STEM—the acronym referring to the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math—is in the news more than ever before. With new advancements in technology and medicine occurring every day, STEM-oriented professions are experiencing significant growth. Women in STEM professions earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM occupations and experience a smaller wage gap relative to men, yet the Bureau of Labor Statistics consistently emphasizes the lack of adequate female representation in these fields. We set out to address the issue of representation by speaking with two STEM professionals, engineer Ranjani Mosale Vijayakumar and biologist Giovanna Collu, about their expectations for the future of their fields.
Ranjani Mosale Vijayakumar is a civil engineer originally from Mysuru, Karnataka in India. After completing her undergraduate studies in her home country, she moved to the U.S. to pursue a Master of Science degree at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Currently working as an engineer for Tourney Consulting Group, Vijayakumar has significant experience as a student, engineering professional and mentor.
How did you first become interested in engineering?
I got my bachelor’s degree in technology from the National Institute of Technology Karnataka, Surathkal in India, and I have my Master of Science degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As a kid growing up in India, I pretty much saw only two career options: either being a doctor or being an engineer. The more creative options tend to make a lot less money, so these two are considered the broad areas where financial stability is reached pretty quickly. In middle-class families that’s very important and forced on the kids. Architecture, for example, would have been an okay choice too, because it’s considered a mainstream occupation, but I don’t think I would have been allowed to go into a career that is more creative, like being an actress or being in the music industry.
What was the educational path you followed to become an engineer?
Since I was good at science and math, I figured I would be an engineer. If I had to go back, I would have probably chosen psychology. I don’t see myself sticking to engineering. I think I’ll go back to either education or psychology. I don’t get as much fulfillment being in engineering as I would get by being in a field where I’d be able to help people. I got into undergrad when I was 17. I didn’t know where I wanted my career to go back then, I just wanted to get into a good school.
The way it works in India is that you have to choose what you want to do at 14 years of age, because there are so many exams you have to take to get you into university. Close to 1.4 million people take the competitive exams. In order to get into the top-tier public universities, you have to take two exams. You go to a lot of coaching centers and after-school study groups. To do that, you have to decide what field you’re going into at a very young age. Most of my classmates went into engineering because they didn’t see any other option and I believe at least a few of them would have considered more creative fields if they had an option.
What does it take to get more girls or women interested in engineering?
I volunteered at a lot of STEM after-school activities. For example, the Adler Planetarium has a program for high school students called “Girls Do Hack.” There are many activities for girls, either teaching them how to code or giving them an introduction to opportunities they may have after they graduate. That’s giving them a broad idea of what to expect in engineering. That’s one way to en-courage girls. Telling them what to expect in a particular career path and educating them about possible career options is helpful. You can be a civil engineer, electrical engineer, electronics engineer, computer science engineer, mechanical engineer—there are a lot of options. I knew I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer and code all the time. I wanted hands-on fields, being on site and observing construction activities.
What’s a typical project for you?
TCG works on a lot of different kinds of projects and as an engineer, I am involved in mainly three broad types of projects: service life modeling for structures, corrosion studies and field investigations. Service life modeling involves narrowing the exposure conditions based on the soil/groundwater chemistry and the weather conditions, and then running simulations to estimate the time taken for the movement of deleterious ions to the level of reinforcement. In big projects like the replacement bridge for Goethals in New York, we also specify the quality assurance and quality control plan that should be followed in order to ensure that a quality product is delivered. Corrosion studies are performed on a day-to-day basis in the lab in order to assess the efficacy of sealers and corrosion inhibitors. Field investigations are performed to assess if there are any material degradation issues in the concrete or if there is any corrosion activity in the reinforcement. Corrosion activity in a structure is assessed by mapping half cell potential and measures are taken to mitigate corrosion—for example, cathodic protection systems.
You’re Indian and you’ve also studied in the U.S., do you see any cultural differences in studying STEM?
