How Marcela Areyano is Working to Rewrite the Laws of Science

Marcela Areyano is walking, talking and living proof of the phrase “against all odds.” Graduating from UC Santa Barbara with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 2012, Marcela went to work for Raytheon as the only female Latina on a campus of nearly 300 employees. Three years later, Marcela returned to UCSB — this time as a graduate student, to pursue her Ph.D. Engineering.

Whether she’s a member of academia or working in the industry, Marcela has grown used to “flying solo,” a phrase she says with a half-chuckle, half-sigh. And Marcela’s certainly warranted in finding some comedic relief within her situation, because the realities of female representation in Marcela’s field of study are often laughable. In 2014, women accounted for fewer than 19% of Engineering degrees, a dwindling percentage that’s headed in the wrong direction. Luckily, Marcela isn’t just laughing — she’s also committed herself to changing ideas about women in STEM fields.

Marcela recounts a distinct early love for math and science, an interest that many found surprising. Noticing Marcela was enrolled in Pre-Calculus, her high school academic counselor encouraged her to drop the class, asking her why she was taking it if she had already met the minimal math requirements. She said the same thing the next year, when Marcela enrolled in Calculus.

As an incoming freshman, Marcela was still unsure of her academic strengths. Haphazardly browsing through the list of UCSB majors, she looked for areas of study that stood out to her.

“I wish I had a better story!” she says. She chose Mechanical Engineering because it sounded less complicated than the majors in humanities. Aware of the irony, Marcela laughs again.

While crediting her success to the many resources UCSB offered Marcela as an undergraduate, Marcela remembers not being able to shake feelings of isolation as an underrepresented female in the classroom.

“In my year, we had 70 to 80 students, and only 7 to 8 of us were girls — and that was a lot!”

Being the only female in the room, as Marcela usually was, tended to be an issue when it came to communication. A lack of diversity in communication styles between her peers and professors not only produced barriers for understanding the subject material — but also made voicing opinions intimidating. And this subtle gender bias didn’t end with graduation.

While working as a test engineer at Raytheon, a manager asked how Marcela was able to get her green card. Appalled that she was even asked, Marcela told her she was born in the United States. She recounts another experience, where newly assigned lab technician told Marcela that after working in the semi-conductor industry for over 30 years, this was her first time working with a Latina engineer.

Driven in part by a desire to move up in the industry, Marcela returned to UCSB in 2015 to get her Masters. And along the way, she rediscovered her aptitude for teaching and her calling to be an educator.

As an undergraduate, Marcela first experienced teaching and a mentor within two UCSB academic partnership programs, MESA and Los Ingenieros. MESA, which stands for Math Engineering Science Achievement, works to strengthen youth math and science skills, with a larger goal of expanding access to higher education for underrepresented students. Los Ingenieros embodies a similar mission, with a particular emphasis on Latino youth. While Marcela’s involvement with these mentorship programs was initially aimed at providing support for younger students, she found they also proved to be an indispensible support system for herself, as an undergrad struggling to fit in amongst a sea of men.

Now as a graduate student, Marcela has been instrumental in launching a UCSB pilot initiative called Engineering is for Women. The yearlong outreach program sends engineering students to mentor female middle-schoolers, hoping to foster their interest in STEM fields and grow their sense of possibilities. Marcela helps undergraduate mentors work alongside local middle-school girls on weekly engineering projects, using her personal experience to help construct positive messages for students.

In addition to weekly mentoring sessions, the young women — and their parents — attend weekend events at UCSB for activities and panel discussions with professional women in STEM fields. Involving parents in the discussion is crucial, because a family support system is critical in developing the necessary confidence to tackle a historically non-traditional field for females.

The purpose of Engineering is for Women is not only to build student and parent enthusiasm for math and science, but also to give these young women exposure to strong female role models — exposure most students like Marcela never had.

“It’s so important that these younger students meet people like us because there are not a lot of women in engineering. Seeing other females who are engineers can really make you see yourself pursuing a similar path.”

Having never been taught by a woman of color in any of her STEM classes, this is perhaps the disparity that Marcela is most passionate about reversing. Becoming a role model for other female engineers is why Marcela has committed herself to Engineering is for Women, and why she has taken a 50 percent cut in pay to pursue her Ph.D.

“That’s how you break barriers,” she says.

Marcela remembers explaining her decision to return to school to a fellow graduate student, who asked her, “Why are you here? You had a job where you were making twice what you made as a T.A.” Knowing full well the sacrifices she’s made by choosing a pathway to research over a lucrative career, Marcela admits no regret what-so-ever.

“I think that just goes to show how much I want to be here.”

For Marcela, her devotion to lowing the barriers to education for females is worthwhile in itself. She explains that seeing her students grow excited about their engineering projects, and about the possibilities of their future is truly an amazing feeling. She hopes that this type of early exposure for girls will eventually lead to more diversity within STEM fields, an objective she argues will assure benefits for both women and men. To better articulate this point, Marcela offers an ever-fitting Einstein quote:

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Not necessarily suggesting that male-dominated STEM fields are crazy, Marcela instead explains that approaching problems with the same type of person over and over again may not be the best way find fresh, innovative solutions. Instead, introducing diverse perspectives made up of different backgrounds, cultural influences, and new ways of thinking can help create the better answers.

Unfortunately, Marcela won’t be able to single-handedly change ideas about women in STEM overnight — these changes will take a long time. However, she remains hopeful that by focusing on educating younger generations, a new understanding of women and their ability to make valuable contributions in Math and Science will slowly change the face of STEM as we know it.

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