A Safer & More Inclusive World: How Jodi Godfrey is Reshaping Public Transit and the Workforce of Women Behind it

Jodi Godfrey ● Civil Engineer ● Center for Urban Transportation Research at USF

Jodi Godfrey ● Civil Engineer ● Center for Urban Transportation Research at USF

When Jodi took her first pivotal career “leap,” she did so boldly. As the first in her family to go to college, she quit her job managing a local Domino’s pizza to pursue an education in engineering. Initially, she had no intention of taking this path. It was actually Jodi’s Dad who originally suggested she explore engineering as a career when she was 17, which she initially brushed off as an “absurd” idea. Sadly, not long after that conversation, Jodi lost her Dad in a motorcycle accident. And, it was this tragedy that would later inspire Jodi to reconsider his suggestion and dive headfirst into her journey as a civil engineer at the University of South Florida.

Throughout her studies, her passions and talents became increasingly clear.

“I became very interested in transportation, mostly because the human aspect made every challenge very different. I also found the amazing ability to focus on transportation safety with my civil engineering degree.”

Jodi later honed her passion for transportation safety and pursued a Master’s Degree in Transportation Engineering at her alma mater, before landing her current role as Senior Research Associate at the Center for Urban Transportation Research. Jodi currently plays a pivotal role in updating and developing various safety policies and standards to make public transit safer and more efficient for Floridians.

Through her studies and career in transportation, a field that’s predominantly male, Jodi developed another human-centric skill.

“I noticed as I continued through my degree in civil engineering, that I, as a female, was a minority. I know that I bring a different perspective to many approaches, adding unique value to my team.”

Determined to make sure that anyone with a unique perspective has a chance to use their voice, Jodi became a passionate advocate for diversity and gender-neutral hiring in the transportation field. She most recently co-authored a study on attracting, promoting and retaining women in the transportation industry, attempting to shed light on why women have a negative perception of working in transportation and how to combat this, through efforts such as mentorship and innovative recruiting.

Not surprisingly, Jodi takes her role as a mentor seriously, remaining active in the student chapter of the Institute of Transportation Engineers and participating annually in the Great American Teach, encouraging more kids to consider a career in transportation.

“I think that the industry can only benefit from more diversity. So, I want to encourage others, that don’t fit typical ‘molds,’ to learn how to do whatever interests them.”

Jodi encourages others to pay it forward and push themselves beyond what they think they’re capable of for the purpose of expanding their limits. She also emphasizes the importance of knowing when to say no, adding “take time for yourself and for your family, and do not feel bad about time you are not working. “

For anyone considering taking a bold career leap like Jodi, her story will serve as an amazing example of perseverance and her advocacy work will make way for those with a unique perspective to have their rightful place at the table.


Inclusive Bathrooms For a Modern World: How Catherine Joseph is Challenging the Status Quo to Improve Accessibility

Catherine Joseph ● Civil Engineer ● Brooklyn, New York

Catherine Joseph ● Civil Engineer ● Brooklyn, New York

The average public bathroom may not seem like a political arena or a feat of engineering; however, if you were to speak with Catherine Joseph, you would quickly realize that restrooms contain untold stories of debate and design. Catherine proudly describes herself as an architect, an educator, a mentor and an advocate. This multifaceted leader has led and engaged with several campaigns that aim to create spaces that are functional and inclusive for people regardless of religion, gender, and other factors of a person’s identity. Leveraging her range of personal and professional experiences, Catherine and her colleagues are pursuing a project known as “The Bathroom Reboot.”

Such an ambitious undertaking can only come from an equally ambitious mind, which is a defining trait of Catherine’s. Excelling in math from a young age, Catherine decided to pursue a degree in Civil Engineering at Duke University. To continue exploring her interest in design, Catherine enrolled in Cornell’s graduate school of architecture after graduation. Catherine honed her problem-solving approach by combining her engineering experience and her studies in architecture. As she explains it,

“I always try to understand the fundamental causes of a problem. What are the different systems and structures involved, and how they interact with each other…From there I can amplify the good forces and oppose the bad ones.”

