Women of Discovery: Q&A With Nergis Mavalvala

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Women of Discovery: Q&A With Nergis Mavalvala

WINGS WorldQuest will induct five new groundbreaking women as Fellows during the 2018 Women of Discovery Awards. Leading up to our April 25 Awards Luncheon, we are highlighting the work of each of our new Fellows. Nergis Mavalvala is the associate head of the Department of Physics and the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at MIT. She is a physicist whose research focuses on the detection of gravitational waves from violent events in the cosmos that warp and ripple the fabric of spacetime. She is part of the scientific team that in early 2016 announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors. She will receive our Air & Space Award. Read the rest of the series here.

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WINGS WorldQuest: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and in your field specifically?

Nergis Mavalvala: As a physicist, I had the incredible experience of being part of a major scientific discovery — the first detection of gravitational waves, which were predicted by Einstein a hundred years earlier.

But I didn’t always know this is what I would do. Even though I was drawn to science from an early age, I never heard of gravitational waves until I was in graduate school. 

I was a doctoral student at MIT when I first met my advisor and mentor, Rai Weiss. I was looking for an interesting physics problem to work on, so Rai told me about LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) and the quest to detect gravitational waves. When I first heard about the precision needed — that we would need to measure changes in distances a thousand times smaller than an atomic nucleus — I thought the whole enterprise was insane. I thought I was looking for something interesting, not something impossible. But once I understood what a game changer it would be if we succeeded, I knew I had to try. That’s how I got started working on LIGO, and 25 years later, we made our first discoveries of gravitational waves. 

WWQ: What is something you would like people to understand about your field and your work?

NM: When we study the universe, we learn about our own history and our future. Almost everything we know about our universe, we know because we humans have studied light from the heavens. But we know there are objects in the sky that do not give off light. Black holes, for example, are stars that have so much mass that even light cannot escape their gravitational pull. Such objects, with strong gravity, emit gravitational waves, which travel to us as ripples in space-time. The celebrated gravitational waves we’ve detected were emitted during the violent collisions of black holes and neutron stars in the distant universe. 

But we shouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture, which is that we have opened a completely new window into the universe. For the first time we can use gravity instead of light to look at dark objects, which may give off no light but emit gravitational waves. And these gravitational waves bring inherently very different information than light does because they come from different physical processes in stars. So wonderful as these first discoveries are, the real excitement is that we have a new method of looking at the universe. There are many mysterious dark objects lurking in the sky waiting to be discovered, and we have created instruments that can measure their gravity even if they give off no light. This new way of studying the universe is a paradigm shift that promises explorations we have never before done.

WWQ: What are the greatest barriers to having more women work in science?

NM: As with all complex issues, I don’t believe it’s a single factor. In formative years, girls are either explicitly discouraged from science, or get turned off simply because they don’t see many models of scientist that look like them. In later years, for many women scientific careers are derailed by systemic bias, lab and workplace cultures, tensions between work and family life, lack of support, and the dwindling number of women who advance. 

WWQ: What gets you up in the morning? 

NM: My kids, literally and figuratively. 

But I also love solving puzzles and problems. Every day brings new challenges, new puzzles to solve, and that’s what makes life interesting. Sometimes they are scientific puzzles, sometimes it’s human engineering, sometimes it’s the most mundane daily life things. 

As a scientist, the promise of new discoveries, of unlocking Nature’s secrets, keeps me going. 

WWQ: What's your next challenge? 

NM: I have spent a good part of my career developing new technologies to make better gravitational wave detectors. I get great pleasure from working with my students and colleagues on new ideas, and seeing them (students, colleagues, and ideas) succeed. Over the next couple of decades, I would love to see a new generation of instruments get built to discover gravitational waves further out in space, perhaps even to the edge of the universe. That’s not going to be easy — it’s technically challenging and expensive. 

But there’s a big universe out there, waiting to be discovered, and lots of clever and useful technologies right here on earth waiting to be developed, so we have to try. 

