WOW hosts its second Women in STEM event

By JAEMIE BENNETT | April 11, 2019

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COURTESY OF JAEMIE BENNETT

Panelists talked about how to find jobs after a PhD not in academia.

On Saturday, April 6, Women of Whiting (WOW) hosted their second annual Women in STEM Symposium, bringing undergraduates, graduates, and professionals together for a day to help empower women in STEM careers.

WOW is a group of Hopkins graduate and postdoctoral students aimed at providing women in STEM with community and professional development opportunities. Throughout the year, they host speaker series, social events like happy hour and hiking trips, and professional development events.

Inez Lam, a third-year biomedical engineering PhD student and co-president of WOW, described why she felt WOW was a necessity. 

“Being a woman in STEM, especially in graduate school, can be such an isolating experience, and having a support network, both personal and professional, is so important for success,” Lam said in an interview with The News-Letter

“And that’s what we're really striving to achieve with WOW. We are each other’s support network,” she said, referring to the other women on the WOW board, “and we’re hoping to extend that to the community.”

WOW is a group that has existed for some time but fell dormant around 2010 when the current leaders graduated. Lam and Alexandra Sneider, who is the other president of WOW and a third-year chemical and biomolecular engineering PhD student, picked the group back up in late 2016.

Sneider had similar thoughts as Lam on the purpose of WOW. 

“We both [Sneider and Lam] believe that it’s really important to have a community and a support system for women in STEM that also provides professional development and outreach opportunities,” Sneider said in an interview with The News-Letter.

The symposium began with opening remarks from Christine Kavanaugh, the Assistant Dean for Graduate and Postdoctoral Academic Affairs and an advisor for WOW. It then moved into a series of speakers and panelists, focusing on how to speak up about issues facing women in STEM and how to find careers outside of academia after or during a PhD.

When asked how WOW chose the topics and speakers for the symposium, Wangui Mbuguiro, a second-year biomedical engineering PhD student and board member of WOW that handles communications and marketing, said they went with what they were interested in hearing about and focusing on women who inspired them. Beyond that, they wanted to bring important but rarely talked about issues to the surface. 

“What do we not talk about enough that we could make the center part of the conversation?” Mbuguiro said in an interview with The News-Letter.

The first session featured Elana Fertig, an Associate Professor of Oncology and Assistant Director of the Research Program into Quantitative Sciences at Hopkins. She told her story about campaigning to change the name a major computational conference, Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS). The name incited poor behavior, with attendees making gender-based jokes that made Fertig and other women uncomfortable.

Fertig described how she and other allies kept up a Twitter campaign, which eventually culminated in NIPS putting out a survey on whether to change the name. The catch was, NIPS surveyed their attendees from the previous year’s conference, which consisted of an overwhelming amount of men and very few women. When NIPS published this data and announced they wouldn’t be changing the name, the machine learning community became furious, with big names publicly speaking out against the conference and sponsors dropping out.

Although Fertig’s efforts have not yet given her the result she is hoping for, she emphasized how Twitter is a great place to make your voice heard. It allows for a sense and anonymity, giving rise to movements such as #metooSTEM.

Overall, Fertig’s message was that by being open and honest, the field could be changed to be more accepting towards women in STEM.

After Fertig’s talk, the symposium moved on to a panel. Kristin Gunnarsdottir, a third-year biomedical engineering PhD student and speaker coordinator for WOW, remarked on how the interactive panel session was a step forward from last year, allowing participants more opportunities to talk and connect and listen to each other’s experiences and thoughts.

The panel consisted of Paulette Clancy, the head of the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering department at Hopkins, Natasha Hussain, the Scientific Director of the Kavli Neuroscience Discovery Institute, Julie Reiser, who directs the Professional Communications Program at Hopkins, is a senior lecturer, and an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine, Jamie Spangler, who runs a joint lab with Biomedical Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Hopkins, and Fertig.

The audience participated by asking a wide range of questions, mostly centered around fitting a family in with a career and how to push the STEM community to be more equal.

When the panelists talked about how to balance starting a family while building your career, one panelist notably said that no one will write “beloved colleague” on your tombstone. The panelists agreed that starting a family will definitely be a challenge, but it is absolutely possible.

They also talked about how to deal with aggressions or a lack of support from higher ups, especially as a PhD student with such a vulnerable career. The panelists emphasized that it is those in positions of power that can truly make change, and that a good, nonconfrontational way to incite change is to ask questions. For example, if a symposium only has male speakers, calling them and asking if more female speakers will be added will force them to reevaluate the lineup and to recognize that they need to be more inclusive.

