Issue 6 Magazine Women's History Spread

STEM: Local Heroines

For centuries, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) was only acceptable for men to pursue, while women stayed at home with the children. But women have been taking great leaps into the world of STEM. From NASA engineers to college students at Berkeley, more women than ever are pursuing a career in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

One third of NASA is women, including Dr. Wendy Okolo, a highly specialized aerospace engineer, and the first black woman to earn a PHD in Aerospace Engineering, at age 26. Born and raised in Nigeria to a family of six, Dr. Okolo now works for NASA at the AMES Research Center in the Bay Area. Only three months into 2019, Wendy Okolo received a BEYA (Black Engineer of the Year Award) from the Global Competitiveness Conference, where she is known to be the “most promising engineer in the United States government.” Dr. Okolo made changes in the world even before she received her degree. According to Birmingham Times, Dr. Okolo was a member of the African Student Society during her time in Arlington. She was also the president of the Society of Women Engineers at her university. In her graduate years, Dr. Okolo worked with the Wright Patterson Air Force Base to help improve the world’s fastest manned aircraft, the Blackbird SR-71, and save its fuel usage through new aerodynamic techniques. While working there, Dr. Okolo says she experienced “imposter syndrome” and felt as if she didn’t amount to very much compared to the world-renowned engineers she worked along side. “I was like, I’m sure these guys are so smart, what am I going to bring to the table?” By correcting an error in the Blackbird’s coding, Okolo managed to end her “imposter syndrome” and feel level with her team. 

Gretchen Hellman lives in Oakland, and after majoring in Electrical Engineering, she worked in cybersecurity for 15 years. In cybersecurity, she did cryptography (the process of solving code) security analytics, and threat intelligence. Hellman was drawn to STEM originally for the stable income and job security, but also found it fun to solve complex problems. “It’s really fun to take a need and map a technical solution to it,” Hellman said. For the future generations of STEM, Hellman would like to see less of an “unconscious bias” against women. This bias, according to Hellman, is one of the most difficult challenges women face in STEM. For women to feel more comfortable in STEM, Hellman said, “There needs to be a larger effort on supporting women while they are there… and give men better ways of being inclusive of women.” 

Lysa Myers from Portland, Oregon, is a security researcher for ESET, an antivirus software, and has been involved in STEM for 20 years. Myers, through her involvement in technology, teaches people how to protect their devices from viruses. Myers used to work with an emergency response team with an intense workload, but now that she is in a research position, she is able to “enjoy a slower working pace” as well as manage her time and deadlines better. Myers originally wasn’t interested in STEM work and wanted to major in landscape architecture, but she was waitlisted and became a florist. “Lack of job stability as a florist was too much for me to take, longterm,” Myers says. Twenty-one years ago she quit the florist job and became a receptionist for a technology company, where she began work in STEM. By the time she left that company, Myers was training other people. Even though STEM wasn’t her first choice, Myers said that failing at her original goal, landscape architecture, led her to find a stable job that she is truly happy in. “I know there are too few people… who can do what I do, and the world would be a poorer place without people who are able to help.” 

Caroline McCarthy, older sister of the Las Lomas student Catherine, attends Berkeley community college as a physics major and plans to transfer to Santa Cruz in the future. Although McCarthy was originally interested in philosophy, she changed gears towards physics, because it showed her how to solve the questions she would think about in philosophy. McCarthy believes that understanding physics and philosophy is a key component to stopping or reducing climate change. “Climate change is forcing us to address all of the structures [technology, such as air conditioners or toasters] that have made life normal for a long time and what it would mean to change them [make them more Earth-friendly],” McCarthy says. Her desire to reduce climate change pushes her to find a source of sustainable, community-controlled systems of energy transition.