Breaking Barriers at UCLA’s First Student-Organized Women in STEM Summit

Women in STEM - Breaking Barriers

May 12, 2021

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom
Over the course of three days in April, Women in STEM: Breaking Barriers (WiSTEM) virtually connected students and professionals with prominent women leaders in STEM fields.

Led by a group of UCLA undergraduate and graduate students, the event featured an impressive lineup of academic and industry panelists and speakers — including 2020 Nobel Prize winner Andrea Ghez, UCLA distinguished professor of physics and astronomy, who delivered the summit’s keynote address.

Billed as UCLA’s first-ever student-run annual conference focused on empowering women in STEM, WiSTEM aimed to facilitate meaningful conversations about socioeconomic, generational and discipline-specific obstacles that women in STEM often face. The event was free and open to all, offering many workshops, panel discussions and virtual community rooms. The conference’s mission is to provide women access to mentors, resources and support as they grow both personally and professionally.

More than 300 people attended the summit, which addressed different stages in one’s life and career: Day 1 focused on undergraduate and graduate careers, Day 2 was devoted to post-graduate and professional lives, while Day 3 offered practical advice for middle school, high school and GED students.

Maggie Fox, a UCLA materials science doctoral student, and other women leaders of STEM-related clubs on campus decided to join forces after sharing similar ideas for a women-focused STEM event.

“We shared things we wish we knew about being in STEM, and things we felt like maybe lacking or weren’t part of our education,” Fox said, “We decided we have the power and means to create this platform to acknowledge the barriers women face for being part of the STEM field.”

Ultimately, the WiSTEM team includes collaborators from various departments within the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering and a host of campus partners such as the Society of Women Engineers, Women in the Physical Sciences and Graduate Women in Computer Science.

Jayathi Murthy, the first woman dean at UCLA Samueli, has been a barrier breaker herself. She kicked off the first day of the conference and in her opening remarks, she reflected on her personal experiences as a woman in engineering and how women are influencing the field.

“Today, women in engineering are making a difference, not just to workplace culture, which of course it’s transforming, but we’re actually changing the meaning of engineering itself,” Murthy said.

“Today, women in engineering are making a difference, not just to workplace culture, which of course it’s transforming, but we’re actually changing the meaning of engineering itself,” Murthy said.

In her role as dean, Murthy is also making sure to continue expanding access to engineering for all.

“There are still many talented young women who are afraid of pursuing a career in STEM because they don’t see enough women in the field, and they worry they may be at a disadvantage in an industry traditionally dominated by men,” Murthy added. “At UCLA, we believe that diversity is an indispensable element of academic excellence. The Samueli Engineering school is committed to providing a more equitable, diverse, inclusive and nurturing learning environment for all of our students. So, we want to build a truly diverse student and faculty body, with programs designed to complement a rigorous engineering education for anyone with the talent and desire to succeed.”

Murthy then introduced the event’s keynote speaker Nobel laureate Andrea Ghez who won the Nobel Prize in physics for her pioneering research on the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, noting “you’d have to be inside a black hole not to know who she is!”

In her hour-long presentation, Ghez shared that her fascination with space began as a child with the moon landing, and has since evolved into exploring outer space from the ground.

Ghez admitted that her academic and professional career went through many evolutions before she chose physics. To support that journey, one of the topics she discussed was the importance of finding a sense of community. This was especially important while navigating her undergraduate years at MIT and then as a graduate and doctoral student at Caltech where she decided to join a swim team — an extracurricular activity she continues to this date at UCLA.

“I will never forget going to the first party at Caltech, where somebody came up to me and they said, ‘You’re the new grad student.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘No I’m a new grad student,’” Ghez recalled. “But it really captured what happens when there are so few women. You become an object. You become a center of attention in a way that you may not have been used to. And that for me made it really important that I had a community in which I didn’t stick out. And so swimming has always provided that for me.”

Despite the hurdles she had to overcome, Ghez found that being told something could not be done often strengthened her resolve. She convinced leaders within the University of California to allow her to conduct experiments at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii by embarking on a lecture tour across the UC system.

“At that point in my career, I certainly spent enough time hearing ‘you can’t do this because you’re a girl’ or ‘we don’t believe you can do this’ and then proving them wrong so I didn’t give their doubt much thought,” Ghez said.

“At that point in my career, I certainly spent enough time hearing ‘you can’t do this because you’re a girl’ or ‘we don’t believe you can do this’ and then proving them wrong so I didn’t give their doubt much thought,” Ghez said. “I really had to develop that muscle of overcoming people’s disbelief. So what it forced me to do was to write a better proposal and understand that I had to convince a community across the UC system.”

Many of the panels also continued the theme of finding a community, as some speakers advocated for women in STEM to find strong support systems that will build them up and affirm their place in the fields. While grades may provide some form of validation in undergraduate studies, women in STEM must find other sources for confirmation in graduate school and beyond.

Other conference speakers highlighted the importance of mentorship, sponsorship and the ability to seek help. “Personally, a big reason I was drawn to academia was my undergraduate mentor, who completely changed the trajectory of my life by helping me gain an appreciation for science as well as the confidence to pursue it,” said panel moderator Yuki Hebner, who is pursuing her Ph.D. at UCLA in gene regulation and serves as a board member of Advancing Women in Science and Engineering.

Nonprofit organization COMPASS strategist-in-chief Amanda Stanley suggests that women are generally over-mentored and under-sponsored. “Having sponsors who can make introductions for you, help you find funding and help you get a job are incredibly important,” she said “So both [mentors and sponsors] are really critical for our careers and women tend not to have as many sponsors.”

Others offered to serve as mentors to the up-and-coming women who attended the conference to pass along the knowledge they gained from their own mentors.

“There’s a lot of emphasis in undergrad in terms of grades and classes and academics but ultimately that’s only a small fraction of what you’re going to take away,” said panelist Manon von Kaenel, a UCLA civil and environmental engineering doctoral student studying hydrology and water resources. “The more important part is the human connections and networking.”

Attendees were also encouraged to participate in a variety of workshops on topics such as offer negotiation, balancing personal and professional priorities, making career pivots and identity-based advocacy.

“Knowing how hard breaking into, and staying in STEM, can be for a woman,” Fox said of the conference. “We really wanted to create a sense of community and belonging for our attendees, so that they would feel like they could reach out to anybody that was there and lean on them for support.”

Moving forward, the WiSTEM organizers hope to make their conference an annual event, expanding the programming and continuing to grow their community.

For a limited time, WiSTEM will host videos of the sessions from all three days on their YouTube channel.

Sarah Wang contributed to this story.