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AAAS S&T Policy Fellows Inspire Future Scientists at Young Women’s Conference on Non-Traditional Careers

In a recent discussion with AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows, several young women said that animal anatomy had turned them off to science. “I didn’t like the pig dissection,” said Xena Issifi, an eighth-grader from Paul Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

AAAS S&T Policy Fellow Tracee W. Gilbert, a systems engineer working for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was ready with her answer during the Young Women’s Conference on Non-Traditional Careers. “I had the same experience,” she said. “We dissected frogs, cats, and a pig. I knew that I didn’t want to do biology. But science is such a broad field that I was able to pursue physics, which was a better fit for me.”

(L-R): AAAS S&T Policy Fellows Sandra J. Laney, Tracee W. Gilbert, Charlayne C. Hayling, and Marcelo D. Vinces discussed science and engineering careers with eighth-grader Xena Issifi and other young women at an “aspiration-building” event.

Another AAAS S&T Policy Fellow, Sandra J. Laney, quickly noted that women are significantly underrepresented across the fields of physics, engineering, and computer science. Laney, a senior adviser at the U.S. Department of State, encouraged Issifi and other teens at the conference to consider the entire spectrum of scientific disciplines available to them.

“Science is not just that frog you dissected that you didn’t like,” said Laney, who is currently working on a State Department program to encourage more women to pursue science careers. “You may not like biology. But you might love astronomy or mathematics. Don’t rule anything out.”

The 16 March discussion at Gallaudet University was intended to help young women imagine themselves as successful professionals in an array of careers involving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The conference, sponsored by the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), focused in particular on “non-traditional” fields in which women are underrepresented.

Ric Weibl, director of the AAAS Center for Careers in Science and Technology, talks with attendees at the Young Women’s Conference on Non-Traditional Careers.

“This event is working against messages that sometimes tell young girls and women they cannot aspire to be whatever they want to be,” explained Ric Weibl, director of the AAAS Center for Careers in Science and Technology, who directed the association’s participation in the conference. “It is an aspiration-building opportunity. We want to tell girls, ‘If you want to be a scientist or an engineer, you can do it. You must stay in school, and you must graduate, but you can do it.’”

More than 400 young women, from eighth-graders through first-year college students, took part in the conference, said co-organizer Connie Cordovilla, associate director for human rights and community relations at the American Federation of Teachers. “It’s a career-planning and learning experience for attendees,” Cordovilla explained. “We want to reach young people while they are still thinking about their career goals and aspirations.”

But AAAS S&T Policy Fellow Charlayne C. Hayling emphasized that older students can still pursue science and engineering, too. “While early intervention at the middle- or high-school level is helpful, college students should know that it’s not too late for them,” said Hayling, a behavioral scientist at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She is working on policies to help improve the lives of children and families.

Laney agreed, noting that she began her higher-education by majoring in visual arts at a community college. “I was afraid to do science,” she told young women at the conference. “Then I took a biology class. It inspired me. I loved it, and I went on to get my bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D degrees in biology. So, definitely keep your minds and your options open.”

Today, Laney studies an infectious tropical disease called lymphatic filariasis, or elephantiasis. This disfiguring illness, afflicting 120 million people worldwide and threatening more than 1.3 billion in 72 countries, is caused by filarial parasites, transmitted to humans by mosquitoes, the World Health Organization reports. While conducting research, Laney told young women, she has traveled to many different parts of the world, from Egypt to Trinidad.

Molecular biologist Marcelo D. Vinces, an S&T policy fellow assigned to the National Science Foundation’s Biology Directorate, pointed out that studying science and technology can enrich everyone’s life—whether or not it turns into a career. Understanding climate change, evolution, stem cell research, and other science-based topics helps young people become more informed voters and citizens. “No matter what you do in life,” he said, “it’s good to know something about the science and technology that affects all of us.”

Opportunities to interact with role models like the AAAS S&T policy fellows may help inspire girls to pursue science, engineering and other “non-traditional” jobs, said conference founder Julia A. Martas, state civil rights and gender equity coordinator for the District of Columbia Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). That’s also why the conference organizers recruited various non-traditional employers as well as physicist George Carruthers, a NASA Science Superstar, to be on hand. Carruthers talked with young women about his invention of the far ultraviolet camera/spectrograph, the first moon-based observatory, which was used on the Apollo 16 mission.

Although women represent half the U.S. population, they make up less than one-fourth of the total workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). Data from the National Science Foundation shows that women are particularly underrepresented across the fields of engineering, computer science and physics.

Keynote speaker Alice Popejoy, the Phoebe S. Leboy Public Policy Fellow at AWIS, said two psychological phenomena—“stereotype threat” and “imposter syndrome”—can hinder young women’s success.

Studies have shown that girls and boys earn similar grades on tests if they first look at textbooks with gender-neutral photographs, Popejoy said. Yet, girls underperform, compared with boys, if they preview textbooks that only show stereotypical images of men and boys engaged in research activities. Imposter syndrome works in much the same way to undermine girls’ confidence. “You may have the same qualifications as a man in the same job, but if you don’t see anyone else who looks like you, you may feel as though you don’t belong,” Popejoy explained.

After hearing from the AAAS S&T policy fellows, eighth-grader Xena Issifi wanted to know whether studying computer science would require investigating the anatomy of amphibians. “No!” Laney assured her, prompting laughter.

The AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships Program gives scientists and engineers an opportunity to take part in the federal policymaking process. Fellows selected through a highly competitive process work in congressional offices and executive branch agencies, learning firsthand about issues at the intersection of science and policy.

The AAAS Center for Careers in Science and Technology leverages the resources of multiple units within the association to provide information, training, and opportunities related to building, or helping others to pursue, successful scientific careers.


Learn more about the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships.

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Careers in Science and Technology.