In the workshop’s first panel, Thomas Rudin, director of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Board on Higher Education and Workforce, moderated a discussion with two college students and a recent Ph.D. graduate on what does and does not work in workforce preparation. “Oftentimes, we have workshops about subjects that affect students, yet we rarely hear the student voice, and so we thought it important to start our workshop today by hearing from students who are directly influenced, and will be influenced, by the policy decisions that are made at the federal, state, and institutional level and ultimately by some of the work that we are beginning today,” said Rudin. The three panelists were Kenneth Gibbs, who received his Ph.D. from Stanford University and is a Cancer Research fellow at the National Cancer Institute (NCI); Camila Ballesteros, a student at Montgomery College (Maryland) pursuing a degree in information technology (IT) cybersecurity; and Abby Estabillo, a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, majoring in electrical engineering, who transferred from Montgomery College after receiving her associate degree. Estabillo is also a part-time intern at the National Academy of Engineering working on website development.
Rudin began the discussion by asking the panelists to describe the most and least effective aspects of their preparation for a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) career. Gibbs replied that he benefit-ted from having outstanding educational opportunities starting with the great public schools in North Carolina, including a statewide residential high school for math and science. From there, he was a Meyerhoff Scholar at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), received his
Ph.D. training at Stanford University, served as an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Policy fellow at the National Science Foundation (NSF), and would soon be starting his full-time position as a federal STEM policy analyst after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at NCI. He noted that his parents, the first in both of their families to go to college, instilled the importance of education in him from an early age and have been supportive throughout his education. “While this is not something we can turn into policy, it is important to recognize that home factors matter,” said Gibbs. He also attributed the research internships he participated in starting in high school as playing an important role both in stimulating his interest in science and in preparing him for the workforce. “If I had not worked in laboratories, I would not have liked my science classes because they were taught as a series of facts disconnected from life,” said Gibbs. The financial support he received from UMBC, the National Institutes of Health, NSF, and AAAS enabled him to pursue the many opportunities he had both within and beyond the formal educational system.
With regard to what could be done better, Gibbs said career development advice and opportunities are often in short supply in the biomedical sciences. “In the biomedical sciences, there has been a great increase in the number of Ph.D.’s relative to the number of jobs, so we need to pay greater attention to what we are actually preparing people for as they go through graduate school,” he said. “We need to make sure students know the skills they are developing are applicable in a wide variety of jobs beyond becoming a professor.” In his case, he would not have imagined 5 years ago he would be employed as a science policy analyst even though he now recognizes he has all of the skills needed to be successful in this field.
Ballesteros, who hopes to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Central Intelligence Agency after graduating from college, said Montgomery College provided both financial and advising support she finds invaluable. Faculty members there take an active role in ensuring students get help with academic challenges—though she does well in her IT classes, she struggles with math—and providing them with career advice. Regarding her successful transition to the University of Maryland, Estabillo credited a gateway program at Montgomery College and the strong partnership between Montgomery College and the University of Maryland that prepared her for the rigor of upper-level engineering courses she takes as a college junior. She also noted the value of the career fairs the University of Maryland holds, which have provided her with the opportunity to talk with the representatives of many potential employers and practice her interview skills.
Rudin asked Estabillo about any specific challenges she has experienced as a woman in an engineering program. One challenge she is facing now
is that, as a junior, her classes are small and of the 30 or so students in class only 3 are women. “It can be intimidating when the professor asks a question,” she said. “I’m afraid to raise my hand because I’m afraid to say something wrong.” Ballesteros had a similar response. “Being one of the few women in a class of mostly men is intimidating, and I’m afraid of giving the wrong answer and being laughed at,” said Ballesteros. Speaking from the perspective of an African American and a member of an underrepresented group, Gibbs said during college he was surrounded by women and other students of color, but that was not the case when he went to graduate school. “In a building with 600 people, I was the only black person who was not a technician, mailman, or janitor,” he said. “I used to laugh there were more black presidents of the United States than there were senior faculty in the Stanford School of Medicine,” he added. That type of environment sends a message about who belongs in science, said Gibbs. In the case of women, he noted, 60 percent of the Ph.D. students in the life sciences are women, but the number of women faculty hires is not representative of that fact. He did caution, though, that there are different issues for women and students of color in different STEM disciplines. “We would do well to bring a level of finesse to this discussion instead of just calling it a STEM issue,” said Gibbs.
