether you choose software engineering or scuba diving, you are going to end up knowing more about your specialty than you can possibly imagine right now. So make sure you choose something that you want to be an expert on.

Favorite website or app: http://scienceseeker.org/ lets me navigate the thousands of science blogs out there. If you think you don’t look like a scientist, try http://lookslikescience.tumblr.com/

Twitter: @cristygelling

Web: theblobologist.wordpress.com

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: Christina Fuentes, Postdoctoral Researcher in Cognitive Neuroscience

Christina Fuentes

Christina Fuentes

Postdoctoral Researcher in Cognitive Neuroscience

Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I was always interested in science, and as a teenager I became more interested in human behaviour. It wasn’t until my first semester at university, though, that I was introduced to the study of the biology behind psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and I was hooked. What could be more interesting than understanding why we think, feel, and behave as we do!

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
For my Ph.D. research I worked with children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Working with them was at times challenging, but it was overall quite fun and always rewarding. Chatting with their families was also rewarding and enlightening; here is a group of people who are looking to science for answers not out of interest but out of need. I loved being able to answer some of their questions and was inspired by their will and insight. This experience has helped me remember that while there’s a lot to be learned through experiments, there’s also a lot to be learned from the people who live and work with patients every day, as well as the patients themselves!

Role models/heroes:
My Ph.D. adviser Amy Bastian taught me how to be a good researcher and a confident scientist. She’s now a close friend and I still look to her as a model of achieving a successful work-life balance. Additional inspiration came from members of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). I was very involved with the group during my Ph.D. and this allowed me to meet a number of STEM women with a variety of careers outside of academia. Until then I had thought that the route to a professorship was my only option; these women opened my eyes to other exciting options that I had previously never considered.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I’m always learning new things! Working in STEM isn’t an outcome, it’s an ongoing learning experience. It’s all about asking “how?” and “why?”.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Work toward a field you’re interested in but keep your mind open to new directions. Also, don’t fall into a career path just because that’s what those before you have done. The best example of this is the traditional academic path of scientists into professorships, which I mentioned above. While this may be a great career for some, there are lots of great jobs out there for scientists; don’t limit yourself to the traditional!

Favorite website or app:
I couldn’t do without keeping in touch with friends and family via Facebook or keeping up with the latest news via Twitter.

Twitter: @CTFuentes