 

 

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Women of Discovery: Q&A With Eleanor Sterling

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Women of Discovery: Q&A With Eleanor Sterling

WINGS WorldQuest will induct five new groundbreaking women as Fellows during the 2018 Women of Discovery Awards. Leading up to our April 25 Awards Luncheon, we are highlighting the work of each of our new Fellows. Dr. Eleanor Sterling is the Jaffe Chief Conservation Scientist at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History. She has interdisciplinary training in biological and social sciences and has over 30 years of field research and community outreach experience with direct application to biodiversity conservation in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania. She will receive our Humanity Award. Read the rest of the series here.

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WINGS WORLDQUEST: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and in your field specifically?

ES: I became interested in the behavior of animals and in science more generally because of some wonderful teachers I had from grade school through college. One pivotal moment came in college when I was focused on majoring in foreign languages and comparative linguistics, and I realized that I had to take a science class in order to fulfill a requirement. A friend suggested I attend a physical anthropology class, and I was so taken with the professor, Dr. Alison Richard, and the work she did that I changed my major and ultimately went to graduate school to study with Dr. Richard. I had not seriously considered a career in science prior to that class. Dr. Richard also steered me towards working in a museum, where I am able to not only engage in challenging scientific research, but also in translating the results of that work into conservation action. 

WWQ: What is something you would like people to understand about your field and your work?

ES: I work in interdisciplinary arenas where effective communication is fundamentally important. It is extremely difficult to figure out how and when to tackle the complex problems we face in maintaining the earth’s biological and cultural diversity. There are very few instances where there is one “right” answer to the problems we are facing. It can be challenging to sort through the possible answers and determine which is the strongest choice within a particular context, and then step even further back to ensure you have identified the right context. I ask myself, not just “am I doing something right” but “am I doing the right thing?” I try to ask, “am I doing everything I can to make the greatest impact in sustaining earth’s biological and cultural diversity?”

WWQ: What are the greatest barriers to having more women work in science?

ES: One significant barrier is society’s ideal vision for who is a scientist. In my generation and before, when people heard the word “scientist,” they would immediately think of a white man in a lab coat. These kinds of unconscious bias can be particularly acute with women for whom multiple factors, such as race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and disability status, combine to increase the likelihood of discrimination. We need to continue to do a better job of teaching young people that scientists come from a variety of backgrounds and to raise the voices of everyone who contributes to furthering science. As part of the Women in Natural Sciences Chapter of The Association for Women in the Sciences, my colleagues and I are starting a project to highlight Untold Stories in Conservation and Natural History so more people can see how to engage and envision themselves as contributors in these fields. In addition, I think funding is another major barrier that we can address. It is imperative to find ways to support underrepresented individuals throughout their entire careers, from early inspiration to pursue science as a career all the way through to when these individuals become experienced role models for others.  

WWQ: What gets you up in the morning? 

ES: I love my work and am passionate about the mission of achieving human well-being and environmental sustainability. I feel strongly that people are a part of nature and that we have to find solutions that are beneficial for both humans and their environment. I love to learn and take on new challenges. I also value the people with whom I work, who are a continued source of learning and inspiration. Oh, and also the prospect of excellent ice cream and of making time for quilting or sewing toys also gets me up in the morning. 

WWQ: What's your next challenge? 

ES: Much of my conservation work to date has focused on making a difference at the local or regional scale. However, I am engaging more and more with global scale organizations as the activities at this level can have a significant impact at the local scale. My team and I are working to help develop ways of measuring well-being that encompass the links between biological and cultural diversity and that allow global structures to better recognize the importance of local knowledge and values.

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Women of Discovery: Q&A With Asha de Vos

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Women of Discovery: Q&A With Asha de Vos

WINGS WorldQuest will induct five new groundbreaking women as Fellows during the 2018 Women of Discovery Awards. Leading up to our April 25 Awards Luncheon, we are highlighting the work of each of our new Fellows. Dr. Asha de Vos is a Sri Lankan marine biologist, ocean educator and pioneer of blue whale research within the Northern Indian Ocean. De Vos founded Oceanswell, Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education non-profit. She will receive our Sea Award. Read the rest of the series here.

