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.