Want to fix underrepresentation in STEM? Here’s one story.

Figure 1. Selected students to attend AbSciCon 2017. This photo was taken soon after these students learned of their award that included all expenses covered to attend a world-class scientific meeting. For many of the students this was their first scientific conference. For all of the students, this would be a life changing experience. From left, first row: Emma Rigby, Genesis Hernandez, Gloriane Tran, Mara Nutt, Masha Soshin, Juli Sundberg, Sophia Draznin-Nagy, Lores Kola. second row: Kianna Von Maydell, Hannah Horten, Vera Williamson, Niya Paul, Leslie Leiva, Leesa Daffeh, Student and Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon. (photo courtesy of J. Hilton)

This is a love letter to my students at Mills College in Oakland, California. For the past year and a half I have had the great pleasure to teach and advise some of the brightest, remarkably curious and deeply passionate students I have yet to work with over my own career that spans institutions including Harvard University and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Much of my career has been as a research scientist in the field or at the bench, but I have always made a great effort to include students of all ages, stages, backgrounds and career direction. My time at Mills College has allowed me to focus on students and helping the next generation of women in STEM find their own, groundbreaking paths wherever they may lead.

As the current Chan-Norris professor at Mills College I am charged with “enhancing and expanding” the education of Mills College students from an outside perspective. Dr. and Mrs. Evan and Annette Chan-Norris (’65) created this endowment to help propel STEM-focused students towards successful careers with the hope they will be positioned such that they may one day be able to support Mills College. To fulfill this directive, in addition to teaching, my efforts focus on direct one-on-one with students in all STEM disciplines at Mills including Chemistry and Physics(my home department), Biology, Biopsychology, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Computer Science, Mathematics, Pre-Medical, Environmental Studies and Environmental Science. Of course, my door is open to any student who wants to come and talk. With my background in both science and music and Mills fabled role as a home to the development of American 20th century music, Mills was a great match for me both personally and professionally.

I teach advanced courses like oceanography and astrobiology which attract a diverse group of students from across STEM and STEM-related majors. I also founded and curate a seminar series at Mills called the Chan-Norris Conversations in Science seminars. The goal, in line with the endowment mission, is to bring in speakers dominantly outside of the Academe who can shed light on what being a professional with a STEM background looks like - literally! I select from some of the most prominent scientists and technologists in the world to come and basically talk about what they do and how. Just to name a few, our speakers include (in alpha order) Dr. Bruce Alberts, Dr. Paul Davies, Dr. Lisa Dyson (See Figure 2), Dr. Harvey Fineberg, Dr. Marc Kastner, Dr. Seth Shostak, Dr. Jill Tarter and Marisa Taylor.

Figure 2. Dr. Lisa Dyson, CEO and founder of Kiverdi, pauses to pose with a group of Mills College students after her seminar. Dr. Dyson (third from left) has a Ph.D. in theoretical physics and has broad experience both in academic, business and industry environments. Her company, Kiverdi, is at the forefront of the current wave of biotechnology innovations that will disrupt the conventional carbon market.

I am a big fan of and was inspired by the amazing work of Terry Gross at NPR and her long successful show Fresh Air. (Note: If you have spent any quality time working in a laboratory, you too have probably listened to A LOT of NPR - often the only audio that everyone can agree on listening to for hours on end in an open lab environment. You know you’ve been there a long time where you are hearing the repeat of Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal… for the third time.) The Chan-Norris CIS seminars are enormously popular with an average of 40 students attending (Figure 3). For typical similar campus events, fifteen students is more typical of campus events similar to the Chan-Norris CIS seminars. The seminars are filling a need that the students relish.

Figure 3. Mills College students pack the room to hear Dr. Harvey Fineberg, President of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Our students are most interested in the paths and directions professionals have taken from academic to industry to non-profit work.

Initially, I drew from bountiful San Francisco Bay Area talent for speakers. In Spring 2016, I was awarded a Mills College Mary Ann Childers Kinkead (MACK) Faculty Development Grant to support the travel and day-long residency at Mills for professionals further afield. For example, one of our out of town speakers, Dr. Paul Davies (Figure 4), spent time visiting our teaching laboratories interested in what our students were working on and how a small liberal arts college imparts hands-on science. He was not disappointed.

