With the goal of engaging young women interested in science-based careers, the San Diego chapter of the Association of Women in Science (AWIS) held a career day/panel discussion Nov. 14 at La Jolla’s Riford Library. The career day, held twice a year, is a private event for those who register in advance.
AWIS invited 36 students to hear from 12 panelists that included a science writer, data scientist, assistant research scientist, software engineer, postdoctoral fellow, the founder of a clean energy technology company and graduate students.
The day started with each panelist giving an overview of their positions and how they got there, followed by a tour of the library’s biotech lab, and then a “speed networking” session wherein the guests met with each panelist for 10 minutes. During these sessions, participants were encouraged to ask questions.
“Our goal is to engage young women by giving them opportunities to talk to people of all ages about science and about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers,” said event co-chair Anne Kornahrens, a fifth-year chemistry graduate student at The Scripps Research Institute. “The panelists are from all different career paths and points in their careers, and women from all over San Diego from different companies and schools,” she said.
The event started seven years ago as an undergraduate day, but high school-aged students have wanted to attend. “At this time in their lives, young women are interested in figuring out what they’re going to study and what their career will be,” Kornahrens said. “Having these discussions at a younger age encourages them, and tells them, of course, they can study STEM.”
AWIS has identified and addresses the challenges that deter young women from entering scientific fields. “A lot of the panelists had similar advice: don’t let your inner critic – which is really your worst critic – dissuade you from pursuing science,” she said. “Some young women are faced with people intimidating their choices by saying ‘you know it’s going to be really hard’ and ‘it’s going to take a really long time.’ And yes, it is going to be hard and pursuing an undergraduate Ph.D. can take 11-15 years, so it is a long path, but part of what we do to combat that is having panelists here who act as images for these girls to look up to. They can see women physicists and women as heads of corporations and women who know they’re smart.”
Additionally, Kornahrens cited rejection and difficulty getting funding for research projects as obstacles that discourage young women. “Some of the panelists also touched on being the minority, being women in male-dominated fields. One panelist said she walked into her first engineering class and found 40 men and her,” she said. “Multiple panelists said as you climb the ranks in your academic path or in your corporation, there are less and less women.”
For Mesa College student Christa Wuebolding, who is studying biology, seeing the number of women in the various fields at the career day was encouraging. “The opportunities that are available are almost overwhelming, and it’s so good to see so many women in science when all the classes I’ve been in have been mostly guys,” she said. “I came here today because I really wanted to see women that are in the careers I hope to be in someday and get inspired, ask questions and learn something new. Thankfully, I did.”
Karen Bowers, a chemistry teacher at Mesa Vista High School, brought 21 students to the event. “I wanted to expand my girls’ knowledge of what opportunities are out there for them. My hope is that they learn about jobs they didn’t know existed,” she said. “I also hope they learn from the women here that they need to be passionate about doing what they’re interested in and stick with it, even when they are surrounded by males. They must start to believe in themselves and know if they want it, they can do it.”
Further, she said the one-on-one time during the speed networking session offers invaluable insight into “what it means to be a woman and have a career, and a family, and a life and make it all work,” she said. To keep the motivation going, prizes were distributed, such as a day in the lab, a lunch with a scientist and formal mentorship opportunities.
AWIS offers the career day once in the fall and once in the spring. Details of the spring event have not been announced. awissd.org