Goal Orientations and Motivation: Rachel P.

Goal Orientations and Motivation:
With Rachel P., Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics major

Rachel P. was on our initial team for testing lab activities for Curiosity Science Program. She’s a double-STEM major, a poetry-lover, and an actress in college theatre.

Rachel is a sophomore, studying Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics. Molecular Genetics involves studying the genes that make up who we are at a molecular level. This helps us understand what gives each of us the traits we have and better explain genetic variation. Genetic variation can include everything from why your hair is a different color than your sister’s to how chromosomal differences like Down Syndrome occur.

(Want to learn about DNA and cells? Try this video or this one by Bill Nye.)

Rachel became interested in these fields during her first organic chemistry class. She says she felt that,

“It made a lot of sense to me. I have always been very numbers driven, but to my surprise, I enjoyed and understood organic chemistry much more than analytical chemistry.”

For Rachel, infectious diseases are especially interesting.

“Recently, I learned all about how the immune system responds to pathogens in varying degrees of specificity. It is what has convinced me that working with infectious diseases is what I want to spend my life doing.”

Often when we learn, it’s easy to focus on comparisons and thinking about how we’re doing in relation to other people. Sometimes, we focus too hard on looking good in front of our friends or not making mistakes. Rachel has a different attitude in how she views her motivation. She says she’s motivated by “Asking questions. The more there is that I want to know, the more eager I am to find the answer.

By thinking about learning in this way, Rachel is demonstrating what is called a Mastery Goal Orientation. This is a type of motivation that is more internal, not based on what other people think or any external praise. You’re only competing with yourself, and you’re motivated by wanting to understand the subject and become as good at it as you can. For people with Mastery Goal Orientations, challenges are motivating and exciting – because you’ll get to improve and learn something new. You don’t learn as much by doing easy tasks; you learn through being challenged and having to work hard to figure out the answer. When you’re challenged, you’re discovering the answers to questions that interest you. This perspective is so much better for learning than a Performance Goal Orientation, where the fear of failure or desire for easy praise stops you from trying something challenging. Mastery Goal Orientations are also associated with higher achievement in classes than Performance Goal Orientations.

Rachel was inspired by an experience that allowed her to challenge herself and learn more. She says that for her, her moment of inspiration is easy to place.

“Undoubtedly, it would be performing microbe identification tests as a major project in my microbiology lab. The function of the project is to allow you to identify two unknown microbes utilizing the tests that we had learned over the course of the semester. It is entirely self-directed, and feels like working in an actual research laboratory, and generally was a welcoming environment that I continually wish to be a part of.” 

In this example, Rachel went after challenges and wanted to learn more. She was answering questions she had created for herself and enjoyed having to figure out difficult problems. Still, it’s possible to be really great at having a Mastery Goal Orientation sometimes, and to mess up and focus too much on how people will view you other times. Rachel learned this when she was struggling in a class. She says that,

“…the biggest mistake I’ve made so far is letting my chemistry grade slip, simply because I was too afraid to ask questions and seek out the help I needed. It has frequently been one of my weaknesses, but I let my lack of understanding and fear of being viewed as stupid compound into disaster.”

When we pay attention to how we think others will view us, we forget about our own goals. We let other people’s potential opinions matter more than our own learning. Realistically, though, everyone messes up. There’s no shame in making mistakes. It’s how progress happens and how some of the yummiest inventions (popsicles and chocolate chip cookies, anyone?) were created. Mistakes also gave us Penicillin – a vital antibiotic – and pacemakers. These inventions save lives every day, and they never would have happened if their inventors were scared to make mistakes.

For Rachel, making mistakes and facing challenges becomes easier because of the inspiration she finds in others and in her passion for her field. She says that,

Being around the people I love and doing the things I love makes me feel strong. It’s always empowering to feel like I’m doing the right thing and not being afraid to be myself.”

Finally, she adds her own request for women today. Not only for those in STEM, but for women in all roles in society, she says,

“I would ask for my voice. There are plenty of times that I know what to do or I know the answer to a question, but I’m often overlooked or ignored. I want all women to be able to speak out, not just when they know the answer, but also when they wish to stand up for what they believe in. The things they have to say are important, and should be treated as such.”



We’re proud of all of our students for finding their voices and discovering their passions. We hope you share them loudly and boldly with the world.


Thank you for your answers, Rachel! If you’d like to learn more about careers involving infectious diseases, check out the letters from Lynda Caine, Patti Caine, and Susana López on our role model page. We also have letters from physicians and chemists which may be applicable to your interests!


Discussion Questions:
What was a time you failed at something? (While you were learning to ride a bike, doing a new type of math for the first time, learning to read, tying your shoes, learning to ski, etc.) How did that experience help you to do better the next time?

