STEMpowerment

Posts in category Big Questions

STEM: Create Your Own Career Path

CareerPathIt’s been a busy couple of weeks at my house. It’s hard to say for sure, but I think the biggest thing going on at home has been that my son started kindergarten last week (does that make me old?!?), and my daughter started at a new preschool. As such, there has been much discussion at home about how grown up STEMboy is, and what he thinks the future holds.

If you ask him what he wants to be, his answer alternates almost daily, between:

  1. Paleontologist
  2. Artist

Obviously, LOL. Two professions I would never compare with each other – but the boy loves art projects, and the boy loves dinosaurs. For awhile, his favorite show was Dinosaur Train.

We were driving to visit a relative the other day, and STEMboy wanted to play a guessing game (a common occurrence in our family).

STEMboy: “Mom, I’m thinking of an island. Guess which one!”

Me: “uhhhhhh…..Mackinac Island?”

STEMboy: “No”

Me: “Hawaii?”

STEMboy: “No”

Me: “Seriously?!? I have to guess any island in the whole world? I need a hint.”

STEMboy: “It’s really old.”

Me: (jaw drops to the floor. I know immediately what he’s thinking, but can’t believe he knows what he’s thinking) “Uhhhhh….Pangea?”

STEMboy: “YES!!! That’s it!!! How did you know that, mom?!?”

Me: (over my husband’s laughter) “I’m a scientist, STEMboy. How do YOU know that?!? Do you know what Pangea is?”

STEMboy: “Of course mom – It’s the island that all the land used to be in a long time ago. It was on Dinosaur Train”

Which of course led to the discussion of how continents shifted, and why that’s relevant to finding dinosaur bones.

Ahhh……moments like this send my heart aflutter. I love seeing my four year old independently learning about science (even if it is from TV), and sharing his love of science with us and others. If he grows up to be a paleontologist, I already know that he will genuinely love his job. If he grows up to be an artist, I’m sure he’ll love that too and of course I’ll support him in that endeavor as well. I can’t wait to see what he will become, but as a parent, my biggest concern is that whatever he does make him happy.

Aside from dinosaurs, is there a STEM-related message in here?

Wait for it….

Wait for it….

It’s coming – but another story first….For now, just remember that STEMboy changes his mind daily about what he wants to be when he grows up.

photo-1439003511744-2a0490ea0a88

Another reason for all the recent commotion in my house is that my husband, Mr.SciGuy left his job in automotive engineering back in the spring to pursue a new career. The summer has been full of licensing exams, training trips, and adjusting to a completely different schedule for SciGuy.

So what led to the change, and why?

If you haven’t already read all my previous posts, automotive engineering is a very lucrative career. It has great pay, good benefits, and job stability.

BUT

It’s also a very high-stress job. The timelines are tight, and a single mistake can cost thousands, millions, or even billions of dollars. SciGuy was in a job where every day, he had to call and yell at people, make threats, and try to fix emergencies he didn’t cause.

Ugh – can you imagine? It’s an important job, but it wears on you.

Over time, SciGuy came to realize that this wasn’t the job he wanted to do the rest of his life. He wanted to be having positive interactions with people every day. He wanted to make peoples’ days better, not worse, and he wanted to make a difference in the community where we live.

After a lot (seriously, a LOT) of research, thinking, and planning, he decided to pursue a dream that’s been rolling around in his head for over a decade. SciGuy submitted his resignation to his high-paying automotive job to pursue a new career in financial advising at Edward Jones.

A lot of family and friends seemed to be completely baffled by the change at first, but it makes perfect sense to me.

SciGuy has always loved money and money management (if you know him, ask about his famous amortization Excel worksheets or the cost of money over time), working with people one-on-one, and helping others.

As a kid, one of his nicknames was “Alex P Keaton”. (If you are young and missed the magic of 1980’s television, I’m sorry for your loss).

Lastly, he has an incredibly strong math and research background thanks to his engineering degree (foreshadowing: can you see where we’re going here??). While he had no direct experience working in finance, the transition so far has been incredibly smooth because he understands that math, and has a lot of experience in learning to learn challenging concepts.

 

So how does this apply to you?

 

If you think you know what you want to do for the rest of your life, but aren’t 110% sure, the versatility of a STEM degree can ensure your success, whether you stay in your planned career path, or not. A STEM degree gives you so many options and so many resources. You can go anywhere, and you can do anything.

Even if you decide ten years into your career that you want to do something completely different than what you’ve always done, a STEM background can make the transition simple and quick (and now I can say for sure to trust me and SciGuy on that!).

That’s HUGE – I can’t emphasize enough how important it is. A lot can change over the course of a decade or even over the time it takes to get your degree. As you gain more educational experience, work experience, and life experience, you’ll better appreciate what you want, what you don’t want, and what really makes you happy. In the big picture, being happy is what matters.

You can find a career that works perfectly for you, or you can write your own job description. Having a job that you find fulfilling will make waking up and going to work every day tolerable – even fun! With a STEM education, you can do anything, chase any dream, and create your own path in life!

Where do you think your path will take you?

–theSTEMinista

Am I really going to need this when I grow up?

Grow UpFor some of you, the first day of school has already arrived, while others are going back in the next week or two. As you get back into the routine of waking up early, going to class, and (ugh!) homework, you may be thinking about the meaning and importance of everything you’re doing.

When you grow up, will you ever need to figure out how much force is needed to push a car up a hill if the coefficient of friction is 0.8? Will you need to know the 12 cranial nerves and what they do, or how to titrate an unknown acid, or how to use calculus to find the volume of a solid object?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

I use a lot more STEM skills in my job than I ever expected to as a student, but I’m also a scientist for a living. Even still, I would never consider doing many things I learned as a student by hand.

