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IF/THEN Ambassadors are Inspiring the Next Generation of STEMM Talent

IF/THEN Ambassadors group photo with statues
AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors pose in front of their statues. Photo credit: IF/THEN Collection.

When it comes to representation, it is often said that you can’t be what you can’t see. What if you saw 120 life-size 3D-printed statues of women in STEMM?

To kick off Women’s History Month in March, the Smithsonian will present exactly that—  #IfThenSheCan - The Exhibit. On display in Smithsonian gardens and in and around select Smithsonian museums from March 5–27, the exhibit will be the largest collection of statues of women ever assembled together. The statues represent participants in the AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors program, funded by Lyda Hill Philanthropies. Bringing together 125 women from a wide range of disciplines to serve as high-profile role models, the program’s mission is to advance women in STEMM by inspiring and empowering middle school girls.

The AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors use their skills and expertise to show young girls that they too can pursue STEMM fields. With all the different mediums that vie for attention, successful outreach and engagement means meeting middle school girls where they are.

For example, AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors are featured on YouTube through partnerships with popular channels like GoldieBlox and on educational shows like Mission Unstoppable. Capturing the nation’s attention during Superbowl LVI earlier this month, three AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors—Karina Popovich (CEO, Makers for Change), Mitu Khandaker (CEO, Glow Up Games), and Tiffany Kelly (Founder & CEO, Curastory)—even appeared alongside TODAY Show Savannah Guthrie, Hoda Kotb, Craig Melvin, Al Roker and Carson Daly in a PSA. They also engage with young girls interested in STEMM fields through events like AAAS Family Science Days, programs like the Girl Scouts of the USA and on virtual platforms.

Jaye C. Gardiner with IF/THEN Ambassador statue
Jaye C. Gardiner, Ph.D. Photo credit: AAAS IF/THEN Collection.

For Jaye C. Gardiner, Ph.D., a cancer biologist and illustrator, the most rewarding part about being an AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador has been getting to know her fellow ambassadors. Besides being a researcher, Gardiner combines science and art to make comics about science and the people who do it. Her comics group, JKX Comics, is now working on graphic novel, featuring some of the ambassadors she’s met in being part of the program.

“It’s been amazing having this supportive group to share resources and opportunities, vent, and celebrate with,” she notes.

Ana Maria Porras with IF/THEN Ambassador statue
Ana Maria Porras, Ph.D. Photo credit: AAAS IF/THEN Collection.

Ana Maria Porras, Ph.D., another AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador, sees her participation as an incredible learning opportunity. Her job as a biomedical engineer brings together engineering, crochet art and science communication—something she didn’t know was possible growing up. Porras studies microbes, and due to their small size, she crochets microbes to better understand them and their function in our guts.

“I have learned so much about the kind of professional and woman I want to be through [the other women],” she explains. “I am in awe of the vibrant communities and initiatives we’ve all started together at the local, national, and global levels to inspire the next generation of STEM leaders. I am just starting as an Assistant Professor at the University of Florida, so right now I am getting my lab established and developing my new network in Florida. I am taking my team to identify how my skills can best serve my profession and the community in our state. In terms of public engagement, I am thinking of ideas to train our students to communicate engineering and increase engagement with engineering topics in Spanish.”

Lindsey Dietz with IF/THEN Ambassador statue
Lindsey Dietz, Ph.D. Photo credit: AAAS IF/THEN Collection.

For Lindsey Dietz, Ph.D., a financial economist and stress testing production function lead at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, connecting with a group of passionate women as an AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador has shown her she is not alone in the fight for equity and equality. She also feels the experience has helped her in her career and development. “The rigor of the research-based training and execution of the program events has been over the top in all the best ways. Having a statue is really a surreal experience and a great ice-breaker,” she adds.

Among the many role models whose accomplishments will be represented and celebrated is AAAS’ very own Shirley Malcom, Ph.D., Senior Advisor to the CEO and Director of the SEA Change initiative. For most of her trailblazing career, Malcom has tirelessly worked to improve the accessibility of education and careers in science and engineering for girls and women of color. She co-authored the landmark report “The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science” in 1976 and wrote “Standing Our Ground: A Guidebook for STEM Educators in the Post-Michigan Era” in 2004.

“It’s immensely humbling to be included,” Malcom expresses of her role as an honorary AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador. “It’s not only important that you represent women as a group, but you represent women with other identities—women coming from every racial and ethnic group, women who are LGBTQ, women who come from a rural background or grew up poor. This helps us expand our vision of what a scientist or engineer looks like.”

Malcom has dealt with her fair share of naysayers throughout the years. Her advice to others? “You tune them out,” she says. “They only have an impact to the extent that you let them. When we do something that is not typical for people of our demographic, it can be hard to have enough confidence in yourself to be able to ignore those who may say negative things or do things purposefully to make you feel as if you don’t belong. I found that over time, as I got to know ‘eminent scientists,’ I was able to see them as people and as individuals with strengths and weaknesses. I stopped putting myself down as much.”

During the opening weekend of the #IfThenSheCan exhibit, visitors will be able to explore all 120 statues placed in the Arts + Industries Building, the Smithsonian Castle, and the adjacent Enid A. Haupt Garden. Each statue will feature a unique QR code so visitors can hear more inspiring stories about incredible women in STEMM like Gardiner, Porras, Dietz and Malcom. Then, starting March 7, select statues will spread out to participating Smithsonian galleries across the National Mall through March 27. Visitors of all ages and gender identities will be inspired to dream big and see themselves as scientists-in-the-making.

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