One professor was really inspiring. He knew a lot about the materials used in concrete. The lab work I did for those three months piqued my interest to study more about it. I then decided to do my master’s in construction materials. Until then, I wasn’t really sure about coming to the U.S. for my master’s. It’s really common for students of my university to just finish their B.A. and then come abroad for higher education. I knew of a few people who had done that. I spoke to them and figured out which universities were good. I looked at the rankings too. And I looked at the research that was happening at each of the universities. Obviously funding was a major factor. Some universities have a lot more funding for grad students than others. Talking to different students at different universities helped a lot.
I was part of something called “Women in Math, Science and Engineering” in grad school, a living and learning community for the undergrad students. It’s like a separate hostel for girls. We had a dinner series with women in the working world. We tried to get women in various fields to come and talk to the girls and tell them what they’ve been through in their careers, what girls should expect, and whether they felt any sort of discrimination being in STEM fields. One of the discussions we had was how different women are treated in STEM fields throughout the world. Most students who came were from the U.S. A professor from Greece said it was very hard for women to get into STEM there, that there’s open discrimination against women in that field in Greece. I wouldn’t have expected that to happen in the U.S., but in the high schools that the other girls came from, teachers apparently were okay with them being bad at math: “You’re a girl, that’s fine, we don’t expect you to be really good at math.” One girl was really good at math and the teacher wouldn’t give her any opportunities in class, because she was a girl.
In that way, I was really fortunate. I didn’t have to prove myself and tell anyone that it doesn’t matter that I’m a girl. I did have to fight about moving away from home. “What’s society going to think sending our daughter abroad alone?” my parents asked. Apart from that, there wasn’t any stigma attached to women in STEM in India. But I did see that in the U.S., and, according to that professor, in Greece too. I’ve heard about it a lot, but I really don’t know where it stems from. I haven’t had too much exposure to basic education in the U.S. to pinpoint where it’s being caused.
What changes have taken place in the field during the time you’ve been a part of it?
I haven’t been in these fields long enough to tell you that there’s been a change. I can tell you that in a class of 70, we were just six women in engineering in my undergrad. In my grad school, too, we were three women in the entire group. What I heard from people involved in other fields in STEM, they said the same thing, that about 10 percent of the class is women.
Did you ever talk about that with them?
We did, but after freshmen year, that’s what you expect. In engineering, they know it’s going to be fewer women. That’s one of the reasons why there are programs to talk about opportunities. There are a lot of scholarships. Groups made of women are highly encouraged; positive steps are being taken towards including women in STEM fields.
You’ve been involved in several mentorship programs as both a mentee and a mentor.
I was the grad student adviser for the community. We would set up different activities and mentoring programs. There were initiatives where undergrads would meet up with a professor to get research opportunities. The dinner activities were another part. Those two things were the best things about the program, because it was personal and the students were getting an opportunity to interact with the professors on a one-on-one basis. They could ask any question and would not be judged for it. Many intriguing discussions came out of the dinner series.
I’m trying to find new volunteering opportunities now. When I was in grad school I was involved as a teaching assistant. Here in Kalamazoo, I found something called “Communities in Schools of Kalamazoo,” an after-school activity. You get assigned one or two kids, mostly high school kids, and you mentor them to give them an idea of what they can do in the future. When I was a kid, I didn’t have too much exposure in terms of what I could do for a living. In the U.S., it’s not just civil engineering, there are plenty of things that one can major in: environmental engineering, structural engineering, structural design. Knowing the options will maybe feed their interest.
Do you think mentorship is important and what counts when it comes to that?
I think mentorship is very important for ambition and the passion to pursue things. What really counts? If I were looking for a mentor, I’d be looking for somebody who can coach me in my professional career. If I have questions or problems in my career, I need to know how to deal with them, how to move ahead, what exactly I need to do in order to succeed in my field.
Do you have a specific person in mind?
Right now it’s a combination of people. Recently I joined a Lean In circle. I was feeling a little low on motivation to go forward, but after I attended a meeting, everything came back. There’s so much energy in that group. Everybody wants to do something to move ahead, everybody’s trying so hard. It was refreshing to see that again. That is enough of a mentoring opportunity. Everybody is so open to any question you have, so ready to help. They give out their phone numbers and they ask you to call if you have anything to talk about. That is a good support system.