Figure 4. Dr. Paul Davies, Director of the BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and Reagents’ Professor at Arizona State University, visited a biology teaching lab at Mills College as part of his Chan-Norris CIS residency in February 2017. Mills students explain the experiments they are working on for Dr. Davies.

One of our recent Chan-Norris speakers, Dr. Mary Voytek, was very impressed during her visit in March 2017. She is currently Senior Scientist and program manager for a major division, the Astrobiology Program, at NASA HQ in Washington, D.C. She commented on the exceptional brightness, palpable energy and untapped enthusiasm of our students in the sciences- all the more impressive given the demographics at Mills (as compared to the current demographics in STEM disciplines at the doctorate level, or here: statistics across individuals employed in STEM over the range of educational levels). Dr. Voytek then strongly encouraged us to apply for a travel grant through NASA to attend this year’s Astrobiology Science Conference, that is AbSciCon 2017, in Mesa, AZ. This meeting is particularly engaging for students and covers a range of sectors from math, computer science and engineering to physics, biology, chemistry and disciplines in between such as ecology, geochemistry and astronomy. A truly interdisciplinary event. (The conference organizers archived video of many of the talks here.)

We had little time, around 10 days, and a lot of leg work to do-the proposal needed to get written, reviewed, awarded (we hoped), logistics taken care of (flights, hotels, etc) and the meeting started only 3 weeks after we found out!

In less than a week with the help of my colleagues, support from the Provost’s office and a bright senior from my class, I put together a proposal for almost $20,000. We submitted — it was reviewed — and accepted! We then advertised for students to apply to attend (within 48 hours), and while we expected about 10 students to have interest, we had well more than that apply from across the natural sciences, mathematics and computer science! After a competitive selection process, we chose a group of 15 students (see Figure 1, above header) that included first years, sophomores, juniors and seniors with majors across disciplines including Chemistry, Biochemistry, Molecular Cell Biology, Biology, Computer Science, Mathematics, Anthropology and Environmental Science. In just a few days afterward, we arranged the logistics, completely covered by these funds, including plane tickets, hotel rooms and registration for the conference. The students would be accompanied by two faculty mentors, including myself and Dr. Kristina Faul.

I originally wrote this text, breathlessly, as we were still so amazed at this incredible opportunity for the students. This particular meeting is a gathering of more than a thousand of the world’s most cutting edge researchers from industry, government and academia focused on some of science’s hardest problems that include the origins of life and the potential for life elsewhere in the Universe. It would undoubtedly prove to be one of the most pivotal events for my students where they will even get paired with a mentor in the scientific community to help them navigate the meeting. The organizers and contacts at NASA were particularly excited to help host this cohort of women.

Adding another personal twist to this story, my husband and I have two small children. We now had less than 10 days to figure out how to arrange a “work-life” balance when my 11 month old was nursing, my 3 year old has not yet been without both of us and my husband was a CTO at a Silicon Valley startup and works full time (which means nights and weekends in startup-land). The stars aligned, and our solution with the fewest challenges would be — to drive from San Francisco to Phoenix, with both of our children, towing our 25’ Airstream trailer (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Stopping at the CA/AZ boarder. After almost 800 miles, my family and I were almost at AbSciCon 2017.

My husband took vacation time and the plan was that he would spend days with our eldest son while our infant would be with me- at the conference- every day (there was no childcare option). Switching in the evening, our eldest would come with me to enjoy the public lectures and poster sessions. That was the plan. Ten days total- three days down, three days there and three days back. Our longest trip yet with two kids under 4 and two adults who had never camped that long- to a science conference. What could go wrong?


The drive was fantastic- the American west is stunning (certainly got us in the mood to talk about life on another planet) and we pulled up to the conference center as the opening reception was just wrapping up. Walking in with my 3 year old in tow, I saw all fifteen of my students and my colleague, Dr. Faul. They were all checked in wearing name badges and carrying the paraphernalia that is given out at this sort of event. Picture two 8 foot round tables full of STEM college students at their very first scientific meeting (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Mills College students at the opening reception of AbSciCon 2017. My students were giddy with anticipation and were already being welcomed by many senior members of the scientific community. A group of fifteen students from a single institution apparently got everyone’s attention. From left to right around the table: Emma Rigby, Isabella Franco, Masha Shosnin, Leslie Leiva, Lores Kola, Mara Nutt, Kianna von Maydell and Juli Sundberg. (photo courtesy of E. Rigby)

