To Stem or Not to Stem? – Diya Nair

Car rides are where some of the most memorable moments of our lives happen. Gorgeous views, being confronted by your parents about some behavior that they do not approve of, and to crown it all, a good time for them to ask you about "What are you going to do with your life"?. But one car ride in particular has stuck with me. I was going to a Math enrichment program with another kid from my neighborhood. He was my friend, or so I thought. But on the way there, to my surprise, he started belittling me and told me that I'm not as strong as him in science and math, simply since I was a girl. Once we got there, to my horror, he got out and slammed the door on my face shouting LOSER, before walking away.

You might be wondering, what's the big deal? After all, this pales in comparison to other unfortunate teenage experiences. Well, this "playful banter" had an impact on me. It changed my views on STEM. I started believing that he might be right, that maybe STEM is just not for me. To STEM or Not to STEM? That is a question which many girls like me confront as we grow up.

Since then, I have realized that it is not just a question for girls, it is a question for all late bloomers as well. I hit the jackpot of not only being a girl but also a late bloomer. It felt like I have two strikes going against me for a STEM career. But for Middle school, I went to a chartered school which was focused on STEM, and it changed my mind. It was here that I got my first experience with serious STEM subjects like Biology and Chemistry. And to my surprise, I actually loved both. It was probably also due to the wonderful teachers I had, but I was fascinated to learn how the world works and how the things I learned could be applied in the real world. This was the first time I started realizing that my preconceived notions on STEM could be wrong.

The formal term for the "playful banter" which dissuades girls from STEM is called "microaggression” and I realize now that I was also influenced by this. Also, since I was a late bloomer, I felt excluded by the "smart kids" which again made me think that STEM is not for me. A Newsweek article from May 2019, mentions that girls' interest in STEM drops from about 15% among freshmen girls to about 12% among seniors, and only gets worse in college.

Studies have shown the subtle and insidious nature of the stereotype threat. A study by the APA - the American Psychological Association- found that merely telling women that a math test does not show gender differences improved their test performance. The researchers gave a math test to men and women, and told half the women that the test had shown gender differences and told the other half that they found no gender differences. The group of women which were told there were no gender differences performed equally to men. This test clearly proves that gender stereotypes are another reason why women do not choose STEM.

Why is this important? According to the Smithsonian -The STEM Imperative, 4 billion people on the planet use a mobile phone, while 3.5 billion use a toothbrush. 90% of all the world's data has been generated in just the past two years. A human will set foot on Mars in the next 20 years and driverless cars are here. The future is here and it is based on STEM.

This Smithsonian Study goes on to estimate that almost 2.4 million STEM jobs will go unfilled. A Pew Research study shows that women make up only 25% of the computer science jobs and less than 15% of engineering jobs. So, even though women are equally capable, the number of women actually choosing a STEM career lags behind. This disparity could be explained by the stereotyping and micro aggression which girls face early on in their academic careers.

How do we prevent women's tech career aspirations from going into what seems to be a black hole? Are there any examples of women excelling and contributing towards science ? There are many examples, but there is one which is recent and concerns fundamental research on black holes itself. Einstein had conjured up this concept called the black hole, which has so much gravitational force that even light would not escape. It is truly the final frontier of science, and we did not know what it looks like until last year, when NASA released the first ever pictures of a black hole.The scientific community was ablaze with excitement, because this is the closest we have as humans come in terms of having something tangible to conceive what a black hole is. An MIT-trained young woman, Katie Bouman, was one of the key individuals who helped come up with the algorithm which was successfully used to produce the picture that NASA released. The APA study and Katie Bouman clearly proves that instead of being dissuaded by playful banter or the stereotype threat, girls who are interested should absolutely pursue STEM careers.

But how about late bloomers ? Can late bloomers ever become champions of the Tech world ? There is a champion for late bloomers in Brian May, who epitomizes what late bloomers can achieve. Most folks know him as the legendary guitarist from the band Queen who wrote the iconic “We are the Champions”. Brian May got his PhD in astrophysics from the Imperial College in London at the ripe old age of 60, and is now an astrophysicist in NASA. May works on the New Horizons project in NASA now, which is an interplanetary space probe mission. New Horizons has traveled 4 billion miles from the Earth to the region known as the Kuiper Belt, which is beyond the farthest planet in the solar system, Neptune. New Horizons had a flyby of a Kuiper belt object called "Arrokoth" last January. NASA released the composite image of "Arrokoth", which looked like a slightly flattened snowman. This was the first time mankind came close to observing any object that resides at the farther edges of our solar system. It is mind blowing that the legendary guitarist Brian May was part of this mission at the age of 71.

Katie Bouman and Brian May are inspirations and should give any girl or late bloomer the confidence to pursue STEM and also to pursue it at their own pace. For the question, "To STEM or Not to STEM" the answer is definitely STEM with persistence.


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