Calling All STEM Babes
Written by Bridget Chalifour
I think at least few of my experiences are universal amongst women in science. I can remember being totally unwilling to raise my hand in class, afraid of being drowned out by a boy correcting my answer to the teacher’s question. Even now, as an adult, my voice still betrays a small tremor of uncertainty when I share my thoughts; I can’t remember the last time I answered a question with a statement instead of another question. My teaching assistants were overwhelmingly male, and as a woman considering the graduate school path, I couldn’t really see myself in them—couldn’t identify with their experiences. I remember being criticized (by men) for taking an art class in undergrad, just because I was interested in it. How would that ever advance my scientific career and help me get a job? What a silly mistake to make.
I have been fortunate enough to both seek out and stumble upon some of the finest female mentors in STEM-related fields (science, technology, engineering, math). Starting in high school, I enrolled in my first environmental science class and fell in love with the subject. I already had an affinity for nature, animals and plants, but my teacher—a fiery, no-nonsense, former zookeeper—enlightened me to the full implications of a career in the field. While I would most likely never see any wealth or fame, it would be an exciting and fulfilling journey, certainly unlike most career paths (at this point she would then reference her many scars from unruly zoo animals). Her support landed me scholarships and a spot in university, where my love for environmental science grew exponentially. Without that initial female role model, I’m not sure where I would be today.
Throughout high school, I had a core group of female friends who were overwhelmingly supportive, driven, intelligent and all-around badasses. One is now an engineering whiz, well-rounded and a master of everything from building cars to playing piano. She recognizes the importance of self-care and not sacrificing your health for your work. One is a fellow biologist, beekeeper and programmer, who can teach herself (and excel at) any new skills she pleases. From her, I have learned to always dive in to new projects with drive, focus and passion. My very best friend in high school is studying to be a vet tech, works as an EMT and somehow still finds time to ride and take care of horses. She is fiercely independent, loyal, passionate and as inspiring a best friend as I could have ever hoped for. We are all still close today, and despite our varying interests, we can always count on each other for advice, empathy and late-night talks. We’ve celebrated over 14 years of friendship, and these women continue to amaze me with their brilliancy, talent, and wisdom. They are always teaching me how to be a better scientist. When things get tough, I know I can confide in any of these fellow STEM women and find comfort and understanding.
I got extremely lucky in college, where I met two more incredibly inspiring women in science. The first, a young, brilliant assistant professor, took a chance on me, a timid, 19-year-old with no research experience, and handed me my first big research project. Not only did she teach me how to write my very first research manuscript and conduct really awesome field research, she also exemplified work-life balance, with three baby girls at home, a full lab of grad students and undergraduates to mentor and a teaching workload, all of which she handled with grace and ease.
The second was my supervisor at the national wildlife refuge where I interned in 2016. She is a large part of the reason I am pursuing graduate-level research today. Her encouragement to think outside the box helped me transform mere measurements and numbers into a narrative about the history of the land we studied. Even though she’s constantly swamped with grant-writing, field work, and managing an office, I know she’s only a phone call away for unfiltered advice and a reminder that whatever project I’m working on, yes, I can do it and I am good enough. When I “grow up,” I want to be just like her.
Today, as a first year PhD student, I recognize the importance of finding my fellow ladies in STEM more than ever. Collaboration is so important in any field of study, and connecting with women in your field can lead not only to various academic and career-based opportunities, but also a sense of comradery, of shared experiences. I consistently call my best friend in college for help with statistics, and brag about her constantly as the most accomplished biostatistician I know. I have found a core group of grad students with whom I can just as easily discuss the best way to analyze a data set or the best place to buy fleece-lined leggings. I’m no longer scared to take chances, enroll in a high-level math class, do research in a new field—because I’ve got awesome, supportive women all around me to help out.
While this may not be an entirely universal truth for working women, in my experience we tend to be harder on ourselves, never entirely believing we’ve truly earned our spot in the world, that we’re not quite competent enough. This may be exacerbated in the STEM field, where women are only recently starting to break the glass ceiling and be recognized for our contributions. When surrounding yourself with fellow lab mates or coworkers, be sure to not only fill your orbit with women who inspire and challenge you, but also the ones who are inspired by you—who see the greatness in you even when you don’t see it in yourself.
Bridget graduated from the University of Florida with a B.S. in Environmental Science, and an unofficial degree in knitting and watching Netflix simultaneously. She begins studying for her PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder in August. In the meantime, she's keeping busy hiking, reading Darwin, and petting strangers dogs.