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The Next Generation of STEM

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

Every year, we have seen our audience grow and interest expand with our Women in Science Conference. Last Thursday marked our fourth conference, and we are so grateful to be able to reach the next generation of STEM with this event. Northwest Florida State College has been a wonderful home for this event, and we were excited to move into an even bigger conference space to host speakers, STEM business professionals, students, and families that came to the event from across the panhandle.

Photo credit: Jacie Chandler (L to R: Jamie Barnes, Brenda Vandegrift, Crystal Simmons, Diane Fraser, Tanya Gallagher, & Jobina Johnson)

Our executive director, Diane Fraser, began the evening by dropping a startling fact onto the audience: studies have shown that a girl's self-esteem usually peaks at about age nine. As such, it is crucial to encourage young women by giving them role models to look up to, relate to, and to learn from. This is the main purpose of our conference. We were thrilled to host five distinguished female speakers this year, all with varying STEM backgrounds, and to give the young women in the audience the chance to ask all these speakers questions in our first ever panel discussion.

Photo credit: Jacie Chandler. Pictured: Jobina Johnson

Growing up, Jobina Johnson didn't have any role models in STEM, but that did not stop her from initially pursuing her love of accounting in high school and in college. Eventually, she was approached in college by the Engineering Department Head at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina who asked her to consider changing her major due to both her abilities and the lack of female engineers in the program. This eventually led her to find a NASA scholarship for women, and she ended up interning at the Kennedy Space Center. Her college path helped her find a career at Boeing, where she has been for 18 years, working as a System and Software Engineer on various platforms: Chinooks, C-130 Gunships, and KC 40 Tankers. She stated to the audience that while her career has had its ups and downs, it is so important for young women not to be too shy, to meet new people, and to join organizations that can help further their careers. One such organization Jobina belongs to is the Northwest Florida Society of Women Engineers right here in our region; she concluded her speech by noting just how much this organization's members have helped her along in her career.

Photo credit: Jacie Chandler. Pictured: Crystal Simmons

Crystal Simmons grew up in small-town Mississippi, with no guidance in school. She went to class, went home, and that was it. It wasn't until 8th grade when she took a career development class where she discovered she might want to go into law but didn't want to spend that much time in college before she could start a career. This brought her back to the drawing board where she then discovered a love of all things aviation. She was drawn to aircrafts: how they fly, their mechanics, speed, everything. All the classes she took involving aviation were filled with men, but she did not care. She just wanted to be around planes, so she joined the Air Force. She told her recruiter she didn't care what her job was, she just wanted to be able to touch an airplane. She initially worked on A-10s before going back to school to get her B.S. in Aeroscience.There she learned how to turn metal into airplane parts and the science behind how all those parts work together (which she employs in her role as a Senior Quality Engineer at BAE Systems). "Figuring out how it all goes together is phenomenal," she exclaimed to the audience. She imparted wisdom on the young women listening to her, "I see men everywhere. We need more ladies! Don't ever think you can't do something because you're a woman. Because we can." She stated it might be hard, but the choices a person makes will impact their future. Simmons ended her speech by advising the audience to seek out mentors, find someone who has been there, and to never stop achieving. "Become a first," she implored.

Photo credit: Jacie Chandler. Pictured: Tanya Gallagher

Tanya Gallagher's love of STEM started at a young age because she has always desired a challenge. In high school, her pastor approached her because his daughter worked for the American Chemical Society and needed an intern. She jumped at the chance even though she has absolutely no idea what she was doing and figured she'd never go to grad school after watching these students work. Eventually, she got into Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a framework for gathering, managing, and analyzing data, because she wanted, "To figure out the why of where and the where of why." A teacher asked her to take some GIS classes, and once again, she went for the opportunity but ended up hating it. However, she kept with it, and now she leads her own GIS team for the Santa Rosa County Board of County Commissioners alongside teaching GIS courses at UWF. She noted it was important to embrace the challenge and also ended up interning with NASA, like Johnson. She then took a year off, playing music in Vancouver where she met an amazing role model: her PhD advisor. She was a person to lean on, an ear to listen, and gave Gallagher the best pep talks. She ended up back in Northwest Florida after her PhD program because she wanted to give back to the community that raised her. She offered up sage advice to the audience; "You don't have to know what you're going to do. That's OK. Figure out what you like--and what you don't like--and run towards what you like." She finished her speech by telling the audience, eliminate the word 'can't.' "Own who you are; we all have many passions," Gallagher concluded.