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WINGS WORLDQUEST: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and in your field specifically?

Asha de Vos: As a six year old, my parents would bring me second-hand National Geographic magazines that I would pore over. I used to look through the pages and imagine that that would be me one day –  going places where no one would ever go and seeing things no one would ever see. I was enthralled with the idea of adventure and dreamed of being an adventure scientist. As I grew older, I started to realize my element was water, and so becoming a marine biologist seemed like the natural path for me. I didn’t grow up in an ocean-going family, but I did grow up in a family that allowed me a lot of freedom (particularly intellectually) and encouraged curiosity. I was introduced to interesting places and people including Sir Arthur C. Clarke who used to come to my local swimming club. He would tell me stories of his diving adventures around Sri Lanka but always leave me hanging. It made me so intrigued. By 18 I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist, so I set off to the University of St. Andrews to do my undergraduate. I had to leave home to pursue this field because becoming a marine biologist in Sri Lanka is pretty much unheard of. 

After my degree I spent a bit of time on projects in New Zealand and then got an opportunity to work on a whale research vessel that was circumnavigating the globe and stopping off in the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Long story short, I had a eureka moment that involved a pile of blue whale poop, and that was the start of The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project, which is now the flagship project of my non-profit organization, Oceanswell.

WWQ: What is something you would like people to understand about your field and your work?

ADV: Many people assume the work I do is very glamorous – hours on a boat with whales breaching everywhere. In my mind, I have the best job in the world and that’s partly because it’s not something everyone can do. Also, blue whales don’t breach. They just can’t. We also have days when all we do is stare at the ocean hoping to see a sign of life. We can have days when we head out, have a bunch of whales, get super excited and then a huge squall comes through and we have to turn in because – safety first! Respecting the ocean is a really important part of what I do because it’s the one thing we have no control over. I think there is real beauty in that. 

Another thing that people assume is that my job is only about sitting on boats and staring at whales. So I have a lot of students who are only interested in working with me if they can get out on the boat but have no interest in working through the data at a desk. The thing they don’t understand is that the real adventure happens when you sit down and try to make sense of all the data. I think students, particularly those aspiring to go into the field, need to understand that the hard work and the unglamorous part is the most important, and the more of those opportunities they seek, the better chance they will actually be able to enter the field and get opportunities in the field. 

WWQ: What are the greatest barriers to having more women work in science?

ADV: The existing systems do not support women and the roles they play outside the workplace, and in the past, the faces of science have largely been men and therefore unrelatable (and so much more). I think everyone should be defined by what they can offer the field or the planet rather than gender. It’s time we all became gender neutral because the gender wars are so petty, and in fact, there are much bigger problems to resolve in the world we live in. The more heads we can get together, the faster we can actually achieve the goals we have set for humanity. That said, beyond just the issue of barriers to women, I am very interested in the barriers to people who come from the developing world and how to create diversity, particularly in marine conservation. 

WWQ: What gets you up in the morning? 

ADV: I am extremely grateful to be alive and to live the blessed life that I do, and that helps me wake up excited about the opportunity of the day ahead of me. Life is an incredible adventure and every day is an important part of the whole.

WWQ: What's your next challenge? 

ADV: I have just established Sri Lanka’s first marine conservation research and education non-profit, Oceanswell. Admittedly, my dream was never to build an organization. I have bigger goals in marine conservation and bringing diversity to the field.  So I see Oceanswell as a means to an end. A way to create sustainability and to ensure that when I die, the work doesn’t end. A way to achieve the dream. But this whole thing is a steep learning curve and, for me, it’s a big challenge. Raising funds is obviously the toughest part especially because it’s not just about keeping the work going and myself afloat, but I have to create sustainability for the people I hire too. So I would say my next challenge is creating an organization that can be an example to the world and creating long-term sustainability for it. 