Our students single handedly increased the diversity of the meeting- and this was only the start. That evening, and every evening of the conference, we met to touch base, connect and discuss both the protocol and the decorum of a scientific meeting (Figure 7). We also touched base on demographics- many of our students have never been in the environment they only read or heard stories about- in particular in science. While it is changing, prominent senior scientists and professors are still predominantly white and male. No value judgment here, just understanding that this experience will be enriching but also challenging in terms of their self-identification and their social justice background. After our first night, we- collectively- were ready.

Figure 7. First night in Arizona, getting ready for the meeting. We met every evening to regroup and touch base about the day’s activities. Notably on the first night, we met eating beans and rice as my two children crawled around outside. There was palpable excitement and some apprehension from our students. Tomorrow would be exciting! Most told me they couldn’t sleep. (photo courtesy of J. Simon)

Day 1: Welcome to your first scientific meeting. Now go!

The first day was simply amazing. Each day, I helped with navigation by giving my students a guide of a selection of talks to attend given by prominent scientists and/or prominent topics in science today. This conference covers the origins of life and the search for life elsewhere in the Universe employing the biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, planetary science, engineering and physics associated with these two vast topics. Bottom line, pretty much any one interested in STEM could find some science or technology (build a Mars rover anyone?) that would resonate deeply. And they did!

At the first coffee break after the plenary session, my students were buzzing. They often fanned out around me and my infant in a loose semi-circle (my bright yellow stroller was an easy beacon to find). They were comparing notes on what they thought of a topic, the speaker - and since they are Mills students- the socio-implications of the scientific ideas. All the while, many colleagues of mine joined our group and I made extra effort to introduce the students- often by name in particular depending on the science focus of the scientist- one by one they each experienced this special and inspiring connection. This coffee break experience happened pretty much each time for the rest of the conference.

In the afternoon, after talks ended and before evening events began, students were given a few hours “off” to catch up on homework and lectures they were missing back at Mills College. They were missing almost an entire week of school- the week before the end of the semester- tough even if you don’t go to a conference in between! I told them to do their best to stay in the here and now and engage with scientists and other students. This conference would be over and a dream in the blink of an eye.

The first night- the poster session. Where actual science really gets done, often over drinks (only for my students over 21, of course). My students were clearly exhausted- many wanted to go back to the hotel- mostly to catch up on their homework. Dr. Faul and I were clear- no, stay and go to the poster session and do some science. The meeting is almost a third done for us. Begrudgingly, they went. To their surprise, they enjoyed the poster session and in particular the casual nature of the event. Attendees were approachable and interested in talking. Many met scientists that they continue to communicate with now. I spent most of my time introducing as many of our students to other scientists. As we were leaving, Dr. Voytek introduced them to Dr. Nathalie Cabrol, Director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at SETI, TED speaker and all around an amazing scientist.

Dragging ourselves back to the hotel, we prepared to recharged and girded our stamina for the next day. We met up for our daily post mortem and dragged our bodies back to our rooms to sleep. Needless to say, our evening meet up that night was brief and a round up to get ready for an early morning the following day….

One word reaction would be “amazing”. It is great to be able to learn about so many different disciplines of real science that are happening right now in the real world. There is quite a lot of white men which is disappointing but not surprising. I really love all of the women at the conference that hold their ground. Most all of the talks I’ve been to are amazing and most are way over my head but it’s awesome to listen to them. It’s great to be able to walk up to some famous person and just introduce myself and talk to them and they are willing to listen to me. It has been a great networking opportunity that I really appreciate. Everyone is excited that we are here to experience the conference and I think that is one of the reasons why it’s so fun to be here. — Mara Nutt, Sophomore, geology major

Day 2: Mentors! A scientific sherpa to guide you.

