KRISTI MOORE: This is Kristi Moore from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Each month, we look behind the science to see the world from our scientists point of view and because March is Women’s History Month, we wanted to hear from our female graduate students about their experiences pursuing a career in science. See, the women seeking careers in science today are on the cusp of change. The generations before them didn’t have some of the opportunities considered normal today. They were told they didn’t belong in the lab or were barred from some scientific studies.
The generations behind this one are growing up in classrooms that are embracing the value of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM learning, and creating programs and lesson plans that introduce those subjects early. This generation gets the benefit of a hard path carved before them, but one that’s not completely paved. Some of our female graduate students at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science were still hearing what they couldn’t do and where they should be instead. They heard things like you can’t excel in a science career and have a family, and even then they have seen women succeed only so much in a career still largely dominated by men.
Nevertheless, they’re persisting.
They find strength in the women before them and are motivated to inspire those rising up behind them. We asked some of these graduate students at UMCES’ Chesapeake Biological Laboratory to weigh in on the rise of STEM learning, share their experiences and thoughts on representation and diversity in the lab, and offer advice for the generations to follow. Here are their stories.
KAILA NOLAND: My name is Kaila Noland and I decided to pursue science based on my experiences as a child with cancer and the doctors and nurses that I had, that treated me, and I wanted to find a way to give back.
SHADAESHA GREEN: Hi, my name is Shadaesha Green and I became interested in science in high school. I really loved my biology and chemistry classes and so I knew I wanted to pursue something science related. So I went from there in choosing marine and environmental science.
AMANDA LAWRENCE: I’m Amanda Lawrence and I became interested in science probably as a child, I always just had a passion for being outside and for the environment in general. So when I found out I could pursue a career in science and conservation, I think that’s what triggered my going to college for environmental science.
ANA SOSA: My name is Ana Sosa and I got into science because to me it is almost unbelievable how cool it is, like just the fact that I can’t believe the things that I learned in science. That feeling? That’s what got me into science.
DANIELA TIZABI: My name’s Daniela Tizabi. I became really interested in science for similar reasons. It’s always been a really fascinating field for me. That plus the fact that it’s so dynamic and so wide ranging, and I’m really indecisive and I can do a lot with this one degree really enticed me to pursue it. And also it gives me a lot of opportunities to travel, which I like.
MOORE: More and more now there is an emphasis on STEM learning particularly on getting girls interested in science and STEM careers, so I just wanted to get your perspective on what you guys think of that.
NOLAND: I like the fact that it is there and it is growing because growing up I didn’t have a lot of STEM education throughout elementary school and middle school, and even high school, I actually hated science and the kind of science that was being offered because it wasn’t the type of science I was interested in. So having a lot of variety is extremely important, I feel, with what’s being offered in the STEM field.
GREEN: I actually really love that there is more emphasis on STEM education. Similar to Kaila, when I was in elementary school, I don’t remember learning much about science besides the small, basic things and it was always a quick lesson that we just got through. And even watching now with my son who’s in first grade, they cover science topics, but it’s very short periods of time – What is a polar bear? – and then they just move on to something else. So I feel like there still needs to me more emphasis on STEM in schools and particularly, I don’t remember doing anything hands on, and when I got to college, I realized that’s what I loved about science, that it could be hands on and interactive and I think kids really need that. Had I had that in elementary school and middle school and high school, that would have helped to guide me to where I wanted to go specifically and if I was able to get outside and get my hands dirty, I feel like that would have helped me to choose, especially because I come from an inner city, so there wasn’t much of going outside and trees and nature for us when it came to school, so other hands on activities would have been amazing.
SOSA: I think getting more people and getting more girls into science doesn’t necessarily look like more biology classes, or more chemistry, or physics classes. I think just getting them to think in a more scientific way, giving them tools for problem solving in many different fields can also get them interested in science-based problem solving.
