GW Women in STEM First Annual Symposium – Hopefully the First of Many

The author and Dr. Sonya Merrill, a STEM career coach who works with GW’s Center for Career Services.

By Eve Boyle

October 19, 2015
Last year, CASHP’s Women in Science group faced a challenge: how could we continue the dialogue about the struggles women in STEM face, while keeping the conversation constructive? We knew we wanted to make meaningful changes, particularly geared towards the attrition of women during the very early stages in their education and careers1. After a lot of brainstorming, the GW Women in STEM First Annual Symposium was born. 
In order to make this event as far-reaching as possible, we reached out to others on campus to plan a series of skill-building programs for undergraduate students that would be relevant for all STEM fields. In the end, this event was the product of the collaborative effort of the Department of Biological Sciences, the Department of Computer Science, the School of Engineering, several undergraduate student groups, and GW’s Center for Career Services. 
The symposium, generously sponsored by the Shenkman Career Services Fund, took place last Saturday in GW’s new Science and Engineering Hall. Even though the workshops and panels were designed with undergraduate students in mind, the many graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and faculty members in attendance discovered that there was a lot for us to learn, too. 
The event began with a few words from Dr. Anne Hirshfield, a Professor of Anatomy in the School of Medicine. Listening as she recalled her impressive history and offered sage advice for women planning careers in STEM was an inspiring way to start off the day. 
Next, we presented a workshop on how to find and secure a mentor. Being able to successfully find and maintain healthy mentor-mentee relationships is necessary for success in any career. Dr. Sonya Merrill (Center for Career Services) gave us great tips on how to search for and keep mentors, and then we heard from two mentor-mentee pairs and learned how they keep their relationships productive. A special thank you to our own Dr. Shannon McFarlin and Kate McGrath for their insights!  
An exercise during Dr. Briana Pobiner’s “Communicating about your research and yourself” workshop. How would you describe the experiences that led you to pursue a STEM career?
After a networking lunch where many undergrads made useful connections with each other and faculty members, Dr. Briana Pobiner (National Museum of Natural History) led a workshop focused on building communication skills. We completed a series of exercises that helped us learn how to most effectively discuss our research in very different situations that we face every day. It is surprising how much jargon we all use without noticing!
Many of the women chose ‘discovery,’ ‘stimulating,’ ‘learning something new,’ ‘fun,’ and ‘transformative’ to describe these experiences. 
Finally, we listened to a panel of women discuss their experiences with graduate school and offer the best advice for getting into graduate programs. This diverse panel was compromised of five women at various points in their careers: a tenured professor, two alumna of GW graduate programs, a master’s student towards the end of her studies, and a PhD student who is just at the beginning (thank you Angie Peña!). 
After this whirlwind of amazing programming, we were exhausted but so happy. Following months of planning, our initial goals were realized; we had created and successfully executed an event that could help curb the drop off of women along STEM career paths. And it didn’t take very long to see the effects of our event manifest into real change; one of the undergraduate attendees has already reached out about her interest in pursuing research in our Hard Tissue Biology Lab. 
Next time, we hope the symposium will be bigger and better, and that we will be able to inspire more young, hardworking women to pursue the opportunities they deserve.  
1Shen, H. 2013. Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap. Nature 495:22-24.