Think of the last time you went to get your car’s engine looked at or needed help recovering files on a computer.
Who helped you?
Odds are, it wasn’t a woman.
Historically, men have dominated science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields.
That can be problematic; the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says STEM occupations grew at twice the rate of other jobs from 2009 to 2015 and tend to pay more than the national average.
Women make up half of the nation’s college-educated workforce but only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce, according to 2016 data from the National Science Board. Women tend to be well-represented in the social and life sciences and underrepresented in fields such as engineering, where women comprise 15 percent of the workforce.
But the gender gap might continue to close as young Arizona women enter STEM fields through school or extracurricular programs, kickstarting their STEM careers while still in their teens.
The working world of STEM
TGen Chief Operating Officer Tess Burleson said there is catch-up to do because men tend to dominate the pool of potential employees at Translational Genomics Research Institute, a Phoenix-based non-profit that researches genes to identify and treat diseases.
Burleson said that to close the gender gap, women should be encouraged to pursue STEM fields from a young age, saying that oftentimes young girls who are math or science-minded aren’t recognized or encouraged to do anything with it.
“If people more consciously said, ‘Engineering would be a great field for you because you have great critical thinking skills,’ just verbalizing those things would be really helpful,” she said.
TGen strives to be aware of the gender gap, Burleson said.
Its Helios Scholars program, a biomedical research internship that is open to Arizona high school and college students, actually has slightly more women than men.
That breakdown doesn’t usually carry over into the professional world, but Burleson said TGen tries to encourage diversity.
“It’s not that we’re not looking, it’s just that they (women) are not available sometimes,” Burleson said. “It’s fair to say TGen does a good job of making sure we keep the awareness of the gender gap and leadership gap. We look for opportunities to encourage women in the workforce to make their lives as happy as they can be.”
Part of that means making women feel like their opinions and needs are valued at TGen.
“Women are taught that you want to play nice on the playground,” Burleson said. “Sometimes you have to say, ‘Speak up to get what you need to be successful.'”
Scottsdale Unified School District spokeswoman Erin Helm said getting more women in STEM doesn’t necessarily mean offering special district programs for girls, but simply treating everyone equally.
“Hopefully that equal playing field by itself will encourage more girls (to pursue STEM),” Helm said.
She attributes the professional lag to earlier years when women weren’t given as many opportunities in STEM.
“As much as we have an even playing field now, that’s not to say there hasn’t been some catch-up in society,” Helm said. “What I hope in Scottsdale Unified School District is that they (girls) see that there is space for them to step up and be a part of STEM.”
Young women across the Valley have stepped up to be part of STEM, making their mark in the field at a young age.
Meet six of them.
Aakanksha Saxena: Solving real-world problems
Aakanksha Saxena helped develop an app that syncs outdoor sprinkler systems to smartphones to save water while still caring for plants.
She has won awards for making solar panels that are 85 percent cheaper than those currently used, built a system that calculates and recommends ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from K-12 schools, and founded a non-profit that sends female orphans in India to college.
And she’s 17.
She graduated from Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale this week.
Saxena wants to be a sustainability professor so she can “make sure our future is green and efficient and spreading the message of how important STEM is to future generations.”
She developed a passion for sustainability as a student at Basis Scottsdale, where she created an algorithm to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in schools.
“I’ve always been really interested in solving real-world problems,” Saxena said.
Saxena credits her success in STEM to her access to education. She’s taken Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes and had extracurricular opportunities that allowed her to work with researchers at Arizona State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Saxena said there’s “definitely a little more focus on boys pursuing STEM,” but the gender gap is even larger in places like India, where she founded a non-profit organization, Literacy Spree, to promote education and make STEM accessible to women.
“I’ve seen firsthand in India where so many girls are so intelligent and driven and are told, ‘You aren’t going to college, you’re going to be married at 18,’ ” Saxena said. “We live in America, and we have access to education, but there is still a lot of room for improvement not only here, but more so in developing countries.”
So far, Saxena’s efforts have allowed seven Indian orphans to go to college.
Saxena was accepted into MIT, Stanford Harvard and Yale universities and decided to attend Stanford this fall.
Emma Eddy: Studying rats to understand the human brain
Most people wouldn’t want to work around rats all day, but 19-year-old Emma Eddy is testing the cognitive and working memories of rats to better understand the human brain and eventually find ways to eliminate Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Eddy graduated from Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale in 2016 and studies physiology and anthropology at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
At the lab, Eddy observes the rats as they try to find a platform in a water main and then she sees if they still remember where the platform is if the conditions of the water main are changed.
Eddy tests three groups of rats: young, middle-aged and older.
After the experiment, Eddy said she and the other scientists study MRIs of the rats’ brains, seeing how the brain neurons differ between rats that performed well and rats that performed poorly.
Eddy said her findings so far indicate that “younger rats will find the platform consistently quickly over time.”
Eddy always knew she wanted to go to medical school, so in high school she joined the inaugural class of a four-year biomedical science program, eventually graduating with an Advanced Placement + Project Lead the Way credential, proving her aptitude for advanced science coursework.
Advanced Placement is a program created by the College Board, the organization also responsible for the Scholastic Assessment Test. Project Lead the Way is an organization that provides STEM curriculum to schools.
Also during high school, Eddy assessed the impact of rising carbon dioxide levels on the environment through a summer program at the UA’s honors college.
Eddy said she wants to be a reproductive endocrinologist to help women who can’t conceive get pregnant, but she said sometimes the career journey can be tougher for women.
“It’s hard when you’re a woman getting into the medical field,” Eddy said. “People assume you want to start a family and do things right after college.”
