Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Empower Young Women to Pursue STEM Careers

February 14, 2017

With the success of the Oscar nominated film “Hidden Figures,” there has been increased attention on the role of women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). As a PhD-trained bioengineer, the national conversation has caused me to reflect on my own path through the science fields. 

As with other high school students who had aptitude in math and science, I was encouraged to consider engineering. Not really knowing what that was, the introductory curriculum seemed interesting enough…more math and science. I had also heard that an undergraduate degree in Engineering was a strategy to distinguish oneself on a medical school application which was a potential future path for me.  

That all changed during my sophomore year at Duke University when Dr. Jim McElhaney, a legend in the field of Biomechanics, introduced me to the use of engineering for injury prevention, stimulating an interest that drives me today. It represented an intersection of my aptitude for problem solving with the desire to improve public health through medicine. Involvement in the research of Dr. Barry Myers during my junior and senior years cemented my desire to pursue graduate studies in Biomechanics.

STEM mentoring
Christine Holt and Kristy Arbogast, PhD prepare a research participant for a low-impact sled test.

Mentoring Matters
You might expect me to describe my time in the classrooms at Duke and the University of Pennsylvania during the 1990s as devoid of fellow female classmates; but, in fact, as a Biomedical Engineering major, I was rarely the only woman in class and cannot recall a time where I felt my voice and opinions were not welcome or heard.

I realize this experience does not match that of others, and I am extremely grateful that my professors and research mentors, including those here at CIRP@CHOP, created an environment where I could thrive. It is important to note that these mentors, many with whom I still collaborate, were both men and women. 

I have tried to repay those mentors by empowering other young women, including my own daughter, to follow careers in science and math. I am extremely proud of CIRP@CHOP’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) training program where we provide intensive summer research opportunities for a diverse set of students that may not have exposure to research at their home institutions. 

Our goal is to stimulate their interest in the sciences and propel them to graduate studies in STEM fields related to injury science. Many of our REU students are women and minorities. It gives me great pride when I see students like Gretchen Baker use her CIRP REU experience to springboard her PhD in Bioengineering and a career in injury prevention research.

Currently, I am mentoring a young African-American woman, Christine Holt, through her PhD in Bioengineering at Drexel University. I am excited to see where her path will go.

In contrast to my university experiences, I have found myself over the last two decades the only woman in many professional settings throughout the world. I have chosen to embrace these opportunities, rather than trying to fade into the group of men in the room. I have valued being “different” and used that difference to ensure my voice is heard and remembered.

Sometimes that takes a deep breath and spine-straightening before walking into a room. But mostly it requires drawing on a sea of support that has strengthened me from the very beginning and convinced me that I belong-- from my parents and family, my teachers and professors, and my research mentors.

So what is my message? All of us play a role in encouraging young women to embrace the STEM fields. Some of us, like the women in “Hidden Figures,” are in the position to demonstrate that women can be engineers, scientists and mathematicians.

Those of us with daughters need to ensure they’re exposed to interesting aspects of these careers. The opportunities abound; you just need to support them in seeking them out. The bottom line is that young women can experience success in STEM fields based on their intellect; but, we as a community need to demonstrate the normalcy of this path and tell them that they can.

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