Doing math the old-school way

Doing math the old-school way

If I need to calculate an integral, I can do it on a computer. If I need to check an anatomy concept, I can look it up in a book, and if I want to move a car up a hill, I generally either step on the gas if the car is running, or call a tow truck if it’s not (right? You know what I’m saying here!). If I needed to titrate an unknown acid, I suppose I would have to do that by hand, but honestly, how often does one come across unknown acids?

Doing math the new-school way

Doing math the new-school way

I know if you’re a student, you totally feel me on that, but let’s take a step back and look at the overall principal instead.

Part of the importance of school work is to make sure you understand the underlying big concepts. You don’t necessarily need to do the math or the science every time, but once you have done the work yourself once or twice, there’s a lot better chance that you comprehend the basic theory behind the concept.

That way, when we know it’s easier to push something up a slippery hill than a rough hill, and that a cube has a bigger volume than a sphere of the same width, and that adding a base to a solid makes it more neutral, we can explain at least a little bit of the ‘why’ that goes along with the answer.

In STEM, there’s even a little bit more to school and learning than just the big concepts.

Part of school is learning HOW to learn.

Chances are, you’ll go into your first job (and second job, and third job, and so on), and you’ll need to learn a lot of things they never taught you in school. If you’re a student, trust me on this. If you’re a professional, I know you’re nodding your head in agreement.

For instance, if you move to Detroit and work for one of the big 3 automakers (that’s GM, Ford or Fiat-Chrysler for you out-of-towners), you might start out working on transmissions. You’ll need to learn about gear ratios, material properties of metal, linkages, and how to assemble all the parts. No college degree program will teach you all the intricacies of the job without you getting some hands-on experience. But don’t worry – if you have a STEM degree, you’re used to working hard, studying, and using your analytical thinking skills to solve problems.

If you work really hard, and become a walking encyclopedia of transmissions, you might get a promotion to managing a team that does exhaust design. In exhausts, there are a million new things to learn. You need to understand the chemistry of volatile gases coming out of the engine, how they combust, and how the exhaust system removes the chemicals so the car isn’t polluting the air. Plus, another function of exhausts is to quiet the sound of the engine, so you’ll need to learn some basic acoustic concepts as well. By now, you’re probably also doing a little bit of work of planning the production in a remote factory, and trying to optimize the costs as well. And you’re managing a team as well. Good thing you did lots of team work in your STEM education!

Go you - lead that team!

Go you – lead that team!

Luckily, if you have a STEM degree, you’ll have a basic understanding of many of the foundational principals you’ll need to use in the job, and by now, you have YEARS of experience at quickly learning new material. Your STEM background makes you pretty much the best employee ever (but we knew that would happen anyway, right?!?).

Do you see where I’m going with this?

The details of all the work you’re doing may be tedious, and we each have an area (or two) that we find to be even more tedious or more challenging than the rest of the curriculum. But, all that hard work does have a purpose.

Doing all that work in detail ensures you understand the fundamentals of “why”, and it teaches you how to learn. So, grab a water or a coffee, sit down at your desk, and get to work. Do those integrals. Memorize your flash cards, and look forward to those lab experiments. Read your textbooks, and ask lots of questions. Put your heart and soul into learning the fundamentals, and learning how to learn, and you’ll be giving yourself the best possible foundation for a successful career.

Have a great school year!

–theSTEMinista

Love Travel? Try STEM!

STEMtravelHave you guys missed me? I’ve missed you lots, but I’ve had an amazing few weeks, months even! I know it’s pretty counter to the social media dogma, but I tried to shut off my phone, and live in the moment as much as possible.  But now, I’m back, and ready to talk STEM again.  I’ll try to share some of the highlights of my travels with you in detail over the next several weeks, but first let’s talk about why STEM may be an awesome career choice if you’re like me and love to travel.

First, a benefit of most STEM jobs is that they usually come with great benefits packages, including lots of vacation time. You’ll probably also have a pretty good salary, which means you’ll have some spare money to use over your vacation time. In June, I went to Cedar Point with family to run a half marathon with my sister-in-law. It was my first half-marathon, which I was pretty excited about.

Pretty out of gas after a 13.1 mile Sunday morning jog - and getting geared up for rollercoasters!

Pretty out of gas after a 13.1 mile Sunday morning jog – and getting geared up for rollercoasters!

In July, we went on a family vacation with my parents and sisters to go to Tennessee. I blogged about the week in Tennessee here. It was really fun to spend the whole week with my kids adventuring, exploring, and experimenting!  The lake we visit in Tennessee was created by the Tennessee Valley Authority back in the great depression by damming a river.  Much like the Hoover dam, this helped with flooding issues in the area as well as providing a renewable energy source.  The views on the lake are absolutely stunning!

With a view like this, you'd turn your phone off too!

With a view like this, you’d turn your phone off too!

Mr SciGuy and I just returned from Traverse City, MI with his family. If you’re not from the great state of Michigan, maybe you haven’t heard of it, but it’s a fantastic place to visit. If you think of the lower peninsula of Michigan like a mitten, Traverse City would be situated just about on the fingernail of your ring finger.

We took a ride on the biggest catamaran on the Great Lakes - we love the NautiCat!

We took a ride on the biggest catamaran on the Great Lakes – we love the NautiCat!

It has 2 big bays that connect to Lake Michigan, and there’s lots of outdoor things to do, and also a big cherry and wine industry on the peninsulas around the bay.

