Growing number of women in STEM inspires new generation of students

Lia Molina Cortez, biomedical engineering graduate student, pictured March 21 inside the University Center grand entrance. Molina Cortez first heard about STEM on the radio as a child and it sparked her interest.

Lia Molina Cortez, biomedical engineering graduate student, said she first heard about biomedical engineering through the radio when she was a child, and it immediately sparked her interest. 

She asked her mom if she could pursue the subject, but was told engineering was for boys. Molina Cortez said she didn’t care, and if she was the only girl, so be it. 

The STEM field is a path that’s been dominated by men for decades. There is a growing number of women making their own way in those fields, but many still face hardships related to their gender. 

Title IX was enacted in June 1972, prohibiting federally-funded educational programs from discriminating based on sex. 

In 1981, Congress designated the second week in March to be Women’s History Week, which was later extended to span the entire month. 

Since then, the number of women in STEM has increased dramatically. By 2019, women made up 27% of the STEM workforce, compared to 8% in 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

But many women in STEM still don’t feel like they belong. Harassment, being underestimated and receiving less pay than their male colleagues are all factors women in those fields can face, which steers many away from pursuing those subjects. 

Molina Cortez said that at her previous college in California, there weren’t many women in her field. Although UTA has more women than her other school, she often feels men don’t see her as a leader in class or during group projects. 

A way she deals with those situations is by showing her classmates that she’s on the same level as them and that she earned the same degree. Leadership is not dependent on gender, but on how much you know, she said. 

Assistant biology professor Piya Ghose had really good teachers in the STEM subjects she took, which helped motivate her to pursue biology, she said. 

Now Ghose tries to inspire her students the way her teachers inspired her. She motivates her female students by keeping a positive environment in the classroom and being an example of a woman in STEM. 

She gives her students opportunities to do hands-on work with her when she can and tells them about herself and her journey to becoming a researcher. 

She’s honest with her students and lets them know she wasn’t top of her class and didn’t always have everything figured out, and that’s OK, she said. 

Katie Kang, quantitative biology graduate student, said she became interested in STEM because she is a curious person by nature. 

She enjoys asking questions and trying to understand the answers, which is why she plans to pursue a postdoctoral research position, she said in an email.  

One way to overcome obstacles is by having a good support system and mentors that can help you stay on track and meet goals, Kang said.  

“It is helpful to record the things you love about your work so that you can go back and remind yourself why it is important to stay in the fight,” she said. 

The McNair Scholars Program at UTA helped prepare Kang for graduate school and introduced her to researching. The program aims to encourage STEM participation from first generation students and underrepresented individuals, she said. 

As the first person in her family to attend college, she was unfamiliar with STEM careers and graduate school in general, and joining the program was a valuable resource for mentorship and community support. 

Things won’t always be easy for women in STEM, Molina Cortez said, and when things seem bad, she reminds herself of why she started. 

“Just thinking of that little girl who thought maybe that was too intimidating to be the only girl in that group of guys,” she said. “A little girl’s dreams coming true.” 

@JMarieFarmer84

features-editor.shorthorn@uta.edu

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