While women are gaining more notoriety in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), they still represent less than 30% of researchers worldwide.
On this International Women and Girls in Science Day, we want to share the story of two mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidates at the Colorado School of Mines: Isabella Mendoza from the Philippines and Xingyuan “Zazzy” Zhao from northeastern China.
The pair met at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during undergrad and have faced their fair share of challenges as both women and international students. More than five years later, Isabella and Zazzy remain close friends and actively encourage other girls to consider a career in STEM.
The science of culture
Over the years, Isabella and Zazzy have learned about much more than engineering. They’ve learned how to navigate a new culture, which is just as important as any curriculum.
Sometimes, it’s about having to use an English name like “Alex” at Starbucks, as Zazzy does. Other times, it’s more complicated. While studying in Philadelphia, they assimilated into the northeastern United States’ subculture of minimal public interactions.
“I was told that, to survive the city, I shouldn’t make eye contact with people,” Zazzy explained.
After this cultural experience, one of the most jarring aspects of moving to Colorado was the smiling strangers who make small talk.
“It freaked me out at first because I thought people were being creepy,” joked Isabella. “Then, I realized that they were actually being nice.”
Standing up for yourself
Culture shock isn’t always humorous, though. Over the years, they’ve heard their fair share of derogatory comments and jokes about their cultures. Their advice: stand up for yourself.
“Some people don’t know what’s a joke and what isn’t,” explained Isabella. “When I first moved here, I was shier about [calling this out], but now I stand up for myself.”
Even in 2020, both agree that sexism is still a big challenge. Isabella noted that some of her friends in the aerospace industry are blatantly ignored in meetings by their male colleagues. As someone who has sought help from Title IX and diversity resources, she encourages them and other women to seek help.
“We have so many resources that women didn’t have 30 years ago,” said Isabella. “You shouldn’t be ashamed of being mistreated, [and] you have every right to take action.”
It’s never a waste of time to try something new
Isabella and Zazzy are advocates for trying new things and following your gut. They don’t believe that choosing one path eliminates another. They emphasized that this misconception has played a big role in keeping women from pursuing STEM careers.
At one point, Isabella concentrated on a more chemistry-oriented area of study in her academic career. She ended up hating it, but she didn’t feel like it was a waste of time. To her, figuring out what she doesn’t like was just as valuable as discovering what she does like.
“Don’t ever be afraid to try something new. We’re never trapped – we’re only trapped within the limitations we impose on ourselves,” said Isabella.
In Zazzy’s case, she debated on continuing her mechanical engineering degree while in undergrad. She enjoyed fine arts and was torn between these two paths. Ultimately, she realized that she could always pursue art later in life.
“Listen to what you really want,” advised Zazzy.
Encouraging girls to get into STEM
When it comes to getting girls to pursue STEM, Isabella and Zazzy think it’s crucial to get girls involved in sciences at an early age. Because of this, they both regularly participate in community outreach programs that focus on STEM.
For example, Zazzy joined Alpha Omega Epsilon, a sorority solely comprised of women in engineering and technical fields, while at Drexel. Not only did the sorority sponsor many STEM events for young girls, but it also provided a support network for Zazzy.
“It’s important for young girls to touch and feel [these subjects through fun experiments] to truly experience what STEM is,” said Zazzy.
Even more, tying science to other subjects and activities is vital. Isabella took part in a study that visualized the mathematical components of dance during her time at Drexel.
By attaching accelerometers to the dancers, they were able to capture Lissajous figures. These influenced the visuals, music, and choreography for dance company’s performance at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.
Additionally, Isabella and others in her department worked with local schools to share the experience of connecting science and art, hopefully encouraging them to pursue a career in STEM.
Why we care
For Isabella and Zazzy, pursuing their education in STEM meant moving across the globe, away from family, friends, and their comfort zones. Every day, immigrants make this tough decision, too.
On International Women and Girls in Science Day, we wish to recognize these ordinary heroes who chose to make a better life for themselves and others despite personal sacrifice.