The view across one of the bays, just before a BIG storm rolled in

The view across one of the bays, just before a BIG storm rolled in

Vacationing is an obvious way to get travel in, but there’s also opportunity to travel for your job in STEM, too! For example, Mr. SciGuy spent a week in St Louis, MO for job training. I also got the opportunity to go on a quick trip to Toronto, Canada last month for business meetings. I spent a full work day in (really awesome, inspiring, educational, and fun) business meetings, but got to spend the evening I was there downtown. We went to an Iron Chef’s restaurant (Lee, by Susur Le) which was fantastic, walked through downtown, and spent some time on the hotel roof, which had an incredible view of the Toronto skyline. I wish I could’ve squeezed in a trip to the CN Tower, but didn’t have time on this trip, because I had to fly home and re-pack my bags to go on another trip! Guess I’ll have to go back to Toronto again soon!

Love the Toronto skyline!

Love the Toronto skyline!

Now, let’s talk about my favorite method of work travel. If you go into academic research, scientific conferences are THE.best.ever. I’ll devote an entire blog post on another day to why conferences are so awesome. To summarize, though, conferences are a way to share your work with others, see the current research in your field from all the scientific leaders, and to get the opportunity to meet leaders in the field and develop new collaborations. A bonus? They’re usually held in pretty cool places.

Previously, I’ve been to local conferences around Michigan, and travelled to Chicago, Washington DC, Boston, and Puerto Rico. This summer, I had the opportunity to go to Budapest, Hungary for a conference on lipid research. Budapest was amazing! I spent workdays working at the conference and listening to seminars, but we had nights, plus the day before and the day after the conference to see the city. Our hotel was right at the end of the Chain Bridge, one of the most famous sights in the city. Originally, Buda was split into two cities: Buda, and Pest. When the two cities merged to Budapest, the Chain Bridge was the first bridge to join the two cities. Now, there are several more bridges throughout the city, but the Chain Bridge is the most famous.  The picture at the top of the blog is of the lions guarding the Chain Bridge.

The view from our hotel roof - the architecture in Budapest was phenomenal!

The view from our hotel roof, with the Academy of Science across the park – the architecture in Budapest was phenomenal!

The conference was held in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, another very famous site in the city, and we were within walking distance of Hungarian Parliament, the Academy of Art, a cathedral, and several marketplaces. Plus, if you follow me on Twitter (@theSTEMinista), you might already know I got to go to dinner in a castle – I lived my own personal fairytale for a night! Later in the week, I toured the underground dungeon/labyrinth attached to the castle, where Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula) was imprisoned – if you like haunted houses and scary movies, this labyrinth is something you have to see!

I ate dinner at a castle - it was amazing!!  What a princess moment!

I ate dinner at a castle – it was amazing!! What a princess moment!

Did I mention the science at the conference was really good, too?  I learned a ton, met great people, and might have a couple future collaborations up my sleeve as well.

So, to summarize, my STEM career allowed me to travel my heart out this summer: to Cedar Point, Tennessee, Traverse City, Toronto, Budapest, and home with my kids while my husband went to St. Louis. What a whirlwind! I loved the travel, but I’m pretty excited to be back home, and getting back into my normal routine. If travel is a goal you aspire to, STEM is one of the best ways to achieve that goal – take it from me!

As I get back into my routine, and enjoy the last, precious few weeks of summer, I’m looking forward to talking more about STEM with you and gearing up for the 2015-2016 school year!

–theSTEMinista

You are a natural born scientist

Ever wondered what it looks like from the top of a mountain on a cloudy day?  This is it

Ever wondered what it looks like from the top of a mountain on a cloudy day? This is it

Have you all missed me? It’s summer vacation for most students, and I’m in the middle of my summer vacationing as well. This week, I’ve been lucky enough to spend the week vacationing with family – not just me and Mr SciGuy and the junior STEMkids, but also my parents and sisters and brothers-in-law. We’ve had a lot of fun, but blogging has not been a priority.

The other night, I was taking a quick look through Twitter, and noticed a couple posts from parents talking about STEM “a-ha! moments” with their kids. That got me thinking about something –

Kids start their lives out as scientists

We are all born as scientists. We begin life by first becoming aware that we have surroundings, and then observing them like crazy. We experiment with our surroundings to learn how things do or don’t work, and how we fit into the world around us. As we grow from children to babies, we supplement our sensory and experimental data with information through spoken word and eventually by reading. Kids often ask questions to a fault, but often times, their questions are quite insightful.  Questioning is a key way for kids to learn about the world around them.

Since I was spending the week with family, I paid extra attention to seeing the world through my kids’ young scientist eyes. It was so fun! Lots of moments that might normally just pass by in conversation, I purposely tried to refocus into questioning and learning moments. We saw a flock of geese, for example, which led to lots of questions:

Which goose is the leader? Why can’t they fly? Why are they molting? What is molting?

Brilliant question for a 2 year old:  which goose is leading the other geese?

Brilliant question for a 2 year old: which goose is leading the other geese?

We saw lots of bugs, spiders, butterflies, turtles, deer, fish, eagles, and hawks. We talked about each animal’s habitat, what they eat, etc.

Check out this guy!  I leaned in really close to get a picture, and my sister yelled at me, "bright colors mean poisonous!"  Thanks for the heads-up, sis!

Check out this guy! I leaned in really close to get a picture, and my sister yelled at me, “bright colors mean poisonous!” Thanks for the heads-up, sis!

We hiked and boated through mountains, and talked about what makes the fog at the top, and how layers of rocks are formed, and how rivers flow.

We dropped rocks into the lake to see if they float or sink, and what kind of noise they make, and we conducted a few experiments to see if you get wetter swimming or in the rain (for kids wearing life jackets, their heads get much wetter in the rain than they do swimming – kind of counterintuitive to me, upsetting to them LOL). We listened to the sounds of a sunny day, the sounds of a rainy day, the sounds in a thunderstorm, and the sounds at night.