The “Bathroom Reboot” project definitely amplifies the good forces of architecture and engineering. At its core, this effort makes bathrooms more inclusive to people who are transgender, gender non-conforming and other identities across the spectrum. In order to adhere to laws and improve accessibility, Catherine has researched concepts such as maximizing privacy and functionality within bathrooms.

In cities such as New York, where Catherine works as an architect, building codes specifically delineate between bathrooms for men and for women. Initially, this represented a victory for women, as they previously had nowhere to use the bathroom in public. Now, these rigidly defined rules marginalize a new group of people. This creates a challenge that Catherine continues to work through.

The status quo for bathroom design remains rigid. However, Catherine sees room for progress in the broader field of design. The project currently remains in the research and advocacy phase. Catherine has presented her research at conferences and educates aspiring designers about the issue through a course she teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design. Along with her colleague, Tyler Cukar, Catherine has led campaigns against spaces that are fundamentally discriminatory. This reality, known as “exclusion by design”, remains a problem that Catherine and her colleagues want to address.

Their current approach focuses on adapting old structures and designs in order to fulfill modern needs. Therefore, Catherine emphasizes working with clients to understand their backgrounds before launching into a new project. Catherine comments,

“Societies change much faster than buildings or cities, but if we work with people, we can use their experiences and identities to bring design to life.”


This story was written by Samantha Holmes, an Honorable Mention Award recipient from our previous Journalism Fellowship Application round. Connect with her on Linkedin.

Connecting the World to Cleaner Water: How Meena Sankaran is Building Smarter, Safer and Sustainable Water Grid Management Systems

Meena Sankaran ● Founder & CEO, Ketos

Meena Sankaran ● Founder & CEO, Ketos

Meena Sankaran’s fixation with water began when she was a child. She channeled her childhood experience of having just 1 hour of clean water a day to founding Ketos, a water intelligence startup that delivers actionable metrics on water safety and sustainability to transform how businesses and people think about water. (Listen to her full story on The Wogrammer Podcast!)

KETOS is a unique solution delivering water intelligence with innovative hardware and software as an interaction of Water + IoT + Data Science for building smarter, safer and sustainable water grid management systems. It stems for Meena’s belief that, “Smart water data can be instrumental and revolutionize how people and businesses think about water.”

KETOS has significant intellectual property through trade secrets and patents for the hardware that’s capable of being self-powered leak detector in water distribution to a Industrial-grade single modular system capable of detecting 20+ toxins and parameters in water continuously without any manual intervention. They also have significant IP in the robust software platform that has tiered analytics with advanced diagnostics, predictive intelligence and location mapped analytics for proactive water management.

“We can’t act on what we don’t measure and KETOS solution is designed, manufactured and built in the US to drive the automation in Industrial IoT for dynamic understanding of a critical resource such as ‘Water’.”

Meena’s passion for technology and leveraging the best of hardware, software and advanced sciences is showcased in how KETOS is built through a very interdisciplinary team of cross-functional experts across a spectrum of skills. She has created a unique culture, quite unlike what’s known in Silicon Valley to cherish her people and team. Her values and principles stem from her upbringing as she shares her journey from Mumbai, India to study Electrical Engineering in Texas, demonstrating how grit and support of others carried her through challenging moments.

Meena’s contributions are recognized around the world. She was recently awarded the Goldman Sachs Builders & Innovators award, honoring 100 most intriguing entrepreneurs in the world as well as honored by Forbes as one of the awe-inspiring entrepreneurs for her work with PRERNA, a nonprofit she founded to support refugees in gaining independence and stability.

“Pursue your dreams and channel all of your invaluable energy towards problems that give you a strong sense of purpose with unshakeable tenacity and determination, for there’s no limit to what one can achieve.”


Deepening Social Bonds Through Gaming: Kaho Abe’s Journey from Designing Fashionable Tech to Innovative Games

Kaho Abe ● Game Designer ● NYU Game Innovation Lab

Kaho Abe ● Game Designer ● NYU Game Innovation Lab

When you picture a gamer, you’d be forgiven for imagining some of the least flattering stereotypes that abound in pop culture, like the basement-dwelling troll screaming obscenities into a headset. But that’s not the audience Kaho Abe thinks of.

“The whole ‘boys play video games’ stereotype is so weird to me. A lot of women I know, including women who are older than me, play games — my grandmother played games with each child and grandchild in the family, and I used to play video games all night with some of my aunts.”