Where do you feel confident speaking up? Why?

What questions do you want to discover the answers to?


Persisting and Asking for Help: Mae-Lynn H.

Persisting and Asking for Help:
With Mae-Lynn H., Chemical Engineering major

Mae-Lynn is a sophomore, studying Chemical Engineering. She says that in high school, she really didn’t know what chemical engineering was. It was only when her dad sat down with her and went through a list of majors that her university offered that she discovered this interest. Mae-Lynn once told me that,

“I decided to major in chemical engineering last year because I wanted to make hairspray. I didn’t realize that involved science.”

You never know what will inspire you! From that point of inspiration, her passion has grown and she’s found more ways that chemical engineering improves and even saves lives. She says that,

“My dad always encouraged me to look into science and engineering fields, so I did. And I took an Intro to Chemical Engineering class and really liked it. I knew that I could use this degree in ways that would be beneficial to other people, so I guess that inspired me to keep working so I could do that in the end.”


Mae-Lynn is a fiercely independent young woman. For her, one of her hardest lessons was learning that it’s okay to ask for help. You don’t have to do things alone, in order to do them successfully. She says that

I have learned that I am capable of so much if I keep on trying and never give up until I’ve accomplished what I want. I learn the most when I get a problem wrong and can find my mistake and get the right answer myself, but I’ve also learned that it’s okay to need to lean on other people for help and support sometimes, even if I like to do things by myself.”

Sometimes we have to learn from our mistakes to make progress. Mae-Lynn remembers feeling really frustrated during her first chemical engineering course.

“A lot of my homework assignments for my Intro to Chemical Engineering class were difficult. The first time I went to the TA help lab to check my answers, I got them all wrong and almost cried but … I knew that I could figure out what I was doing wrong, so I kept looking at examples in the textbook and asking my peers in the lab for help. Eventually, after a good amount of time, I was able to solve all the problems I got wrong and understand the concepts better because I decided to keep trying and not let failure stop me.”


Fortunately, she decided to persist through the challenge and ask for help. She didn’t get it immediately, but this doesn’t mean she’s not a talented engineer or won’t be successful. It just means she needed to put in some extra effort. Hard work is essential to success. For Mae-Lynn, she knows that asking for help and using her resources to find the support she needs is part of the accomplishment. She feels motivated “knowing that one day, I can be able to make a difference in the world because of all the hard work I am doing now” and “knowing that when I work hard and ask for help when I need it, I can accomplish all that I’ve set out to do. And then obviously seeing the results of my hard work” is also encouraging.

Mae-Lynn encourages all students to remember that gender and other differences shouldn’t make a difference in how we perceive each other or our abilities.

“What does matter is the way we treat each other, regardless of our differences. Although I haven’t taken very many engineering classes yet, what I have found is that we all excel at some things, and we all struggle at some things. When we use our strengths to help other people that may not be as strong in that area yet and vice versa, we are all benefited. I’ve seen that a lot in my classes. We’re all in this together and we all want to be successful, so why not help each other in the process?”

For Mae-Lynn, she was able to ask for help from her peers and teaching assistant. Study sessions and review activities are a great resource. There are lots of ways to get help such as asking more questions in class, staying in class after school or during lunch, or contacting a teacher through email to tell them if you need to schedule a time to get help. The most important part is you ask if you need assistance. Sometimes, a friend or teacher can teach us a new way of studying or explain a concept in a way we hadn’t seen it before. Other times, we can be that friend for someone else. Mae-Lynn has played both roles throughout her academic career, and I know she’s benefited from help and others have benefited from hers.

Thank you for sharing your perspective, Mae-Lynn! If you’d like to read more about professionals in engineering careers, check out our role model page.


Discussion starters:
What are you good at helping a friend with?
What challenges have you persisted through? What was hard to learn?
What are your strengths? Name a strength of your friends in the room.

Persistence and Passion for Learning: Srishti S.

Persistence and Passion for Learning:
With Srishti S., Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Anthropology double-major


Although she’s a sophomore at University of Connecticut now, Srishti’s interest in STEM started young. In elementary school, she became fascinated by sea creatures and reptiles. She says,


In elementary school, we had two in-school field trips, an Ocean Day and a Reptile Day. Each time, a biologist brought in organisms that corresponded with the theme. I was simply fascinated with these creatures that were so foreign to me as a second grader that I spent the years up until middle school saying I wanted to be a marine biologist.”


