To wrap up Women's History Month and our women-in-science guest blogging series, I've invited two stellar students from the Bredesen Center PhD program in Energy Science and Engineering to share each of their unique experiences.
First up, Melissa Allen has a Master's degree in Environmental Engineering, but started out with an undergrad degree in Music Education before making the switch to science! After working for a bit, she decided to come back to graduate school, and her current work includes global climate modeling and impacts of climate change on the electrical grid.
Then, we'll hear from Maria Fernanda Campa; originally from Mexico, she studied Nanomedicine during her undergrad, and after working at Oak Ridge National Lab for a year, she decided grad school was the next step for her too! She is currently working on developing a project that will combine the fields of bioenergy and policy for a truly interdisciplinary research experience.
After hearing from a post-doc in academia, an engineer in industry, and two graduate students, I hope this first women-in-science panel has offered a set of diverse experiences and advice. Let me know who you'd like to hear from next year!
Melissa: "I am old enough to have seen a long time slice of the transition of women not only into more and more of the workforce but also into positions of prominence in it. It may be the case that women who are at the absolute top of any field have always had a place. But, there have been plenty of women in history who, because of societal norms, have written their books under male pseudonyms (Mary Anne Evans as George Eliot), composed their music under the names of male family members (Anna Magdalena Bach as Johann Sebastian Bach) or have gone unrecognized in their scientific achievements (Lise Meitner unrecognized for her contribution to fission that won Otto Hahn the Nobel Prize).
I remember the announcement when the world-renowned Vienna Philharmonic had hired its first woman—a harpist—much to the dismay of the long-declared all-male orchestra.
"Accepting women," one member opined, would be "gambling with the emotional unity (emotionelle Geschlossenheit) that this organism currently has."
There was some consolation at the time in the fact that this would be only a part-time position for her, since harp is required for only a small percentage of the orchestral literature. Several years later, however, the first female violinist was hired, and a few years later still, a woman began serving as concertmaster, the most respected and highest paid playing position in the orchestra.
I grew up at a time when the message was just beginning to be told to children that girls can be anything. “If you can dream it, you can be it,” was the refrain. It was a start, but perhaps to some extent it was only a slogan. Many of us nevertheless did dream, but often felt it was well-nigh impossible to achieve those dreams—or if not impossible, somehow inappropriate. This was in part because we didn’t see many people like us in the positions for which we were striving.
"Thus, if we were to reach our goals, we would have to blaze our own trails, and whatever the case, we would have to be phenomenally good."
Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, remarked that she did not see many women training to be astronauts when she was coming up through the ranks. This surprised her because of the number of girls who expressed an interest in doing so when they were in elementary school with her. Upon interviewing a few of these former classmates of hers, she noticed that many of them deselected themselves from pursuing the goal simply because of perceived deficiencies in capability.
In many regards, women and opportunities for them have come a long way since those days. I see young women today with goals, determination, and the confidence to see themselves through to the completion of those goals. And it’s the confidence that makes the difference. I also see many older women in scientific positions now acting, whether knowingly or not, as role models and encouragement for the younger generation coming up. Generally speaking, I see a more collaborative atmosphere in science—one that welcomes efforts comprising different scientific viewpoints and different backgrounds, genders, ages, and ethnicities. This shift will benefit us all."
"I see young women today with goals, determination, and the confidence
Maria: "We all have our story of how we got into science. As early as I have memory, I was curious about everything around me; how things worked, and how everything worked together to create the complex world we live in. My parents and teachers encouraged my curiosity, answering as many questions as I had, purchasing science sets for me, and helping me with my crazy ideas for science projects.
When I got to high school, I knew the career path I wanted to take. I wanted to study something that would allow me to do medical research; I wanted to create things that were more valuable than the sum of their parts. However, when I started touring universities in Mexico, my home country, I discovered that research wasn’t a big component of the curriculum, and it was rare that an undergrad would even get a chance to work on the big problems I was eager to help solve. Thus, my journey began, I started to look abroad for research-oriented universities, where undergraduate research was not only encouraged, but expected. I found my match, and attended the University of Virginia for what became the best four years of my life.
As excited as I was to be at such an amazing place, for the first time in my life, I was getting overwhelmed by the topics I was learning. Classes were not only challenging, but HARD. Even though I had the opportunity to go to great private schools in Mexico, and was pretty fluent in the English language, I did not feel prepared for how rigorous the engineering school at UVa was. In my first semester at the University, I got the first C of my life. I felt my dreams shatter and that my family’s efforts to send me to a University so far from home were in vain.
"Luckily, just like the science teachers during grade school and high school
It was during my second semester of college that I had my first female professor. She made me realize, that by over-thinking every calculus problem I did, every science problem I solved, and basically every assignment I did, I was just confusing myself. She proposed I take my exams with my left hand (I am a righty), and that the problem would disappear, because instead of over-thinking I would have to concentrate on holding the pencil—and surprisingly it worked! My grade went up a whole letter grade. With my re-discovered confidence, I joined an all-male biomedical engineering lab. The gender disparity did not stop my adviser from doing his best to teach, inspire, and support me. And, of course I need to mention an amazing female mentor that encouraged me to run for the presidential position of, what at the time was, an all-male student engineering group, and I got it!
All of these people did something that encouraged me to keep going; they BELIEVED in me, and in the capacity of a female, international student to be as good as she set her mind to be. These were the people that encouraged me to go to grad school. When I said I was taking some years off before going, one of my professors (and my parents) told me, “Do as you wish, but I have your recommendation ready for the moment you decide, and I do not think you will be able to keep yourself away from research for long…”
"All of these people did something that encouraged me to keep going;
Of course, my “years” off became a year, and now I am a first year PhD student, and I could not be happier. Every day I am grateful for all of the role models that never stopped believing in me, even though sometimes, I did not believe in myself.
So, no matter how you got into science, whether you were inspired by the show Cosmos, by your 3rd grade science teacher, a university professor, or a family member, we all need people to look up to, people that encourage us to keep going when the light in the path seems to be burning off.
In honor of Women’s History Month, I want to celebrate all the women in science that have served as a role models (and the males that encourage girls to pursue science) for kids like me, and who encourage us to follow our dreams, to never stop asking questions, and to succeed.
And for us, inspired by these people, do not forget to PAY IT FORWARD."
Thank you both so much for your contributions to this year's Women's History Month blog series. Do you have an interesting story about your experiences as a woman in a STEM field and would like to share it here? Leave a comment below or be a guest blogger too!
Welcome to Think Like a Postdoc. If you're a fan of science as much as I am, and/or are curious about getting a degree in a STEM field, or pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate degree (all from the perspective of a graduate student), then you're in the right place. Think Like a Postdoc also includes posts about my current lab and field research, including analytical chemistry, Arctic biogeochemistry, and energy & environmental policy. Comments and questions are always welcomed. And please tell me what you want to hear about next!
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