For Kaho, playing games ran in the family.

“Growing up, my parents were really into playing games; they were so enthusiastic about taking us to arcades or pachinko parlors. As foreigners (from Japan), they didn’t have a big community in the US, so for our family games were an important outlet for leisure time. And that social aspect of games is super important to me.”

As a child, Kaho was also interested in technology, modifying electronics and learning how to code in elementary school with the educational programming language, Logo. Later, she studied fashion design in college, and continued to take programming classes. In graduate school, she pursued an MFA in Design and Technology at Parsons School of Design. There, she focused on user-centered design and interaction design, learning about circuits and how to build interfaces and utilize sensors. At one point, she took a game design class.

“That was the most amazing experience of my two years there. Game design satisfies my brain in so many ways.”

She saw parallels between what had drawn her to fashion design and what was increasingly attracting her to game design.

“Fashion design is creative, about understanding proportions and colors but also about observing people: what are they excited about? How do they dress? People use fashion to communicate with each other. There’s that social aspect of fashion. I saw parallels between that and the different identities people get when they play games: like [in the context of a game] suddenly the person who you think is shy and reserved is so aggressive. It was this thing that was creative, intuitive, but also logical and structured. I loved that combination.”

In 2005, Kaho finished her degree program, focusing on wearable technology. But ultimately, she knew that she wanted to move away from fashion and towards game design. The expertise in wearable technology that she had developed to apply to fashion design became useful as she explored designing custom controllers for games. Although many people are used to playing games with a mouse, gamepad, or maybe a joystick, game controllers can run the gamut from steering wheels to guitars. Kaho started designing wearable controllers.

“Custom controllers lead to novel experiences. Wearable stuff is interesting because it allows you to play the game through the body. You become the character, your movements move the avatar, and you can feel a more immediate connection.”

In her 2016 game, Hotaru, cooperating players wearing a gauntlet use gestures to accumulate lightning to fight an invisible enemy. Her 2011 game, “Hit Me!” invites two hard hat-wearing players to bop buttons on the top of the other player’s head. When you successfully hit the button, a photograph is taken on the wireless camera perched on each hat. Then, the photographs are evaluated by judges and extra points are assigned for photo quality. The game’s overview video shows people playing the game, all flailing arms and million-watt smiles. That joy and social connection is what Kaho looks for in gameplay.

“I usually show my games at public events; people know they’re going to be playing with other people. I make so many multiplayer games because it’s the relationship between the players that I think is most fun. A lot of times the people who play already know each other, and a shift in their relationship comes out when they play a game together, in how they feel about each other. The game lets their relationship exist in a different space. That’s what is so beautiful about games: they create that opportunity for people to bond with each other in different ways.”

She points to Katherine Isbister’s work on the emotional side of human-computer interaction (HCI). Isbister took photos before and after people played a cooperative game involving hand-holding. In the after photos, you see people’s arms around each other.

Warm and fuzzy feelings and deepened social bonds are optimal outcomes, but they’re not the only ones possible. Kaho is interested in the behavior she can’t always predict or design. Game designers use the term “emergent behavior” to describe all the behaviors — from harmless side conversations to toxic trash talking — that exist on top of the game, behaviors that designers maybe don’t intend. Thinking deeply about emergent behavior makes Kaho realistic about the limits of what can be planned through technology, and what requires other forms of intervention.

“Technology is not the only way I design gameplay. There’s also when I say something like ‘you can’t hurt each other’ before people start playing. That’s not something that’s embedded programmatically, but that link between analog and digital elements is key.”

It makes sense that someone who started her career designing physical objects for the real world in the fashion industry would pay careful attention to analog elements. Indeed, Kaho credits her unusual path to game design with many of the ideas she’s been able to make use of today.

“A lot of people follow the beaten path. It’s important find a stable career of course, but I always think that if people looked at what I studied it would look as though I dabbled, when in reality it makes a tremendous amount of sense to me. I’ve used everything I’ve studied.”

Kaho’s advice to anyone thinking about what they want to do is to do some introspection on what projects and industries light your creative and intellectual spark.