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Women of Discovery: Q&A With Nalini Nadkarni

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Women of Discovery: Q&A With Nalini Nadkarni

WINGS WorldQuest will induct five new groundbreaking women as Fellows during the 2018 Women of Discovery Awards. Leading up to our April 25 Awards Luncheon, we are highlighting the work of each of our new Fellows. For three decades, Dr. Nalini Nadkarni has used mountain-climbing techniques, construction cranes, and hot air balloons to explore life in the treetops of Costa Rica and the Pacific Northwest, documenting biota that are rarely or never seen on the forest floor. She also studies the effects of forest fragmentation on biodiversity, and has published over 110 scientific articles and three scholarly books. She is a Professor of Biology at the University of Utah, and her research has been supported by over 40 grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society. She will receive our Lifetime Achievement Award. Read the rest of the series here.

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WINGS WORLDQUEST: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and in your field specifically?

NALINI NADKARNI: I was raised by parents from different cultures, and our family was a cacophony of five siblings, pets, celebrations, school, and chores. I found that climbing the maple trees in our front yard always brought me to a peaceful space that was my own world. Held by those strong limbs, I vowed that I when I grew up, my work would help trees. In college, I discovered the field of ecology  - the study of biota and their environments – as a way to understand and help conserve forests. I visited a tropical research station early in graduate school, and decided to study the forest canopy, which at that time, was an unknown world. I mastered mountain-climbing techniques to gain safe access to the treetops, and have spent my research career exploring and describing the complex interactions in forest canopies on four continents. But I soon became aware of the harmful effects of deforestation, forest fragmentation, and climate change on these ecosystems. Another way that I could contribute to forest conservation would be to directly communicate the wonder and importance of trees and nature to people who might never have the opportunity to visit or have access to education about those forests. I began working with museums and zoos, to raise awareness about the values of forests, but I soon realized that those visitors are already aware! So I forged new pathways between my world of academic science and other institutions by finding common ground on which to exchange ideas.  For example, knowing that the trees are powerful spiritual symbols, I read their holy scriptures of many world religions and created a sermon on “Trees and Spirituality," which articulates the values of trees based on verses in sacred texts that describe trees. I have delivered this sermon from the pulpits of numerous churches, which has led to regional tree-plantings. I created TreeTop Barbie to bring forest science to young girls. I collaborated with modern dancers to create a dance about rainforests that we have performed for arts audiences. I have started a fashion company – “InNature” – that creates clothing with biologically correct nature images and informational hang tags, and serves to make the wearer a vector of nature knowledge. My greatest efforts have been to bring the values of nature and science education to the people who are farthest from it -- incarcerated men, women, and youth. Since 2004, I have collaborated to establish prison science lecture series, trained inmates to rear endangered species for restoration projects, and brought nature videos to men in solitary confinement. Looking over my lifetime activities, I feel fortunate to have been able to attain my childhood goal of helping trees through a rich tapestry of disciplines, colleagues, and perspectives.

WWQ: What is something you would like people to understand about your field and your work?

NN: Perhaps because I grew up in a diverse home (my dad was a Hindu scientist from India, my mother was an Orthodox Jewish linguist from Brooklyn), I have always understood that there are many different ways of understanding the world, and that each has merits and blind spots.  I have incorporated this idea into my work and my life. From the outside, I appear to rapidly jump from academia to the arts, to prisons, to policy-makers, and to the fashion world. From my internal compass, I have learned that all segments of our world benefit from being connecting with each other.  

WWQ: What are the greatest barriers to having more women work in science?

NN: We often think that becoming a scientist requires that we must ride the same pointed arrow that others (especially men) have successfully ridden before, a linear vector that arrives in a particular space called “scientific achievement." However, many women have been raised or educated without the tools that allow them to stay aboard that arrow, and so if they slip off, they are considered failures.  In addition, our current system has generated relatively few “riders of that arrow”, and so emerging women scientists lack models and mentors. To me, the root of those barriers is the mindset that all scientists must ride that same arrow to get to that same particular space. When we recognize that there are many and diverse vectors and many and diverse spaces that contribute to the scientific enterprise, the old barriers will no longer have the power to keep women – and men and youth – from contributing to the scientific enterprise.