LAWRENCE: I think outreach in the STEM process is important. Like I would be more than willing to go to elementary schools and tell them what I do and then have them be able to ask questions because I think seeing, ‘Oh, I could be her one day,’ is inspiring. I think it comes from in the classroom a lot of what you’re learning is Isaac Newton, Einstein, and of course there’s women scientists and there’s been great discoveries by women, but I feel like a lot of time it’s male-driven, so it’s nice to see actual women in science.
TIZABI: I think a big part of also STEM, is not just with the classes, but the actual professors teaching the classes. I think a lot of students get discouraged after taking a couple difficult courses, but I think the challenge needs to be looked at in a more creative approach, not like it’s an obstacle, but it’s something you get through, you realize you can accomplish it, and it’ll encourage you to continue with the field and make it your career.
SOSA: Yeah, and a lot of people say, ‘Oh, I’m not good at math or I’m not good at chemistry – that’s a common thing, but I think if they had more encouragement say from their teachers or from their peers. It’s not always the coolest thing to be good at math. I think a lot of people would discover they do like to do these things. Even though they might not be initially good at it, we’re not always good at everything at first, that encouragement to keep trying and keep learning, that is the spirit of science.
MOORE: Have you guys seen a shift in women’s interest in science and do you think there needs to be a focus on getting young girls interested in science?
GREEN: I was watching something on the news the other morning and there’s an organization called Black Girls Code and I thought that was amazing. They were in middle school and I think elementary and high school age girls from all different types of backgrounds, inner cities, suburbs. It was just interesting to see how young they were and they’re learning to code. In our bioinformatics class we’re doing some bioinformatic coding and stuff like that and sometimes it’s frustrating because the system can be very finicky and you have to be very precise with what you want to tell it. And to see these young girls that are doing this knowing the frustration we face sometimes when we’re doing it, and had we learned it at that age, this would be kind of like a breeze.
SOSA: I think the problem is not getting kids in science because all children have that curiosity. We’re all born scientists. We all want to go outside and play with dirt and insects and everything and just try to figure out the world around us. We’re all born into science, but the thing is keeping them interested and encouraging that curiosity. A lot of the time parents are like, ‘Don’t play in the dirt,’ or ‘Don’t play with that,’ when they should be trying to figure out what are their kids trying to do and what are they trying to learn by themselves and play into that. Keep them interested in those questions that they have.
MOORE: Do you think women are underrepresented in science and why do you think that is?
LAWRENCE: I read an article, I think it was a double-blind study, and it was basically they were taking resumes, one male and one female, and sending it off.
SOSA: They were identical resumes, except the name was female or male.
LAWRENCE: Right, and they were offering the males more money overall, like the average, for no real obvious reason because the resumes were balanced in, I guess, qualifications, so that was discouraging.
SOSA: There is a bias and we are underrepresented. We also got a late start because we weren’t allowed to do science for a long time, but I think we are catching up and I think we’re going to get to a point where we might not be female dominated but we’re going to be represented, for sure. There’s going to be a really important growth in the coming years, I’m sure.
GREEN: The very first conference I went to, the very first plenary session first day of the conference they talked about women in science and that the big thing holding women back in science or from science could be the choice between do you want to have a family or do you want to pursue science? And that most women who pursue science might not have families because you invest yourself in your project in your research and accelerating and being known so then you don’t have much time for the family. So they kind of talked about the inner debate for a female, like do I go and have this family and give up my interest or do I continue pursuing my career and my passion? And honestly it scared the heck out of me because I think I was 19 at the time and at this point I knew that I loved science and I was like, but why should I have to choose between my passion and my family life? I don’t know if that’s something that holds a lot of women back these days but it was definitely something, like the first thing brought to my attention was the struggle between family versus career.
MOORE: So what made you stick with it?
