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

Published: Tuesday, July 15 2014 9:14 p.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, July 15 2014 9:14 p.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.

“Mechanical engineering allowed me to do creative (things) and design products,” Trego said. “But it also included a lot more science and math.”

It was during her undergraduate collegiate studies, however, that she began to notice the low number of women who were pursuing technology- and science-oriented education.

“I was either the only girl or there was one other girl in my class that was also in mechanical engineering,” she said. By the time she went to graduate school, she was typically the only female in the class, she said.

She was undeterred, and her competitive nature pushed her to prove herself equal to her male counterparts.

That drive has stoked her passion to expose more young females to the many opportunities that exist today through STEM education.

“There are a lot of areas in STEM where you don’t have to be great at math, but you have to be able to do math,” Trego said. “Not everyone has to take and pass differential equations.”

She said developing curriculum that shows students the “fun” and creative aspects of technology would aid greatly in getting more young girls and boys interested in STEM fields.

“If it's not fun, then they are not going to do it,” she said.

She is currently working with Women Tech Council — a nonprofit organization focusing on women in the technology sector collaborating to build, innovate and mentor each other to advance their careers.

She said one of her goals is to create more awareness and opportunities for women to network with other women and men in STEM fields.

“Showing industry that there are other options (and) other possibilities, so let's make sure to be open-minded about that,” Trego said.

Carine Clark

Carine Clark, 51, is one of the few women to break through the glass ceiling and into the boardroom.

The Utah County mother of two boys is a former senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Symantec. In addition, she was an executive at Altiris and Novell. Currently, she is the president and CEO of Allegiance Software — a South Jordan-based data analytics firm.

Clark received a master’s degree in business administration as well as a bachelor’s degree in organizational communications from BYU. Clark said she is supportive of guiding more women into the tech sector by encouraging young girls into STEM.

“They have more opportunity if they stay in those disciplines,” she said, adding that she would like to provide a positive role model for young Utah women who aspire to become leaders in technology.

“I want to make sure that women aren’t stopping themselves (from potential success),” she said.

Clark said that while she is often the only female executive in her workplace environment, she has never let it be an obstacle to her career goals despite having to overcome some challenges along the way.

“I went to an event and there were no women there. People asked me, 'Whose wife are you? Who is your husband?' It's disheartening — because I was there on my own credentials as a CEO,” Clark said. “So the challenge is not to be bugged — but to face it head on and just try to be funny. I say, 'My husband's name is Bryan, but I'm actually the CEO of a technology company.'"

Sometimes when she explains that she is the CEO, people say, “'Oh, did you start the company?' Like that's the only way I could be CEO,” Clark said.

“It's unfortunate, but it happens more than you could imagine,” she said. “I often have to muscle my way (into discussions, decisions, etc.), but can always hold my own once I get up to bat. I can give people reasons to believe me once I get in.”

Clark said to get more females into STEM education, the process should start early and be broad-based but focused.

“We need kids in robotics because it’s a good way to get young people interested in computers and technology. We need them playing chess because it’s a good way to understand how strategy works and to get their brains (working),” she said. “We need them to do music because it’s very math-driven. (It’s) exposing them to lots of interesting wonderful things that will help their brain do better in science, technology, programming and math.”

She said the reality is that if (kids) get jobs in science, technology, engineering and math, they will get better jobs.

“There are not enough students out there who have those skills, so there are more jobs than people to fill them,” Clark said.

She also noted that young people today are “digital natives” who have grown up using technology and multitasking while doing homework. Those students, particularly females, could have a major impact on the future as leaders in STEM, but they should also be versatile and well-rounded.

Nalini Nadkarni

Nalini Nadkarni, 59, teaches biology at the University of Utah. She is also the director of the U.’s Center for Science and Mathematics Education. She received her bachelor’s degree in biology at Brown University and her doctorate in forest ecology from the University of Washington.

A mother of two children and daughter of a scientist father who emigrated from India, Nadkarni admitted that her road to success in her chosen career could have been less difficult if she would had been exposed to more females in her workplace.

“(Had I seen) some role models of older women faculty who had kids and who were working at the lab, it probably would have made my pathway easier,” she said. Instead, she navigated her own path.

“The challenge that comes with being a woman or a minority in any field is … there is a bit more of a subtle block from not being exposed to others who are like you,” Nadkarni said. Not having someone to observe or receive mentoring from can make navigating a new environment especially difficult.

While she said she never felt any “direct prejudice” due to her gender or ethnicity, she said her self-confidence was impacted.

“If you don’t see people like yourself in those upper-level positions, it’s just harder to see yourself there,” Nadkarni explained. “I find it important for me as a woman and as a brown woman to place myself in front of (female) students, to talk to them and have interactions with them so that they allow themselves to see themselves in the position that I am. There is no substitute for that.”

She said that as more people become aware of women in STEM positions, attitudes will change and opportunities will be more available for young women to pursue.

She also said that the process must begin in elementary school where teachers, parents and others of influence must instill in both boys and girls the confidence that they can do math and science and deal with technology.

Some local school districts are implementing such strategies to address and encourage STEM education, particularly with young girls.

Hollie Pettersson, director of evidence-based learning for Canyons School District, said among the keys to promoting more young people is to tout the benefits of STEM learning and dispel the myths that persist about girls and STEM education.

For instance, one myth is that female students are not high achievers in math and science, and that girls are verbal while boys are analytical.

According to the American Association of University Women, high school female and male students perform equally well in math and science. Specifically, females in high school earn more math and science credits than males, and female grade point averages, aggregated across math and science classes, are higher than those of males.

Pettersson, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Utah, said that outdated stereotypes and feelings of inadequacy can hold girls back academically. Research showed that the stereotype that girls are not as good as boys in math can have negative consequences, she said.

“When girls know or are made aware of this stereotype, they perform much more poorly than boys,” she said. “However, when they are told that boys and girls perform equally well on a test, there is no gender difference.”

The research indicated that it is possible that girls are internalizing this stereotype and talking themselves out of achieving in math and science when, in reality, they are doing just as well or better than boys, she said.

“When it comes to academic skills, success breeds success, so keeping students moving forward in their math and science skills is key,” she said. “Additionally, most learning is language-mediated, therefore, students need to be able to talk about, write about and read about STEM in many aspects of their daily life.”

Email: jlee@deseretnews.com

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