March is Women’s History Month. We honor women, both past and present, who fought and are fighting for gender equality. March 8, specifically, marks International Women’s Day, where we celebrate women’s achievements and raise awareness for the persisting gender inequality.
According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), “women make up only 28% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and men vastly outnumber women majoring in most STEM fields in college.”
During the month of March, I interviewed some of the incredible women in STEM at the University of Michigan. Here is what I learned:
Dr. Robin Brewer
“Human-Computer Interaction is more applied in nature, where you can see the impact of work,” Dr. Robin Brewer said. “That’s something that attracted me because I was in a very theoretical, math-based undergraduate program … I still wanted to know what the point of making maps and turning numbers into letters was for.”
Scientists use HCI to design and improve new and existing technologies. Brewer is an assistant professor at the School of Information and a visiting researcher at Google on the People AI Research (PAIR) Team. Within this field, her work focuses on designing systems and online communities for adults over the age of 65 and people with disabilities.
“My research takes a more positive-framing approach, so (what I learn) from the people in these communities then goes into the design … how we can design for aspirational approaches as opposed to the more deficit-based models,” Brewer said.
Her approach to the study of the aging and disability communities is unique in that she works with these individuals to learn what is currently working for them. Based on her research, she hopes to enhance the way these technologies are being used.
Instead of thinking about older adults with a flaky social media presence as lurkers on platforms like Facebook, she suggests that we should think about them as people who want to preserve relationships with their friends and families. In order to do so, they may choose to not share controversial or political information.
“From interviews with older adults, that’s what I’ve learned,” Brewer said. “Then, I took that to try to reframe how we’re thinking about online engagement and beyond clicks, comments, etc. to understand how they use that information online or other channels.”
In a disability context, Brewer believes that the public should not be concerned with what technologies or forms of communication people with disabilities are not using. Instead, the focus should be on what they are using and what works for them. In short, Brewer looks at the ways in which technology is used with a glass half-full approach.
With Google’s PAIR Team, Brewer aims to better represent disability and older age in datasets. Especially in AI systems and technology, little research is conducted on populations of older adults compared to the plethora of data on people who are 18 to 50 years old. She notes that it’s even rarer to have data on disabilities, and when there is research, it tends to be very binary. Throughout our interview, she continued to stress the importance of seeing disabilities in all of their forms, including motor, visual and hearing disabilities.
Her life experiences have influenced her research in this field. The experiences of her aunts and uncles, who have inspired the pseudonyms of the older participants in her papers, as well as the experiences of her grandmother, led her to question what makes technology interaction meaningful for older adults. Currently, Brewer is working on a series of projects that concern how voice technologies can be used in care environments. This is a personal project for her as her grandmother, who is in her mid-90s, is living with dementia. She wondered how her grandmother’s Amazon Echo Dot could help to facilitate relationships and structure care routines in a way that could help her dad care for his mother. Beyond using Alexa to listen to music, Brewer considered how voice systems could be used in care environments to support better communication between older adults and their caregivers.
When I asked her about the importance of having women in STEM, she underlined the significance of representation. Without representation and visibility, people and younger kids may be led to believe that STEM is not a career for them. She hopes that growing numbers of women in STEM will encourage more companies and organizations to consider this representation and work to increase numbers within their own pool.
“I hope that women can see themselves in this STEM role. I think sometimes we start to limit ourselves … and think, ‘Oh, I’m not good at math, I can’t do engineering.’ I hope that we can make these fields more accessible.”
Dr. Natasha Turman
“Being the director of the (Women in Science and Engineering Residence Program) is like a serendipitous full-circle experience; from having a chemistry background to serving as a STEM administrator,” Dr. Natasha Turman said. “I feel like my calling and my mission is to really support, mentor and elevate the next-generation leaders, and I get to do all of that at WISE RP.”
Turman is the director of the Women in Science and Engineering Residence Program (WISE RP). The WISE RP supports students with diverse, underrepresented gender identities interested in science, technology, engineering and math. These students share a residential space in Mosher-Jordan Hall. As the director of WISE RP, she administers the program and teaches ALA 107 and ALA 108, which are curricular courses for the students. Through these curricular courses, social and speaker events and community discussions, Turman emphasizes three tenets of the program: centering identity in a STEM context, cultivating STEM self-efficacy and building critical leadership skills.
