'I Seek to Be Part of the Solution.' Inspiring early enthusiasm for science.

February 11, 2020

Takeaways

UNESCO estimates that women represent less than 30% of scientific researchers.
Research shows girls begin to lose interest in math and science at around 15 years old.

In my earliest of memories, my interests always revolved around science in one way or another, even if I was too young to understand the science that was behind them. 

As a child, the kitchen was my first laboratory where I loved experimenting with ingredients, watching physical changes, and creating new recipes. My parents, appeasing my interests, were always so kind to sample my products without any overt signs of disgust or nausea. Eventually, I got the knack of cooking and baking, and found myself before the age of 10 exploring meringues and yeasted doughs. I was fascinated by how egg whites changed form, how yeast came alive and how fat could be turned into an emulsion. 

What I didn’t realize then, that I know now, is that I was in fact learning biology and chemistry, and stoking what would become my love of science.

I was not one of those kids who had a set dream of what “I wanted to be when I grew up.” But I did know early on that I loved every living thing, be it a plant that grew, a frog that croaked, or much to my mother’s dismay, a snake that turned and bit me.

I remember thinking I could be a “nature-ologist,” which evolved at some point into an interest in marine biology. My love of vegetable gardening provided fodder for my continued kitchen experimentation and by 12 I had learned home canning and jam making, and had a shoebox full of blue ribbons from the local grange fair.

That led to thoughts of becoming a chef, which grew into a desire to pursue food science. I spent weekends and summers in programs sponsored by Johns Hopkins and Carnegie Mellon that continued to challenge my scientific mind and engage my interests. I remember building a rocket, constructing simple machines, and even mapping out brain segments on each other’s heads with white swim caps and sharpie markers and then figuring out what part of the brain was used for different activities. 

By high school I had considered pursuing careers in meteorology, immunology and infectious diseases, and engineering, and had shadowed an ABC meteorologist, a research professor at University of Pennsylvania, and a few engineers in construction and food processing. Through all my years of youthful exploration and changing interests, one common thread evolved, and that was my desire to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

But as I look back, I feel so incredibly privileged to have had my scientific curiosity stimulated and supported. There are many girls like me who have a natural gift or inherent interest in STEM, but ultimately choose a different path…but why?

Although the gender gap in STEM careers has narrowed over time, the UNESCO Institute of Statistics still estimates that women represent less than 30% of scientific researchers. So…why does this imbalance still exist at all?

To achieve equality for women in STEM careers, we must look for solutions where the end to a girl seeking a career in science often begins.

Globally, that end is a diverse, multidimensional and complex picture. Unlike some careers where modest training may suffice, one cannot become a scientist without a formal education. 

In some parts of the world poverty, violence, cultural and social norms, menstrual shaming, cost, distance, and infrastructure continue to present barriers for girls to access the most basic education. In other parts of the globe, girls experience implicit bias from teachers, like I did from a male high school honors chemistry teacher who said to me in front of my peers, “even a blind squirrel gets a nut sometimes.”  

Teachers engaging only singular methods of teaching science and math are ineffective in meeting the needs of students who learn differently. My experience with these teachers came at the time when math and science typically begin to become more difficult, the same age that research says girls specifically begin to lose interest in math and science, which is around 15 years old.

One very capable math teacher recognized my innate talent for math, and connected with me in ways that I learn best, and was surely instrumental in keeping my STEM journey moving forward. 

Now, as Miss America, I travel the United States meeting thousands of children along the way. I seek to be a part of the solution to engage more of them, especially young girls, in STEM careers by stimulating an early enthusiasm for science. I do this by showing them why I fell in love with science in the first place…by demonstrating how science is all around them and touches everything they do every day. It is a part of what they enjoy…like art, baseball, basketball, music, and dancing. It is a part of everything they use…like toothpaste, soap, shampoo, cosmetics, phones, and computers. It is a part of everything they need…like medicine, food, clothing, houses, and cars. When children learn that physics is a part of singing, that chemistry is a part of baking a bread that they love to eat, or that biology is involved in growing the plant that produces the cotton in a dress that they are wearing, their thoughts of science begin to expand and awaken. 

Continuing initiatives such as the 5th International Girls Day in Science will provide even more promise, hope and progress toward overcoming the global barriers that girls face in achieving advancements in the field of science.