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Women Innovators Become STEM Ambassadors for Girls

Raychelle Burks at GeekGirlCon
Raychelle Burks (left) holds an insect in the DIYZone at GeekGirlCon 2017. | Girl with the Blue Hair Photography

Catie Cuan did well in middle school math and science classes but "got made fun of a lot for being smart," she recalled. She was also a dancer and "an intensely outgoing person, and as a middle schooler I felt like those identities couldn't always be reconciled with being a good student."

Today, Cuan is a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Stanford University — and a dancer and choreographer who has used robots in her artistic work. She is also one of the American Association for the Advancement of Science IF/THEN ambassadors, a group of women working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics who are sharing their stories and serving as high-profile role models for middle school girls.

One of the goals of her ambassadorship, Cuan said, will be to show off the "multiple identities" of women in STEM. "I have a dance background. I'm now working in engineering, and that's OK," she said. "I see this as a distinct opportunity for people to see others who look like them and think, 'Oh, I don't have to be thinking so small about what I can do in the future.'"

The group of 125 ambassadors, announced in September, will serve as part of Lyda Hill Philanthropies' IF/THEN initiative, a $25 million program to fund and elevate women in STEM as role models. For the next 18 months, the ambassadors will participate in a variety of programs, from meeting with local Girl Scout troops to starring in network television series like CBS's Mission Unstoppable, a weekly program about women working on cutting-edge STEM projects.

Catie Cuan
Cuan worked with an industrial robot for her performance piece OUTPUT. | Kevin Barry/ ThoughtWorks Arts

The Lyda Hill Philanthropies approached AAAS to lead the ambassador program in part because of AAAS's extensive success with other STEM education and public engagement initiatives, such as the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowship and the Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science, said Emily Therese Cloyd, director of the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology, who heads up the new ambassador program.

"The goal of IF/THEN is to shift the way our country — and the world — thinks about women in STEM, and this requires changing the narratives about women STEM professionals and improving their visibility," said Lyda Hill, founder of the philanthropy.

The chance to change that narrative was one of the big reasons Raychelle Burks applied for the ambassadorship. Burks, an analytical chemist and forensic scientist at St. Edward's University in Texas, hopes the program will support girls from historically marginalized communities without telling them they need to "assimilate or conform" to work in the sciences.

"What I want to put out is that we can support girls and women in STEM, that there is a place for them here, and that we will make a place for them, not that they have to conform to preconceived notions and stereotypes," said Burks.

The ambassador program is distinguished by its emphasis on increasing visibility for women in STEM to encompass people who may not consider themselves "scientists," said Cloyd. "We're moving beyond scientists who work at an academic institution and thinking about the ways that a video game designer or a fashion designer might be using STEM every day."

Ellie Maybury
Maybury at a soccer camp at the U17 World Cup in Uruguay in 2018. |

It's an idea that resonated with Ellie Maybury, who wasn't exposed to many STEM career options as a student. A chance encounter with a woman sport scientist had a profound effect on her future. "The penny only dropped for me that I wanted to be a sport scientist when I saw someone else doing it," she said. Today, she now holds that title with U.S. Soccer and was recently selected to share her story and serve as a AAAS IF/THEN ambassador.

"I would have liked to know about more options in STEM instead of just being a doctor or an engineer or a veterinarian," agreed Earyn McGee, an ambassador and herpetology graduate student at the University of Arizona. "I didn't realize how broad the category really was."

Other ambassadors, like Charita Castro, want more middle school girls to see how STEM skills can "be deployed in service of causes we care about." Castro is the chief program officer at GoodWeave International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending child labor in global supply chains. "I'm a social worker at the core, but I use data and research to inform policies and programs to end child labor, forced labor, and child trafficking," she said.

Middle school girls are already interested in a lot of the technology contained in STEM careers, said Heather Chandler, a multimedia producer who has worked in video game production and now owns an escape room business. "When I tell fifth graders that I had worked on Fortnite, they are just beside themselves," she recalled.

Chandler knows there has been "lots of talk about toxicity" toward women in the gaming industry. "So as an ambassador I want to focus on the positive aspects, to show that it's a multifaceted industry and that we need more women engineers and digital artists and game designers."

Charita Castro
Charita Castro at GoodWeave International headquarters. | Charita Castro

"With the group of ambassadors that have been selected, there's a wide range of diversity in terms of geographical location, in terms of ethnicity, in terms of career stage," said Jennifer Carinci, program director of STEM Education Research at AAAS. "It's important educationally for middle school girls to have this exposure."

Carinci, Cloyd, and other AAAS staff led some of the training provided to the ambassadors at an October IF/THEN summit held in Dallas, Texas. The ambassadors learned more about the fundamentals of science communication, developed electronic press kits, worked on strategies to engage with girls on social media and in person, and networked with their fellow ambassadors.

In keeping with their own diversity, the women have a wide variety of plans for their ambassadorships. McGee hopes that the experience will push her further down the path toward someday hosting her own natural history show. Tamar Goulet, a University of Mississippi professor who studies coral reefs, will be Skyping with girls' groups from her Red Sea field site. Burks is in her seventh year of leading DIY Science Zone at GeekGirlCon, a role that she said fits with her pop culture and scientific passions.

"It's hard for me to think of myself as a role model, because I'm a huge goofball," Burks joked. "But I'm the goofball that I get to be, and I'm the nerd that I get to be."

[A version of this article was published in AAAS News & Notes in the Oct. 26, 2019 issue of Science.]