Future is Wow: 2 STEM Leaders Offer Inspiration, Advice In Sciences
Both Arianne Hunter and Vanessa Sanchez have been proud of being nerdy from a young age. As recipients of the CAS Future Leaders program in its 10th year from the American Chemical Society, they are two of 29 PhD students and postdoctoral researchers in the sciences chosen this year from 16 countries.
Recruited from her Oklahoma high school to play basketball at Dartmouth starting in 2010, Hunter began with the goal of becoming a biomedical engineer, but with the demands of the basketball team, switched to organic chemistry.
“I just fell in love with organic chemistry,” Hunter says. After graduating, the Oklahoma native returned to the University of Oklahoma for her PhD, which she recently received this spring.
“I needed to return to Oklahoma because there are a lot of nerdy girls there like me,” she says.
With the dream of doing outreach to young girls in STEM, Hunter founded We Do Science Too, a nonprofit that each summer since 2015 offers tutoring, mentoring and monthly programs to local girls.
“It’s extremely important for women from atypical backgrounds to get the approval that you don’t have to fit a particular mode,” Hunter says.
The narrative may not have caught up with the stats for young women in STEM.
According to the National Science Foundation in 2018, “Female students' achievement in mathematics and science is on par with their male peers and female students participate in high level mathematics and science courses at similar rates as their male peers, with the exception of computer science and engineering.”
The NSF reports, “Women remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce, although to a lesser degree than in the past, with the greatest disparities occurring in engineering, computer science, and the physical sciences. Women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, but only 28% of the science and engineering workforce.”
Additionally, “Female scientists and engineers are concentrated in different occupations than are men, with relatively high shares of women in the social sciences (60%) and biological, agricultural, and environmental life sciences (48%) and relatively low shares in engineering (15%) and computer and mathematical sciences (26%). Hispanics, blacks, and American Indians/Alaska Natives make up a smaller share of the science and engineering workforce (11%) than their proportion in the general population (27% of U.S. working age population).”
Vanessa Sanchez, also a CAS leader, is finishing her PhD at Harvard University and is working on wearable robotics, aimed at improving the lives of people with disabilities. Her career path did not begin with STEM.
“I also was a big nerd,” Sanchez says. “But I started in fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology.” Growing up in New York, Sanchez went to school at FIT from 2011-2012, and decided to make a change because she wanted to do “something in fashion with tech and science.”
She transferred to Cornell University to study fiber science, learning the fundamentals of making nano-fibers. After graduating in 2016, she went on to Harvard to start her PhD in materials engineering in the fall of 2017 and work in Open Style Lab, with the mission of researching and designing innovative, wearable prototype solutions for persons with disabilities.
“It’s important not just for me, meeting other scientists,” Sanchez says, “but having this visibility. I didn’t see anyone doing something like this. As a young girl to see women in this role makes it feel attainable.”
The National Girls Collaborative Project reports that indeed, fewer girls are represented in STEM in high school, particularly young women of color.
“Enrollment in high level mathematics courses did not significantly differ by sex, but did vary by race and ethnicity, parent education level, and SES. For example, 22% of white students took advanced math courses, 15% for Hispanic students, and 9% for black students. Male students were more likely than female students to take engineering (21% versus 8%) and enroll in AP computer science A (77% vs 23%) however there were no significant differences in the percentage of male and female students take other computer science classes,” according to the National Girls Collaborative Project.
Both Hunter and Sanchez have lots of advice for girls and young women in school and starting their careers in science, on how to persevere.
It’s OK to fail. “Don’t let failure or roadblocks deter you,” Hunter says. “Failing is almost inevitable in science. Only 10 percent of experiments succeed.”
Change your narrative. “Don’t give up before you start,” Sanchez says. “I would never have thought of myself as a scientist and it was hard to get over that hurdle.”
Give back. “It’s important for me to give back because it helps me keep myself in perspective,” says Hunter. “Giving back gives me the reason behind the work I am doing.”
Create solutions. “I am learning how to design simple solutions with the engineering design process,” Sanchez says. “It’s important that I keep that perspective and just knowing that affects someone’s liftesyle is key.”