PPPL: Perseverance is the theme at PPPL’s annual Young Women’s Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

A major theme running through the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s (PPPL) Young Women’s Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) was how women in STEM must overcome obstacles to get to where they are today.

Conference organizer Deedee Ortiz, PPPL’s Science Education program manager, had more than a few challenges to host the conference virtually this year after it was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She worked with Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) to develop a virtual platform and convinced many of the researchers and organizations who have participated in person in the past to join the virtual event.

More than 400 seventh- to tenth-graders attended the May 7 conference on a virtual platform where they could see chemistry demonstrations by Kathryn Wagner, a lecturer and outreach director in chemistry at Princeton University; learn about forensics at the always popular FBI booth; watch live and videotaped plasma demonstrations at PPPL’s booth; listen to live panel discussions by women in science; and hear a keynote address by plasma physicist and professor Steffi Diem from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The conference is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science Fusion Energy Sciences.

“Being home for classes for an entire year was certainly challenging for students and the fact that we could get together to see all these women scientists who are working hard and doing what they want to do in the future just brought that sense of camaraderie,” Ortiz said. “I got emails from teachers and students saying how grateful they were to attend. It just put the spark back in their STEM future that they can still do this.”

Virtual science displays

Students said they enjoyed visiting the virtual science display booths, some of which had live Zoom meetings with scientists and staff from laboratories and organizations ranging from the Seward Johnson Atelier sculpture studio in Hamilton, New Jersey, to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “There were so many great exhibits but the one I really liked was about the FBI, and how they can use even the tiniest pieces of evidence to solve a case,” said Rani Pai, a seventh-grader at the Princeton Charter School.

Meghna Myeni, an eighth-grader at Princeton Charter, said she enjoyed learning about the development of babies’ brains at Princeton University’s Baby Lab and seeing plasma demonstrations at PPPL’s booth. “I didn’t previously know that much about plasma and the video was very interesting to watch and it was interesting to see how babies think and perceive things,” she said.

The core mission of the conference is to inspire young women to consider careers in STEM fields in which women still lag behind men. While 58 percent of all bachelor’s degrees are earned by women, they represent only 36 percent of bachelor’s degrees in STEM. And while 60 percent of social science occupations and 48 percent of life sciences occupations are occupied by women, women represent only 26 percent of computer and mathematical science occupations and only 13 percent of engineers, according to the National Science Foundation.

“This was fantastic,” said Trenton High School biology teacher Charisse Miglis, who accompanied 20 girls to the virtual conference. “It was still an opportunity for the students to get an idea of what’s out there. Being juniors, they’re getting familiarized with college. It’s intriguing to them to know that there are other students who are interested in the same thing.”

Working scientists and STEM students discuss their struggles and triumphs

Students said they enjoyed hearing from working scientists and college students in STEM fields who took part in three panel sessions organized and moderated by Hekima Qualls, head of the Procurement Department at PPPL, and Carol Ann Austin, administrative manager in the PPPL Director’s Office. Amiesa Paasewe, a student at Trenton High School, said she enjoyed listening to a panelist who is going into nursing. “I’m trying to get into the nursing field so I liked talking to ladies who’ve been through it,” she said.

Reecha Pandya, a senior engineer at Abbott Point of Care in Plainsboro, New Jersey, where she is currently working on a blood analysis medical device, said she wished she knew about the variety of STEM careers when she was younger. “It would have been nice to have some exposure to Lab research, some explanation that STEM does not always mean medicine,” she said. “STEM means everything.”

Pandya and other panelists discussed how “failure” in scientific research can lead to new discoveries. “I don’t consider failure a bad thing,” Pandya said. “When you overcome that failure, it’s all the better because I understand what went wrong and I understand how to fix it.” Hayin Candiotti, a senior project engineer at Abbott Laboratories, said she learned that “perseverance has a lot to do with keeping going.”

Many of the panelists were open about how challenges in their careers have taken them in new directions and taught them to be more flexible. Taylor Reynolds, who is graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a doctorate in pharmacy this spring, said she is considering her job options after not getting into a residency program. “So now I’m searching outside the traditional box and the position that I’m in is where I’m supposed to be.”

The panelists also discussed the challenge of working in male-dominated fields. Vanetta Crawford, a business relationship manager at NASA who worked with the White House to support engineering and services goals, said she has had to learn to be assertive. “You’ll find yourself in a male-saturated office or team and you need to be able to be confident enough to stand your ground and own your knowledge and contribute,” she said.

While there have been challenges, researchers and students said there was tremendous satisfaction in their work. “Do what you love so that you have the ability to always enjoy what you do even if at some point it becomes difficult or hard,” Crawford advised the young women. Emily Gamboa Ordini, an eighth-grader at Fischer Middle School in Ewing, New Jersey, took that advice to heart. “The one lady was talking about how you have to work hard and you have to enjoy what you’re doing to keep going,” she said.

Researcher shares her journey to becoming a plasma physicist

In her keynote speech, Steffi Diem, an experimental plasma physicist and professor in the Engineering Physics Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wore a pink sequin dress and pink hard hat for her Zoom presentation. Her speech touched on the obstacles on her road to becoming a physicist, her research in plasma physics to develop fusion energy as a clean, affordable and plentiful way of generating electricity, and her own personal struggles.

Diem majored in engineering on the Madison campus. She recalled being told by a college boyfriend that she wasn’t smart enough to be an engineer. But she persisted. She first heard about fusion energy after applying for a job at the University’s fusion laboratory. “When I learned about fusion energy and how it combines all this beautiful physics and math and science, I was hooked because it combines my curiosity and my love for the environment and wanting to help people out,” she told students

Diem said she was admitted to Princeton University’s graduate program in plasma physics but was told by the admissions committee that she might fail because she did poorly on the entrance exam. Her worst fears came to fruition when she failed a major exam. “I did so poorly on the exam that they gave me a piece of paper that said F equals failure,” she recalled, displaying a photo of the note during her presentation. “That was hard to take because the first thing that went through my head was ‘they told me I would fail. I’m just not smart enough.’”

But she learned that she simply had to work harder. She did well on her next test and her dissertation was about how microwaves can be used in plasmas to transfer energy that heats and drives current. Diem did research at PPPL’s National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX) where she was one of two women in the graduate program and was mentored by physicist Cynthia Phillips.

Fusion energy has numerous advantages over fossil fuel because it does not create greenhouse gases that are linked to climate change, Diem explained. But creating energy is not easy because it requires temperatures hotter than the sun to create energy from a plasma or ionized gas, she said. To do that, scientists use magnetic fields to confine the plasma, which Diem compared to confining jelly with rubber bands. “These complex challenges were just amazing to me,” she said.

When she graduated, Diem was a researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and did research on tokamak fusion facilities around the world. She became a physics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last year.

Diem said she has been plagued by self-doubt throughout her career and has struggled with depression. She relies on a support network that includes her husband and friends. “I go to therapy and that’s very important for my mental health,” she said.

But despite her struggles, Diem said she has learned to persevere. “I was always very curious, I wanted to learn more, so I think that drove me a lot,” she said. “For me it was kind of reframing struggle for me: Anytime you hit failure or you struggle, anytime you get unexpected results in experiments, that can bring new discoveries. If science were boring and I didn’t hit these obstacles, I wouldn’t be learning.”

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