“The state of your brain, the happiness of your brain, is super important. Games stimulated all the sides of my brain. Find the path that stimulates your brain the most. Whatever that means: trying things out, challenging yourself in ways you wouldn’t have in the past — deliberately seek that out.”

Engineering Breath: How Dr. Maria Artunduaga is Saving Lives with Respiratory Technology

Maria Artunduaga, MD, MPH, MTM ● Founder and CEO ● Respira Labs

Maria Artunduaga, MD, MPH, MTM ● Founder and CEO ● Respira Labs

When I spoke with Dr. Maria Artunduaga, she was excitedly out of breath, having just received word that she was awarded an NSF grant to help fund research involved with the company she started, Respira Labs. She is developing a wearable device that uses low cost, off the shelf technology (including a patient’s own cell phone) to help patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) monitor lung function in order to identify flare-ups before they happen. A flare-up in COPD is like a heart attack in the lungs. It causes permanent damage to lung tissue and increases the risk of fatality. If a patient is able to get an alert from their cell phone that air is trapped in their lungs, indicating a potential flare-up, they can take the appropriate preventative measures (which might include using a different inhaler, starting breathing exercises, taking antibiotics/steroids, or increasing their oxygen).

Dr. Artunduaga didn’t start out as an engineer. She has a medical doctorate from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Colombia. After working in emergency medicine she received a postdoctoral research position at Harvard University to study genetics. Her journey to becoming an engineer began when she faced discrimination, both for being a woman and being Latina, during a plastic surgery residency at the University of Chicago Medicine. She left clinical medicine and began to pursue an idea to use technology to help patients with respiratory problems, an area of medicine that hadn’t seen any major technological advances in a half a century. The idea began years earlier with the loss of Dr. Artunduaga’s grandmother to COPD. Her abuela (grandmother in Spanish) wanted to remain independent and passed away due to damage from a respiratory attack (exacerbation in medical terms). It’s difficult for COPD patients to tell the difference between symptoms from non life-threatening causes and those caused by worsening lung function that could lead to an exacerbation. If there had been a way for her abuela or family members to receive notice that her lung function was changing, her life could have been prolonged.

Dr. Artunduaga’s abuela was in her mind one day while talking to another doctor about how flare-ups are caused by air that gets trapped in the lungs of patients with COPD. Measuring the air in the lungs is a challenge. Home monitoring systems that measure blood oxygen levels are insufficient and CT scans are expensive, inconvenient, and dangerous to use frequently on a patient due to radiation. She remembered a lesson in her high school physics class where the teacher described how light changes when it passes through different substances. She wondered if sound would do the same. She began to do research and contact friends with engineering degrees to help her with some of the details. The result was a prototype. 

“Our device will replace inferior home lung function monitoring technologies with a wearable device that accurately predicts the onset of acute respiratory attacks. It continuously measures lung resonance, any change in its baseline, caused by trapped air in the lungs, and signals an impending attack.”

Dr. Artunduaga now has two additional degrees, a Master of Translational Medicine (MTM) from UC Berkeley and UCSF, and a Master of Public Health (MPH) from the University of Washington. She is working to build her company and secure funding to vet the product through rigorous research and clinical studies before bringing it to market. Always a doctor, the well-being of the patient is her first priority. Dr. Artunduaga embraces the challenges and hardships she faced because they led her on a path she would never have known existed. Her advice to others is to get comfortable facing down your fears and taking risks. Forget trying to achieve perfection and embrace your mistakes and failures as learning opportunities and incentives to keep trying. 

“Nothing matches the empowering feeling of pushing yourself to grow, to show yourself and others that you accomplished something against all the odds.”


Maria Artunduaga received a 2009-10 AAUW International Fellowship that funded her postdoctoral research at Harvard University. Her story is told in partnership with AAUW, which has a long history of opening doors for women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), from the classroom to Capitol Hill.

Building Technology for Impact: How Kishau Rogers’ Passion for Technology Starts with Problem-Solving

Kishau Rogers ● Founder ● Time Study

Kishau Rogers ● Founder ● Time Study

For Kishau Rogers, a love of technology starts with understanding the problems it can enable her to solve.

“I like the impact. I need technology to have some meaning behind the use.”