GREEN: My adviser at the time at Hampton. She was just like you don’t have to choose. If you want the balance, you can have the balance. You just have to find that lane that provides both for you. And she was 100 percent right. I mean it’s hard sometimes being a mom and then being a student at the same time, but in a good week I find the balance. So you definitely can have both. It may be a struggle at times, but I don’t think it should be something that discourages you from pursuing that. And I don’t really watch Jayden so much when it comes to pushing science onto him but I notice he picks up certain habits that I have. Like right now he wants to do a survey to find out if people like pizza or ice cream, and he likes to write out different things. He likes to write; he sees me writing a lot at home, so that balance kind of helps me but it also helps shift him in a direction where he can pursue his interests, too.
MOORE: Why does diversity matter in science? And in this case when I say diversity, I mean across the board.
NOLAND: Diversity is very important because you’re able to bring a lot of new ideas to the table from a lot of different backgrounds and you’re able to really bring to the drawing board a lot of ideas that you may not have had if you don’t have similar experiences from other people. Diversity could come in different areas of specialty; it could come in like I said the way that you grew up. It could be a number of things; it doesn’t have to be the typical way you think of diversity, but it really is important if you really want to have a well-rounded project.
SOSA: I want to speak about diversity focusing ethnicities and people from different countries because I grew up in a different country. I am 100 percent Mexican and when I came to this country, I realized how diverse it actually is and I think it’s incredibly important. A lot of the times I was doing science back in Mexico, we would be focused on the perspective of our ecosystems and our biodiversity and our political climate and just trying to do science from that perspective. But when you bring people from all over the world into it you realize it’s a bigger picture and as it’s been said, when you have so many different points of view, your arguments are that much stronger.
TIZABI: And also not just for helping you in whatever you’re doing in whatever project you’re trying to complete, by bringing in different perspectives, people from different backgrounds, it helps the individual because if you surround yourself with the same people you’ve grown up with your whole life, you’re all going to be thinking in one way; the more you hang out with each other, the more uniform your thinking’s going to be. But when you bring in other people, it gets you to reflect on your thought process and you may become aware of your own prejudices, your own biases, not just in your personal life, not just your academic career or research, but in all aspects of life. It really keeps your mind active and opens up your world.
GREEN: I think diversity is important for all the reasons you just mentioned, but then, too, it helps with outreach a lot better. Because if we are working within a very diverse team, ethnicities, different specializations, we each have a unique way to communicate with people of our communities or inner circles. So you may be a fisheries person and I’m a molecular person. I can tell you what I’m doing and how our research may impact the fishery and you can take that information and communicate it to fishermen a lot better than I can, so our prospective helps us engage others can get our point across because as scientists, the number one thing we need to do is communicate what we do in a way everyone can understand and not just people in our little circle or bubble.
MOORE: Can you guys think of any examples maybe in your own research or your own experiences when diversity of minds has helped?
GREEN: So when we have committee meetings, all of us being students, each person on my committee has a different specialization, so we have a fisheries person, we have a geneticist, we have an endocrinologist, everyone is very, very different. So everyone gets to look at my project specifically from their point of view and that helps me to broaden my scope, well how would want this to come across to the fishery? As an endocrinologist, how do I want this to be perceived in this field, so you’re not just sticking specifically to your field, but how is it going to help everyone. And when you’re from the outside, a different area, you look at it totally different. Like one section of my thesis, one of my committee members was like, ‘Oh, you don’t need that,’ and another was like, ‘This is great for this area and this area.’ And after they explained it, everyone else was like, ‘Yeah, you should still do this,’ or ‘You should still not do this.’
SOSA: One more thing. It’s not a specific example, but the fact that we all do environmental science comes back to the fact that it’s one planet and we all need to share it, so the ability to communicate with people from other countries and other cultures is very important in this field because we need to come up with policy and come up with solutions that can be implemented with the whole world and that’s just a lot of different people from a lot of different walks of life, so we need to be able to communicate with everybody and make everybody feel comfortable with the decisions that are being made.
MOORE: What should the future look like?
NOLAND: We talked a little about the STEM education earlier and that’s something that needs to keep happening, and like I said earlier, offering choice with that. And the conferences and stuff that I’ve been to, I’ve been seeing a lot of women there, but offering more opportunities and equal opportunities for women is a very important thing as well. It’s not just about getting them interested and getting them into education, but it’s also about getting them into positions and employment that is equal to their male counterparts. I don’t have a perfect vision of how that’s ongoing to happen, but I think that we’re slowly getting into that process of getting there.
