WiSE Wisdom from a Woman in STEM
23 Oct 2019 3:38 PM
The last place I expected myself to end up is in the crater of an active volcano, having my skin burned with sulfur dioxide emissions, a backpack heavy with scientific instruments on my back, and the biggest smile ever on my face. Never, ever, up until last summer, did I think I was capable of doing something so scary and so monumental. Hiking up that volcano every day to collect soil gas samples in order to help predict the next eruption was one of the greatest experiences of my life. The greatest part of it all, though, was the moment I stood at the summit of Mt. Teide, looking at the other islands peeking from the ocean, and feeling the strength within me of every woman who has encouraged me.
During my first research experience back in 2015, I had the amazing opportunity to stay with one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met. She is also a lead scientist on multiple NASA projects (and my not-blood-related big sister). We were sitting at her dinner table, discussing why calling someone a pussy perpetuates the oppressive idea that women are weak (if you’re guilty of using “pussy” this way, check yourself); a conversation sparked by an, unsurprisingly, extremely sexist viral image on Facebook. I’ll never forget her explaining that she will always work towards creating a better environment for future generations of women, and one way is by explaining why “pussy” shouldn’t be used in a context equating it with anything weak. Little 15 year old me was inspired by her strength and passion for fighting for social justice, but I didn’t quite grasp how desperately this war needed an army. It wasn’t until I came to ISU when I realized that her efforts to create a better space for young women like me is one of the best things she could’ve done for me.
I’m usually the only woman, or one of the very few women in groups most of the time when it comes to classes. When being the only woman in the group is so common, it’s easy to start subconsciously questioning if it’s really a space where I belong. This was especially bad in my physics recitation, when I was in a working group of all guys (there were three girls in the entire section), and the TA would only come and question my work... despite the fact that we had all worked on it together and I had been successful on previous exams and quizzes. This may seem like a small thing, but the entire time, I was on the same page as my male teammates, and the constant questioning of whether or not I did our weekly problems correctly became a mental habit I started adopting. It created an environment where I did genuinely question if I should be in science. This is just one example of something women experience everyday. The awareness most people have of this battle women combat is lacking, making it seem like a completely made up issue, only existing in my own head.
The fact that we hardly talk about how much women are marginalized due to lack of community and representation in our fields makes me feel like it isn’t a real issue, and the thoughts coming to my mind are correct; science and math classes really are a space I don’t belong.
Luckily, I have people like my “big sister”, and my amazing academic advisor to show me that I absolutely do belong on the steep slopes of volcano craters, and using power drills on research vessels in the Atlantic… but that doesn’t make the daily front any harder to put up. While these struggles won’t be getting any easier as I blaze forth in my research career, I do know my community of strong women will only grow larger. With that, I’d like to close with three messages that are important to me:
To students: You have a voice. If someone's words spoke to you, it means it means something to you. Explore that. What can you do with it? Take their advice and make it your fuel and your strength; we can grow with each other.
To my mentors: You are constantly planting seeds you may be unaware of; your words and actions speak loudly and resonate with those who look up to you. For planting those seeds, thank you.
To my “big sister”: Thank you for starting me on a path I never dreamed I could be on. Words are incapable of expressing how grateful I am for you as a role model.
If anyone would like to discuss any thoughts or related experiences you may have had, you can reach out to me at this email: email@example.com.