UW bioengineering professor

UW Bioengineering Professor shares her experience as a woman in the predominantly male STEM field at “Strengthening STEM through Diversity.”

On Oct. 8, students and faculty gathered in the HUB Lyceum and Allen Library Research Commons to participate in Strengthening STEM through Diversity, an all-day event centered on discussing inclusivity in the STEM field. 

The event was a collaboration between several organizations on campus, including the Graduate School, Out in STEM (oSTEM), and Women in Chemical Sciences (WCSUW).

Dr. Wendy Thomas, vice chair of academic affairs for the bioengineering department, gave a plenary talk to open the event. 

“When we share experiences, it helps us to know where others are coming from and who can help us when we are in need,” Thomas said.

Thomas, a Seattle native and graduate of Garfield High, spoke about her experience as an openly lesbian woman in STEM and her role as a mentor.

She recalled a mentor who showed her how she could talk not only about science, but her feelings as well. Since then, she has made an effort to be more open with students about her life so they feel comfortable talking to her about their own.

“As a professor, I can make a difference in many ways,” Thomas said. “Just by being a woman in STEM, I become a role model.”

Following her speech was a panel of student leaders including representatives from oSTEM, WCSUW, the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science.

Students on the panel answered audience questions ranging from how to deal with microaggressions to how to navigate a career path in STEM with a visible or invisible disability.

The event was well-attended, with many enthusiastic table discussions occurring between speakers.

Joe Camacho, a graduate student in education, spoke to his table about his experience as a science teacher and why he feels it is important to discuss issues of diversity in the classroom.

“It’s easy to push aside and not talk about issues if you don’t experience them,” Camacho said. “We should be more upfront about privileges we have and start critical conversations which actually lead somewhere.”

Before the event became a reality, it started as an idea between two chemistry graduate students, Nicholas Montoni and Sarah Vorpahl.

“My friends in science were having similar experiences to me as far as not being very represented in my field,” Montoni said.  

Vorpahl explained that it was hard to gather everyone together on campus who was having these same kind of feelings. The two hoped the event would be a way to establish community and solidarity between underrepresented groups in STEM.

“The larger and more impactful we get the more we have a responsibility to be leaders in accessibility and representation,” Vorpahl said. “If we truly want to be an interdisciplinary, cutting-edge school, we need to bring in a wide variety of students.”

The UW was recently ranked number four in Reuters’ list of most innovative universities and is already a powerful force in research. 

“We’re at this pivotal moment where we’re becoming a recognized institution,” Vorpahl said. “In a collaborative environment, being attuned to these issues is extremely important.”

Montoni and Vorpahl touched on the concept of retention. This fall, the UW welcomed its most diverse class in history, but both wonder if that class will still be as diverse when it comes time to graduate.

“Diversity isn’t enough — representation is what matters,” Montoni said. “We need to ask ourselves, are there people in leadership roles? How do we patch up a leaky pipeline? There should be inclusion at all levels because someone is always looking up and asking, ‘Can I be there?’”


Reach reporter Susana Machado at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @smacha1995

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