We played hide and seek daily, which reinforced concepts of scale, and how to systematically perform a search. Aside from their inability to stop giggling as the seeker approaches, my kids are now awesome at hide and seek.

It was fabulous. I learned a lot by searching for answers to my kids’ questions, or from asking friends and family for their insights.  More importantly, I think we all had fun posing questions and looking for the answers.

So, if you ever get down on yourself, and wonder if you can do STEM, consider how far you’ve already come. You developed from a tiny human who knew nothing, to where you are now.

You know so much about the world works, but there is so much more you can learn. Instead of being intimidated by what you have yet to learn, think about how much fun your learning journey will be. Look at the world through the eyes of your four-year-old self, and don’t be afraid to ask the questions a child might ask. Sometimes, something that seems obvious may be very complex, or something that seems complex may have a very simple rationale.

Embrace your innate curiosity to better understand things. Question everything, experiment when you can, and look for resources anywhere you can. Don’t look at learning as a job, look at it as a challenge, or a game, and you will be amazed at how far you can go.

To those of you in America, have a happy and safe Fourth of July, and I’ll talk to you soon!  In the meantime, I’ll be using #kidscientists on Twitter to talk about STEM concepts discussed in my house – share yours with me on Twitter too (@theSTEMinista)

–the STEMinista

Cool STEM – roller coasters!

roller coastersWhen they were kids, my husband, Mr. SciGuy and his sister had season passes to Cedar Point. They practically grew up there, and they have countless stories about riding the roller coasters, playing in the arcades, and generally making mischief throughout the park.

Every year, SciGuy asks me if I want to go to Cedar point with him, but until last year, it never worked out. We had other vacations planned, or visited other amusement parks, or I was pregnant and couldn’t ride roller coasters.

Finally last October, we took our first family trip to Cedar Point. We had so much more fun than I expected, even bringing along two little kids. I thought it might be boring bringing to bring them to an amusement park, but I had more fun than I imagined watching them on the little kiddie rides.

kids on the kid rides: way funner than you expect

kids on the kid rides: way funner than you expect

This year, my sister-in-law and I signed up to run a half marathon at Cedar Point, so we had another opportunity to spend the weekend there. Being such a roller coaster enthusiast, SciGuy told me I just had to talk to you gals and guys about roller coaster engineering. I bet you could already guess that there aren’t a ton of roller coaster jobs out there – but there are some. It seems like the companies making the MOST popular big roller coasters are Intamin and Bolliger & Mabillard. There are numerous smaller companies out there as well.

Are you interested in roller coaster engineering? If so, most of all, you need to be really dedicated and passionate about it – there aren’t a lot of jobs out there, so there is stiff competition. Do what you can to learn everything about roller coasters, and get involved in professional organizations or clubs, such as the American Coaster Enthusiasts to learn more about the field, and meet industry professionals. There are a couple of universities which offer specific courses on roller coaster design, including Purdue, Ohio State, and North Carolina State University.

Want to hear about our trip, and some of the roller coasters we rode?

SciGuy and his sis, giddy after a morning of roller coasters

SciGuy and his sis, giddy after a morning of roller coasters

Our tickets included early access to the park an hour before it opened, so we had the opportunity to check out all the big roller coasters before it was open to the general public. It was so fun! We rode the Millennium Force first. It has been around for years now, but it is still consistently rated as one of the best roller coasters in the world.

Next, we rode Rougarou, which is the old Mantis rollercoaster, with a different floorless configuration. Then, we rode the Iron Dragon, an older steel roller coaster built in 1987 which is pretty tame in comparison to today’s roller coasters.

Then we walked back to try out the Maverick, which none of us had been on before. The Maverick was intense! It uses linear accelerator motors to propel the car up the first hill, then you go down the hill at a 95° angle. That’s crazy! The original design of the roller coaster had to be modified after it was built, because one of the turns was so intense that it put too much strain on the roller coaster car.

When he finished on the maverick we went to the Gemini, an old wooden coaster with steel tracks. After riding on the steel roller coasters, the Gemini felt almost as rough as being in the dinghy in a hurricane. But it was nice to get a historic ride in while we were at the park.

Riding the Gemini kind of turned me off from roller coasters for the rest of the day but the SciGuy and his sister still wanted more. They hopped in line for the Top Thrill Dragster as the last ride we had time for in the morning. If you haven’t heard about this roller coaster, you should look it up.

It’s classified as a strata roller coaster which means it goes more than 400 feet up in the air and then 400 feet straight back down. It uses a hydraulic system to push the car up to speeds of 120 miles an hour to accelerate over the hill. At the time it was built it was the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world. The whole ride only takes 17 seconds but it is a really fun. Below, I put in a video of SciGuy and his sister riding it. If you haven’t seen it before, you can kind of get an idea of just what kind of roller coaster of talking about.

The hydraulic system on the Dragster can be very sensitive to environmental conditions, such as wind, rain, and humidity. Sometimes, this results in a train being accelerated up the track, but not making it over the crest. In this case, retractable braking fins catch and stop the car as it heads back to the starting gate. If you’re one of the lucky people that happens to, you get a bonus ride to get you over the hill. When the ride first opened, I remember seeing this happen several times, perhaps as the ride operators were really getting to know the nuances of the system. It doesn’t seem to happen as much now, but I don’t know if it’s because the kinks are worked out of the system now, or because they close the ride in bad weather conditions.