How do you see the female future of your field?
I think by proportion women are currently not adequately represented in the STEM fields, but I think that will change. What I see is the percentage of women in a graduating class. It’s very low, but it’s changing. I’ve spoken to a few high school students. After they see that math and science are not as difficult as they look, and that the engineering field is not as daunting as they think it will be, they have a lot more confidence to do well in those fields. It’s about confidence and feeling prepared.
If I were to run a campaign to encourage girls to take on STEM fields as careers, I’d definitely include demonstrations and explain the concepts behind things. Experiments give them a sense of accomplishment. It’s about seeing people talk about their field and what they do on a day-to-day basis. For example, as an environmental engineer, testing nitrogen and oxygen levels is something you do on a day-to-day basis. The concept behind it may not be very simple, but just showing them that they can do it is important, it’s not something that’s beyond their reach.
Women in STEM are fighting for equal representation, and that’s becoming a huge deal. Encouraging women to fight for what they think is important is key. Younger girls have zero inhibitions, but a couple of snubs is all it takes to create insecurities. I am very glad that initiatives like GoldieBlox exist. They are encouraging little girls to build things and be more inquisitive about technology and engineering. There are multiple initiatives that are encouraging women to get into STEM. It is getting better, but it will definitely take time.
Giovanna Collu, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in developmental and regenerative biology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Having grown up in the U.K. where she completed her education at the University of Manchester, she moved to New York three years ago after accepting a position at one of Mount Sinai’s renowned research laboratories. A dedicated researcher, Collu is also involved in a number of mentorship and outreach activities for young women interested in science.
How did you become interested in science, and what was the educational path you followed to become a biologist?
I had a really good science teacher in school and then I did a broad natural sciences degree at the University of Cambridge—covering chemistry, biology and math. One of the specialized units was on developmental biology, looking at model organisms and how bodies are patterned. It was something I found really interesting so I majored in that and then worked on a couple of research projects at the university and at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute while I was looking for a Ph.D. program. I then moved to the University of Manchester for my Ph.D. in developmental biology. I got to do a lot of public engagement work and outreach activities, including the Manchester Science Festival. There was a lot of opportunity to do outreach work in the university’s local programs, so I stayed there for my first postdoctoral position. One of the good things about being in science is that it’s quite easy to do international postdocs so I could then come to the U.S. relatively easily.
The lab that I’m in now, we’re looking at tissue polarity using fruit flies as a model—the same basic mechanisms pattern flies, human skin and animal skin. So all animal fur points in one direction and body hair points in one direction, and the same molecules form the pattern for both, so you can use the fly as a model. A lot of human diseases are associated with abnormal polarity, and these can be studied by looking at fly bristles.
You’re involved in several professional organizations, including mentoring programs for girls and young women.
I’m working with the New York Academy of Sciences in mentoring programs as part of their Global STEM Alliance. It currently includes Benin, Malaysia and Barcelona, among others. They’ve partnered with various online platforms to do global virtual mentoring. They also do after-school mentoring programs in the city and they’re branching to other areas for underserved populations in the U.S. They’ve also developed the NeXXt Scholars program—the double X stands for the two X chromosomes. It was funded by the Department of State and Hillary Clinton launched it a few years ago. The program partnered with women from predominantly Muslim countries to come and study at women’s colleges in the U.S. They paired each incoming scholar with an American student at one of the women’s colleges, and a STEM professional. It was around 50 students a year, something on that scale.
The Global STEM Alliance 1,000 Girls, 1,000 Futures, which should start this year. We’re currently interviewing people to be mentors. This program is online only, reaching people from anywhere in the world. So anyone who can communicate in English is eligible—all girls who are still in school. It’s going to be 300 girls this year and they are aiming to rapidly scale it up to enroll tens of thousands of young women in the coming years.
What role do you play within these programs?