Turman earned her B.S. in chemistry from Spelman College, a historically Black, all-women’s college in Atlanta. Though she realized that chemistry and toxicology were not her calling, Turman is grateful for the affirming, supportive learning environment she grew in at Spelman. She knows that studying chemistry with peers who share her identities as a Black woman in STEM is a unique experience to have. Not everybody gets to learn in that environment, and she explains how the feeling of underrepresentation can be shared at the college level as students transition from high school.
“There is a shared understanding around gender of ‘we’re all in this together as women in STEM.’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, but.’ … Though while you can share a feeling of underrepresentation, it’s compounded when you hold multiple minoritized identities.”
In WISE RP, students are encouraged to navigate the STEM world with their identities at the focus, even while it may appear to be a deficit in a system that is designed for the majority. They are encouraged to celebrate their identities and believe that their intersecting identities are important in doing STEM work. This belief is efficacy, according to Turman. A part of cultivating this STEM self-efficacy is having visual representations of success and possibility, having people that look like you, that share your identities with you, in STEM roles.
“While I had a number of visual correlations and possibilities as it pertains to my race and gender, I did not have many examples of Black women chemists in toxicology. That’s daunting, when you can’t see what you can be.”
She guides students to seek mentorship and connect to networks that share similar stories and journeys so that they can persist knowing that they can also thrive in their own disciplines.
“Leadership research, that is my jam.”
And it clearly is. She’s a leader that directly engages in cultivating young leaders and explores ways to alter the current systems and leadership molds. On top of her role as the WISE RP director, Turman continues her work on critical perspectives and leadership, extending from graduate school. Her recent presentation to the Barger Leadership Institute was shaped from her dissertation study, which concerned code-switching, impression management and identity politics. She enjoys having these conversations that make people think about how they can occupy professional spaces and roles and consider whether they are having to negotiate parts of who they are to make it in those spaces.
“For example, as a Black woman, if I am always having to police myself in what I say and what I look like, it takes away energy from what I could be focusing on. If I were a student, my classwork and engaging with my peers are more fruitful things for me (to exert energy in) than trying to manage (others’) feelings and policing myself.”
One of her current projects involves co-leading a working group that supports the work of the Sloan Equity and Inclusion in STEM Introductory Courses (SEISMIC) Collaboration. Here, her worlds collide, where her graduate school dissertation studies and WISE RP meet. She’s able to incorporate her studies on critical perspectives in leadership, critical race theory, intersectionality and feminist theory to building frameworks for the classroom, research and assessment efforts in STEM education. Through this project, she hopes that critical frameworks become immersed into STEM classes and that faculty members will actively engage in critical thinking practices to be more inclusive and think beyond the black-and-white, straightforward narrative that people believe the STEM field to be.
“What I really hope for is that the STEM world will be ready to receive the dynamicness of women and women of Color. I just want some things to be disrupted, flipping over tables, and to really shake things up in a way that folks feel like they belong so that we don’t have to keep talking about a leaky pipeline … My hope is that we continue to cultivate and grow young girls and women of Color to pursue, persist and thrive in STEM spaces, and that we don’t have a pipeline, but an open door that they can all walk in and do it successfully, in whatever they want to do.”
Dr. María Natalia Umaña
“(My research) is important in the sense of advancing knowledge, but these tropical systems are very important for carbon processes and the carbon cycle,” Dr. María Natalia Umaña said. “If we are able to understand what maintains the diversity of these forests, we may be able to predict how these forests will respond to future climatic changes and whether this diversity, these trees, will be impacted by these future changes.”
Umaña is an assistant professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University. She is a plant community ecologist that primarily focuses on tropical forests and studies their traits and plant functioning. In tropical ecology, a main challenge ecologists attempt to explain is the high level of diversity and variability in plants when they all use practically the same resources—water, soil nutrients and light.
She runs the Forest Functional Ecology (FFE) Lab, which seeks to confront this challenge by measuring traits and characteristics of tropical trees to provide information about how they are using the resources in different ways. She explains that leaf size, for instance, indicates how much area plants are exposing for capturing light, and that variation in leaf size can tell us how different species are using light in different ways. The studies she conducts in her lab center around two main areas. The first area of study is to observes traits, like leaf size, to characterize variation within species. The second involves studying the relationship between above-ground traits and the below-ground traits of plants. This coordination between the leaves and stems with the underground systems is important for understanding the functioning of plants, according to Umaña.
“It’s easier to measure things above ground, that is what we see. A lot of the functioning actually happens in those root systems, and we don’t know many things about these underground systems.”
