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Want to Change the World?

Practical advice for women interested in STEM careers from those who have made a mark in this field.


When Karen Purcell was in high school, her physics teacher told her that engineers could do anything.“That had me very intrigued,” she says.

Purcell pursued a degree in electrical engineering and found her niche creating blueprints and plans for lighting, power and communication systems for commercial buildings. She now owns an engineering firm of 19 employees in Reno, Nevada.

It is the tangibility of her work that keeps Purcell motivated and passionate.

“I love that you can work on a design, put it down onto paper or on a computer and then a few months later it is constructed. It is so nice your design can become a reality [and] each project…serves as a learning opportunity,” she says.

The ability to have this sort of concrete impact on the world characterizes all Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, areas in which employment opportunities should expand by 17 percent by 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. It is a growth rate that is nearly double that of non-STEM fields.

But how many women will hold these jobs?

Women fill nearly half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, though they occupy only 25 percent of STEM positions, with little gain throughout the past decade. Purcell hopes this percentage will change in the coming years.

In 2012, she founded the nonprofit STEMspire in conjunction with publishing her book, “Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math,” which she wrote to “encourage and inspire women in STEM.”

Through STEMspire, Purcell hopes to provide resources, including assistance with starting STEM-related businesses and financial scholarships for college to women currently working in STEM fields and those considering future STEM careers. She considers the mission crucial, even “critical to improving the global economy.”

“Attracting and retaining more women in STEM careers will help tremendously to improve diversity, maximize creativity and boost competitiveness,” she says.

Early exposure and mentorship
Purcell recognizes certain challenges exist to pulling more women into STEM careers. For one, young girls need more exposure to STEM fields, she says.

Purcell also encourages current STEM professionals to get involved in school programs that arrange mentors for young women and help them understand what careers in certain fields will be like. Ideally, the mentor-student relationship is one that goes long-term, with the mentor taking a vested interest in the young person’s career advancement.

“The majority of successful women time and time again credit their participation in some sort of mentorship with dramatically helping them reach their career goals,” says Purcell.

Staying in STEM for the long haul
Beyond breaking into their professions, women in STEM fields face some unique challenges to career advancement and have higher attrition rates than their male counterparts. Purcell attributes the drop-out rate to several obstacles, including “the general belief that men outperform women in math and science fields, …work-life balance issues and bias.”

But she assures there are ways around these potential barriers. Strong mentorship helps, as can “finding a supportive spouse” and accepting that “balance is never easy.” Purcell makes it all work, leading in her industry as well as spending time with her two children.

And there is her daily morning run too—Purcell’s guaranteed alone time that lets her “reflect on what my day will look like.”

“Finding that time can be difficult,” she says, “but it is critical to success.”

 

Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.

A lot of women, girls and other underrepresented groups do not understand what STEM entails. STEM is all around you from the food you eat (food scientists) to the roads you drive on (civil engineers). Also, engagement will help them to understand that STEM is not some abstract field that only “other” people work in. The STEM field includes women and people from diverse backgrounds and only benefits from adding different perspectives.

—J’Tia Taylor, technical nonproliferation specialist at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois

I feel STEM education should be made more engaging and connected to everyday life in order to attract girls and young women. Since family and teachers play such an important role in the early development of academic interests, they play a vital role in shaping future generations of innovators, regardless of gender, and both play vital roles in encouraging girls to explore STEM topics.

—Ritimukta Sarangi, staff scientist at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource
of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California

I think it is important to redefine the image of a scientist as a man working alone in the laboratory to that of a diverse team of researchers working toward a common goal that has huge societal impact. Scientific research is actually very social—the best labs are supportive, vibrant and creative

environments that interact with researchers from around the world. When women, girls and underrepresented groups have a chance to see research in action, they want to be a part of it.

—Jill Fuss, research scientist in biophysics and biochemistry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California

I feel networking is very important in the field of research, getting to know the right people, reading latest technical publications and being perceptive makes a lot of difference. Serendipity plays a huge role too. I also think getting a mentor is very important, it definitely helped me a lot.

—Farah Fahim, engineer at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Chicago, Illinois

Throughout my childhood, my parents never implied to me that as a girl, I could not achieve something I wanted. Engineering was an easy choice for me. I never had a second thought. Truly, it never occurred to me to do anything else!

—Xin Sun, computational mathematics scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington

My main advice is to take as much math (first) and science (second) as you can at an early age (and at any age!) and get ‘hands on’ experience through science projects and hobbies. …Keep asking questions and don’t worry about whether they are good questions. If you’re hesitant then use this rule: If you cannot think of the answer yourself in less than a minute, then go ahead and ask the question. You learn so much more by asking questions.

—Sunita Satyapal, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office