Inspiring young women in STEM

Over two days, nearly two dozen female STEM role models at Penn welcomed more than 100 high school students and teachers to campus as part of the Girls Advancing in STEM (GAINS) Initiative Conference on campus.

a group of people seated at a circle of chairs talking to each other
During the Girls Advancing in STEM conference, high school students were able to learn more about engineering programs and the transition from high school to college directly from Penn students. 

Alexa Murray, a senior studying systems engineering from Greenwich, Connecticut, attended the first-ever Girls Advancing in STEM (GAINS) conference in 2015, and has seen firsthand the Initiative’s importance, both as a student and now as a mentor. Murray says that GAINS helped her see the “different types of people who are engineers” and was a key source of inspiration, thanks to its mentorship opportunities. “It’s hearing about other people’s challenges, recognizing that I’m also struggling with this concept or with imposter syndrome, but that other people are as well and here’s how they dealt with it,” says Murray.  

Last week, Penn hosted the GAINS 2019 conference, with Murray serving as a student volunteer. She was one of nearly two dozen STEM role models: female faculty, staff, and student volunteers from Penn who welcomed more than 100 high school students and 30 teachers from the country to the conference. The event included two days of activities designed to encourage young women see a career in STEM as an achievable goal. 

a group of people posing behind robots in a large warehouse
GAINS attendees visited numerous labs and companies around campus, including the Exyn Technologies aerial robotics lab. The tour was hosted by Ph.D. alumnae Denise Wong (bottom row, first from left). (Image: Michaile Rainey)

After kicking off the conference with an evening welcome dinner and keynote by Frances Elizabeth Jensen, the first full day was filled with networking sessions, panel discussions, and campus tours to showcase the many ways that young women can become involved in STEM. Thursday’s panel featured Penn’s Lisa Akhtar, Danielle Bassett, Michelle Johnson, Kellie Jurado, and Sharon Lewis, who shared their personal experiences and answered questions from students. 

Key takeaways from the panelists include the importance of having mentors, focusing on improving one’s self instead of making comparisons to others, and embracing failure. “We all made decisions to quit 10 times, 10,000 times. Don’t be afraid of those encounters,” said Johnson, adding that the “P” for her in Ph.D. stood for “perseverance.”

Akhtar, who was the first person in her family to go to college, shared how her career trajectory changed after working in a research lab inspired her to enroll into an M.D./Ph.D. program. She encouraged attendees to not see their careers as a single destination. “Don’t be afraid of the journey,” she said. “As long as you love what you do every day, it doesn’t matter what your title is or what people think what you should be in life.”

Johnson and Lewis shared challenges they faced as women of color. Their advice to students facing racism and sexism is to remind themselves that they are doing good work. “Be aware that people might make judgement calls,” said Lewis. “It’s not about you but about them. Know in your gut that you belong.”

The panelists also encouraged the girls to not be afraid to take risks or do the unexpected. Bassett shared her experience interviewing for graduate school and being asked if she was ready to “settle down,” since her previous work spanned from physics to poetry. “Sometimes we have to admit to ourselves who we really are, and maybe who we really are is not what someone expects—and that’s ok,” she told the attendees. “I enjoy not being just one thing.”

After small group discussions and a networking lunch, students had the chance to tour Penn’s campus and its science and engineering labs, including the Barrott marine ecology lab, the Working Dog Center, the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials, the Singh Center for Nanotechnology, the GRASP lab, and the Rehabilitation Robotics lab

people sitting in a group talking with the main speaker in focus
Fahmida Lubna, a sophomore from Philadelphia studying chemical and biomolecular engineering, shares her experience studying at Penn and how programs like LENS helped her figure out how to combine her interests in biochemistry and engineering. 

Friday morning panels included topics ranging from coding to climate change. Murray joined in a panel about engineering undergraduate programs and answered questions about what college courses were like and how they transitioned from high school. She was joined by Fahmida Lubna, a sophomore studying chemical and biomolecular engineering, who said that doing research through the Penn LENS Program helped her figure out how she could combine her interests in biochemistry and engineering. Born in Bangladesh and now a resident of Philadelphia, Lubna was inspired to share her perspectives after seeing other young women struggle without support and says that the GAINS conference is a great initiative. 

Both Fatima Fleming and Mariatu Fayia, Philadelphia high school students who participated in LENS in 2018 and 2019 respectively, say that the GAINS conference helped show them what going to college will be like. They were also inspired by speaking with women on the expert panels and were thankful for advice from Johnson and others on how to deal with discrimination. 

Practice Professor Vanessa Chan delivered the closing keynote, opening her presentation by telling attendees that what she wanted most in high school was to get “perfect” grades and SAT scores which, she admitted, was not what happened. But, she emphasized, she still earned a Ph.D. and became an Ivy League professor. “Because life is not about GPA only,” Chan said to a round of applause. “I got there because I was tenacious, thoughtful, creative, and kind.”

She gave the young women five pieces of advice: Do not compare yourselves to others, find your voice, always take the time to say thank you, be entrepreneurial everywhere, and there is no such thing as failure. Adding to the ideas of other panelists throughout the conference, Chan emphasized the importance of making mistakes, having courage to ask for what you want, and being on a never-ending quest to innovate and think differently. She also emphasized that failure is just an “experiment with results you didn’t expect” and an opportunity to grow. 

“To have an impact, focus on the journey, not on winning,” Chan said in her final words to the attendees who were now poised to travel home with a number of life lessons in hand. “If so, you will win by changing the world.”

students touring a lab looking at robots and rehabilitation equipment
GAINS attendees visiting the Rehabilitation Robotics Lab. (Images: Paedyn Gomes and Penn Rehab Robotics Lab)

Conference logistics and local organization efforts were led by Michaile Rainey, academic advisor and director of the Advancing Women in Engineering program. 

Lisa Akhtar is an instructor of pediatrics and attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Danielle Bassett is the J. Peter Skirkanich Professor in the departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Vanessa Chan is a Practice Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Michelle Johnson is an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kellie Jurado is an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Sharon Lewis is an associate professor in the Department of Neurology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.