WWQ: What gets you up in the morning? 

NN: I swing my two feet from sheets to carpet each morning with the grateful awareness that I am alive. I experienced a near-death fall from the top of a tree two years ago, which has given me a new appreciation of the fragility of life and the privilege of being physically and mentally sound. There is no specific project that rouses me. Rather, it is the quiet joy of simply rising and entering the awaiting day.

WWQ: What's your next challenge? 

NN: My next challenge is to foster both immediate and long term “tapestry thinking” in arenas where the separation of threads has been the rule. My immediate challenge is to help my academic colleagues to step outside their labs and classrooms to effectively engage and exchange ideas with people who come from other ways of knowing — e.g., faith–based groups, the incarcerated, policy-makers, stay-at-home moms. My long-term challenge is to have each of the 6.2 million scientists in our country to engage with just one person outside of science per week. That would allow every one of the 320 million people in our country to connect with a scientist and engage information and ideas. Meeting this challenge will lead to interactions that are like a tapestry – complex, connect, strong, useful, beautiful. 

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Women of Discovery: Q&A With Thandiwe Mweetwa

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Women of Discovery: Q&A With Thandiwe Mweetwa

WINGS WorldQuest will induct five new groundbreaking women as Fellows during the 2018 Women of Discovery Awards. Leading up to our April 25 Awards Luncheon, we are highlighting the work of each of our new Fellows. Thandiwe Mweetwa is a senior ecologist and community educator with the Zambian Carnivore Programme. Her work focuses on studying population dynamics and threats to survival of lions and other carnivores in eastern Zambia in order to protect the species and their habitat. She will receive our Conservation Award.

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WINGS WORLDQUEST: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and in your field specifically?

Thandiwe Mweetwa: I was born in a small town in southern Zambia. When I was 12 years old, our family moved from the plantation town to a rural area in the eastern part of the country. Our village is near a national park so I saw wildlife like monkeys, elephants and small antelope live for the first time here. I was fascinated by these animals so I joined my school’s conservation club. I learned many interesting facts about wildlife and more about the nature and extent of the environmental issues affecting our area. My experience in the conservation club inspired me to join the conservation field and help protect wildlife. Throughout high school and university, I volunteered at different organizations and agencies to learn more and sharpen my skills.

My passion for studying and working with lions began when I joined the Zambian Carnivore Programme as a volunteer field assistant in 2009. Like many people around the world, I have always been fascinated by lions. I enjoyed hearing stories about them from my mother and loved watching them in wildlife documentaries. The defining moment was on my first day of work when I experienced the power of three male lions roaring just meters from the car I was in. I had never heard anything like it before and I was just amazed by how an animal could produce such a sound. I, there and then, decided to pursue a career working with lions and helping conserve them.

WWQ: What is something you would like people to understand about your field and your work?

TM: We are faced with the daunting task of figuring out how to balance the needs of an ever-growing human population with protecting biodiversity. Therefore, it is important for people to understand that the conservation issues we face are very complex. Conservationists need to learn from each other while recognizing that there is no “one size fits all” solution to these problems. The general public needs to look beyond the headlines on conservation issues. When talking about poaching, the first thing many people say is “Why not just arrest all the poachers?” It seems like a no brainer to someone looking in from the outside but the solution is more complex than that. A lot of communities are dealing with debilitating poverty and judicial systems are virtually non-existent in some of these places. 

Our search for solutions to environmental problems should be more inclusive, interdisciplinary and innovative. Sound science and exploration can lead to game-changing discoveries and help us understand the nature of the evolving threats facing our planet. As we seek to strengthen law enforcement, we should to also push for meaningful engagement with communities that feel alienated by conservation as it is practiced in the 21st century. We need to make it clear to these communities that conservation is as much about human wellbeing as it is about protecting wildlife.