Eventually, her interests changed a little and expanded greatly, as they frequently do when we’re growing up.
“…Anthropology came to me in one of my frequent trips to the Museum of Science in Boston. I had naturally always gravitated towards the Green Wing of the museum which encompassed all things biology. Within the Green Wing, I found myself further fascinated by the Hall of Human Life. Standing in this exhibit hall as a 6th grader, I remember staring at three skeletons in glass cases representative of our human ancestors. A museum researcher, who had noticed my fascination, engaged me further with his knowledge of human bones. Finally, in the summer before my junior year of high school, I read a book that truly changed my life. Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, chronicles the author’s personal experience with a remote tribe in the canyons of Mexico who, as he concluded, had an acute understanding of life. The human experience and our relation to the natural world, as I discovered as the field of anthropology and human biology, was something I have been seeking to understand since.”


Today Srishti is double-majoring, studying both Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Anthropology. Currently, she’s also doing research in the Zooarchaeology Lab for her senior honors thesis. These are unique fields that allow her to follow her passions, as well as make a difference. Srishti explains this side of her interests best,


“Combining biology and anthropology has made me appreciate STEM in a humanities context. Both fields teach what it means to be human, how that meaning has so many variations throughout the world, and how we are so deeply connected to the natural world. It is easy to forget that humans are very much a part of the natural order of things, and we are in no way exempt from the laws of nature. This perspective is especially crucial in today’s world, where society is complex, technology is abounding, globalization is occurring, and we as humans know have the ability to alter this planet in any way we choose. One way my STEM work makes a difference is through the study of climate change. Another crucial way is in the accurate, respectful representation of native peoples throughout the world, through which we can gain new cultural perspectives on the meaning of life.”



One of my favorite things about Srishti is that she is constantly seeking to learn and understand. I admire the way that she always wants to learn more and is willing to try new things. She’s curious about the world around her. Sometimes when we’re growing up, we think that adults know everything or that if we’re really good at something, we know everything about it. That’s not true, though. People who are really good at their subject area are the people who are always ready to learn more.


Sometimes it feels frustrating when we don’t understand a problem or subject area immediately. Often, we think that if we can’t do the math problem on our first try or if the word is hard too hard, it means we’re not good at it. We start to think we’re not smart enough. Srishti reminds me that sometimes we have to work hard at new things, though. It’s also never too late to learn something new.


In fact, just a couple of years ago – after graduating high school – Srishti tried horseback riding.


“For as long as I can remember, I have loved horses, and I was the horse girl who did not actually ride horses. As I got older, I figured that I would never have the opportunity to indulge my childhood dream. Finally, for my high school graduation gift, I asked my parents for horseback riding lessons. I knew that at 18, I was an older beginner rider, and I had doubts of jumping into a brand-new experience. But I was heading to college in three months, and I took the risk of a new experience. I loved it. I loved the feeling of instability, the rush of adrenaline, and the communication between rider and horse. In the sweltering heat of summer, I once found myself pitched off by my horse, Maxine, my body landing straight into the sandy arena, rattled to the bone. But still laughing at the thrill. I was completely out of my element, and as I reflect back, I think I learned more than just horseback riding. I learned to step out of my comfort zone. I learned to take a chance and do something I knew I would love. I learned to live in the moment. And while I cannot turn back the hands of time, wishing I had started learning at an earlier age, I loved every minute of those 13 weeks.”


Not only did Srishti try something that she wasn’t sure she’d be good at, she also quite literally got back on the horse when she fell off. She kept trying, even when it was difficult or scary. Srishti has learned this lesson so many times, and she reminds me that it’s one adults need, too. We all have to practice persevering and be willing to learn from our experiences and the experiences of others that we admire. When Srishti was in 8th grade, her algebra teacher told her class a personal story about her own family. Mrs. Kilduff been going through a difficult time and had persevered through a custody battle. She came into class one day, holding a new $10 bill.


“She asked for a show of hands on who would like the 10 dollars. All hands went up. Then, she proceeded to severely crumple the bill up, throw it on the ground, and smashed the right heel of her shoe onto it. She now held up the crumpled bill, no longer clean or crisp as it had been thirty seconds ago. Again, she asked who wanted the 10 dollars.”


After hands went up, she continued saying,


“‘This is how I felt, crumpled and defeated, like the state of this 10-dollar bill,’ she motioned to the bill still in her hand. ‘No matter what you are going through, just remember this: a crumpled 10 dollars is still worth 10 dollars. Every one of you has worth, regardless of how you may feel in a moment of defeat or dejection. Always remember that.’”


Srishti kept this lesson with her, remembering that,


“She had won her custody battle, she had her daughter, she had a successful career, and she was now married to a man who loved her. I still remember sitting in that class, the tears welling in my eyes as I watched one of my favorite teachers begin to weep.”


All of those things were only possible for Mrs. Kilduff because she persevered! And now those lessons inspire her students. Her story reminds me that even when we don’t feel like things are going our way, we’re still valuable. Putting in extra effort or struggling doesn’t diminish that. We will always be valuable and we always have the potential to do amazing things.