The second day started bright and early at 7:45 am because we were part of the NASA AbSciCon Meeting Mentor Program. I worked with Daniella Scalice, a lead at the NASA Science Mission Directorate, to pair our students with a scientist that they would effectively “shadow” for the morning talk session. This way our students could experience what a practicing scientist goes to, commentary as they interact with other scientists and their overall affect at a meeting. After a few niceties and breakfast at the orientation, each student was off with their mentor to conquer the day’s science. (Figure 8)

I’ve learned so much about the dynamics of different groups (scientists from different backgrounds, women versus men, etc…) and how they each navigate a scientific conference. I was surprised by the many backgrounds people had and the path that led them here… — Juli Sundberg, senior, chemistry major

Figure 8. Mills student, Vera Williamson (junior, math/computer science double major) with her mentor, Dr. Aaron Noell from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Interaction with scientists is critical to how the students experience science and develop their own view of the scientific process and fitting into the scientific community. (photo courtesy of D. Scalice)

From my vantage, the students were giddy with excitement. For all of them, this was truly their first taste of “real” science- with an academic, governmental and/or industrial perspective. But more important, they were interacting with people who actually did these jobs, who were in these places.

It was really interesting and I felt as though I learned a lot and got to talk with a lot of interesting folks. I was also a little disappointed and disillusioned about what the field was like, although meeting my mentor and spending the day with him was by far the highlight. I am really excited to see how this field continues to grow and hope to be apart of it later on in my career. — Hannah Horten, Sophomore, environmental science major

As much of an education as this was for my students (Figure 9), undoubtedly the mentors walked away with a different sense of what students at an all women’s liberal arts college are really like- smart, capable and fearless women, many people of color, many non-gender binary and first generation college students.

I’ve loved it so much, it has been overwhelming in some senses because I don’t have the same level of background as most others seem to have. I wish I was able to ask questions at the talks however I’m not sure I know enough about any of the science to as a valuable question. Besides that, I’ve learned so much from disciplines I would have never thought I could learn about. My mentor really helped steer me to talks that I may not have chosen but discovered a great deal at. — Kianna von Maydell, first-year, biopsychology major

Figure 9. Half-time, getting ready for the second half of Day 2. The mentor program was only a half-day at the AbSciCon meeting. Here students regroup after lunch and prepare for the afternoon talk sessions. While exhausted from the intense morning, they are ready to head back into more science with new insight from their mentors. From left: Juli Sundberg, Emma Rigby, Lores Kola, Leslie Leiva, Isabella Franco, Sophia Draznin-Nagy, Dr. Kristina Faul and Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon (with Rafael Simon). (photo courtesy of D. Scalice)

They were clearly welcome among the larger group of students in this program (Figure 10).

The mentor meeting was great. I learned about different career paths in STEM. Most importantly, I learned that it’s never too late to do what you need to do. — Gloriane Tran, junior, computer science major

Figure 10. The 3rd AbSciCon Meeting Mentor Program, group photo. Participating students come from a wide range of backgrounds including local community colleges and high schools. Mills College students were a decidedly unique demographic that help enrich the overall experience of both mentees and mentors. (photo courtesy of D. Scalice)

The second night we met as a group for dinner out to enjoy each other’s company and celebrate our mental and physical survival up to this point. The past two full conference days were exhausting and we had all bonded deeply through science and experiencing science discussions, interactions and frankly, overload! The public lecture that evening was engaging- and we were all barely able to make it back to our hotel. Now the conference was almost 75% over for Mills attendees.

AbSciCon has been a great experience... Everyone has been so friendly and inviting. My favorite part of the conference so far has been the shadowing program and being able to ask them questions about research and navigating life after graduation. The talks have expanded my perspective of life and Earth in many ways- many of which will be an important tool for my future in science. — Emma Rigby, senior, environmental science major

Day 3: Our last day of AbSciCon 2017: The last day of camp.

One of the concessions we made for funding and logistics reasons was to attend for three of the five official conference days. During the planning this seemed to be logical, in practice it definitely felt like “the last day of camp”. (Figure 11) We pushed the students to make every effort to attend talks as they could, but now was that magical time at a conference when the “hallway conversations” became critical. I saw my students pair off with mentors and work on resumes, discuss research topics, get introduced to a new part of their own field of interest, get turned on to a completely new area of science, and many other avenues opened. Dr. Faul and I reflected over lunch that now we saw the success of this meeting for our students, and maybe for a few scientists too.