As a global community, we need to cultivate a sense of pride in our shared heritage. Lions are majestic, universal icons of strength and courage. Collective effort is required in order for us to make a meaningful difference.  

WWQ: What are the greatest barriers to having more women work in science?

TM: The greatest barrier is the deeply entrenched belief that the sciences and mathematics are subjects for boys. From early on, girls believe they are not as capable as their male counterparts. Therefore, they lack the motivation to pursue their interests in these subjects. As these girls turn into women, they carry this misconception along and consider some careers to be, almost exclusively, for men. There is need for educational systems to be more nurturing to encourage and support young girls in their scientific pursuits. In the long run, this will increase the number of women working in science.

WWQ: What gets you up in the morning? 

TM: The desire to make a positive difference in the world.

WWQ: What's your next challenge? 

TM: I am interested in studying how to balance conservation goals with human development needs as ecosystems and communities change. I hope to focus on the evolving nature of human interaction with big cats in the Luangwa Valley as more people and livestock move into the area. I also want to expand educational programs aimed addressing the emerging human-lion conflict and empowering young people while, at the same time, building local capacity for wildlife management.

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Equality and Parity in Science for Peace and Development

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Equality and Parity in Science for Peace and Development

As I reflect on International Women’s Day,  I am reminded of my participation last month at the Equality and Parity in Science for Peace and Development Summit at the United Nations.  The conference was the third commemoration of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, aiming to mobilize women from a variety of science disciplines and contribute to achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals.

WINGS’ 2018 Women of Discovery Humanity Awardee and the Chief Conservation Scientist at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History, Dr. Eleanor Sterling, contributed to the Economic Empowerment session with the presentation “Untold Stories: Inspirational Women Who are Contributing to Sustainable Terrestrial Ecosystems.” Dr. Sterling focused on how women are contributing to Sustainable Development Goal 15 addressing sustainable terrestrial ecosystems: Life on Land. She stressed the need for equality and parity in knowledge transfer and applying a systems-level focus on well-being. Dr. Sterling worked with a group of women in the Solomon Islands who take care of the land and feed its people, yet did not have systems to transfer their knowledge to the younger women and men who will need to take over their roles in the future. The asset of women’s knowledge must be mobilized to achieve community benefits. Dr. Sterling and her team worked with the women to publish a book that will help them teach the next generation how to provide adequate nutrition to its members utilizing the bounty of the region for years to come.   

Dr. Sterling also shared untold stories of women in natural history and conservation. People are often told what they can’t do. This project is about telling what they can do. We all have roles to play no matter our experience or talent. Some people are scientists because they have lived somewhere, even if they don’t have a Ph.D. Dr. Sterling implored the audience to share untold stories!

Girls had a strong voice at the conference. Sixteen year-old Huaxuan Chen, an aspiring scientist from Toronto, acted as the moderator of the opening panel. At the standing-room-only session entitled Girls in Science for Sustainable Development: Vision to Action, girls from the US, Turkey, Canada, Israel, Peru, Costa Rica, Brazil, China, and more gathered to share their visions, experiences, and recommendations to work toward gender parity in STEM.

As the event’s founder, Princess Dr. Nisreen El-Hashemite, said, we cannot afford another 25 years of reports on the gender gap.

WINGS Worldquest sees the inequity each and every day, and our mission is to dissolve it. I encourage you to think about what you do today, after International Women’s Day has ended to pursue just some of these themes set forth by the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.  

  • Economic empowerment of women has the capacity to create $12 trillion in growth for our planet.

  • We must convey the message that women are looking to share power and leadership, not take over men’s power.

  • Girls need women role models in visible leadership positions so they can see what possibilities lay ahead as they mature.  

  • Recognition of and awards for women in STEM are critical to help them become more known with their colleagues and in the public eye. This encourages advancement and leadership, and develops and showcases role models.

  • Boys and men need to be an integral part of the gender parity conversation. The message of the need for gender parity needs to come from leadership, and men still hold a majority of the leadership roles in businesses and organizations.

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