Photo credit: Jacie Chandler. Pictured: Brenda Vandegrift

"STEM selected me," Brenda Vandegrift told the audience. She always loved math, solving problems, and just generally being a self-proclaimed nerd. She stated, "Where we head in life is reflective of what we enjoyed as a child." As a kid, she and her little sister would modify Legos and Lincoln Logs in order to build a custom townhouse for Barbie. She always had a desire to fix things and make them better, and her parents let her be inquisitive when tinkering around the house. She noted the adage, "Love what you do and do what you love," but know that obstacles do happen. Her career has not been a straight path, but along the way it led her to her role as a Systems Manager for Leonardo DRS Airborne and Intelligence Systems. She stated the importance of building your network and valuing those who will help you navigate your own path. Vandegrift also told the audience not to let negativity control you and to beware the Imposter Syndrome. "Because you are not alone and your network can help you overcome the thought that you might not deserve to be where you are. Think of your accomplishments and be comfortable with who you are," she offered in her closing remarks, "Remind yourself what you love to do and do it. We're all a part of something bigger--don't go it alone."

Photo credit: Jacie Chandler. Pictured: Jamie Barnes

Jamie Barnes wanted to be an artist or a dancer. She didn't even think about STEM classes until a middle school physics course. In it, she explored how physics and dance related to one another, and it sparked a passion in her, "Because science is everywhere," Barnes said. She joined the Niceville High School Robotics Team but wanted more; this resulted in an internship at the Air Force Research Laboratory for two years, and now she is a student at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. Her first day on campus, she went straight to the robotics lab and asked, "What can I do?" She's now the president of that organization, and leads her team of 80 members in Maritime Robotics competitions. She even helped the Navy with research on soft robotics. She didn't think a small project in middle school could lead her to this path, stating to the audience, "You don't have to know what you're going to do--that's OK. Just say yes, and get involved early."

Photo credit: Jacie Chandler.

Audience members mingled during intermission, getting an opportunity to meet with guest professionals in the audience before the Q&A session began.

Photo credit: Jacie Chandler. Pictured: speakers take questions from the audience.

This year, our speakers all sat in on a panel to take questions from the audience. Numerous teens in the crowd asked the speakers how they overcame tough courses, what projects they enjoy the most at work, how to stay motivated, and much more. The evening ended with a sense of excitement where STEM would take these young women in the audience.

Photo credit: Jacie Chandler. Pictured: Women in Science key chains and tokens for audience members to take home; created at the Science Center with a Glowforge 3D Printer

It's important to remember that although we have these amazing STEM opportunities locally, the lack of women in STEM is a problem that is evident across the nation. Apple CEO, Tim Cook, stated he's disturbed by the gender disparities throughout the country and stated, "I think the US will lose its leadership in technology if this doesn't change. Women are such an important part of the workforce. If STEM-related fields continue to have this low representation of women, then there just will not be enough innovation in the United States. That's just the simple fact of it."

With the annual Women in Science Conference, we hope young women in the audience can find inspiration to learn more about STEM degrees and pathways. Many young audience members were connected with speakers and guest professionals in the crowd in their areas of interest that evening, ensuring a first major step has been taken to help them do so.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the support of our event sponsors. Some have been with us from the very beginning and others were excited to be a part of this event for the first time. In both instances, all of these organizations understand the importance of showing young students how impactful a degree and career in STEM can be, and we are so thankful they share in this mission with us.

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