Grad students had a chance to talk before the opening keynote.
Saturday, February 6 marked the 4th annual weSTEM conference. The flagship project of gradSWE, Women Empowered in STEM brings students from UIUC and universities all around the country together for a day of discussions and fellowship. weSTEM’s motto, “Be inspired, stay motivated, grow passionate,” guided the day-long event, which had a schedule including panel and small group discussions, talks, and two keynote speeches, all given by successful STEM women with remarkable personal stories.
A record 160 students attended the conference and brought with them a plethora of areas of study. In addition to the various talks available, the attendees were also given plenty of time to get to know each other. A single table had girls majoring in civil engineering, aerospace engineering, medical bioengineering, mechanical engineering, and medical anthropology.
The opening keynote speaker was the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry’s exhibit developer Olivia Castellini, who discussed her job and the unusual path she took from grad school to eventually arrive there.
Keynote speaker Olivia Castellini spoke about her unusual path from grad school to becoming a museum exhibit developer.
“I adore what I do,” Castellini said. Her job requires her to constantly learn new concepts and present them in a way that interests her target audience, primarily middle school kids, while also drawing in the rest of the spectrum made up by the general public. “You have about six seconds before someone decides they’re moving on. Six seconds to capture their attention, not confuse them, teach them something new, and hopefully [allow them to] have a good time,” Castellini said.
Castellini’s advice to grad students is relevant for those of us in undergrad as well. “Taking calculated risks is an important thing to do,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to take things that might not seem like the traditional path. Some really wonderful and unexpected things can happen when you choose to do that. And know that you have to stand your ground, because not everyone will understand.”
Many students at the conference were seeking better communication, whether it be skills for communicating scientific ideas to people with non-science backgrounds, networking with professors, or communication with other girls in STEM. Castellini echoed this sentiment.
“I would never have discovered this passion for science communication if I hadn’t followed what seemed at the time to be a very random path,” she said.
UIUC Professor Barbara Minsker, a Nauman Faculty Scholar with a Ph.D. in environmental systems engineering, stressed the importance of communication as well. In her talk entitled “Becoming a Compassionate Warrior for Women in STEM,” she discussed her experiences of gender bias in the workplace. What began as small slights and comments in relation to her gender came to a head when she won a career award from the National Science Foundation for a proposal. Other faculty expressed the idea that she may have won only because she was a woman, and that her proposal wasn’t actually very good. This belief, Minsker said, made some of the faculty refuse to read her proposal. “There was this notion that because you’re a female, you’re getting special treatment,” Minsker said. “Over time, these things add up. They call it ‘death by a thousand cuts.’”
Professor Barbara Minsker discussed her experiences of gender bias.
Minsker eventually took her complaints to court, an action that she believes raised a lot of awareness among the faculty. “They didn’t know what gender bias is or what their actions were really doing,” she said. Since then, she has also reached out to other women, in her department and beyond. In doing so she discovered she wasn’t alone in her experiences.
“Networking is fabulously important,” Minsker said. “All those years with all the things that happened, I didn’t have a network to support me. As you go forward in your careers, I really encourage you to build your own support network.”
The overall message of this conference is important for everyone, regardless of gender: while it may not be an obvious path or an easy task, it is entirely possible to make for yourself a satisfying and successful career, no matter who you are.