GREEN: I think it’s very important for our generation and the ones coming behind us to continue to do outreach because I think it’s very powerful, especially when you do come from diverse backgrounds and you can go back to where you came from and they can see where you’ve come from and where you’ve gone. I know a lot of especially little girls these days are looking for women that look like them to see, ‘Oh, wow. I can do that because she’s doing that.’ And I wonder if I had seen that when I was a child how that would have shaped me from that point on. That could be going back and giving talks – this is what I do, you could do this, too. Because I think that shapes up a lot of opinions and it may help them to know that I may be here, but I can be there, I can be anywhere that I put my mind to and I can be that next woman in science or next woman anywhere and inspire another young girl to come up and do the same things.
SOSA: I think in order to reach the younger generations we need to change the way we communicate science. We need to find a way to communicate how cool it actually is because a lot of the times we try to communicate science, it’s a lot of kind of ugly plots and charts and you know, boring and gray and whatever. If we find a way to communicate and say this is really cool data, I know that doesn’t sound really cool, but it’s this really cool data, I swear. These new generations have a very different way of communicating. It’s a lot of social media and it’s a lot of, they’re consuming a lot of media, so videos and audio and podcasts, and if we find a way to get into that and communicate in a way that will get them interested and say I want to be that cool and I want to be even cooler than that and find cooler things, that’s going to make a great, great difference.
LAWRENCE: I 100 percent agree with what Ana just said. Communicating is really important and I think maybe before we can reach kids, we might have to figure out how we can reach each other. Because like a fisheries person and a molecular person – sometimes you go to a conference or you give a talk, and you’re both scientists, but I don’t know what you just said. The jargon and everything, just to be able to get passed that and communicate as scientists, I think, is really important and I think we have a lot of work to do there, too. That might be a good place to start.
TIZABI: I think I’m entering science or this field at a great time. It seems like at least within the UMCES program there is a lot of encouragement amongst the groups to collaborate, get people involved to do outreach and make science more fun. At the MEES Colloquium we have, we’re going from giving these 20-minute esoteric talks to a 3-minute talk that can really catch people’s interests and make it understandable to the general public. Steps like that we’ve taken, other groups have taken, and just continuing on with that is really going to help spread science to the wider community.
MOORE: You guys are talking a little about the timing. What’s interesting is a generation or two in front of you there were women who couldn’t do science – they weren’t allowed on research cruises things like that – and then you have these generations behind you that have the advantage of this big push on STEM learning. Do you feel you have any pressure to go farther than them or encourage that next generation?
SOSA: I don’t feel pressure at all. I just feel extremely inspired by the generation before us, like they made a way for us to do what we want to do. And I don’t feel like we need to get further than them or we have to do more than them. I feel extremely inspired to inspire the next generation and I want to be that person who they can look at and say, ‘I know I can be like her,’ or ‘I can be better than her,’ ‘If she can do it, I can too.’
NOLAND: I guess I’m different because on some level I feel like there is pressure. I feel like there’s pressure to uphold what the generations before us have done and where they’ve gotten us and to make sure that there’s no slipping backwards. And making sure that the people that come after us are afforded the same opportunities that we have graciously gotten and not had to fight for, so I do feel pressure to maintain that balance. And it’s not as clear cut, what exactly is it that I’m fighting for. It’s not that I’m fighting for the right to be in the lab because I am in a lab, you know? Where is it that I need to stand in order to make sure this still happens and the next group has to face even less difficulties than I’ve had.