I first taught at an after-school science club in a school in Harlem. And I’ve been involved with the NeXXT Scholars Program for the last two years. I’m interviewing incoming mentors for the 1,000 Girls, 1,000 Futures program. The NeXXt Scholars program runs an annual meeting and it’s been in New York the last couple of times. They have team-building activities and skills training. You actually get to meet not just the person you’re mentoring, but lots of other mentees who are super excited to come to New York.
How do you see the future of these fields for the girls and young women who are starting out now?
Talking about STEM fields gives the impression that the conditions are the same in all the sciences, technology, engineering and math disciplines. I read an article recently that was saying that maybe the “S” in STEM isn’t where we need people, but that there’s going to be a worldwide shortage of “TEM” graduates. There was a recent study looking at people with bachelor’s degrees, at their earnings and whether it was worth them going to college to study the STEM fields. For anyone in technology, engineering, or math, they have an extra $30,000 in their annual salary. And they showed that people with life sciences degrees were earning less than English graduates.
So you think it’s oversaturated at this point?
The pattern of research funding over the last couple of decades has led to there being far too many life sciences Ph.D.s for the number of academic positions available. For example, I don’t know anyone from my Ph.D. cohort who has their own lab. I’m one of a handful from the group still in academic research. Everyone else has either gone to other fields like consulting or medical writing, and that ranges from working with drug companies that are doing trials to write up and present their research, to writing the leaflets that go in boxes of drugs. During a Ph.D. you learn skills like critical thinking, numeracy, communication skills, things that make you attractive to employers across different fields. But the challenge is in making sure graduates are aware of their options and different career prospects. Other disciplines also need more people entering the pipeline for the technology and engineering jobs of the future.
You’re also part of a diversity group at Mount Sinai. Can you tell us a bit more about the group and its mission?
There are different groups at Mount Sinai that are focused on increasing diversity. They’re concerned with both women and underrepresented minorities entering the pipeline, and the recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce. For instance, recent efforts have involved charting the demographics of instructors (professional scientists who are not tenure track), assistant professors, associate and full professors by gender and ethnicity, and trying to rectify the drop-off at the associate and full professor level. In general, childcare clearly is a problem but as the response to Sir Tim Hunt’s recent comments about women in science have shown, for many people, it’s interactions on a day-to-day basis that make it not so fun to be a woman in science. Unless you’ve experienced it, you don’t think it exists.
Do things like that happen on a regular basis in science?
It varies from lab to lab and institute to institute. For instance, I know of a female Ph.D. student who was told that her job was cleaning the sink because she’s really good at things like that, or of male postdocs being paid more, or given raises without necessarily justifying themselves. If a guy makes a comment, even if their point is irrelevant, they’re given more credence sometimes. On the flip side, there are many people who work in labs where they aren’t made to feel their gender is defining their research experience.
Do you think that’s more of a problem here than in the U.K.?
I think there are probably challenges for women in both the U.S. and the U.K.—it’s hard to generalize because my move to the U.S. coincided with a rise in popular awareness of feminism. Since relocating, there are more news stories on both sides of the Atlantic addressing misogyny in science. I’m also more involved now in programs focused on supporting women in science directly, so I spend more time thinking about these issues.
Are you still happy that you pursued the career path that you did?
I am. Now I take the attitude that people just make themselves look ridiculous when they say offensive things about women in science. I went through a phase where it just made me really depressed and angry because there’s often nothing you can do about it in the moment. But now it seems like there are a lot more people who are aware of it, and a lot of us are certainly trying to improve things. I’m not really sure that everything being tried will work because the problem goes beyond the walls of individual institutions or fields. For example, I’ve recently taken part in unconscious bias training, which was aimed at making institutional leaders more aware of ingrained attitudes. But that’s not going to address the wider context of the general misogyny and sexism that goes on outside of science. You can’t eradicate the last 50 years from people’s experience, but at some point we may begin tipping things in the right direction.
This interview feature originally appeared in the Future issue. For more inspiring stories dealing with the future, check out Apocalypse Then: The Positive Side of Exploring Dystopia and No Great Women Artists: A Lesson to Be Learned.
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