It was interesting to talk to my mentor about plants and hearing about his research. This was really great because I could see myself doing research like that in the future. — Hannah Horten, sophomore, environmental science major

We were fortunate to be hosted for lunch by the BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science. Dr. Davies and his colleagues, including Dr. Sara Imari Walker, and students warmly welcomed the Mills undergraduates to talk about science, being a scientist and how they got to where they were today.

I think I got a lot out of the BEYOND Center’s lunch, talking with a lot of successful people closer to my own age was extremely helpful. — Vera Williamson, junior, mathematics/computer science double major

Figure 11. The last day of AbSciCon 2017 for Mills College. The students and faculty were exhausted yet buzzing from all the amazing science and engineering they experienced. This photo was taken minutes before the group left to fly back to Oakland and catch up on homework, class notes and preparing for finals. From left, seated: Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon (with Rafael Simon) and Mara Nutt. First row, standing: Gloriane Tran, Vera Williamson, Juli Sundberg, Genesis Hernandez, Sophia Draznin-Nagy and Kianna Von Maydell. Second row, standing: Lores Kola, Emma Rigby, Leesa Daffeh, Dr. Kristina Faul, Hannah Horten and Isabella Franco. Third row, standing: Leslie Leiva and Masha Soshnin.

One of the many lesson my students learned at AbSciCon is the pricelessness of seeing a person live, in person speak about their work (an experience I aim to echo in the Chan-Norris CIS seminars I curate). In science, like in the arts, what a scientist works on is often part of their self definition and for better or worse is an integral part of the fabric of their being. Thus, a brief comment on a personal note.

I had the opportunity to see an early career scientist give a talk- I point this out because most of my time at the meeting was spent shepherding my students and caring form my infant- and catching bits and pieces of science here and there. For this talk, I actually went to listen and think. The scientist, Dr. Jennifer Glass, is an assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology. We worked together when she was a first year graduate student and I had just started my National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship. When I first met her she was enthusiastic, whip smart and clearly headed for a great future in science- but young and eager which may or may not result in the pursuit of science. I tend to keep a look out for interesting publications and her work is on my list but seeing a scientist speak- in person- live- when they have a talent for the science and the communication is a real treat. When I saw her talk, now more than 10 years later, I knew that she has realized much of her potential and will continue to forge new discoveries in this field and others. She now mentors some of my own students and is as generous with her time as many have been with her and I through our own careers.

After the late afternoon plenary talk, we all met up and group by group my students departed for the airport. Our time at AbSciCon 2017 had come to an end. We were collectively exhausted and distracted by the piles of course work waiting for us when we returned to campus. My own class (of which 8 students were at AbSciCon) was also put on hold and I would spend the drive back preparing my final lectures. What an incredible experience for all of us.

I’m kind of getting a feel for the face of parts of the scientific community. There’s definitely a familiarity among people here, sort of like a school reunion. It’s also nice that people can vehemently disagree with each other but still be good friends. — Masha Shoshnin, sophomore, computational chemistry major

Final thoughts.

Without a doubt, this would never have been possible with out the vision of Dr. and Mrs. Evan and Annette Chan-Norris. Their unique endowment to Mills resulted in my appointment- albeit an unorthodox position in the conventional academic sense. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time at Mills and look forward to watching what these students will do with this new found knowledge and experience. Sadly, I will not be at Mills over the long term, my position is a temporary contract and the Mills community is undergoing their own reckoning, but I hope these incredible young people keep in touch with me as they forge their careers in the years ahead. Maybe when I get my next job, where ever that is, I can help them from there too.

I was surprised at how approachable people were. We were told that it was exciting that students were coming, but the level of engagement that professional people initiated helped me to feel welcome and increased my own engagement. — Sophia Draznin-Nagy, senior, anthropology major

And, as it happens, all of these talented, exceptionally bright women are interested in future STEM-based career opportunities including internships, fellowships and graduate school. I’d be happy to give each and every one of them a stellar recommendation. For those readers who are in a position to mentor or offer opportunities to our students, please reach out!

The meeting met all of my expectations for a scientific conference. It was great to see presentations on cutting edge research, get to network with others in science, and learn more… This conference expanded my perspective on how I look at “life” and scientific research. The mentorship program was also a very positive experience for me. Being able to attend this high caliber of a conference is something that I am extremely grateful for. — Emma Rigby, senior, environmental science major

July 2017

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, Ph.D.


Scientist, Musician, Mother, Wife.

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