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Better Living Through Science: Women in STEM

A look at pioneering women in fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Deirdre Hunter

In the story we shared earlier this week you learned about Brittany Wegner, a young entrepreneurial scientist who has made breakthroughs in the technology of cancer diagnosis. Continuing in the thread of women in the STEM fields we bring you an in depth look of two women making strides in the fields of astronomy and nuclear non-proliferation, their educational journey, and the impact that women mentors in STEM had on them growing up.

In August of 2014 the Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize equivalent of mathematics, was awarded for the very first time in history to Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian woman. Women like Dr. Deidre Hunter, Astronomer and Deputy Director of Science at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona and Dr. Patricia Lewis Research Director for International Security at Chatham House in London are prime examples of women who went against the grain and chose careers that inspired them to change the world. Whether it has been the work of a patriarchal education system, macro cultural conditioning, or a likely combination of the two, when women make up 48% of the U.S. work force and only represent 26% of STEM fields there are still radical shifts to be made.

The importance of modeling careers in STEM to younger women is paramount. “One person who was very influential to me was Vera Rubin,” said Dr. Hunter, “the astronomer who discovered that spiral galaxies rotate. She [Rubin] was passionate about promoting women in science, probably because she had seen so much discrimination during the course of her career. Because of pioneers like that, science is much more open to women today.” Dr. Deidre Hunter has made significant breakthroughs as a scientist and astronomer, researching irregular galaxies, star formation, and star clusters. Hunter grew up during the Apollo Program, and had a fervent desire to become an astronaut. “I thought walking on the moon or another planet would be so exciting,” said Hunter. “I quickly realized that I would never be an astronaut. I wear glasses and in those days astronauts were test pilots and they could not wear glasses. But thinking about it had made me want to know about the universe beyond earth, and I decided I would study what was out there instead.”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Patricia Lewis

Dr. Patricia Lewis, part researcher, part superhero, hybridizes the practice of science with international policy. “I read all the astronomy books in our local library and I used to do science experiments in the kitchen as a young girl,” said Lewis, “[I] was lucky in that I went to an all girls school…my physics and math teachers were all women and we were expected to excel.” “[Now] I run a research department looking at all aspects of international security that ranges from the threat of microbes to the role of gender in international conflicts to nuclear weapons,” noted Lewis. “I am dedicated to doing everything I can to keep people safe from the scourge of war and to make sure that humanity survives this stage in our history.”

Lewis and Hunter’s view is that children need to be encouraged and engaged with STEM topics at an age when they will still be receptive. “I think the key is to get kids (girls and boys) excited about science early on. The 5th-8th grades are a prime time to influence them. It is between the early elementary years when kids are excited about everything and high school when kids lose that spontaneous excitement for the world,” states Hunter. Concurrently, it is integral for the work women have already done in the STEM fields to be recognized. The contribution of women to STEM subjects and professions has never been fully appreciated,” said Lewis. “STEM needs women and women need STEM.”

In addition to their work in the STEM fields, Hunter and Lewis have made teaching and education a fixture in their lives. “Since coming to Lowell Observatory, I co-founded an outreach program that works with teachers and their classes on the Hopi and Navajo Nations,” remarked Hunter. “Each year I partner with 5th-8th grade teachers conducting astronomy activities with their classes. I also hold star parties and bring the classes to Flagstaff to observe on Lowell’s research telescopes.” For Lewis, she has held teaching positions at the University of Birmingham, the University of Auckland New Zealand, the Imperial College, and was the Deputy Director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Clearly mentoring begets mentors as these two women’s past role-models have influenced their careers as scientists, and also their mission to help guide young people to find their path and engage in the worlds of science, technology, engineering, and math—a mission worth pursuing. Young girls like Brittany Wegner who created Cloud4Cancer, a web-based application that has correctly diagnosed 99.11% of 7.6 million cancer trials.

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