SciGuy did some more research, and found that there have been THREE times in the history of the ride where the car has gotten stuck right on the exact crest of the track. Can you even imagine that? Enough energy to get you to the top of the hill, but not enough energy to push you all the way over. When this has happened, they’ve had a mechanic climb to the top of the ride (>400 feet!!), who manually pushes the car over the hill. I wonder which way it gets pushed – if it’s back toward start, or toward the ending?   Can you imagine being on the ride for that experience? It’s like the ride of a lifetime!

Have you taken physics 1 yet? Where you study kinematics? This is like a dream introductory physics problem. If the train car must go a distance of 420 ft (128 m), and the only force acting on the train is gravity (9.8 m/s2), what starting speed do we need (assuming speed at height of 420 feet is zero). Using the formula v2 = vo2 + 2ax we calculate a speed at the bottom of the hill of 50 m/s, or 112 mph.

This is pretty close to the reported speed of 120 mph (53.6 m/s). We can then figure out how fast the train needs to accelerate from the starting gate to go from a starting velocity of 0 to the a velocity of 53.6 m/s, over a time of 3.8 s (thank you Wikipedia!). If we assume a constant acceleration (hydraulic launch systems are pretty constant), then we get an acceleration of 14.1 m/s2. Dividing by 9.8 m/s2, we can see that the average acceleration is ~1.44 G’s.

For those of you who’ve taken more physics courses, we can start adding in all the other variables that we ignore in the simplified kinematic model to make our modeled calculations fit better with the actual data. We can look at losses due to friction, weight distribution within the car, losses going around a 90° angle from horizontal to vertical and in rotating around the vertical axis, and losses due to wind speed and humidity, and other factors. How fun! I wish I had more information about the system so we could do more math!

What’s your favorite roller coaster? Have you ever done the physics to see what you’re experiencing?

–theSTEMinista

STEMinista’s Dinner Party Advice

Nobel Dinner2

Wow, I’ve been gone a few days – sorry about that! Did you miss me? I sure missed sharing with all of you!

Those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook know I took a long weekend off for some family time. I have so much to catch up with on with all of you, starting with my second post about meeting Dr. Harald zur Hausen last week. More updates to come in the next few days – can’t wait to tell you all about my big weekend!

—————————————————————————

So did I mention I got to meet a Nobel scientist the other day? In the science world, Nobel Laureates are the types of people who should get baseball cards. They’re absolute rock stars for being intellectual athletes.

What I don’t think I mentioned yet is that by some great accident I got seated at a table with Dr. zur Hausen and a number of other absolutely inspiring leaders in science, medicine, and surgery at the welcome dinner the night before the talk. Let me draw you a little diagram to explain – STEM smarties love diagrams, right?

wow - look at all the incredible company I was honored to dine with!

wow – look at all the incredible company I was honored to dine with!

Do you see what I’m seeing here? I was literally sitting at a table with people who are giants in their respective fields. All but one have been doing what they do since before I was born. Literally – they’ve been doing their job longer than I’ve been alive.

I go to business dinners pretty regularly, so I’ve grown to be a little more comfortable in groups this impressive. However, no matter how many dinners I go to, I am always inspired by the people I dine with. If you’re new to dinners like this, and feeling a little intimidated, I thought I might share some of my advice with you.

Let’s start with the obvious. Be polite and mind your manners. I’m not really an etiquette expert – I’m a scientist. There are books and advice columns on that if you need advice, and parents, grandparents, and other adults are great resources. I recommend “The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat, and Tweet Your Way to Success” or “Modern Manners: Tools to Take You to the Top” (note, link will direct you to external Amazon.com website).
My true advice actually echos something that my grandmother used to tell me over and over and over as a child:

When you are lucky enough to be in the company of the greats in your field, or any field, shut your mouth and listen as much as you can.

Of course, it’s okay to chime in as appropriate. You should definitely ask as many questions as you can, but don’t waste a lot of time talking about yourself; Instead, spend your time listening listening listening and trying to soak up as much information, expertise, and advice as you possibly can from someone who has an entire career under their belt.

What’s cool about sitting with senior professionals? People who have been in the field for a long time typically love what they do. They’re passionate about it, and are often happy to share their experiences and insights. Most are also very excited to help the youngest generation in their field develop into leaders. They WANT to see you succeed.

Also, they really KNOW their stuff. They are like walking encyclopedias of their field. They can give you an entire history of the field over dinner, highlighting all the key people, the big findings, and the current and past key controversies. Why wouldn’t you take advantage of an opportunity to hear about all of those things? Think of the value of all the information you can get – you can go home with a full belly and a full mind!

If your dinner company works in a field that you’re interested in, they can tell you hot areas for research or jobs, they can tell you what leaders in the field look for in young professionals, and they can tell you what you can do to help break into the field.

You might also find that the conversation doesn’t revolve strictly around STEM. Perhaps it wanders through areas of hobbies, or family, or travel, or philosophy, or any other number of things.

Keep listening.  There’s more to life than STEM.

You might find a parallel to your own life. Maybe now, maybe later in your career, this information could be of use or importance to you. It could directly parallel your life, or it could help you gain a perspective on a different generation, a different culture, or a different lifestyle.

I can’t tell you all the amazing things I’ve learned from going to dinner parties, the great people I’ve met, and the wonderful connections I’ve developed.  When the opportunity comes up for you, make sure you take advantage of it, and listen, listen, listen as much as you can!

–the STEMinista

Thoughts on #distractinglysexy

distractinglysexyTonight, I wanted to share with you some advice about what one should do when dining with a Nobel prize winner, but this Tim Hunt #distractinglysexy thing came up. I posted on Twitter that I had a few reservations about the #distractinglysexy hashtag, and some people seemed a bit aghast – I thought I’d explain my point of view a little more – we’ll get back to dinner parties another night:

Most of us that are living in the current millenium agree that the statements made by Dr. Hunt are just plain wrong. STEM needs insights from all types of people, everybody has important input to give, and there are too many problems left to solve for leaving anybody out. We need all the brainpower we can get.

