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Growing a New Generation in STEM

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

We were thrilled to host our Third Annual Women in Science Conference September 13 at Northwest Florida State College. With each year, we have seen our audience grow, our speakers find new means deliver impactful speeches, and most importantly, given young women a chance to see firsthand the many pathways STEM could take them throughout their educations and careers.

From left: Theresa Hughes, Olivia Tuckey, Janet Wolfson, Diane Fraser, Jennifer Kraus, and Jacyln Rawson. Photo credit: Jacie Chandler

This year's topics centered on discussing career highlights and imparting advice to girls interested in pursuing STEM careers. Each speaker brought a personalized take on the highs and lows of being a female in male-dominated fields. While there may be a large disparity between women and men in STEM careers, all our speakers focused the importance of being able to do what they love and how this drives them to strive in their respective fields.

Theresa Hughes, Engineering Technical Supervisor for the Air Force Rearch Laboratory, discussed the reality of being a female engineer. As a first generation college student, she feels that the major a person chooses should be held in higher regard than where a person chooses to go to college. While location is always important, the most critical part of education is ensuring the degree field a person is pursuing is something they are passionate about. And while she stated that there may not be many women in science--this isn't something young women should dwell on. Instead, she emphatically spoke of the importance of "Going for it," and doing something you love--a message emblazoned and echoed by numerous other speakers.

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."--William Durant. Jaclyn Rawson, a chiropractor at the Crestview Health & Wellness Center, candidly started her speech by noting most of her patients often assume she is either the assistant or too young to be a proficient chiropractor. However, her spirit and enthusiasm for her job does not let these assumptions get in her way. Rawson noted her ability to work hard and exude confidence in her abilities keeps people's comments from getting her down. She gave young women in the audience sage advice to to invest time, energy, and dedication into their futures. By starting early and working hard, a person can reach their goals and dreams. Being the best at what you do is the result of many years of practice, Rawson concluded.

Annette Hackenberg is the F-35 Program Manager for BAE Systems, supporting pilots and maintainers of the F-35. How she got to this career, she mused, was quite the path. Originally focused on studying law, Hackenberg knew it just wasn't the right fit for her. She then went into the medical field after this. She noted not all paths are straight--sometimes it is a winding one that will get you to your final destination. Eventually, she made her way into supporting the military through instructional design. Working in a male-dominated field, people used to tell her that she needed to be tougher, sterner. But this wasn't true to her character. She stated that she never compromised who she was and offered the young women in the audience the earnest advice, "Don't let anyone tell you you need to be different." Having integrity and following through are critical aspects of being a woman in STEM; so is having a support system both at home and at work. She finished off her speech by noting she certainly would not have ended up where she is today without the support system she has in place, and that when it comes to a career in STEM, it is important to persevere and enjoy the journey.

Support systems are critical. Jennifer Kraus, Senior Solutions Consultant at Bit Wizards, noted it isn't easy being a women in technology. Bullied in her teen years for being different and expressing her interest in HTML and coding, Kraus did not let the negativity from her peers keep her from doing what she loves. She noted the importance of having an advocate in her corner--and while not everyone can have an advocate for them at home, she emphasized that teachers are always there to support their students. Kraus stated that along a career path in life, it is okay to make mistakes--as long as you get back up and keep working toward your goal. She offered advice to the young women in the audience, noting they don't have to figure out what they want to be today, but it is still important to take time to hone and develop skills to find what they love to do while also building knowledge. Technology will only continue to grow, and with it, endless career possibilities.

Janet Wolfson, Senior Supervisory Engineer at the Air Force Research Laboratory, flipped the usual script and turned her speech into a panel discussion, opening up the floor for the audience to ask questions (and rewarding them with a little candy, of course). Wolfson has had an interesting career in engineering, from working with the clean up crews in New York on September 12, 2001, to being employed at small firms, and eventually, the Air Force Research Laboratory. "Girls can totally blow stuff up," Wolfson joked, while describing her grad school career work to see exactly what she could break with enough C4 explosives. As a blast engineer, she answered a range of questions about the difficulties of engineering (so, so much math), her favorite job (current), and how it felt to do poorly on college assignments ("Accept the grade you get--especially if you worked hard for them"). Before taking her current job, Wolfson had doubts about whether she wanted to be a female in a male-dominated career. She was happy to report she was wrong about these doubts, and that the important thing for her is making sure she can make the world a safer place through her work.

It is never to early to dream big. Olivia Tuckey, a Senior at Niceville High School, found her interest in science thanks to a program called NaGISA (Natural Geography in Shore Areas). This is an entirely student-run organization, and Tuckey proudly stated the girls now outnumber the boys in this program. She enjoys the fact that NaGISA lets her analyze various fields and allows an intersection of multiple sciences. Her team also gets to take overseas trips, most recently studying the rocky shores of Plymouth England. A vast departure from the white sandy beaches here, her team came up with a new rocky shores protocol and then taught it to their local NaGISA students at Plymouth. Tuckey stated that adapting to complications like these is rewarding and enjoyable. She finished her speech by telling the young women of the audience to take the opportunity to explore their interests; it's never too early.

Girls Engaged in Making (GEM) Workshops afford us the chance to carry the spirit of Women in Science on throughout the school year. At this year's conference, our education team brought UV resin for the young women in the audience to experiment and make charms with. The importance of hands-on activities, learning how to use tools, work together as a team, and the accomplishment of creating something out of nothing, are the major emphases of this programming. The Science Center wants to create a community for young women to belong to and give them the freedom to explore the rich pathways and lessons that can be gleaned from STEM.

Our speakers graciously took time at the end of the night to pose with audience members for photos and answer their questions. Each woman involved in the conference brought insight and inspiration to all of us. The heart of Women in Science is giving young women a chance to see just how amazing it is to be a part of STEM, and thanks to our speakers, it rang true. As astronaut Mae Jemison said, "We look at science as something very elite, which only a few people can learn. That's just not true. You just have to start early and give kids a foundation. Kids live up, or down, to expectations." We expect Women in Science will continue to give young women in our region a solid foundation to learn and grow from for years to come.

Finally, a huge thank you to our sponsors for making this event possible. The support of these organizations has humbled us--we are so gracious to belong to a community made up of such wonderful people and organizations.

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