Women in STEM Symposium highlights integrated knowledge

Female faculty and staff from the School of Social Policy & Practice, the Wharton School, and Penn Carey Law shared how they integrate science, technology, engineering, and math into their work.

Cynthia Dahl, Pinar Yildirim, Della Jenkins, and Mecky Pohlschröder.
Cynthia Dahl of Penn Carey Law, Pinar Yildirim of the Wharton School, Della Jenkins of the School of Social Policy & Practice, and Mecky Pohlschröder of the School of Arts & Sciences spoke on a panel for the 2024 Women in STEM Symposium.

As director of the Detkin Intellectual Property and Technology Legal Clinic, a “teaching law firm” at Penn Carey Law, Cynthia Dahl sees a lot of clients from science, technology, engineering, and math fields and thinks it is important for her to know STEM, so she can help move their creative projects forward and mitigate risk.

Pinar Yildirim, associate professor of marketing in the Wharton School, earned a Ph.D. in engineering before attaining a Ph.D. in marketing and business economics, and she has brought Wharton and School of Engineering & Applied Science (SEAS) students together by cross-listing a course she teaches on technology. She wants students to know that “there are very limited, or very narrow, boundaries between what we label as STEM and what we consider as social sciences.”

Della Jenkins is the executive director of Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy at the School of Social Policy & Practice, helping state and local governments share data across departments and think about the ethics of how data are used. Her team members are not engineers or technologists but people with a social services background who saw the disconnect between data that is available and data needed to make a difference.

Dahl, Yildirim, and Jenkins discussed applications of STEM in their fields, data governance, artificial intelligence, and more at the 2024 Women in STEM Symposium, with the theme “Integrated Vision: Broader Applications of STEM.” Mecky Pohlschröder, professor of biology in the School of Arts & Sciences, moderated the discussion.

Pohlschröder said the COVID-19 pandemic showed that “science is not done—or shouldn’t be done—in some vacuum.” She noted that it’s important to understand the obstacles to health care faced in underserved communities, which scientists may be unaware of, and the fact that community members may not trust scientists. Pohlschröder said increasing diversity in STEM and a closer working relationships between scientists and community members can help address these problems. She launched the fellowship program Penn FERBS (First Exposure to Research in the Biological Sciences), with a focus on community partnerships and leadership development, and a Biology and Society course.

“I think all lawyers need to involve themselves with STEM,” Dahl said, because, as we become more of a data society, “if you don’t speak the language of STEM and of data and of engineers, as a lawyer you are of no help to your clients.”

As an example, she highlighted a module in her class where she brings in engineers for three weeks to partner with lawyers on drafting patent claims. “It’s an incredibly frustrating experience for both of them,” she said, because the engineers want to get too specific and the lawyers too broad. Her message is: “Together, you need to talk about the best part of the way that you’ve been trained to actually get a good result, and at the end of the three weeks they start to see that.”

Yildirim said it’s a challenge to bring interdisciplinary groups together, and when that happens, another challenge is whether journals and other parties are open to cross-disciplinary methods. Pohlschröder said despite significant promotion of interdisciplinary work, it can be challenging to get it properly evaluated, because evaluations are typically done from a specific point of view.

Jenkins also cited a challenge in getting people to consider the applications of STEM in the first place: “I think there are countless people, and I suspect many of them women, whose cultural upbringing, inclination, and also professional training have kind of reinforced this feeling that STEM is scary or inaccessible or not for you,” she said.

Camila E.R. Pazos, a third-year mechanical engineering student, said in wrapping up the event, “I’ve always struggled with the rigid boundaries society or even myself have defined as what is STEM. Today, we were challenged to rethink these boundaries, and we have learned that it’s about embracing an interdisciplinary view of STEM, constantly celebrating these differences and how they can empower us to move forward.”

Created in 2016, the Women in STEM Symposium is held in March in honor of Women’s History Month, to celebrate and raise awareness of women in STEM. The Weingarten Center and the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs host the Symposium, with past themes that include mentoring and role models, wellness, and student experiences.