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Smart Advice for STEM Girls

Refathun Momo, a senior at West Philadelphia High School, is driven by a powerful desire: to fulfill her father’s dying wish that she establish free hospitals in her native Bangladesh.

“I always loved biology and am taking AP biology,” Momo says. She plans to go to college to study biology and psychology, and eventually become a psychiatrist and conduct research on the human brain.

To help her reach her goal, she has a mentor, Joanna Chae, the director of Moelis Access Science, a program of the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, which works with Momo’s high school.

Momo first approached Chae to help her with college applications last summer.

“To me, her initiative to seek help was impressive and prompted me to assist in all possible ways,” Chae says.

As a mentor, Chae has helped Momo apply for career exploration opportunities and scholarships.

“We hope that partnerships like MAS will help to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in all STEM fields,” Chae says.

National Science Foundation data from 1993-2012 indicates that while young women are going into math, computer science, physics and engineering fields, their participation remains far below that of men. So what can girls do to get a boost in STEM fields?

We asked Chae and two other women working in STEM careers for advice for young women.

Joanna Chae: Ask everyone for help.

“High school students may find it difficult to admit they need help and ask for assistance from adults, even those they meet on a daily basis, such as family, teachers, school staff and community members,” Chae says. “I encourage students to follow Momo’s example and talk to these adults.” Students should be honest about their struggles in school and questions about colleges and careers. And, she says, “When doubt and anxiety distort your vision, refocus and find clarity by thinking of what you can do now.”

Dicky Allison: “If you think you want to be something, find a person who has grown old in that profession and see if you want to be that person.”

The world was a different place for women in science when Dicky Allison of Falmouth, Mass., set her professional goals in the 1970s. Allison’s heart was set on oceanography, and she longed to be a ship captain.

“I wanted to go to sea; it was the romance of it,” she says. So after graduating from college in 1974, she walked into a recruiting office of the U.S. Coast Guard with her eye on officer candidate school.

One of the recruiting officers, Allison recalls, asked: “What does your boyfriend think about this?”

After she assured him it wasn’t a problem, she was interviewed by a panel of officers, one of whom told her bluntly that women simply were not going to sea.

“Looking back, I was so brave,” Allison says about her failed attempt at officer training school, “but it never occurred to me not to be.”

She turned to biological oceanography, earning a master’s degree, and shortly thereafter became the first female chief scientist on the Westward, a schooner that hosted college students participating in sea semester programs run by the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass.

For the next 2 ½ years, Allison reveled being on the open ocean, sailing from Newfoundland to the Caribbean. Later, on bigger ships, her oceanographic career took her to areas such as the Black Sea and Antarctica.

“I was hooked,” Allison, now 64, says. “My definition of heaven was out of sight of land.”

She eventually taught at Cape Cod Academy in Osterville, Mass., and will retire this September from a position at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, where she posts researchers’ data to the web in a project funded by the National Science Foundation.

So Allison’s dream to sail the oceans, and even take the helm of a ship now and then, was fulfilled, just in a way she didn’t expect.

“I always wanted to go to sea,” she says. “I didn’t want anybody to say, ‘You can’t do that.”

Allison now fields requests from young women trying to figure out their own futures. “Don’t close any doors,” she says.

And, she says, “find your passion. People who are passionate will probably succeed.”

Sarah Bacon: Be self-reflective. Think about what you like to do and what you find challenging. Find ways to immerse yourself in the former and get stronger in the latter.

Sarah Bacon, an associate professor of biological sciences at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., felt gently guided toward science as a young girl.

“There’s no ‘aha’ moment,” Bacon says. “Just a series of experiences that kept bending me in that direction.” Her mother, a scientist, was a major influence. The two took walks on their farm, Bacon says, an activity that let Bacon observe nature and “make sense of the world.”

Bacon, 50, says she is frequently asked if she has had difficulty as a woman in science, and she says she understands why. “I’ve certainly been the only woman in certain situations,” she says, but she says she hasn’t faced discrimination. “I think women from the previous generation worked really hard, so I had opportunities they didn’t have.”

By the time she got to college, Bacon says she felt “recognized” by her science professors, which had a big impact.

“Professors made an enormous difference to me,” she says.

She also advises young women to pick good mentors. Keep an eye out for someone who takes time for you, to talk and really listen, and invest time and attention, she says.

But don’t only consider professional expertise when picking a mentor.

“I’ve been careful about choosing mentors who are doing something interesting but are also just nice, and with whom I share an intellectual interest.”