Since she’s learned all these incredible lessons and has so many interests, what does Srishti want to do next? She’s set some fantastic goals for herself, but she’s also allowing herself flexibility because she knows that she has more opportunities on their way and she’s allowed to change her mind. Srishti says that,


“My immediate goals revolve around graduating with honors from UConn with my double-major degree. During the next two and a half years, I hope to make as many connections as I can with the faculty and students at my schools because I have learned that connections open the door to opportunities one may otherwise not have. At the same time, I also want to live in the moment and take in every experience with full appreciation. I have almost completed a year and a half of college in what felt like a blink of an eye, and I do not want miss the rest of my undergraduate years microplanning my future. Similarly, I seek to enjoy life, which is something I have been getting better at after spending years of middle and high school stressing about the future to the point where, looking back, it sometimes seems that I lived in a muted world, far removed from my friends and the experiences of high school. Career-wise, my ultimate long-term goal is to get a doctorate (PhD) degree and become a researcher/professor in a concentration of anthropology related to human biology, osteology (the study of human bones), archaeology, and/or religious studies. (I am also considering law school as another possible career path.) How I get there is completely open to the experiences and opportunities I may receive, and I am ready to see what the future holds!”


With these huge goals, it could be easy to become discouraged. Srishti knows that she’s going to have to put in a lot of work to make these things happen, but it’s worth it because she’s passionate about what she does.


“There are often moments when I find myself on depressing internet blogs about how anthropology is the worst mistake anyone could make, and that I am basically setting myself to live in a cardboard box behind a Walmart for the rest of my life. It’s a scary thought not knowing whether you are directing yourself for the success you truly want. And while it is easy to get stuck thinking about everything that can possibly go wrong, I have to remind myself of the passion and curiosity I felt when I first discovered anthropology and biology. I stay motivated every time I realize that everyone goes through the same uncertainty that I am feeling. I look around me to the professors in my department and know that they were once in my shoes, not knowing whether or not they could be successful in academia. I keep myself motivated by loving to learn, making connections, and staying focused on my passion for the field.


I love the way she focuses on her love of learning and the people who have all been down this path before. I can’t wait to see what she’ll do in the coming years, and I’m sure we’ll all be reading about her research in the news soon!


Finally, we asked Srishti what she’d change about being a woman in STEM and the role of women in our society in general.


“This is a question I have been wrangling with for some time, and the more I grapple with the state of women today, the more I find it hard to answer. On one hand, we in the United States are quite fortunate because women in some countries are still regarded as property, subjugated to domestic roles, and are denied education, the right to vote, the right to speak their minds, etc. In that respect, I feel very lucky that my situation has been quite the opposite – I have always been encouraged to speak my opinions, get a thorough education, and experience all the other freedoms this country has to offer. However, I find there are still the subtle traps which some women succumb to. These traps come in the form of how society deems a woman should act in order to be seen as a modern, successful career woman. And while this may seem an archaic, 1950s-esque notion, a woman’s role today does not just encompass a domestic role but a career role as well. Yet somehow, society thinks that on top of balancing a career, a woman should still carry on all domestic duties: a do-it-all mentality, as my mother calls it. What I mean by do-it-all is that many women feel the pressure to have a successful career while maintaining a large social life, getting married, having children, and taking care of the household. I do think this typecast role is changing, but I wish that there weren’t undercurrents of it around me, especially some of the responses I have gotten when I tell people that I want a PhD and do not want children. To sum up this long-winded and confusing response, being a woman does not define me. I am a human being first, and I have the discretion to determine what success means to me.”

How we define our role in our lives and in our own story is such a huge question. There are so many options for women today, but Srishti is right that the options do come with their own traps and difficulties. I love the way she shared her own story and inspiration in all of these answers. I know I have a lot to think about!

Thank you for sharing, Srishti! If you’d like to read more about professionals in fields like Srishti’s, check out our letters on our role models page.



Discussion starters:
What do we need to persist at? What’s hard at first?
Can mistakes help us learn?
What does success mean to you? Does it look different for your friends?

Mentorship and Community: Olivia G.

Mentorship and Community:
with Olivia G, Neuroscience and Women’s and Gender Studies double-major


Olivia is standing next to a sign that reads, in French, “Before I am a woman I am human being; I should be respected as such.”

Olivia G. is a junior, studying Neuroscience and Women’s and Gender Studies – so she understands the role women have in STEM from two unique perspectives! She loves learning about the brain and how it works. She elaborated,

“I love abnormal psychology. I love learning anything about the brain and different things that can go on with the brain (i.e. different psychological disorders people can have). Basically, anything about the brain, I think is so cool!”