After a short break, the next speaker and panelist session began. Gaby Longsworth, Director at Sterne, Kesslet, Goldstein & Fox’s Biotechnology & Chemical Practice Group, spoke about her journey to becoming a patent lawyer.

Longsworth described how, near her fourth year as a PhD student, it clicked for her that academia wasn’t the life she wanted. When she looked at the women she was surrounded with, all of them academics, she recognized that most of them didn’t have families. For Longsworth, this was a breaking point, as she knew a family was something she wanted to have during her life. She finished her PhD and applied to 30 law firms, hearing back from two and finally taking a position at Sterne Kessler. The company helped for her to go to law school, and now, years later, she’s an equity-holding partner.

Longsworth emphasized that there are a lot of paths for a PhD student to take out of graduate school, but it’s important to analyze if it’s the right fit – are there enough available jobs? Will you have to go back for more education?

She also gave a few notes on how to find a path away from academia. Longsworth said she would email people out of the blue to gather information, and that she was surprised when it actually worked. She also mentioned keeping a tidy LinkedIn account, since, after all, it is a professional networking app and not Facebook.

The second panel included: Judy Neff, an owner and brewer at Checkerspot Brewing; Emma Rainey, a researcher at the Applied Physics Laboratory; Phyllis Schneck, a Managing Director and Global Leader of Cyber Solutions at Promontory Financial Group; Claire Verhulst, an Assistant Director of a Hopkins summer engineering program for high school students called Engineering Innovation; and Longsworth.

The panelists talked about how they knew when an academic career wasn’t for them. Many came to that realization during their PhD’s, but they all agreed that continuing to finish their PhD’s helped open many doors for their future. However, they also noted that if it’s a truly awful experience, then it would acceptable to leave the program.

They also talked about how finding mentors outside of academia was a crucial step to their success. PhD advisors are great resources for advice when going down the academia road, but they can’t provide much help for any other path.

Mbuguiro sympathized with this sentiment.

“A lot of academic institutes don’t put in that infrastructure to explore those careers [outside of academia],” Mbuguiro said. “When you’re talking to advisors, sometimes it’s really difficult to figure out how to navigate that.”

She said this was why she wanted to have this topic at the Symposium, so that it would help herself and others find mentors outside of their program, which would ultimately help them be successful in the future.

After the two speaker and panel sessions, graduate and undergraduate students participated in a poster presentation competition.

One presenter, Shantel Angstadt, a third year PhD student, was very happy to have participated in the Symposium.

“[The speakers] did such a good job of being realistic about the challenges that they’ve faced and still face, but then also bringing a light of hope,” Angstadt said. “Overall I walked out of each session feeling hopeful and excited and proud.”

The poster presentations were followed by small breakout sessions, allowing for more personalized interactions between participants that the WOW members were striving for. 

There were seven breakout sessions: Digital Presence hosted by Kate Bradford; Commercializing Your Invention of Idea hosted by Christy Wyzkiel; Start Your Own Company hosted by Emily English, Melody Matinez, and Margret Bjarnadottir; Design Your Life hosted by Pat Phelps; Marketing Yourself Outside of Academia hosted by Sarah Stamper; Choose Your Own Adventure hosted by Danielle Hillard; and Careers in Technology Consulting hosted by Andie Seabrooke, Bianca Patel and Catherine Jones.

The Symposium then ended with keynote speaker Cara LaPointe, a researcher at APL.

She described her experience getting a PhD through the Navy. Near the end of her graduate programing she had a child and lost funding from the Navy. She said the only reason she wasn’t completely cut loose was because of a new rule that stated women cannot be fired for 12 months after giving birth.

LaPointe’s main message was that with passion, persistence, and paying it forward, any opportunity is within reach.

At the end of the day, WOW members hope that the Symposium will push the STEM community towards one that is gender-blind.

“We’re all working towards an environment where it’s not ‘you’re a woman in STEM,’ but one where you’re just a scientist, an engineer, a doctor, a physicist. You just see the person for what they’re achieving, not for their gender,” Lam said.

Gunnarsdottir felt that the best way to change the environment is through conversation.

“Speak up, talk about it, and find your community, for example in a group like WOW, or wherever you feel comfortable,” Gunnarsdottir said.

Angstadt applauded the Women in STEM Symposium.

“They’re doing a great job. This is exactly what we need, and I love being a part of it,” Angstadt said.

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