Is the problem that Tim Hunt doesn’t respect women in STEM? Is the problem that some men don’t respect women in STEM?

If so, does posting pictures of women on Twitter change Tim Hunt’s mind? Does it change any chauvinist man’s mind? Will we all wake up tomorrow in a STEM world without sexism or racism? We’re certainly bringing a lot of attention to the problem, but does #distractinglysexy actually solve a problem?

@niais posted a downright tirade about her feelings (warning: graphic language). To me, her comments were much clearer about explaining the problem(s) than any #distractinglysexy picture.

Perhaps instead #distractinglysexy will begin an open and honest conversation. Then, we can provide some data about the status of women in STEM, what areas need the most attention, and where we’ve already succeeded. @EmicAcademic does fantastic work on this, and @AAUW took the opportunity to begin posting all sorts of statistics and articles about Women in STEM – I believe THIS is the conversation we need to be having!

@D_avidH today pointed out the importance of understanding the problem and brainstorming solutions in STEM. I think the same thing applies here.  Everyone had something different to say about #distractingly sexy:

@CatholicSara said that #distractinglysexy is meant to make women laugh

@Bailiuchan suggested that satire can be a powerful agent of change

@coralnerd suggested this was an avenue of self expression for women in STEM

@dawnbazely suggested (not to me) that #distractinglysexy moved beyond Tim Hunt, and became a movement about women empowering themselves

First, thanks to each of you for your input and conversation – I think you all have completely valid points, and I learned a lot by considering your viewpoints. This is a situation where you are all right, and for the same reasons, I support #distractinglysexy if it:

  • Empowers anybody – man or woman – to pursue STEM.
  • Shows young people the diversity and exciting avenues of STEM careers
  • Encourages women and men in STEM to feel comfortable in their personal version of self-expression
  • Celebrates the accomplishments of women and men in STEM
  • Forms a support network of people in STEM to converse and share ideas with

Those things are incredibly important, and desperately needed. But personally, I have reservations about building such an empowering, uplifting movement if its very foundation is based upon tearing someone down. Even if that someone is wrong. Isn’t marginalizing someone else’s self expression the very thing we’re trying to prevent?

Instead, why don’t we create a movement based purely on positive foundations? Empower women and men in STEM every day – not just on days when some chauvinist makes a highly publicized sexist comment. For example@StephEvz43 has a great weekly video series on STEM and @Realscientists features different scientists on their website on a weekly basis with fantastic week-long outreach by each scientist. A couple weeks ago on my blog, I wrote a post about how I use STEM in my every day job. It was full of pictures that would be perfect for #distractinglysexy (before #distractinglysexy was cool). I didn’t write it as a one-time reaction to a rude comment. I wrote it because sharing my STEM experience could positively influence someone else.

We shouldn’t just be highlighting STEM when something negative happens. We should be celebrating STEM every day – celebrating little victories like passing a test or finishing an experiment, celebrating big victories like graduating, getting jobs, paper acceptances, patents, and discoveries. Instead of reactionary hashtags like #distractinglysexy, I’d rather celebrate and empower with constant positivity, such as #thankyouSTEMwomen, #scienceFTW, #heforshe, #heforSWE and @smrtgrls. I hope that opening a positive avenue of empowerment would

  1. Provide an environment of mentorship, camaraderie, encouragement which allows everyone to feel safe in their own form of self-expression
  2. open discussion to determine the problems, brainstorm possible answers and implement solutions, and
  3. develop a workforce of successful, empowered, educated STEM professionals

What do you think about the debate? Are there any key points of the discussion I’ve left out? I’d love to hear your opinion – the conversation is started – let’s keep it going

–theSTEMinista

Is THIS what I want to do the rest of my life?

Is this what I want to do the rest of my lifeIf you’re one of those people who’s known since third grade what you want to be when you grow up, you suck! (just kidding, of course – good for you!!) I’d say most of us go through high school, and even a lot of college before we even begin to understand what exactly we want to do when we grow up.

Even if you know you want to be in a STEM job, there are so many different directions you can go. How do you know that where you start is where you want to finish?

You don’t.

And that’s ok. Even if you go in to college absolutely sure of your career path, it’s not unheard of to change your mind. I changed majors entirely between my master’s and PhD. Mr. SciGuy is changing his profession entirely 10 years into his career. It’s all about finding something you really want to do the rest of your life.

So if you’re just starting out, how do you know if you’re doing the right thing?

My best advice for you is to get as much experience in your field as you possibly can – hands-on if possible. You can get experience from lots of places.

The absolute best way to gain experience in your hopeful job field is through a co-op job or internship. With a co-op job, you’ll get to go into the workplace and see what people in your field really do on a day-to-day basis. The job you’re doing will likely be entry-level and more mundane than what an experienced employee would do, but on-the-job experience is so informative. You’ll have access to speak to all the other employees at your company, who can give you their perspectives and advice and see first-hand what the best and worst parts of the job are, what the benefits and pay are like, and what the expectations are for employees in different roles.

An added bonus, if you decided you DO like the job, is you’ll have your foot in the door at a company in the industry you like, PLUS, when you interview for your full-time position, you can talk about your relevant work experience.

After being on the job, if you decide you DON’T like it, you still have time to change up your career goals while you’re still in school, instead of getting all the way to your first real job and realizing you made a huge mistake.

