March 18, 2013

Professors honor role models in science, technology, engineering and math

Posted: March 18, 2013
Regents' Professor Jane Maienschein
Professor Meenakshi Wadhwa
Assistant professor Erica Camacho
Assistant professor Leah Gerber

March is Women’s History Month, and the National Women’s History Project declared this year’s theme: “Women Inspiring Innovation through Imagination,” a celebration of women’s extraordinary contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

At ASU, women are making discoveries and developing technologies across all four campuses in a wide range of disciplines. They serve as teachers, mentors and role models for students, colleagues and community members. But who inspired, encouraged and motivated them along their path to success?

Here, some of ASU’s notable researchers talk about their female role models in STEM.

Karen Anderson

My favorite role model in STEM is my mother, Elizabeth Bond. My mother had a master’s in physics before she was advised to leave science to have her children. After having six children, she went back, in her forties, to complete a PhD in physical chemistry. She then went on to have a successful career in industry. She also raised 7 successful scientists: two computer scientists, three mechanical engineers, one mathematician, and myself, a biologist.

My mother was always an "early adopter" of technology; she built a Heathkit personal computer with a soldering iron in the basement. We always joked that that is where the term "motherboard" came from. 

The greatest impact she had on my career was something so obvious that I did not recognize it until I became a mentor for young women. It never occurred to me, growing up, that I could not do science and math. I cannot tell you how many high school and early college girls I have mentored in the lab who doubted their own real capabilities. That is the single greatest gender difference I have observed.

Anderson is an associate professor in the School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) and a researcher with the Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics in the Biodesign Institute.

Erika Camacho

My biggest dream, until I was taught by the late Jaime Escalante (profiled in the film “Stand and Deliver”) in high school, was to be a cashier. Given the low socio-economic environment in which I grew up, I did not believe that I could amount to much. As a child, school was a safe place where I could escape the hardships of my reality, even if just temporarily. Eventually I realized that, more than a temporary escape, it was my only path out of poverty. I chose math because I was not a native speaker. It was the only subject where I did not feel dumb or get laughed at because I could not give the answer.  

I never had a female math teacher until I got to Wellesley College. Since I began to pursue a STEM field, the main female role model that I have had is Lisette de Pillis. She is an accomplished researcher who has taken monumental steps in modeling cancer and coming up with multi-faceted, targeted, individualized therapies in close collaboration with medical professionals. Her mathematical models utilizing differential equations and optimal control have been the catalyst for an abundant amount of work focusing on various perspectives of cancer.  

I look up to Dr. de Pillis personally because she does it all and does it very well: She is an outstanding teacher, a great mentor, a phenomenal activist dedicated to women’s issues, a loving mother of three beautiful girls, and a wife who does her share of household work. This is what makes her my role model.

Camacho is an assistant professor of mathematics in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

Alexandra Brewis Slade

The person that has been the most important in my approach and values as a scientist is my major PhD professor, Jane Underwood, who passed away last year. She was a pioneer in the study of Micronesia, investigating small island demography through long-term fieldwork. 

Jane’s scholarship was nothing short of exemplary. She was meticulous, doggedly ethical, utterly trustworthy, and knew precisely what she valued and wanted to do. She woke everyday excited to get to work, and was often in her office before dawn. She was a committed scientist in every way who refused to suffer fools, any form of whining, corner-cutting or university politics. She was, frankly, a force of nature. 

Jane was a trailblazer and powerful early role model in the academy for women. She fought inequity every day in her own inimitable way. At UCLA as a new faculty member she was not allowed into the faculty bar because she was a woman. She would have to stand outside the door to drink with her male colleagues inside. Jane got the policy changed by using the science that she loved to make a point, by demanding the implementation of chromosome tests to confirm that all the male faculty were, in fact, genetically men. 

Brewis Slade is a professor and director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in CLAS. She is also the director of operations for Obesity Solutions, a partnership between ASU and Mayo Clinic.

Karmella Haynes

I am lucky to have several role models who are women and strong leaders in the STEM fields. One I'd like to highlight is Tuajuanda Jordan, a scientist, professor, and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Lewis & Clark in Oregon.

Tuajuanda, like me, is an African-American woman in STEM who is simply fascinated by how our universe works, and she uses science as a tool to investigate it. She was a professor at Xavier University where she was quickly recruited as vice president for academic affairs. She went on to serve as a director at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute before moving to Lewis & Clark in Portland.

My postdoc advisor, Malcolm Campbell, introduced me to Tuajuanda when she visited Davidson College from the HHMI. I got to have dinner with her that evening. During the entire conversation, I could not stop thinking about how much I wanted to be like her. As some of my students might say, she is "the truth." In other words, her accomplishments, though impressive-looking, are a mere consequence of a deeply resonating brilliance and talent. She's even-keeled, wise, and fun to talk to. Ever since that meeting we have stayed in touch. I'm glad to call her my mentor.