Eddy said there are a lot of women in her pre-lab classes but added there’s still much to be done when it comes to including women in STEM.
“I have hope one day it’ll balance out,” Eddy said.
Nancy Twishime: Searching for medical discoveries
Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, is a neurodegenerative disease that damages nerve endings in the brain and spinal cord and affects up to 200,000 Americans at any given time.
Nancy Twishime, who just finished her junior year at Bioscience High School in the Phoenix Union High School District this week, wants to find out why.
Twishime, 17, participated in a high school research program at Barrow Neurological Institute to understand how neurons die in the brains of those with ALS.
Three days each week during the school year, Twishime headed to the lab after school to analyze data obtained from pictures of stained cells. During the summer, Twishime works in the lab full-time.
Twishime said she’s passionate about ALS research because there’s still much to be discovered.
“There’s not much known about it,” she said. “You always hear research about cancer or other things, so I found it’s worth my time to do something that can be invested in and improved, and I learn a lot too during the process.”
Despite her ALS research, Twishime wants to combine her love of the brain and passion for kids by becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon.
Twishime said women are well-represented in her lab.
Twishime said she chooses not to dwell on gender disparities, saying that getting caught up in the numbers gets in the way of her progress.
“If it takes me working harder than a man does, then I’ll have to do it,” Twishime said. “My education and my learning and furthering my knowledge is most important to me. If that means working harder, then that’s OK.”
Still, Twishime said she doesn’t understand why a STEM gender gap exists at all.
“When you give a woman as much opportunity as a man in STEM, there’s a greater amount of opportunity to learn from each other,” Twishime said. “I just don’t see why that’s there in the first place.”
Elizabeth Chiffelle: Looking to the stars
An interest in Greek mythology and “Star Trek” opened the door for 16-year-old Elizabeth Chiffelle to discover her passion for astronomy.
Chiffelle, who just completed her junior year at Bioscience High School in downtown Phoenix, researches young stellar objects, which are stars in the earliest stages of development.
It’s part of a program between NASA and the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center called the Teacher Archive Research Project.
The program pairs teachers with a mentor astronomer to conduct research in the field and encourages teachers to involve their students in the venture as well.
Chiffelle takes data from telescopes in space and identifies high-quality young stellar objects for IPAC to explore.
Chiffelle and her peers presented their findings at an American Astronomical Society meeting in Dallas this year.
“That’s when I realized that that’s what I want to do with the rest of my life,” Chiffelle said. “Going to Dallas and seeing different posters and astronomers, I was so excited, and I had so much energy finding out this new information.”
Chiffelle and her teacher are doing their own independent research after coming across unusual data from the telescopes.
When looking at graphs that plotted the young stars’ growth, some of the plots formed a zig-zag pattern instead of a more steady, stable line that’s typical as a young stellar object matures into an adult star.
Chiffelle’s dream college is California Institute of Technology, but in the meanwhile, she’s applied for an internship with NASA this summer.
Alyson Neaves: Making lives easier through engineering
Signing up for extra math classes isn’t something a lot of high school kids willingly do, but 17-year-old Alyson Neaves did so gladly as part of the STEM Scholar Diploma program at Perry High School in Gilbert.
The program requires students to take five math and six science credits, but Neaves is taking her seventh math credit — linear algebra.
The program also requires students to complete a mini-internship, which Neaves described as a two-day job shadow at the Air Products campus in Chandler, where she worked under a plant engineer and learned about industrial engineering.
“It was a good experience because I had never considered that until I started speaking to him about it,” Neaves said. “It sounded like exactly what I wanted to do.”
Neaves said a plant engineer’s job is all about making a mechanical system cheaper, quicker and more effective.
“I like the idea of making life easier for people,” Neaves said. “Having a way we can be more effective and more sustainable is really important so we can move forward as a community to work smarter and not harder, and doing what we can to improve what we already have.”
Even though she’s balancing science and math courses, AP classes and summer camps that are required as part of the STEM Scholar Program,Neaves graduated this week as valedictorian of her class with a 4.84 GPA.
She’s been accepted into Barrett, the Honors College at ASU, as well as several universities in California and Colorado.
Neaves is staying local and attending ASU.
Dr. Elizabeth Hutchins: Exploring ‘uncharted territory’
Dr. Elizabeth Hutchins, 30, is a post-doctoral fellow at TGen and is studying concussions in a project with the ASU football team.
The project seeks to identify objective biomarkers (like those found in blood, urine and saliva) that indicate when a player suffers a concussion, providing an alternative to more subjective tests in use.
Her findings could lead to increased safety for players, whether through improved protective gear or a change in the rules to avoid injuries that could cause long-term damage.
Hutchins said the findings could be applied to anyone with a head injury, from soldiers on the battlefield to people in car accident.
Hutchins’ passion is exploring uncharted territory that could impact lives.
“You’re looking at new things that no one has seen before and trying to make sense of them,” she said. “Sometimes that’s incredibly frustrating, but it’s also very exciting.”
Even though she loves her work, Hutchins said she has faced subtle sexism in the field.
“There was someone that worked at our lab and asked a male member of the lab about my project instead of asking me,” Hutchins said. “He asked me the same question, and he didn’t listen to what I said, and he asked someone that wasn’t working on the project and took what they said and ignored me.”
Despite that, Hutchins said for every negative experience she’s had many positive ones. She encouraged young women pursuing STEM careers to find mentors who will encourage them.
“They’ll really help you move on, and finding someone that values you and can give you advice is a really good thing,” Hutchins said.