Jobs were tight in the early 2010’s, but from what I’ve heard (at least in the automotive industry), companies can’t find enough co-op students to fill the positions available now. I heard at one job fair in March of 2015, companies were hiring co-op students to fill positions as far in the future as summer 2016. The jobs are there for you, you just have to go out and look for them (more on that in future posts!).

If for whatever reason, you can’t do a co-op, there are still opportunities to get experience. Try joining a club or professional organization in your field. You’ll have the opportunity to interact and share experiences with other students in your field, and possibly get the opportunity for mentorship from professional members of the club or organization. The other members of your club will quickly become your study group, your support network, and likely some of your best friends.

Networking is another good option to learn about your job. Talk to your teachers, professors, parents, and friends about your career goals. Chances are, they may be able to offer you good advice, or put you in contact with someone who can give you great advice. This could even lead to potential job shadowing or internship opportunities down the road. On-line networking through Linked-In can also be a great opportunity to find people in your desired profession (but remember to keep your profile professional!).

So, be brave, get out there, and start trying things. THAT Is the way you’ll figure out what the best fit is for you. If you find that the first job, or two jobs, or three jobs, or more – aren’t perfect for you, don’t worry. It takes time to find your perfect job, but you’ll get there. It just takes some trial and error, and the willingness to try new things.

So, tell me – do you think you already know what your dream job is? If not, do you know what direction you might want to go in?

–theSTEMinista

STEMinista, do you even do STEM?

Do you even DO STEM?Yay! I thought you’d never ask! Since you asked, I’d love to take a few minutes to talk about my job tonight. I work in the Smart Sensors and Integrated Microsystems Laboratories at Wayne State University.

Want to guess what we do?

I’ll give you a hint: it has to do with sensors and microsystems – but I presume you used your context clues to figure that one out on your own already. So beyond that, what do we do? Most of the work we do is biomedical, and ALL of the work I do is biomedical. If you aren’t into biomedical problems, don’t worry – we use lots of other areas of science and engineering to solve biomedical problems, so this may be of interest to you, too.

We start with a problem. Sometimes our partners approach us with a specific problem in mind. Sometimes, we immerse ourselves in a clinical environment to identify problems ourselves, and sometimes, we come up with our own problems. I think it’s safe to say – in all areas of STEM – if you don’t have a really good understanding of your problem, you can’t come up with a viable solution.

Learning about surgical problems - by spending serious time in the operating room

Learning about surgical problems – by spending serious time in the operating room

I bet you can guess our next step….

Next, we brainstorm potential solutions. My boss (he’s kind of a big deal) likes to say we take an ‘atoms-to-man’ approach, meaning that we look at solutions at all scales – from the atomic or molecular level, to organs or parts of organs, to whole-person or process based solutions, and everything in between.

We’re stepping through the scientific process here, so I bet you can guess what happens next….

We evaluate the potential solutions to see what’s been tried before, what is viable and what isn’t. We have some traditional tools to do this (like libraries for research), but we also have a really cool and pretty unique design and simulation laboratory with teleconferencing capability to include all the key players (doctors, funders, scientists, engineers, etc) and all the latest and greatest design and simulation software (more on that in a future post, maybe?). A lot of times, we’ll also do some preliminary clinical or laboratory studies to test out our hypotheses before we proceed with a solution.

This is where things start to get cool, my friends.

Once we have an idea, and a simulated design, we have a whole series of micro- and nano-fabrication facilities to build solutions (usually sensors are involved in some way, hence the name smart “sensors”).

What is microfabrication? It’s basically the process of making really small-scale things (like sensors!). Again, this is an overview – we’ll probably talk more about this in future posts. For those of you not used to the names, micro is 10-6 meters, and nano is 10-9 meters. The features on the sensors and devices we’re making can be as small as ~0.000000003 m. For reference, a human hair is typically 20 – 200 micrometers (0.000020 – 0.000200 m). So the patterns we’re designing are much, much, much smaller than a human hair – cool, huh? Fabrication is done in a ‘clean room’, which is a room with specialized ventilation to prevent contamination from dust or other particles that may interfere with the device you’re building. Clean room ventilation is also designed to keep users safe, by preventing them from being exposed to chemicals or biological contaminants that are being used in the room.

Suited up to work in a clean room - no contamination is coming off of us!

Suited up to work in a clean room – no contamination is coming off of us!

We also have the equipment necessary to take a sensor and build it into an “integrated” (there we are with the creative naming system again!) circuit board, so that it can be placed into an actual electronic device.

How do we make sure that the sensors we make turn out correctly if they’re so small? Good question! We have another entire laboratory dedicated to characterization. For now, you should know that means we have a bunch of REALLY powerful microscopes, to look at things up close, as well as a whole bunch of other materials science tools to study the various properties of our sensors (or anything else whose properties we might find interesting).

Big microscopes come in big boxes - I couldn't resist!

Big microscopes come in big boxes – I couldn’t resist!

Lastly, we have a number of ‘translational’ labs, where we can test out the final or near-final devices. Within our clean room fabrication area, we have a dedicated lab for doing biology work. Then, a sensor can be built, packaged into a device, and tested in a biological laboratory without ever leaving the ‘clean’ environment.

Working in a biology tissue culture laboratory - and perfecting the foot pop!

Working in a biology tissue culture laboratory – and perfecting the foot pop!

So, that was a quick, broad overview of what my lab does, without any actual mention of any of the projects I work on – do you feel cheated??? I feel a little like a cheated you….

Before we go into detail about the projects I work on, let’s talk a little about my role, and the other types needed to make the lab a success.

