EmpowHER Conference celebrates girls in STEM, inspires a new generation to seek out science
Fittingly held on Feb. 11, designated as the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the second EmpowHER Conference was an inspirational success for more than 80 girls from local schools in attendance. The goal of the mini conference, presented by the Office of Outreach in the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) and sponsored by the Society of Women in Science and Mathematics (SWSM), aimed at encouraging 8th-10th grade girls interested in pursuing STEM majors to come and see that there is no particular way a scientist has to look and realize they can be a scientist, too.
Held at the Auburn University Student Center, the EmpowHER Conference kicked off with an exciting welcome message from Jessica Gilpin, an Auburn alumna with a PhD in marine biology who is now a senior lecturer at Vanderbilt University. “Today is a time to think about your passions and what you like and a time to meet scientists and be inspired to explore new things,” said Gilpin.
The girls attended four breakout sessions that showcased some of the great women undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty from COSAM.
In one session, Jamonica Moore, a graduate student in COSAM’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, gave a talk that highlighted alternative ways to use STEM to achieve life-enriching careers. She discussed translatable skills she has gained through post-baccalaureate and graduate studies and how those skills can be applicable on a resume. She gave girls a better idea of where they can apply STEM skills in academia, industrial jobs, and federal jobs.
Another session, led by Joanna Sztuba-Solinska, Assistant Professor in COSAM’s Department of Biological Sciences, focused on solving the mysteries of viral RNA. Sztuba-Solinska gave girls an insight into her research on the genetic material of RNA and explained how scientists can create fun outreach activities like the coloring book she authored that promotes women and girls in science.
The conference also featured an undergraduate panel discussion led by Kiana Sargent, a sophomore majoring in Biochemistry; Madison Wright, a junior majoring in Biomedical Sciences (Pre-Pharmacy concentration); and Pilar McGuire, a sophomore majoring in Biomedical Sciences (Pre-Medicine concentration). The three students discussed why they chose their majors and the importance of student involvement, communication with professors, and volunteer efforts. They also gave the girls great advice from the perspective of an incoming freshman student and highlighted the importance of sleep and mental health.
In a fourth session, Postdoctoral Fellow Abby Beatty and Graduate Student Amanda Clark, both from COSAM’s Department of Biological Sciences, explained to the girls how their journey in science evolved from pre-medicine disciplines to reptilian physiology. Beatty and Clark’s session concluded on a lively note when girls got to observe and hold a snake, showing that reptilian research can be fun!
Girls in attendance got to participate in an “18-minute marshmallow challenge” – a hands-on STEM learning experience that promoted teamwork, sharing of ideas, goal setting, and critical thinking. With a goal of building the tallest, free-standing structure with only a marshmallow, 20 sticks of spaghetti, and a few other supplies, the girls cheered for the winning team and reflected on the activity process with Gilpin.
Kimberly Mulligan-Guy, COSAM Assistant Dean of Inclusion, Equity and Diversity, concluded the conference with a passionate, thoughtful discussion on the future of women in STEM. “We are here today to promote equal access to women in STEM fields. Globally, only 33 percent of researchers are women. We hope that the events and discussions today will make you think about science in a different way and help you see that you belong,” said Mulligan-Guy.
She reflected personally on her journey as a scientist and how she fell in love with research. She concluded with an inspirational message to the girls stating, “I look in this room today, and I see agents of change. I see innovators and people that science needs. You belong in this space exactly as you are.
Phalanda Johnson, who brought nine 10th grade girls from Montgomery’s LAMP High School to EmpowHER, said they are happy to be back for a second time. “We attended before, and the girls always look forward to this event. They love the panel discussions and the opportunity to ask questions!”
COSAM’s Office of Outreach plans for EmpowHER to become an annual event with the continued goal of shattering the stereotypes of who belongs in STEM by celebrating girls interested in these fields and encouraging them to thrive. By seeing how other women scientists have embraced their passion for science, a new generation of girls will be inspired and see this same passion in themselves.
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