According to UNESCO, fewer than 30 percent of the world’s scientists are women. In the United States, women are 28 percent of the workforce in STEM fields, according to AAUW. And, although there is a shortage of skills in most of the technological fields driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution, women still account for only 28 percent of engineering graduates and 40 percent of graduates in computer science and informatics, according to the UN.
As the world’s problems increasingly require scientific and technological solutions, that gender gap becomes increasingly problematic.
In honor of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrated on Feb. 11, Northern Arizona University asked a variety of woman scientists why they chose their field and what advice they had for women and girls hoping to follow the same path.
Morgan Vigil-Hayes, assistant professor in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems
- Initially, majoring in computer science was a way for me to help pay for school with scholarships … and then I fell in love with all the creative problem solving and opportunities to help others across the disciplines.
- Learning computer science (and anything!) takes resilience. Being resilient doesn’t mean that you never have a hard time or fail sometimes—it means you know how to learn from those experiences to come back stronger and smarter.
Lisa L.-H. Chien, assistant teaching professor, Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science (Dr. Chien teaches a course about women in astronomy and her work is heavily geared toward recruiting women into astronomy.)
- I am an extragalactic astronomer. I grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, a big city where light pollution is heavy; however that inspired me even more to want to learn what is out there in the night sky. I love the infinite possibilities in our Universe—the mesmerizing stars and clusters, the fascinating and beautiful galaxies, the unknown future of our universe and the extraterrestrial life that we may find one day.
- Never give up on your dream! Work hard, be confident, keep your curiosity alive and don’t forget to have fun! This quote by Paulo Coelho gave me energy when I was young pursuing my dream—”And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it!”
Carol Chambers, professor, School of Forestry
- Seeing wild places and amazing animals on TV when I was growing up was part of my inspiration to become a wildlife biologist. And I also love being in natural environments. Realizing that being a vet limited my interactions with wild animals, I went into forest ecology and then to wildlife ecology, which I didn’t even know existed (except on TV). I love studying wildlife and the places I get to go to.
- Find a mentor, role model or ally to help you learn more about opportunities. And if you can, get involved in a professional organization for your chosen career and build your network. I’ve had many opportunities I wouldn’t have had by being a member of The Wildlife Society.
Paloma Rose Davidson, assistant program manager, Department of Astronomy and Planetary Sciences
- Every organization can benefit from an employee who possesses effective interpersonal, organizational and professional communication skills and managerial abilities. I chose to pursue a graduate degree in communication management and a career in higher education program management focused on STEM student success because I am a huge science enthusiast, and I am passionate about helping the next generation succeed.
- Marketing yourself (showcasing your abilities and skillsets) is very important. I would like to emphasize that it is equally important to make sure that the organization you want to work for aligns with your values.
Denielle Perry, assistant professor, School of Earth and Sustainability
- I chose geography as my major discipline because it is an inherently interdisciplinary field that provides all the theories and research methods necessary for solving some of the pressing social and environmental problems of our time. It is a field that requires thinking systematically across space and time scales—a way of thinking critical for addressing environmental science and sustainability issues.
- Do what you love. Study what you are passionate about, what inspires you. Don’t ever let anyone stand in the way of your dreams!
Faith Walker, assistant research professor, School of Forestry
- I’ve always wanted to know why wildlife do what they do, and it turns out that genetic tools are a great way to answer many different types of questions. Importantly, in a time of great conservation need, DNA gives researchers and managers clues for species conservation. I love making a difference through DNA.
- Integrate creativity into your science, study under scientists whose work you admire and begin this process early.
Ying-Chen “Daphne” Chen, assistant professor, School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems
- I chose microelectronics and semiconductors as my research focus because I love to learn physics beyond the microchips in our daily lives, such as how electron conducts, how transistors operate, etc.
- Be resilient, collaborative and knowledge-hungry. Speak up, be persistent and be the expert in your research profession.
Laura Wasylenki, associate professor, School of Earth and Sustainability
- First I majored in artificial intelligence, but then I developed a crush on a geology major, so I tried a class in that. I found the science to be equally interesting, but the big difference was that the personalities drawn to geology fit my personality much better. I am so glad that I work with witty, energetic, outdoors-loving, open-minded people every day! I also think geology is especially fun because we combine many aspects of all the other sciences when we try to figure out how Earth changes over time.
- The good news is that you are not alone; everyone has impostor syndrome. The bad news is that it never goes away. The great news is that you can get better and better and better at naming it, being with it, talking about it, laughing at it and just letting it ride in the trunk while you go do your best stuff!
