#IAmAWomanInSTEM creates support for women at UK

Lee Mengistu

STEM+H, or Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Health, is one of the fastest growing industries. And yet, women are strangely missing from the equation. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, women made up 24 percent of scientists and engineers in 2009.

Through a partnership with Kentucky’s branch of the American Association of University Women, a group of students, staff and faculty launched the #IAmAWomanInSTEM initiative, aiming to “create a constructive and supportive space for women to showcase their important contributions to STEM+H related academic and professional work.” So far, more than 160 UK undergraduate women have joined.

Besides being underrepresented, women in STEM+H careers are also sometimes dismissed by their male counterparts. The #IAmAWomanInSTEM was inspired by the hashtag #distractinglysexy, a sarcastic response by female scientists to Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt, who in 2015 said, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.”

The #IAmAWomanInSTEM program fights that sentiment with multiple components: an awareness and empowerment hashtag, a service learning course and a mentorship with female professionals in STEM+H fields.

That’s meaningful to civil engineering sophomore Amanda Melendez.

“It’s nice to have that support that, okay, we’re all in this together,” Melendez said. “If we struggle, we’re doing it together.”

Co-founder and mathematics senior Shelby Albers said the mentorship was intentional.

“We wanted to give undergraduate females a sort of role model, someone who could help them get through their semester if they’re ever having challenges or doubts about being a woman in STEM.”

STEM education specialist and program co-founder Thushani Rodrigo-Peiris said a large issue the program attempts to tackle is that of retaining women.

”Here about 63 percent of biology majors are women … but how fast they switch their majors, is amazing.”

Part of the program also includes a monthly meet-and-greet with mentors featuring a distinguished guest. This month, Dr. Sylvia Cerel-Suhl, M.D., former Central Kentucky president of the American Heart Association, addressed career options in the healthcare field. Next month’s meet-and-greet on April 14 at the 90 will feature a female NASA astrophysicist.

Physics junior Kate Collins, a program co-founder who aspires to become a fellow NASA astrophysicist, is faithful in the cause.

“I know that it can really daunting to see that you’re the only (women) of the room, so I thought that this initiative was  a great way to encourage more women to be part of these fields that they’re traditionally not a part of,” she said.

Current service learning projects in the works include visibility projects, like a video featuring visual representations of the lack of women in science fields.

The program will also conduct an internal survey of attitudes towards women in STEM as well as an awareness survey for all STEM-related majors and minors.

The ambassadors and participants left the meet-and-greet to conquer another day, armed with new knowledge and program T-shirts (purple, a color statistically proven to engage more girls and women).

In a room full of scientists, it’s not surprising that every detail is driven by hard data.