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Four UA women in STEM selected for inaugural class of AAAS ambassadors

Lauren Trench
Dr. Erika Hamden, an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona, was recently named as a 2019 AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador. The platform used to increase visibility of women in STEM careers. Tucson, Az. Monday, Sept. 23, 2019.

Four out of the 125 women chosen to represent The American Association for the Advancement of Science IF/THEN ambassadors program are from the University of Arizona. 

Jessie Rack, Earyn McGee, Erika Hamden and Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil were awarded this honor and will work with middle school girls to interest the young girls in STEM fields. The program aids women in sharing their stories on a national platform. It also lets them meet other women in science, technology, engineering and math. 

The women honored come from various backgrounds and do their research in different fields. Rack is currently a coordinator for the UA Community and School Garden Program and already spends time with K12 kids. She does garden projects where they conduct research while also having fun by playing in the dirt.

“I work with schoolgirls and I think what I most want them to see is that being a scientist isn’t one thing,” Rack said.“It’s not like just reading books all day. I think [people] get the sense that maybe science is just like you’re in a lab where you’re reading boring stuff all day and it’s not. It’s super dynamic and it looks 100 different ways.”

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These scientists agree that representation in the field is long overdue and said that they are happy to be a part of the program. 

“Science is infinite. There’s never going to be a point in time that’s like ‘oh we’ve answered all the questions,’” said McGee, a natural resources doctoral student. “There are people who may think that but then you take a step back and ask, who are the people asking all the questions? and do they have the potential or experiences to answer all those questions?” 

The ambassadors program was launched in May by Lyda Hill Philanthropies and was created to further women in STEM fields.

Feeling Like a Fake

These women are an example of perseverance in a historically male-dominated field. Hamden, an assistant astronomy professor who also works in the Steward Observatory as an assistant astronomer, said that women are being systematically pushed out of STEM fields and that before women make a change, they need to realize that the problem is not with them but rather the system, and the sooner as that it’s realized, the easier it will be to break down the barriers.

“A lot of girls feel Imposter’s Syndrome, and that takes a structural problem because they feel unwelcome and it turns into a personal problem, but they can’t do anything about that; it has to be a structural change,” Hamden said. “Here’s what’s going to happen, and if you know about them, then you can learn how to tackle them.”

Imposter Syndrome, in which a person doubts the legitimacy of their accomplishments and feels like they are really a fraud, is also something McGee said she identified with. Being one of, if not the only black woman in the room, often leads her to feel like her accomplishments may be underappreciated. 

“Often times, I feel like I’m being tokenized because at times it feels like my accomplishments don’t mean as much, almost like I’m filling a quota. Like ‘oh, you’re just the person that was lucky enough to get picked,’” McGee said. “I guess fellowshipping with other black students, I find and meeting with them and seeing that we have almost the same experiences has helped me out.”

Early Inspiration

Rack recalls watching a film when she was young where she saw a female scientist and naturally, she thought “Oh, I’ll do that.” 

“It was a movie in the  ‘90s with Sean Connery,” Rack said, “There was a lady scientist and she was a biochemist searching for the cure for cancer in the Amazon Forest. I was like, ‘You could do that?’”

She remembers telling people that she would be a biochemist searching for the cure for cancer in the Amazon Rainforest and, although she ultimately didn’t do that, it inspired her enough to be curious and look for answers in the environment around her.

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McGee and Hamden said they did not have set role models but being a scientist was something they wanted to since they were little and the people in their life always encouraged them to do it. 

“My mom never said ‘I don’t know why you want to do that so you shouldn’t,’ it was more like ‘I don’t know why you want to do this but go ahead and do what interests you,’” McGee said.

Hamden has a background in science as both her parents are scientists.

“My parents never pushed me into it but rather it was something I just always felt like doing,” Hamden said. 

She recalled wanting to be an astronaut and that is what ultimately sparked her interest in astrophysics. 

Research Titans

McGee is an ecologist who has done some work on studying lizard diets and is doing an Instagram scavenger hunt called #FindThatLizard, where she shows a picture of a hidden lizard and shares information about lizards to make it fun and informational at the same time. 

She’s also doing a literature review on barriers that women of color face in STEM fields and addresses how it’s important to represent these groups. She said black people tend to live off natural resources but with little to no representation, and so they don’t have a say in how those resources are distributed. 

”I’m doing a literature review to look at the barriers that prevent black women from entering and staying in natural resources careers. Women are severely underrepresented,” McGee said. “It’s important to increase representation — not just for the sake of representation, but also because there are black people who use and depend on natural resources.”

Rack’s main interests have always been helping her environment and asking scientific questions to further understand the things she saw. However, recently her job has focused mainly on community outreach and getting kids excited about science. 

“So I love science a lot, obviously, and I love research, but I think I like talking about it more than doing it,” Rack said, “So I help kids do research projects and I get them to figure out their own thing and do little experiments.”

Mutlu-Pakdil is an astrophysicist that not only discovered a new form of galaxy, but has one named after her. Currently, she works at the Steward Observatory as a postdoctoral research associate and is a 2018 TED Fellow.

Hamden is an astronomer who, like Mutlu-Pakdil, gave a TED Talk where she talked about her success and failure in science. Her project was the faint intergalactic-medium red-shifted emission balloon, also known as FIRE-Ball, which her team launched September 2018, but the balloon had a hole in it and the telescope crash landed back to earth, a reminder that science requires the resilience to fail.

“The job of a scientist is to fail every day. A lot of people don’t feel like they have room to do that,” Hamden said.

Follow Ana Teresa Espinoza on Twitter

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