One of my primary jobs is to serve as a ‘clinical interface’. What does that even mean? I have a pretty good understanding of the science and engineering work we do, but I also have a pretty good understanding of the medical side of what we do, so I spend a lot of time meeting with doctors and researchers making sure the science matches the medicine and the medicine matches the science. This is important to make sure experiments are setup correctly, and to make sure the experiments we do in the laboratory will be relevant to the doctors who will use the final product we develop.

Another part of ‘clinical interface’ is managing administrative paperwork – a lot of it. It is tedious, and it’s not science-y at all (at least not the kind I want to spend my time with), but it is absolutely required anytime research is performed on humans or animals. In the past, there have been a LOT of really unethical experiments done on both people and animals, so the government-mandated regulations to make sure that people and animals aren’t unfairly exploited. Even if it isn’t fun, it’s important, and the systems are in place for a reason. Unfortunately for me, I really understand the system and processes, so I’ve become the go-to girl for managing all that paperwork.

I’m also expected to write peer-reviewed research papers and grants, so I spend a lot of time analyzing experimental data, formatting it for presentations, papers, and grants, and writing the accompanying documents to go with the data. Since I work in a big laboratory, I also get to mentor a constantly-rotating group of students (ranging from high school students, to graduate students, to medical students, to post-medical or graduate-school researchers) to help them on their various research projects. This is fun because a lot of the projects are outside of my specific areas of expertise, so I’m constantly researching new topics to help out students.

Oh, and on my lucky days between everything else, I get to go in the laboratory and do science too. Those are my favorite!

As you may have guessed, it takes a big, diverse STEM team to go from identifying a problem, to designing, building, and evaluating a solution.  The types of STEM jobs we need in the lab where I work aren’t unique to biomedical problems. They are universal to problem solving. The team I work with includes scientists (physicists, chemists, biologists, etc), mathematicians and statisticians, engineers (of all disciplines), medical professionals (doctors, nurses, veterinarians, etc), artists and designers (you have to make the device look good AND be easy to use), and business people (to commercialize final products). I love working in a job where I can clearly see the importance of each of those specialties. In a lot of big companies, you can lose sight of exactly how diverse a STEM team is needed to solve problems.

Thanks for sticking around to read this far. I think we’ll stop here for now. I didn’t mean to type nearly this much, and I still didn’t tell you about all the cool projects we’re doing at my job. I’ll save that for a series of future posts – promise! For now, I hope all of my on-the-job pictures give you a little peak into what my daily job is like and you’re looking forward to hearing more.

–theSTEMinista

Can I succeed in STEM if I don’t fit the stereotype?

stem success

In one word: yes

In one sentence: You are capable of more than you could even imagine, and the world needs your ideas and input to conquer and solve some of its most difficult questions.

 

If you’re in a hurry, you can stop there. I wanted to make sure everyone who clicked here had the chance to see that, even if you don’t have time to read a whole blog post.

Have another couple minutes? There’s more:

Every one of you reading this is capable of succeeding in STEM.

What does it take to succeed in STEM?

A curiosity to ask science, engineering, technology, and math questions, and the interest to look for the answers.

That’s it.

Your gender, your skin color, your income, and anything else about you? Doesn’t matter.

YOU have the innate ability to succeed.

I admit – there may be difficulties along the way. You may be the only ___A____ in a room full of ___B___. Fill in the blanks for whatever applies to you. For me, I was very frequently the only _girl_ in a room full of _boys_.

Do you know what though? Every other ___B___ in the classroom with you will have their own struggles in their path through STEM as well. A lot of times, the people getting under your skin the most are the ones facing the biggest personal struggles in their own lives.

If you’re doubting yourself because you aren’t like the others around you, or because you aren’t like the people you envision in your future job, don’t let that stop you. You are more like them than you imagine (unless you’re half fish). You have goals and dreams and aspirations, and a unique perspective that makes you who you are.

When you go to work in a STEM job, you are bringing that perspective with you, not just your classroom knowledge. You have an entire collective of your own experiences, and your own approach to thinking and problem solving based on both your personality and your past. To employers, this is an asset. You are unique and valuable, regardless of being ___A____ , or even better – you are unique and valuable because you are ___A____.

Most days, being an _ (girl)__ in a room full of _ (boys)__ wasn’t a big deal for me. We were all students, and we all had good days and bad days. Some days, it was challenging to be different from everyone else. There have been a few rare really bad days where I’ve let someone nasty get under my skin. To be honest, days like that suck. A lot. Those days are very few and far between. My response is to pick myself up, move on, and to become a better STEMinista – just to prove that nasty person wrong.

There are two people I can think of in the past who have told me I couldn’t succeed in STEM because I’m a _girl_. Want to know something cool? Those two people, who made me feel absolutely horrible in the past are the whole reason I started going to talk to young people about pursuing STEM. I took that negative energy, and turned it around to bring about what I hope will be positive change. Not only did I work all the more harder to prove that I could succeed, but I’ve made it a point to make sure that all of you know that YOU can succeed too.

So, maybe you’re different. Maybe you don’t fit the stereotype. That isn’t bad. That just makes it all the more special when you pursue STEM, and you DO reach your goals. I love telling you this, and I’ll tell you over and over and over again:

YOU can succeed in STEM. YOU have what it takes, and I believe in YOU.

Happy Monday, and go kick some STEM butt this week!

 

–theSTEMinista

 

P.S. My feelings about this subject are really strong. I am not kidding when I say I believe in YOU.   We will come back to this point – over, and over and over. I could stay up all night talking to you about why I think people who don’t fit the stereotype are ideal for STEM careers. To those of you who do fit the stereotype – I could write all night about why you fit perfectly into STEM, too. To spare you a 4000 page post, we’ll come back to this later – many times. But know that I believe in you and you can succeed in STEM.

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