While she is at the University, she plans to study these systems in the temperate forests and then move back into the tropics soon. Umaña has had quite the journey, traveling to various tropical forests to observe their diversity and to find answers to her questions.
Growing up in Colombia, Umaña was surrounded by tropical forests. She wasn’t always a plant person, though. Biology was her main interest in high school, and she became inspired by one of her teachers to study insects. She was fascinated by the unique interactions in nature, specifically with parasitoid wasps, which grew and fed off of caterpillars.
Her undergraduate courses in botany and plant physiology introduced the study of trees. Her master’s program led her to the Amazon, where she studied how the trees in that region were thriving in such poor soil conditions. Then, her Ph.D. program landed her in the tropical forests of China and Puerto Rico, and it allowed her to gain different perspectives and experiences that varied from the forests she grew up in. It was amazing to her how tropics in other regions were so different, and she was especially captivated by the domination of a particular species, called dipterocarps, in China, where the trees were more than twice the size of those in the Amazon.
As a woman in ecology, she believes that women are capable of conducting field work, a notion that hasn’t been widely accepted in the field. She’s conducts her own field work and has encountered many of these stereotypes head-on. She hopes to break these barriers by advancing and creating knowledge with her research.
“Right now, I feel like we have to actively bring women into the field. I hope that all these efforts that we are making at some point just become very natural, and we no longer have to do these things. That’s my hope for the future and next generation women: that women in STEM fields should feel natural.”
“There’s not an entire field dedicated to treating memory disorders because memory is one of those things where we don’t know much about it to treat it,” Kathy Xie said. “That made me interested in how you can stop the negative effects of memory impairment in older adults.”
Kathy Xie became curious about the various ways to improve memory after working in an aphasia and neurolinguistics lab during her postbac. She wanted to be able to answer the questions the older participants in the studies were wondering; she wanted to find out how to stop memory decline. So, she joined Dr. Patricia Reuter-Lorenz’s lab for her Ph.D. program, where she studies how older adults can actually compensate for their cognitive decline by changing their brain activation.
She is now a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience (CCN) area in the Department of Psychology at the University. Her research goals include conducting theoretically-motivating work that informs what we know as a cognitive process and system while helping people with memory impairment. Her projects and studies on working memory and episodic memory interactions fall into this balance of theoretical and applied research. It informs the underlying processes contributing to episodic memory, which comments on the debate in psychology on the structure of memory. The applied aspect of her research asks whether or not working memory processing improves episodic memory, and if it does, this work can be used as a strategy for older adults to practice to create longer-lasting, more cohesive and accurate episodic memories.
“When I was in high school, I took AP Psychology, and I loved it. I loved the case studies of brain damage … and I remember thinking that it was insanely cool.”
Like many psychology majors, AP Psychology and the unique case studies of Phineas Gage and H.M. fascinated Xie and motivated her towards the study of how the brain and cognition work. From early on, she knew that she wanted her research to inform real-world interactions and behaviors. And she’s always known that she would go to grad school. Her dad is a professor, so she grew up on a college campus where she was immersed in the world of academia.
During her undergrad at Northwestern University, Xie discovered communication sciences and disorders. It was this multidisciplinary study of language and cognition that included neuroscience and psychology; it was everything she wanted to study. Switching to a communication sciences major reaffirmed her interest in psychology and desire to inform real-world patients. Her direct experience in the aphasia and neurolinguistics lab concentrated her focus on memory, specifically in older adults.
Xie ultimately chose the University to expand her studies and experience in cognitive aging and memory decline under an adviser who could help her achieve those research goals. It was also important for her to have visual representations of women in her field who have succeeded, which is why she particularly sought out female advisors and PIs. As an R1 and one of the top grant-acquiring school institutions in the country, the University was a place where Xie could utilize the many resources the school offered. She has access to every neuroimaging technology she wants to use for her projects, something she doesn’t take for granted.
“For me, being a woman in STEM is that I inspire other people who want to go into CCN and psychology to show them that they can do it too. I just think it’s important to increase representation.”
Xie explains that at the graduate student level, there is a lot of representation of women. She’s able to easily find people who look like her and share the same goals as her. However, at the faculty level, it’s a different story. Xie describes the journey of a tenured position in psychology as extremely competitive. It’s even harder for women to become a tenured professor in psychology and thrive in this area of study. It leaves many left to pursue careers in the industry because of the little openings for jobs in academia. While a future in academia appears complicated and rough, she hopes to be that example of an Asian female faculty in psychology and in STEM.
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