Brains are such a fascinating area of science – and one that’s obviously super important for us to understand! We all are affected by how our own brains work and probably know someone who has a psychological disorder or developmental disorder, which is another area she’s passionate about. Olivia got involved in this area early. She says that,

“My mom tells me I’m a very big-hearted person and it probably explains why I like work with kids with developmental disabilities so much. I am particularly interested in Autism Spectrum Disorder, how it develops, and the effects it has on the brain. I have worked with this population since a young age and I enjoy the rewarding work with these kids. I am interested in how the brain works which is why I decided to pursue Neuroscience (a mix a between Biology, Psychology, and Chemistry) to understand how the brain works.”


For Olivia, she’s always felt encouraged to pursue what she’s passionate about, and it’s her relationships with people that continue to push her further.

“I think it is more people that inspire me to keep going in the sciences. I was never discouraged by my main systems of support for liking science, which I think played a large role in why I am still in the sciences. Also, talking to young girls who want to pursue a career in STEM fields inspires me to keep continuing and pursuing my education in the sciences.”


Olivia has an amazing system that encourages her, so she feels welcome in her field and prepared to accomplish amazing things. Sometimes, there’s a discussion on the “boy’s club” experiences of being a woman in STEM. It’s intimidating to enter a field if it feels like you’re not part of the group that’s ‘supposed’ to be there or has the invitation to enter a room. Even if your colleagues are kind and respectful, it still makes sense why some women feel out of place. In fact, there are structural issues with having a male-dominated space that can prevent women from feeling like they can achieve in the same ways. That’s why it’s so important to know how to combat these problems and to find your space in any room. One of these strategies is surrounding yourself with people who are positive examples and help you to feel you’re in the right place. Olivia expressed this, when discussing what makes her feel strong,

“All my friends [make me feel strong], particularly other women, who are in science classes with me. They make me feel like I’m not alone and that I am wanted. Also having female science professors is a big deal for me. I will purposely take my science classes with female professors. They empower me to continue in my science endeavors.”


This reminds me how important it is to have female STEM professors at colleges and universities, as well as professors of color and from different countries and backgrounds and viewpoints. We need to be able to relate to those we want to be like. In fact, in psychology Social Cognitive Theory teaches us that one method of increasing feelings of positive self-efficacy (which is your belief about your own competence aka “I can do this!”) is through vicarious experiences. Simply put, this means that when other people do awesome things, we feel like we can, too. However, this is only really effective when we relate to the person who is accomplishing something – they need to seem similar to us. (Although, fun fact, the best way of developing self-efficacy is through mastery experiences! So, if you work hard and have success – however you define it – at that science fair or on your work, you’ll feel more capable.)

This can be hard to accomplish for young women, if we don’t feel like we can relate to the people we see in our ideal profession. Additionally, although there are some awesome men I know I can definitely relate to, we don’t always have the opportunities to make those connections. Unofficial mentorship opportunities frequently crop up for young men, in the form of golf, poker nights, after-work social events, gym trips, etc. that women aren’t always invited to. If the opportunities aren’t finding us or we feel excluded from potential mentorships, how do we find our own mentors? Luckily, there are organizations and systems that exist.

At an early stage, while discovering what you’re interested in, we recommend reading the letters we have on our website or writing us an email if you want to hear from a STEM career that’s not represented. In many cases, we can also help pair you with a STEM mentor and activities to attend in your area. Trying out different activities and meeting professionals is a fun way to explore your interests.

Once you find something you love, keep in mind the elements that make you passionate about it. Be open to new possibilities, but keep that inspiration close to inspire you when it gets difficult. For Olivia, she finds her experiences related to neuroscience motivating. She says,

“This past summer I interned at an occupational therapy clinic in my hometown and it was a truly amazing experience. I learned a lot from the kids; I learned their developmental disability functioned within them and the snapshot into the daily lives of these kids and the parents of these kids. These kids remind me why I am in this field of study and give me to something to work for.”

At a higher level, you might even consider creating opportunities to find more mentors in your own community. A professor explained that when she began her career, a professor in a higher position created a panel of mentors for her. There were both men and women involved, and it created a place where she heard the kind of varied advice that other people might hear from colleagues at a social event.

Olivia said it best, though. I’m grateful for the generation of young women today who are becoming the role models we want to see. As she said,

“There are a lot of things that if I could I would change. I would love to see more women in pursuing STEM fields, more young girls being encouraged by elementary/middle school teachers to pursue STEM, and I would love to see more professors who are women in the STEM fields!”


A huge thank you to Olivia for sharing her story and hopes for the future of STEM! To learn more about neuroscientists and other STEM professionals, check out letters on our Role Model page or send us an email!


Let’s start a discussion:
What does our brain do?
What spaces do we feel strong in? What makes them special?
Who are our mentors?

Changing Perspectives and Finding Inspiration: Kamal B.

