What a young girl can learn from Utah women about STEM education and careers

Published: Tuesday, July 15 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

Lara Ionescu Silverman, Ph.D., is senior manager of research & development at Discgenics, the company pioneering stem cell therapy to heal degenerating and diseased spinal discs. She helped develop the patented scientific process the company is using for therapy, Wednesday, July 9, 2014, in Salt Lake City.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When Lara Ionescu Silverman was a young girl, she would ready herself for bed and then her father would read her a bedtime story — from a children’s encyclopedia.

Her mother, the chief executive officer of a technology firm, and her father, an architect, moved the family from Romania to the United States and from those early days placed their priorities directly on education for her and her sister.

“I was very privileged to have that support early on,” Ionescu Silverman said, noting she developed a strong affinity for science and technology that was supported by her parents.

Today, the married mother of an infant daughter is running a lab on the “cutting edge of science," one of the small percentage of women who studied in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, fields that are in search of qualified people.

Utah's Prosperity 2020 STEM Education Initiative is working to tap into the curiosity of young girls and boys to ready them for STEM careers, a place were women are underrepresented. While women make up nearly half of the workforce, they were only 26 percent of the STEM workforce, according to figures released last year by the U.S. Census Bureau. And that's a drop from levels in the 1990s.

Here are the stories of four women who are succeeding in STEM fields and the lessons they can teach about succeeding in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Lara Ionescu Silverman

“There was a very high expectation placed on me,” Ionescu Silverman says of her upbringing.

She recalled getting a B-plus on a (history) final in eighth grade and was grounded for a month. After that experience, she said, she never got another B.

She received her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Princeton University and her doctorate in biomedical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Concurrent with her graduate studies, she worked at the UPenn Technology Transfer Office assisting with patenting novel inventions.

Ionescu Silverman, 30, is now the senior manager of research and development for Salt Lake City-based DiscGenics — a biotechnology company developing advanced spinal therapeutics to treat patients with diseases of the intervertebral disc.

“This is the pinnacle of what you can hope for as a scientist,” Ionescu Silverman said. “You’re in this totally new field and going to help millions of people. It’s a really exciting place to be.”

Despite her success, she often finds herself one of the only executive-level women in her field.

“I never feel like it’s a detriment to me,” she said. “If anything, when there are other women in the room, there is a sense of camaraderie that can’t be replaced in any other way. I’ll see another woman and there will be (a) connection because there are so few of us.”

Angela Trego

Angela Trego, 44, was often the only woman in the room in her chosen career field of mechanical engineering. The daughter of a nuclear physicist father and a mother who was educated in computer science, Trego gravitated toward math and science as a child. She eventually received her master's degree and doctorate from Brigham Young University.

A natural leader, she has held several management and executive-level positions during her career, including stints with Boeing, Varian Median Systems and ATK as director of engineering. Today, she is a member of the faculty in technology management at Utah Valley University.

She said becoming an engineer offered her many appealing options careerwise that satisfied her desire to build and develop innovative technology.