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AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors Inspire Girls to Pursue STEM

A smiling woman is flanked by two smiling girls wearing lab goggles and striped shirts
Jasmine Sadler, center, is collaborating with fellow Ambassador Arlyne Simon on FEMME Pals, a project to connect girls with women engineers. | Joel Keith Miller Jr

In September 2019, AAAS and Lyda Hill Philanthropies announced the selection of 125 AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors. They are women innovators who serve as role models and inspire girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. With the support of grants up to $10,000 from the foundation, these women are able to take on a vast array of projects, from a science-themed video game to a pandemic escape room. One of the Ambassadors’ most recent endeavors was a “reverse mentoring” project to learn directly from their target audience how to engage with them on social media.

Middle and High School Girls Mentor the Ambassadors

From the start, the IF/THEN® initiative (which stands for “if you support women in STEM, then they can change the world”) included the input of its primary audience -- middle and high school-aged girls. An IF/THEN® Girls Advisory Council of more than 150 10-to-18-year-olds provided input on the selection of the Ambassadors. Now some of these young women are participating in a role reversal: they are mentoring AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors on using TikTok to make and share short videos. The effort was organized in the lead-up to National STEAM Day on November 8 and 9.

Alisha, a high school senior from Tampa, Florida, met virtually with AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassador Erika Kurt to share her TikTok knowledge. She also learned about Kurt’s career and motivations, which was particularly helpful because she’s interested in entering a similar field. Alisha says she’s part of the girls’ council because, “I’ve sat in countless STEM clubs where I am nearly the only girl - not because of a lack of interest, but because of pressure to conform to societal expectations… and I really believe that enabling girls to pursue STEM will make a difference in the world and help solve the challenges we face as a society.”

AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassador Myria Perez participated in a mentoring session to learn how to share her passion for paleontology with teenagers in a fun way. “It is one thing to guess what a teenager would be interested in learning, and another to hear it from someone who is the audience,” she says. Perez, like several of the other ambassadors who participated in these sessions, already uses TikTok, but she learned several new tips and tricks. She has since posted a new TikTok video online that has done quite well.

Grant Program Funds Ambassadors to Make Change

As for the mini-grant program, “We were thrilled when Lyda Hill Philanthropies announced they were adding this funding to the AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassador program,” says Emily Therese Cloyd, Director of the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology, which helps manage the AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassador program. “These mini-grant funds are supporting the design, execution, and evaluation of Ambassador-led projects that engage middle school girls in STEM and provide a platform for Ambassadors and other women in STEM to tell their stories.”

With her grant, AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassador Beata Edyta Mierzwa is combining her skills as a molecular biologist and artist to create a video game called Microscopya. In the game, the player will journey through a cell, repairing what has gone awry by solving puzzles based on real molecular mechanisms (e.g., DNA base pairing or building proteins). “Though I have experience with creating science illustrations and fashion, developing a video game is a completely new endeavor for me,” says Mierzwa. She put together a team of developers and experts from the gaming industry, a storyteller, and a composer. She is also gathering input along the way from teachers, science outreach organizations, and students. Mierzwa says the AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassador program and its network of other women in STEM “completely transformed the way I think about my research, science education, and possibilities for the future.” 

Another AAAS IF/THEN® ambassador, Tiffany Panko, is co-writing a coffee table “ABC” book about women’s health, P is for Pap Smear, targeted at Deaf middle school girls. The book will be accompanied by a video series of Deaf women in STEM translating the book in American Sign Language and explaining who they are and what they do. Panko and her co-authors Susan Rizzo and Corrine Occhino have written part of the book and are now getting feedback from Deaf middle school girls, using groups of two on Zoom – Panko hopes the small groups will minimize the awkwardness of talking about their bodies and their health. The books will be donated to Deaf K-12 schools across the United States.


A woman and several girls sit on the floor and collaborate on a worksheet
AAAS IF/Then Ambassadors serve as role models and inspire girls to pursue careers in STEM. | Friendly House

Erika Kurt, President and CEO of the Small World Initiative, which crowdsources antibiotic discovery and encourages students to pursue STEM careers, is creating an “escape room” using holograms, projectors, costumes, and props. Participants will travel through time, making “key infectious disease discoveries and take preventative action to save our future and stop the next pandemic.” They will interact with little-known yet important women scientists and take on several different roles during the hour-long experience, thus learning about infectious disease, women in STEM, and different STEM-related careers.

“While my goal is to directly impact middle and high school girls, I also want to change the perceptions of the other people in their lives who may influence them: their parents, male peers, and teachers,” says Kurt. She plans on piloting it with several all-girl schools, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control fellowship program for teachers, museums, and Girl Scout troops, once it is safe to gather. If it is successful, she hopes to package it for schools to use on their own.

A pair of AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors, Jasmine Sadler and Arlyne Simon, are collaborating on their grant project to set up a “FEMME Pals” website. The platform will facilitate women engineers signing up as pen pals to Black girls between the ages of 10-18, helping them to stay in touch by automating both reminders and outreach to students, done electronically and with mailed care packages.

More About the AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors

Freely downloadable video interviews, two-page biographies and statements, and photos of the AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors have been compiled in the IF/THEN® Collection. The “free digital library of authentic and relatable images and videos of women STEM innovators” highlights their careers across business, sports, entertainment, fashion, and academia. These materials are available so that schools, museums, and other STEM engagement groups can have high quality content of diverse women scientists representing multiple scientific fields (such as in this tweet from the International Museum of Surgical Science). The ambassadors are also memorialized in 3-D printed statues that will be unveiled next year in Dallas, Texas – the largest collection of women statutes ever assembled in one place (two previews with a few of the statues have been on display in New York City and Dallas). 

Sadler and Simon of FEMME Pals echo the motivation behind the IF/THEN® initiative overall: “One of the reasons many girls do not pursue STEM is because they don’t see others who look like them as scientists and inventors. Can you imagine how each girl will feel receiving a quarterly personalized email or postcard or gift from a real scientist, engineer and inventor? We want them to see it, so they can be it!”