Changing Perspectives and Finding Inspiration:
With Kamal B., Geology major

Kamal B. is a sophomore, studying Geology. After exploring options during her first semester, she found her niche and loves the way she’s able to have an impact through her field. She found her passions through “a geology class on climate change,” that she took during her first year at college. She “loved learning about the history of climate change on Earth,” and it inspired her to pursue this major.

Geologists have to use a unique skill, where they view the world from a geocentric view rather than an anthropocentric perspective. That means keeping in mind that the Earth is way older than the history of humans. In fact, humans as we know them have probably been on the Earth for about 200,000 years – but Earth is over 4 billion years old! That’s a huge difference. Seeing the Earth from this view, where you recognize that its whole history has not revolved around humanity, can be a humbling and fascinating experience. It means knowing that there were big and powerful species before us (like dinosaurs!) and there will continue to be other important species. Our actions can impact the Earth in huge ways, but that doesn’t mean our history is Earth’s whole story. There’s a lot to learn from what came before us.

Seeing things from other views can be hard, though. It takes a lot of practice – whether it’s in the lab or another setting in life. We have to practice checking our own bias every day. Bias in science can be dangerous. It can cause us to interpret data differently, if we’re expecting certain results. Sometimes it’s harmless. Did you see the dress picture that went viral in February 2015? Some people thought it looked blue and black and some people thought it looked white and gold, due to differences in color perception.

However, if people were told it was black and blue (or if they were told it was white and gold) they were much more likely to see it as those colors than if they were not told which colors it was. This is called confirmation bias. We look for evidence that supports our beliefs. (Spoiler alert: the dress was actually black and blue. Personally, I usually see it as white and gold, though.) When you put that kind of logic into a lab setting, you can see how it can mess up our interpretation of data.

Other times, bias isn’t as innocent as interpreting the color of a dress. Bias can hurt people and cause us to perpetuate stereotypes. Bias also affects the questions we ask. If we assume the world works a certain way or everyone has had the same experience as us, we won’t ask about anything that contradicts those ideas. That’s why it’s so important to both have diversity in STEM (like by including more women!) and to try to be conscious of the biases we have.

Even if we practice those skills in the lab, though, sometimes we forget about them in everyday life. We forget to respect other people’s perspectives and to learn from each other. Other times we remember, but other people forget to do the same for us. It can feel really hurtful when other people don’t try to see things from your perspective or respect your ideas. Kamal has certainly felt like people don’t always see her view on the world. Not everyone has always understood her desire to study geology, especially as a female in the field. It’s something that she wishes would change, since she knows she’s just as intelligent as her male peers. Representation is improving for women in geology, though. As of 2014, one third of PhDs in physical sciences and science technologies were earned by women. We’re optimistic that the number will continue to climb up towards fifty percent in coming years.

Kamal is a woman who challenges herself – she loves learning and contributing to the world around her. Her friends notice her persistence and strong work ethic. Those are qualities that can feel difficult to achieve, so I was curious about how she stays motivated. Kamal knows several things that help her, but the biggest is
“Knowing that the research that I am involved in is making a big impact in how we see the world around us.”

When we talk to people who have habits of persistence and who challenge themselves, one of the common elements is believing in something. These women have passion. They’re inspired by something big enough to excite their interests and light their curiosity. It’s important to find that piece of inspiration, because then when things do get challenging, it’s helpful to remember why you’re doing it. For Kamal, she knows that geologists are making a big difference in our world. Global warming is a huge issue that everyone should be considering. It can affect where you live, how much energy you consume, and even how bad your allergies are.  Kamal sees geology as an effective way to learn more about the issue. She says,

“It [Geology] is helping us to learn more about climate change on the Earth and how the Earth’s climate has changed in the past which will teach us about what to expect in the future.”

As her classmate, Kamal’s passion and dedication inspires me every day. I know I feel more inspired and ready to take on the world when I’m around her. She says it best, noting that,

“Having other powerful, intelligent women around me makes me feel strong.”

I love that she recognizes herself as one of those powerful, intelligent women and knows to look to her community when she needs a little push. Thank you for sharing your story, Kamal!

To learn more about physical scientists, check out letters from professionals like Kayla Iacovino on our Role Model page.

Let’s start a discussion:
How do you practice understanding someone else’s perspective?
How do you make sure other people hear your ideas? How can we support each other in having our voices heard?
What inspires you?
What do you know about geology? What do you want to learn?

Finding Confidence and Support Systems: Katie L.

Finding Confidence and Support Systems:
with Katie L, Electrical and Computer Engineering major and Math minor

Persistence, self-confidence – even during struggles -, and learning to both find and be a support system. These are key elements of success and strong themes in Katie’s story.