Cristina Thomas, assistant professor, Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science
- I always found astronomy to be completely fascinating. As I was growing up, NASA missions were busy turning so many planets, asteroids and comets from places that were distant to real worlds and I was struck by how much we could learn about these objects.
- Find your people and work together. I have had so much support from peers and mentors over the years and they have all helped me tremendously.
Ayla Martinez, fifth-year doctoral student in biology, Center for Ecosystem Science and Society
- I chose to study soil microbial metabolism because the only way we would be able to study the ecology of microbes is to understand how microbes consume substrates in nature. Honestly, microbial biochemistry to me is like playing with Legos (substrates that are broken down or built into longer pieces). These Legos are also very important to understand, as microbial soil communities release greenhouse gasses which directive affects our fragile planet.
- My best advice is for both girls and women to persevere. We are stronger together and belong in STEM; don’t give up and encourage others to show their intelligence does not depend on gender!
Clare Aslan, director and professor, School of Earth and Sustainability and co-director of the Center for Adaptable Western Landscapes
- I have always felt compelled to benefit society with my career, as a way to give back after all the advantages and privileges I’ve enjoyed. The environmental challenges facing us today threaten current and future generations as well as the natural systems I love so deeply. I work in conservation because I hope to help chart a sustainable future.
- Find a passion that makes your work inspiration and motivational. And let your creativity and energy guide you!
Melissa Sevigny, science reporter at KNAU and author of three science-focused books
- I’m fairly sure my field chose me. My bachelor’s degree was in environmental science, but I added so many creative writing classes along the way that I realized my career path lay in the intersection of those two things. I love taking ideas that are usually locked away in scientific journals and bringing them into a wider conversation, whether that be through radio journalism, books or even poetry.
- Find your people. Make connections with others who are interested in science writing and champion one another as much as you can.
Melanie Colavito, director of policy and communication, Ecological Restoration Institute
- I am a geographer by training, specifically a human-environment geographer. I love the field of geography because it explores the important and complicated connections between humans and the land. In my current position, I use my training in geography, social science, policy and collaboration to work with a diverse group of land managers, researchers and partners in bringing objective science to bear in implementing strategies that advance ecological restoration and climate adaptation in Western forests.
- The field of geography, where I received my training, as well as the field of natural resources and forestry where I currently work, are both in need of innovators, champions and leaders to advance the science and application of science. Women add to the diversity of these fields by bringing important perspectives to bear that can affect change in a positive way—plus you often get to be outside! My advice is to follow your passion, and even when obstacles present themselves, you will be able to more easily navigate them through the joy your work brings you.
Erika Nowak, assistant research professor, School of Earth and Sustainability and Department of Biological Sciences
- Although my title is assistant research professor, I am a herpetologist at heart, and have been since I was about four years old. I am passionate about snake conservation and management, because I have seen firsthand how the fear of snakes has hampered the pursuit of scientific knowledge and research.
- Thankfully the field has changed since I started as one of only a handful of women rattlesnake researchers, but because women often have inherently different perspectives on snake behavior, we need more of us in this field! My advice for any woman scientist is to pick a field that you are passionate about to help you get through the adversity you will face, and have a fall-back area of interest that will help pay the bills.
Jasmine Garani, lecturer, Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science
- Since I was in elementary school, I liked my science and math classes more than my English and social studies classes. In high school, I realized that I did not like biology, but did like physics and chemistry. In my first year of undergraduate, I took physics, chemistry and astronomy courses and decided I liked physics because it had more math, and astronomy because I liked studying how the universe worked. I continued on that path, and I’m glad I did because now I get to teach undergrads about my chosen field!
- Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t pursue your passion. Also, it’s OK to change your field if you want to.
Diana Calvo, assistant professor, Department of Civil Engineering, Construction Management, and Environmental Engineering
- I always loved nature and wanted to save the world, but I also had a great interest in math. I thought that by studying environmental engineering I would be able to combine both, although I was feeling bad not giving enough to people. I could not believe that environmental engineering was combining everything I wanted! I was fascinated in how I could help people by cleaning the environment, using math. Three birds with one stone!
- Always pursue what you want, believe in yourself and push as many boundaries as you can—for you and for others. You can do it!
Teki Sankey, associate professor, School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems
- Images of our Earth from spaceborne satellites and airborne sensors provide the most accurate and detailed information about our changing natural resources. I wanted to become a remote sensing scientist who can analyze the images and provide timely information for our land resource managers.
- Technology is always changing, and we should always try to keep up.