March 27, 2019

PPPL’s Young Women’s Conference Offers Fun, Education, and Inspiration in STEM

BUILDING A NEURON: Girls create models of a neuron using pipe cleaners and beads, under the supervision of Princeton High School junior Anisha Iyer, at the International Youth Neuroscience Association table at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s Young Women’s Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics last Friday.  (Photo by Elle Starkman/PPPL Office of Communication)

By Donald Gilpin

More than 750 seventh to 10th-grade girls from all over New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware operated robots, put on goggles for a 3-D view of the brain, learned about computer coding, and talked to FBI forensics investigators at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s (PPPL’s)Young Women’s Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) last Friday at the Frick Chemistry Laboratory on the Princeton University campus. 

“The girls are not shy about their curiosity and it shows,” said conference organizer and PPPL’s Science Education Program Manager Deedee Ortiz. “They are showing interest and enthusiastically asking all the right questions. You can almost see the spark in their eyes.”

Ortiz has managed the conference for the past six years, as attendance has grown rapidly. “The goal is to make sure that these young women see that they are capable of being anywhere in the STEM field,” she said. “The women we bring here are successful engineers and scientists. They have led the way. They are role models. We want the students to see themselves in these women who are here to guide them, so that they can pursue careers in STEM.”

Women still lag behind men in the STEM fields in this country. While women earn 58 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, they earn only 36 percent of bachelor’s degrees in STEM, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Jessica Ilagan, a chemical engineer at PPPL and a member of the PPPL Women in Engineering group, was demonstrating to a gathering of students a model of a solenoid, like the one that powers the PPPL fusion reactor.

“A lot of kids didn’t know about this, and they were amazed by what they have found out,” Ilagan said. “I wish there had been something like this in my high school. It would have ignited my interest in science. Young women need role models.”

Noting that more and more women are becoming interested in science and engineering, Ilagan continued, “I didn’t know any women engineers when I grew up.” She pointed to herself and her three colleagues at the exhibition table, and added, “You’re looking at 50 percent of the engineers at PPPL, but our department head is a woman, and she started a Women in Engineering group to talk about this.”

Among the more than 30 exhibitors, more than any previous year, were Liberty Science Center; Grounds for Sculpture Stewart Johnson Atelier; New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection; an FBI Evidence Response Team; several different groups representing the PPPL; several Princeton University groups; The College of New Jersey Tech Girls; Princeton Satellite Systems; Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories; the New Jersey branch of the Association for Women in Science; Girls Who Code; Girls Into Engineering, Math, and Science; AI4ALL; science students from Hightstown High School; students representing the International Youth Neuroscience Association from Princeton High School; the Robbinsville Innovation 4H Club; and others.

“The idea of a Young Women’s Conference is to provide a day of fun for seventh to 10th-grade girls with the goal of sparking an interest in science that might lead them to consider STEM careers,” said Andrew Zwicker, head of communications and public outreach at the PPPL.

He continued, “For 18 years, the Young Women’s Conference has brought hundreds of students from around New Jersey together to learn from and meet successful women STEM professionals. This is a key step in recruiting the most diverse and highly-qualified next generation of New Jersey’s scientists and engineers.”

Abigail Lau and Anisha Iyer, PHS 11th graders and members of the International Youth Neuroscience Association, were explaining to younger girls how to build a model neuron out of pipe cleaners and beads.

“We want to introduce girls to neuroscience because I am interested in STEM and when I’m older I want to do something related to neuroscience or biomedical research,” Lau said.

“You see a lot more boys involved than girls,” Iyer added, “especially at the higher levels.  An event like this is very important to encourage girls to go into STEM.”

Caroline Balick, a junior from Kinnelon High School, was promoting an AI4ALL three-week summer program focused on spreading education about artificial intelligence to minority groups. The camp, based on the campus at Princeton University and on university campuses throughout the country, focuses on four different research projects: self-driving cars, the fake news challenge, fragile families, and the internet of things.

Pleased by the high level of interest in AI4ALL throughout the morning, Balick said, ”This is very important. It makes me so happy to see all of these girls walking around interested in science. They are so underrepresented. There needs to be more girls in this field.” As for her own future in college and beyond, Balick noted, “I’m also interested in biology. To connect AI to biology somehow would be very cool.”

Ortiz recalled how the mother of a student came to the conference one year ”just to tell me that the year before she had to drag her daughter here. She hated science. It was too hard.  It was boring. But after coming to this event, the daughter decided she was going to be a chemist. That’s why we do this.”

Featured speakers at the conference in addition to the exhibitors included Tammy Ma, a plasma physicist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore’s National Ignition Facility; Kamana Misra, M.D., founder of the companies ContraRx and BioThink LLC; Elahesadat Naghib, a final-year Ph.D candidate in Princeton University’s Operations Research and Financial Engineering Department; and Kathryn “Kitty” Wagner, a senior technical staff member in the Princeton University Chemistry Department.