Katie L. is a junior, studying Electrical and Computer Engineering with a minor in Math. She’s been exploring engineering for a long time, starting with the help of her sixth-grade science teacher. His encouragement was really inspiring to Katie. With her curiosity sparked and an idea in mind, she decided to participate in a science fair. Looking back, she says she could have found the answer to her question with a little online research, but she loved exploring whether or not “different size batteries (AA, AAA, C, D, and 9 volt) affect the brightness of a lightbulb” on her own. The hands-on project helped her gain experience and discover her passion.

Before she tried working with electricity, she hadn’t considered engineering. She had planned on being an artist or florist. She says that growing up she’d had “a bunch of puppets…each with a different job” like “police officer, firefighter, nurse, etc. and the only women represented were the nurse and teacher” so she thought those careers, were her only options. I love this story, because it reminds me how important it is to show examples of women in STEM fields, as well as the power of an encouraging role model.

Not only has she found people who inspire her, but now she’s also a role model for other students. She loves “talking to female ECE underclassmen, talking to grade school girls, everybody about engineering and my work because I know I can be a role model.” She’s also the only female Electrical and Computer Engineering major in the class of 2019. She says she feels proud of herself for staying in as the only woman and “doing awesome things.” Additionally, she takes the opportunities available to correct any gendered misconceptions on ability and encourage other young women. Despite the challenges, she’s glad she’s stayed involved with this subject because she’s had experiences that made her feel confident about herself. She shared this story about her high school experience, when her class did a review game to prepare for a certification test.

“… we broke into teams of girls versus guys and we smoked the boys. That was the first moment where I felt really strong in that room. I was extremely shy in high school but it was at that moment that I realized I could confidently speak up because guess what? I actually knew the answers.”

In addition to showing her own strength and lifting others up, it’s also important to have a reliable support network. For Katie, a college club called Women in Computing (WinC) can be a space to vent, as well as stay grounded and remind herself of what her classmates are struggling with. As far as women have come in STEM, there’s a long way to go and this is a great environment to meet other female STEM majors and find inspiration. Despite the fact that Katie is the only woman in her class, she’s excited that “as of last spring, there was a woman as the head of every engineering department except ECE.” She feels like progress is being made and that she has people supporting her.

Katie also added that having a support network and friends who encourage her is important for her confidence and sense of belonging.

“Something we talk a fair amount about in WinC is ‘impostor syndrome’ where you feel super unqualified to do what you’re doing. I’m sure it exists everywhere but it’s especially prevalent in women in STEM. There are studies on this that say women make less and aren’t promoted as often because they’re scared to advocate for themselves. I’m slowly starting to try to overcome this.”

Katie has done an amazing job of working hard to fight those feelings, while also helping others to do the same. Everyone can see how capable she is in her field, but sometimes it’s hard to remind yourself of your own skill.

One of my favorite ways to battle imposter syndrome is to focus on more than the just the largest victories. Find the small kernels of success that indicate progress is being made. That can serve as a reminder that, in a learning environment, each person is only competing with herself and show that you are getting the hang of things. These successes can be learning to format your paper, memorizing new formulas, speaking up in class, or feeling good about your study habits. Whatever it is for you, remembering that your work every day is part of your success can help you stay motivated and feel accomplished. Other strategies include learning to embrace praise instead of deflecting it and talking to others about your feelings. These take lots of practice, though! Like Katie explained, it’s a process that begins with recognizing the problem and “slowly starting to try to overcome” the issue.  (To learn more about imposter syndrome, check out “No, You’re Not an Imposter” by Lucas Laursen in Science magazine.)

Finally, Katie reminds us that our challenges teach us confidence and show us how persistent we can be. Following a rough semester of struggling with a class, she says that,

“I’ve learned that I am strong. I have become so much more confident in myself this semester alone. A big part of that confidence has stemmed from passing last semester as well as doing research this past summer.”

As an inspiring and accomplished engineering student, Katie is well on her way. She’s gotten this far by finding the strength and pride in her role, using her support networks, and advocating for herself while learning to battle any feelings of imposter syndrome. Her successes and mistakes have helped her to be confident and deepen her learning.

Katie L., photo credit Clay Wegrzynowicz

Thanks for sharing your story, Katie! To learn more about engineering, check out our role model page and read letters from several types of engineers.


Discussion starters:

What makes you feel proud of yourself?
How does that feel different than or similar to other people being proud of you?
Who encourages and inspires you?
Think of your favorite TV show, games or movies. What careers do you see women most represented in? What careers are missing?


Making a Difference and Learning from Failure: Emily K.

Making a Difference and Learning from Failure:
With Emily K., Engineering Studies major and Architectural Studies minor

“Compassionate, someone who will see the good in any situation or any person, and is always willing to pick you up when you need it.”