GREEN: I guess I would just add that I feel very grateful for the women that came before us because the struggles that we face today they faced and they faced struggles that we don’t have to and because of that I’m very grateful and also inspired and I think that helps to ignite the passion that I have. Even if I have a frustrating time or frustrating day, seeing all that they’ve strived to accomplish, it helps to increase my passion because I don’t want to ever not be able to at least live up to where they are, and that would show the next generation that they don’t have to live up to that. So I think we all have a very unique passion that keeps pushing us forward even in the face of the pressure. Sometimes there’s pressure and we don’t even necessarily realize it, we just come up with our own ways to cope and push through, and having conversations with people at other times, they’re like, ‘Oh, you must have felt really pressured.’ And you’re just like no, I just did what I had to do to go forward.
MOORE: So what advice would you guys give the next generation?
NOLAND: I would say a couple of things. One is don’t be afraid to ask questions. Also, if one area doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean another won’t. So I really hated physics and it turned out that I really liked molecular biology. And lastly, I would say don’t be afraid to try new things or answer questions. So don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t be afraid answer questions.
TIZABI: I think my biggest advice for future generations is don’t be discouraged. It’s something I battle with often, but it’s true, you really are your biggest critic. There’s so many times when I’m struggling with some problem or some assignment. It gets overwhelming at times and I’m like I can’t do this, but you just see all the people who have done this already and accomplished this and you have to realize and think to yourself, there’s no reason I can’t do the same. I mean you’re always going to face struggles, but as long as you stick with it, you’ll be able to accomplish great things. Even if you’re in a classroom with other students and you get discouraged by the fact that all the other people seem so smart and get intimidated, you wouldn’t be in this program if you were a genius already; it’s a learning process for everybody. Not everybody’s at the same level yet, so just know you’re on your own path, you’re taking different steps, but just continue with it and you’ll do great things.
SOSA: My advice would be don’t let people tell you what you should be doing or how you should look or how you should be learning. Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t be you and be a scientist; just be confident in what you like, who you are, how you do things.
GREEN: My advice would be do all the things: listen to the podcasts, watch YouTube videos, get out there, find what you like, find your passion. Just do everything you can. By doing as much as you can, you find out it is that you like to do. There were so many things that I had done in college leading me up to where I am doing now. Like I had so many experiences that helped me figure out, I don’t want to do that at all or I love doing this. So you have to try things to figure out what you like and it’s even more important to find out the things you don’t like. So just do it all, watch it all, listen to it all, be in it all; just do as much as you can with the time that you have.
LAWRENCE: I think my biggest struggle is feeling like I’m not smart enough or I’m not good enough. And I think this is going to sound really cliché, but you can do it, I can do it, everybody can do it if that’s what they want. I feel like everybody’s self-motivation and determination and ability to pursue what you want is probably more than half the battle, especially in graduate school. It doesn’t how much you know, you can learn it. It’s like a battle with yourself. You just have to want it and believe in yourself that you can do it and then go forward and do it.
GREEN: And I think just going along what you said, you have to be your own encourager. So you have to encourage yourself. I think with a lot of us, especially as women, not just with schooling and careers, just in life in general, we have to encourage ourselves and continue to encourage ourselves and then once you’ve done that, encourage others even when you feel discouraged because by me encouraging someone else, I feel like that may come back to me in return. So always encourage yourself and encourage as many people as you can because it’s going to be hard. It’s never going to just be easy all the time. If you can encourage yourself, which sounds really good, but it’s really hard for me sometimes, but then I have to remember that you’ve got this, you can do this, you may need to take a break, but you have to encourage yourself and then encourage others.
SOSA: When I was an undergrad, I used to get a lot of, ‘Girls can’t be engineers,’ and ‘You’re not going to like grad school,’ and ‘You should be doing something else, something that’s better for you or you’re better at.’ And honestly, if there’s anybody in your life that says those things to you, you either need to not listen to them or find better friends. So Shae just said encourage yourself, be strong for yourself, but also surround yourself with people who believe in you and are not going to hold you back, but push you forward always.
MOORE: Thanks to Kaila, Shadaesha, Amanda, Ana, and Daniela for joining us on this podcast and sharing your stories. If you want to hear more stories like this, be sure to visit umces.edu/listen.