Haynes is an assistant professor in the School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

Ana Magdalena Hurtado

My favorite role model is my mother, Ines Hurtado. She was born in Colombia, completed medical school in Bogota and emigrated to Venezuela to work in pediatrics at a national hospital. My mother's education is in medicine (MD) and immunology (PhD) She was the first woman to receive an MD degree in Columbia in the late 1940s. Later, in the 1970s, she received a government scholarship to pursue a career in immunology in the U.S. She was accepted into New York University, and with my father, supported her five children on a teaching assistant salary.

My mother raised me and still takes care of me during my best and most excruciatingly difficult times. I started working with her in 1997 on projects on the origins of the human immunological response with data gathered among hunter-gatherers of Latin America. I am most inspired by her kindness, her generosity, her love for searching for the “truth,” and her critical thinking – she will not settle for answers to questions that are not consistent with logic and evidence.

Hurtado is a professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in CLAS. She is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Leah Gerber

Jane Lubchenco has been the under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration since 2009. Nominated by President Obama in December 2008 as part of his “Science Team,” she is a marine ecologist and environmental scientist by training, with expertise in oceans, climate change, and interactions between the environment and human well-being. 

I met Dr. Lubchenco when I was a graduate student at the university of Washington. She came to speak in a marine conservation class that I was teaching in the San Juan Islands. As a postdoc, I had the opportunity to work with Jane on the Science of Marine Reserves NCEAS working group, which inspired the development of this field. As a mom and a scholar, I worry about balancing work and motherhood – Jane has been an inspiration on this front. She is a major contributor to the field of marine ecology, in the National Academy of Science, and importantly, worked half-time for over a decade when her kids were young. This reminds me that I can have a productive research career even with “slowing down” to spend time with my kids. 

Gerber is an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences in CLAS who studies conservation science and policy. 

Feng Wang

My favorite role model is Jeannette Wing, head of the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University, vice president of Microsoft Research International and assistant director for the Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) directorate of the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

I learned about Dr. Wing when she was with the CISE directorate at NSF. She promoted computational thinking, which extends the K-12 curriculum to teach students to form problems and find solutions represented in a way that can be effectively implemented by computers. I admire her vision, enthusiasm, and dedication to computational thinking, which is an important initiative since computers are so common in everyday 21st-century life. 

Dr. Wing is the first woman in the country leading a top computer science department (CMU). She is also third-degree black belt in Tang Soo Du and a dancer. She is a great role model who inspires me and gives me confidence about what a dedicated and hardworking woman can achieve.

Wang is an assistant professor of computer science in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

Jane Maienschein

As a child, I didn't really care about gender very much. A scientist was a scientist. My dad was a director at Oak Ridge National Lab, and he hired women physicists, so that seemed normal enough.  

Now I’m especially fascinated with Beatrice Mintz – a developmental biologist who explores fundamental questions about how embryos develop. She did work on putting together two different mouse embryos and showing that they could combine and form a perfectly healthy mouse. This is an amazing idea – 1+1 = 1, as far as embryos go!  

She's inspiring for her energy and dedication to exploring hard questions. I figure if she can still go to the lab in her 90s, surely it won't hurt me to work all the time! And to remember that it's fun and exciting – although I will never dress as elegantly as she does. 

Maienschein is a Regents’ Professor, President’s Professor and Parent’s Association Professor in the School of Life Sciences in CLAS. She is also director of the Center for Biology in Society.

Meenakshi Wadhwa

Growing up in a middle class family in India, I did not have many female role models in STEM. I attribute my determination to become a scientist to my parents, who strongly believed in education as a means of empowerment and independence, and who encouraged me to achieve my goals even if it meant that I had to leave my home country. 

As I became more interested in science, I also became aware of the contributions of pioneering women scientists. I particularly look up to Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, who overcame daunting political and personal odds and made significant contributions to the field of radioactivity. This is an area of science particularly close to my heart, as I routinely rely on radiometric methods for age dating Solar System materials. Dr. Meitner obtained a doctorate degree from the University of Vienna in 1906, a time when women were traditionally not even allowed to attend universities. In collaboration with German chemist Otto Hahn, she discovered nuclear fission and gave the first theoretical explanation of the fission process. 

Being Jewish, Dr. Meitner was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938. Dr. Hahn went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1945 for discovering nuclear fission. Many historians now believe that Dr. Meitner deserved to share in this prize, but her exile and separation from her collaborator likely led to the Nobel committee’s failure to understand her role in the discovery.

Wadhwa is a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and director of the Center for Meteorite Studies in CLAS.