Emily’s friends describe her as many things. She’s kind, bright, caring, and persistent. She feels strong when she lifts and plays sports, and she enjoys studying Engineering and Architectural Studies. She says that she found her passion in engineering and architecture, because she’s “always been interested in science and math…and being someone who would challenge themselves or the norm.”

Through a STEM Academy, Emily was able to explore engineering and discovered “that the ultimate goal of this career is to help people and society.” As a woman who cares deeply about other people, it’s not surprising that she fell in love with that pursuit.

I love that she sees the beauty in Engineering and Architectural Studies and the potential to make a difference through these fields. Studies (including those by the Girl Scout Research Institute in their Generation STEM report) have shown that one of the main reasons women don’t pursue STEM fields is they prefer careers where they feel they’re helping people and connecting with people’s lives. Due to socialization, girls are often taught to be nurturing and to want to focus on social connections. There’s a false perception that engineers don’t touch others in the same way that other fields can. This isn’t true, though. Engineers impact everyone’s daily life and make the world so much better. Whether you’re examining harnessing renewable energy, noninvasive testing for diseases, automated wheelchairs, or even alarm clocks – engineers provide the tools we need to live our best lives. They do everything from saving our planet to making our Monday morning routine a little less painful.

Today, Emily is an iconic college tour guide; she’s charismatic and charming and tells stories in front of large groups of people with ease all the time. But she didn’t always do that so easily. When I asked her about a time she learned from failure, I was surprised to hear a story about public speaking. So often we assume that people who are good at things have always been good at them, but, really, it’s through hard work. We have to put effort into difficult things to become skilled at them – and sometimes, we need to fail so we can learn from our mistakes. Emily says that

“I was the president of a Toastmaster’s Club at my school, which is a program that teaches you to be a better public speaker. I was called to do special topic speech and I completely destroyed the topic. I spoke far too fast, I stuttered, and ultimately, I looked at the prompter and said I cannot speak anymore and simply sat down…That moment was an incredible learning moment – I suffered severe stage fright and I never thought I could speak to a crowd larger than 12 people after that moment. 3 months later, I spoke at my graduation in a hockey arena to over 1,000 people.

At the time, Emily felt embarrassed and as if people wouldn’t like her anymore. But she didn’t give up. She took that moment and worked hard to learn from her mistakes. She learned to slow down her speech and practiced speaking smoothly. Now, she’s an amazing presenter, and people admire her confidence and professionalism. Experiences like Emily’s are the scary moments that make us better.

It takes strength to persist through challenges, but Emily says she’s motivated, knowing that she is “creating the life I want to live: one that promises fulfilling work and a goal of helping society,” as well as exceeding her own personal expectations. She also encourages women to be confident in themselves and prove that “you EARNED the job because you were the most qualified,” not because of a need to fill a quota.


Thanks for sharing your story, Emily! To learn more about engineering, check out our role model page and read letters from several types of engineers.


Points to Start a Discussion:
How do we learn from our mistakes in STEM fields?

Look around you! Talk about a way engineering impacts your life.

How does the media portray engineers and scientists? Is it accurate?

Here We Come

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the state that our country is in and how young women’s self-esteem can be impacted. I’ve been considering the messages our girls are receiving – be small, pretty and quiet, don’t be too bossy, don’t be too powerful, you’re not that smart, don’t take up too much space – and I’ve been thinking and praying about what I can do to change it.

What I’ve determined is that I can’t.

But we can.

That’s why I’m so excited to bring to you a whole new feature of the Curiosity Science Program. It’s made of your words, your experiences, and our collective knowledge, and it’s going to help make the world a better place for our girls. Because that’s what we do; “empowered women empower women,” and I’m fortunate to have a whole lot of earth-shakers ready to step up and join the fight.

We’ll be starting a new page on the website, entitled “Here We Come” and it will be composed of words from current undergraduate students. I’ll be interviewing as many upcoming STEM professionals as possible and using their interviews in psychology-based lessons on the learning process. We’ll focus on a concept that’s essential to learning (neuroplasticity, learning from failure, finding confidence, seeking help, etc.) and that girls often struggle with. We’ll approach those tricky topics from a fun perspective, where we learn from cool college students who are openly sharing their stories. These articles can be used as parts of larger lessons or stand alone. I hope this process will clearly show what works in empowering girls, what the experience is like at the beginning of a STEM path, and what real young women want to change about their field and the world around them.

My philosophy has always been to take this area of severe under-confidence for women and create an inspiring experience where girls learn they can do anything. This case is no different. I hope you’ll join me on this new adventure, and please do email me if you or someone you know would be willing to be interviewed. We need undergraduate women pursuing careers in STEM fields to answer questions and share their stories to make this possible. As always, we also need STEM professionals to write letters to students and volunteer in nonprofit programs. Please let me know if you’d be interested in any of these areas.

Thank you for all your continued support.