03.27.2017Community

She inspired me: The role models who helped these women envision a career in STEM

By: Neil Gladstone
Five women celebrate the person who helped them along the way.
Women talking with coffee

Women, and minority women in particular, face unique challenges in the STEM world. Studies show that men and women have a similar aptitude for math and science, but women have a tougher time finding role models and mentors. Part of that problem results from fewer women traditionally pursuing careers in science and technology-related fields. Another reason is societal. While the number of women in biology, chemistry and math has increased in recent years, the masculine culture in computer science, engineering and physics has deterred many women from entering those fields.

A 2015 report by the STEM advocacy group Change the Equation states that the STEM workforce was no more diverse than it was in 2000.

Finding a mentoring professor or inspirational co-worker can be the key for more women succeeding in STEM. Here are stories of how a handful of women found coaches along the way.

Lauren States

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Lauren States
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Harvard Fellow, Member of the Board of Directors for ScriptED, and Former Vice President for IBM Software

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Black

“I went to Mercy High School, an all-girls Catholic High School in Middletown, Connecticut. Being shy and African-American in a predominately white community made me unsure of where I fit in. In my freshman year in high school, I aced my Algebra class. That triggered something in me. Being good at math gave me an identity and helped me fit in at school.

For the next three years, I studied math with Sister Pat McKeon. She was a great teacher; she not only taught me math, she also helped me develop self-confidence.

As I looked to college and a career, uncertainty over my future and the stress of meeting everyone’s expectations overwhelmed me. I started to struggle in math, my safe haven. Sister Pat noticed. One day she came over to my desk and reassured me. “Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. You’re going to do great things.” It’s a moment that’s stayed with me. She was a teacher who cared deeply and played a significant role in my success. I studied Decision Science at UPENN’s Wharton School and went on to become a senior executive at IBM.

I applaud teachers who strive to make a difference in kids’ lives. For my part, I’m focused on getting kids into coding so they have a pathway to a great career. There’s so much innovation in the tech industry. If we can get more kids to participate, it’ll open up many options for them.”

Dr. Ruthie Lyle

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Dr. Ruthie Lyle
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Lead Researcher for USAA and holder of the most U.S. patents by an African-American woman

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Black

 “When I went to Northeastern University, I joined a program that encouraged and provided academic support to underserved minorities to study engineering, because there weren’t many in the field at the time. At the beginning of those sessions, I struggled with seeing the relevance in some of the topics I was learning and thought, “Maybe engineering isn’t something that black people enjoy doing.”

During a lecture at Northeastern, Dr. Daniel Smith, an African-American Physicist, on sabbatical from IBM, told me about Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, the first African-American woman to get a doctorate in physics from MIT. Dr. Jackson was like me, a woman, and understanding her career path was encouraging.

Jackson studied bumblebees as a child and later elementary particle theory and eventually became the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I went on to be the first African-American woman to get a doctorate from Polytechnic University, now the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. I’ve been to several events where I’ve heard Shirley speak, but have never met her and would love to.

I now help students learn code and give talks about the importance of supporting minority girls interested in STEM to give a sense of the potential.”

Sonya Sepahban

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Sonya Sepahban
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Former Senior Vice President for General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman, NASA Program Manager

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Black

 “Growing up, everybody expected me to be an engineer since I was good at math. My father, who immigrated to America from the middle east, was a very accomplished engineer. Seeing the moon landing was an important influence for me to go into engineering, with hopes of being an astronaut.

In high school, I became interested in chemistry and wanted to study chemical engineering in college. My father thought I should go into economics because there were more women in that field. He was trying to look out for me. My mother, on the other hand, was very supportive and thought I should do whatever I wanted. Eventually, I studied engineering at Cornell.

My mother is also an immigrant and an accomplished portrait painter. As a result, I spent a lot of time during my childhood looking at art in European museums. Having an upbringing that encouraged right- and left-brain thinking, and allowed me to see the world, gave me the balance and confidence to be a leader.

When I became SVP of Engineering at General Dynamics, I was the first woman in their C-Suite. To see another woman, I had to look five levels below me. That’s when the shortage of women in STEM really hit me. There need to be more places to see engineers as role models, from the NASA space program to Hollywood.

My passion today is to see more diversity in STEM roles for better opportunities for all people, and for our economy as a whole.”

Sonya Pryor-Jones

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Sonya Pryor-Jones
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Chief Implementation Officer of The Fab Foundation, named a “White House Champion of Change for Making”

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Black

“My STEM story started in 2007 during my executive fellowship in at the Cleveland Foundation. After a meeting to discuss curriculum support for a new high school, I struck up a conversation with Jan Morrison of TIES — Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM. At the end of the elevator ride, she asked me to follow up with her as I got close to completing the fellowship. I did. Soon I was part of a team that opened MC2 STEM high school. This was going to be the first high school of its kind in Northeast Ohio and also have an MIT fabrication lab.

I was hesitant about the new opportunity and spoke with Dr. Charlie Pratt, who’d been a mentor and friend. She encouraged me to pursue the unknown territory and reminded me of the scholar’s creed: “I can either be hesitant or courageous. I can swiftly stand up and shout: This is my time and place. I will accept the challenge.”

Now I work for a spinoff of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, the Fab Foundation, the non-profit organization that stewards the international network of MIT's fab lab program. Jan and her team help with the development and of the K-12 Fab labs. Both Jan and the late Dr. Pratt were great supporters throughout my career.”

Dr Luz Claudio

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Dr. Luz Claudio
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Author of “How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper”

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Black

“I moved from Puerto Rico to New York in 1985 when I was accepted at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine to study neuroscience. I knew my scientific training at the University of Puerto Rico was excellent, but my English skills weren’t great. Because of a lack of resources in Puerto Rico, I hadn’t been exposed to the most advanced technology.

During my training, Dr. Celia Brosnan saw great potential in me despite my limited English. She encouraged me to study with technicians in the lab, even some who didn’t work directly with her.

Amazingly, she asked me to write scientific papers. At the time, I had trouble expressing myself verbally, so it was pretty amazing that she trusted me with writing these papers. She recognized my writing ability, encouraged it and allowed me to have credit for it. Not every mentor would have done that. She had a lot of patience. Working with her, I was able to author papers early on in my career. Thanks to her, I’m currently a tenured professor and chief of the international health division. I’m also the author of “How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper: The Step-by-Step Guide.”

I now mentor many students. One of the most important things I teach them is scientific writing. It’s the main thing Dr. Brosnan taught to me and was the biggest key to my success.”

There are over 4 million available jobs in science and technology. However, millions of kids can’t compete for them because they lack access to technology and tech education—leaving too many kids behind.

We need more kids to see the world of possibilities waiting for them. That’s why Verizon is giving free technology, free access, and immersive, hands-on learning to kids in need.

Share a message of inspiration, or donate to kids in need at weneedmore.com

About the author(s): 

Neil Gladstone’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, People and USA Today.