Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) first year student Anjali Chadha still remembers her early classroom days; that boys were taught to explore activities and be adventurous, while she and other girls were not. This observation as a young girl was one factor that motivated Chadha to apply for the AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors program last spring, when AAAS put out the call for ambassadors.
Now officially launched, the AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors Program has gathered more than a hundred women leaders in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), women like Chadha, to serve as role models for middle school girls. This new collaboration with Lyda Hill Philanthropies builds on the notion “if she can see it, then she can be it.” The idea is backed by research that mentors are vital for middle school girls because these students are likely to stop pursuing STEM due to an absence of role models and lack the confidence to follow these challenging career paths.
Although Chadha did not have STEM role models growing up, she was fortunate to have entrepreneurial parents who instilled in her an ambitious attitude.
“As a girl, as a minority, and as someone from a state [Kentucky] that isn’t necessarily highly focused on education, let alone STEM education, I always find myself looking for more. I think it could be so exciting to be a representative for some of those groups, but also to be a helping hand [and] be someone who’s seen as accessible [for young girls] to reach out to for help or advice,” she says.
Chadha’s interest in STEM also led her to create a solution to a real-world problem: water contamination, an issue in her home state of Kentucky. She conducted an independent research project after gathering background information from a Kentucky branch of the U.S. Geological Survey and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet in 2016, ultimately building a sensor that detects arsenic concentrations in drinking water. The desire to inspire girls to explore is also why Chadha started her non-profit, Empowered. She began this project during her first year of high school to teach technical skills, community engagement, career pathways and business skills to minority high school girls.
Along with Chadha, Jennifer Carinci, Program Director of STEM Education Research at AAAS, believes it is imperative to increase the quality and diversity of people entering STEM fields. In her role at AAAS, she works with programs including the National Science Foundation Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, which recruits teachers with strong STEM credentials and places them in high-need schools, and the L'Oréal USA For Women in Science Fellowship that highlights women at the postdoctoral level. With the AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors Program, Carinci says AAAS is responding to research demonstrating “why we’re not getting as many girls in STEM as we could.”
To support women in STEM, the IF/THEN® Initiative has three goals: funding and elevating women in STEM, increase STEM gender diversity portrayal in the media and provide female role models. Thanks to AAAS’ vast network of STEM researchers, communicators and educators, the organization is ideal for undertaking the role model portion, according to the IF/THEN® Ambassadors Program leadership team.
AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors, who range from college students to senior scientists, step in and serve as STEM role models, the lack of which appears to be a major reason many young girls quit pursuing STEM. The ambassador cohort is ethnically diverse, encompasses women from regions across the country, including Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and represents a wide range of organizations, from government to industry to entertainment.
Kristin Lewis, Project Director in the Center for Public Engagement at AAAS, managed the application review process. She recounts, “We had so many terrific applicants. It was really inspiring to be a part of the review process...reading all these things these amazing women do, it’s hard not to feel imposter syndrome.”
One applicant (PhD student Catie Cuan) chosen to be an ambassador stood out to Lewis because she studies robotic technology, motion and choreography, “a ballerina who teaches robots how to dance.” Lewis hopes these ambassadors demonstrate that pursuing STEM does not mean giving up other passions young girls may have.
According to Lewis and Carinci, 125 women were selected as ambassadors from a pool of about 650 applicants, all of whom have impressive credentials. They will meet at the IF/THEN® Summit in Dallas, Texas in October 2019, where they will network with fellow ambassadors, develop their science communication skills, learn best practices for social media, discuss how to engage with middle schoolers, visit school classes, and create a personal electronic press kit with their biographies, personal statements, professional photos and video interviews.
Ambassadors like Chadha will walk away with a support network of collaborators and mentors and the skills needed to feel empowered and comfortable about being a visible presence for middle school girls. Some opportunities to make public appearances already exist through the IF/THEN® Initiative with partners including the Girl Scouts, Marie Claire, the National Girls Collaborative Project, GoldieBlox, and a television show on CBS called “Mission Unstoppable.”
The AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors Program is scheduled to conclude in February 2021. By that time, the AAAS leadership team hopes to see more people, especially young girls, who know the names of real, living scientists and who understand there is a wide scope of STEM careers and opportunities.
Chadha, one of the youngest IF/THEN Ambassadors, is eager to inspire middle school girls throughout the upcoming year and a half. She knows the people who discourage girls from pursuing STEM “can really hold us back, and [they] can really hurt our self-confidence.”
However, she states, “I can also assure any young girl out there for every unsupportive adult, there is an equally supportive adult out there somewhere.”
Chadha and the other AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors are stepping into the spotlight to be those supportive adults.