Rudin then opened the discussion to the workshop at large, and Jodi Wesemann, from the American Chemical Society, asked the panelists if they could provide advice on how to take what is a personal process and build effective programs that could provide a foundation to the individual pathways that people take to STEM careers. Gibbs said making professional development skills part of the curriculum would be a big help. While he received great training in biology during his Ph.D. program, he was not prepared to create a resume or a cover letter or to interview for jobs. Estabillo said the University of Maryland has a group that e-mails engineering students weekly about job openings and internship opportunities and provides the opportunity to engage in mock interviews. She called this program particularly helpful. Ballesteros added that she benefited from similar programs both in high school and at Montgomery College that have helped her land internships, find mentors, develop interviewing skills, and create professional resumes and cover letters. The program at Montgomery College even provides advice on how to dress for interviews, said Ballesteros. Gibbs added that at the graduate student and postdoctoral level, there need to be incentive structures to allow students to pursue professional development opportunities, such as attending workshops and securing internships outside of the laboratory. “Depending on how you are
funded, you can have more or less freedom to pursue and explore these other experiences,” said Gibbs. Rudin said this is an important point that warrants further examination in the context of those whom Ph.D. programs should benefit most—the student or the professor. He also noted the emphasis all three panelists placed on the importance of early exposure to the world outside of the classroom.
Returning to the remarks Ballesteros and Estabillo made regarding being a woman in classes filled with men, Crystal Bailey, from the American Physical Society, asked them if they would comment on what drew them to their respective fields and if they encountered any resistance from family or community members to their interest in male-dominated fields. Estabillo said both her brother and sister-in-law received nursing degrees in the Philippines and her father questioned why she wanted to be an engineer when nursing seemed a more suitable career, even though, as she put it, “I am better at math than with blood.” He became more supportive when he realized she could make a better living as an engineer than as a nurse. She also noted the Society of Women Engineers provides a good support system for female engineering students. Ballesteros said her father is very supportive of her career choice—she was the family’s computer expert and electrical repair person from an early age—but her mother regularly voices doubts she can succeed in this field. “I do struggle with this,” said Ballesteros.
Kelvin Droegemeier, from the National Science Board, followed up on this question by asking the panelists about the factors that shaped their thinking about possible STEM careers and helped them maintain their interests in STEM up to this point in their lives. Gibbs replied that his parents stressed education and his dad would make up math facts for him and his sister starting from when they were children. They also encouraged his curiosity as a child—he wanted to be a meteorologist and his mother got him books on the weather. He also had many black teachers as a child, whom he believes were “in cahoots with my parents to encourage my interest in science.” Estabillo said she was always good at math, but first became interested in engineering thanks to the Academy of Engineering at her high school in Silver Spring, Maryland. “There were many girls there, which made engineering attractive to me,” she said. She credited the teachers at her high school with encouraging her to pursue engineering as a career, and in particular one female teacher who was her first mentor and provided good career advice.
Ted Childs Jr., from Ted Childs, LLC, then commented that when he worked for diversity at IBM, which like many technical organizations is the epitome of a male-dominated culture, he was approached by a group of women researchers at IBM who were concerned by the lack of senior women in the research organization. A discussion about possible activities ensued, and the group came up with the idea of what became called the Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering (EXITE) program, an
international series of 1-week summer camps for eighth grade girls run by women at IBM. The curricula for these camps are designed by IBM women scientists and engineers, who also act as the camp faculty. He recounted that one girl arrived thinking engineers only drove trains, while a camp participant in Mexico was so engaged by her EXITE experience she went home and started her own online bakery business. “In every country where IBM has these camps there is a technology gap that can be heavily influenced by encouraging young women to think about what is possible,” said Childs. He added that the nation must engage young women in science as part of its national talent strategy.
Estabillo said one obstacle in her pathway to a career has been the catch-22 of companies wanting to hire interns with technical experience beyond the classroom, but it is hard to get experience without first getting an internship. Ballesteros noted the same problem. “If we want women to work in these fields, we need to introduce them to STEM at an early age and provide the opportunity to get the skills and technical experience outside of the class,” said Ballesteros.
Meredith Hatch, from Achieving the Dream, Inc., asked the panelists how they get their information about career opportunities and if there was any additional information they would like to have. Ballesteros said she gets information from her counselor and mentor at Montgomery College. Her professors have also been generous with career advice, offering to provide references and informing her about opportunities for internships and financial aid. Estabillo said that a program at Montgomery College that helped her was a learning community the school formed around students taking Physics 1 and Calculus 2. Students in these classes were kept together during their time at the school and almost the entire cohort transferred together to the University of Maryland. The members of this learning community not only support one another in their studies but also act as an extended information-gathering and dissemination community.
The final question to the panel came from Melvin Greer of Lockheed Martin, who asked the panelists if they had industry mentors and to comment on what age they thought would be appropriate to find such mentors. Ballesteros said she does not have an industry mentor and wishes she did. “That would be a great connection for me and provide me with insights into what goes on in the working world. I would be more prepared once I graduate,” she said. In her opinion, she thinks students should have industry mentors before entering their senior year of high school so they can have some idea of the career options before applying to college. Estabillo and Gibbs agreed the younger the better, and Gibbs said such mentors could also come from the academic research world, depending on what subjects interest a student. He also thought that near peers can be important sources of support as well.
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