Madame Curie and Emporia State

By Diane Harris

“What do you want to be when you grow up? “  It was an easy question for me when I was six years old – I was sure I would be a princess or a famous movie star.  But alas, when I learned all the princess positions were filled and you have to have talent for acting to be a movie star, it looked like I was out of options. But then in the sixth grade I read a biography on Madame Curie and decided then and there I was going to be just like her and make the next great scientific discovery.  My career choice was further solidified when my high school chemistry teacher made the statement to me one day “You are going to study chemistry when you get to college…right” as if it was a given – no ifs, ands, or buts about it. And so here I am pursuing that career in science.

Unfortunately, not all girls get a Madame Curie moment or any encouragement to consider a career in science or math. Somehow and somewhere along the way there is a mostly unspoken but clearly communicated idea that girls just aren’t as good in math and science as boys. And because of this “unspoken rule,” many girls do not ever consider answering the question “What do you want to be when you grow up? “  with the response of “a scientist” or “ a mathematician”. Fortunately, there are people and programs out there trying to change all that with EPA’s special emphasis program, Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), being one of them.  You can learn more about EPA Women in Science at http://www.epa.gov/womeninscience/

In the spirit of WISE, last Saturday a colleague and I participated in an Expand Your Horizons event hosted by Emporia State University (ESU). This event is geared towards girls in grades 6th -8th with the goal of encouraging them to consider a career in math and science. This event includes national speakers, career workshops, and hands-on activities centered around science or math-related topics with all presentations being led by women professionals working in science and math-related careers. You can learn more about ESU’s Expanding Your Horizons event at http://www.emporia.edu/mathcsecon/outreach/eyh/

Our specific career workshop, Environmental Scientists – Working for a Healthier World, focused on environmental scientists including what they do here at EPA. Our hands-on activity, Let’s Talk Trash, taught the girls the connection between garbage and global warming thru the creation of an edible landfill using cookies, candy, licorice, and the ever popular fruit roll-ups.  We told the girls this was the one time it was okay to play with your food!

It was a lot of fun to meet the girls and watch them become so interested in what we had to say and to see them not yet believing they cannot be as good in science or math as boys. And when a young girl comes up to you at lunch to tell you that your presentation was inspiring and they want to be an environmental scientist, it makes you feel great knowing there is one more girl out there who now has an easy and perhaps new option for the question “What do you want to be when you grow up? “  And it’s a good thing too; I hear those princess positions are as hard to come by today as they were when I was growing up.

Diane Harris is a first generation scientist and has worked at EPA for 18 years.   She is currently the Regional QA Manager and served as the WISE Chair for several years in Region 7.

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