Drawn to the field of computer science while a college student at Virginia Commonwealth University, Kishau took her first job as a programmer when she was a junior in college and has been building software ever since.

“I worked primarily in the research, health, and social service space, using tech to create solutions to real-world problems. Being in that field allowed me to see the impact of the technology.”

She started her first company in the early 2000s, Websmith, to build custom software for other companies. Kishau ran Websmith for almost 15 years, designing software for numerous Fortune 500 companies. Her newest venture is a company called Time Study, a startup she founded in 2017 that uses machine learning and mobile technologies to help hospitals understand how employees spend their time at work.

“Our mission is to eliminate timesheets. There’s complexity in the healthcare space around how they collect data; it’s different from standard timesheets, because there’s different levels of stakeholders that want to know different things. Our thesis is that there’s enough data to automatically tell a story of how people are spending their time, using mobile technologies, machine learning, and data science, and categorize unstructured data in a language stakeholders can understand.”

She says that the same interest in problem-solving and impact that she found in computer science is what draws her to entrepreneurship.

“I like the idea of understanding a problem and its lifecycle completely. Studying CS, thinking about structuring solutions to problems really appealed to me, more than just hacking away at the code and creating things for the sake of it; ‘Hello world’ doesn’t do anything. Health and social services make it clear why the tech is needed, and it’s also very outcomes-driven, meaning that the conversations usually start with a vision and what impact do we want to see, and then you sort of reverse engineer it and determine whether tech can have a role in that.

Her guidance to others thinking of entering STEM fields is to identify problems they want to solve and then learn new skills with solutions to that problem in mind.

“I mentor a lot of people and I tell them to think more about the outcomes of what you’re doing, and less about the process. Sometimes we dive in with a vague concept of ‘learning to code.’ Figure out your reason for it. Think of a problem you’re interested in solving, then learn for the purpose of using the tool so that you can create a solution that you’re going to actually use. I find that a lot of people learn better when they understand why they need to know, when they feel they need to know it in order to solve the problem. Sometimes you want to learn a thing and your reason may not be the same as the person next to you. Someone may want to learn to code because it’s fascinating for them to see the function and framework. Someone else may want to learn to code for economic empowerment, so they can earn more money in their career and have more promotion opportunities. All these reasons are great reasons.”

Her desire to solve problems in healthcare and social services also led her to join the board of a technology nonprofit called Think of Us, a nonprofit building tech tools to help youth transitioning out of foster care.

Kishau’s guidance to young people considering computer science should be encouraging to anyone who wonders if they have enough experience, resources, or interest in coding for coding’s sake.

“I didn’t actually own a computer when I picked CS as my major. Computers were really expensive back then. My parents couldn’t afford to get me a computer in my dorm room. I would suggest surveying your resources: what are the environments that you can learn best in? A home office, a library, a coworking space, or a computer lab in your school.”

She is deeply passionate about mentorship, pointing out that we need to adopt a more expansive view of what it means.

“Mentorship for me is a two-way relationship. We use the term ‘mentor’ and ‘mentee’ and that implies the mentor can’t learn something from the mentee. You get mentorship where you find it, so if you ask someone for coffee, and you want to speak to them about your career, start by asking for feedback, keep in contact with the people you reach out to, and over time you build a relationship that becomes a mentor/mentee relationship. Start small and keep in contact with the people you consider mentors so that you can know about opportunities in the field, because that’s really where most of the magic happens, is through relationships.”

For Kishau, the combination of seeking and providing mentorship, identifying available resources, and learning through problem-solving have been recipes for fulfillment and creativity in computer science.

Sky-High Dreams: Wendy Okolo's Journey in Aerospace Engineering

Wendy Okolo ● Aerospace Engineering Researcher ● NASA Ames Research Center

Wendy Okolo ● Aerospace Engineering Researcher ● NASA Ames Research Center

For Wendy Okolo, a love for science ran in the family.

“My big sister is a medical doctor. Growing up, she would come home and teach me the things she learned in school. My sister was very instrumental in my decision to pursue a STEM career/field. And when you have Nigerian parents, they plant the idea in your head that you’re going to be an engineer or a doctor or something like that. At three or four years old, I already knew I wanted to be an engineer.”

Figuring out what kind of engineer to be, though, would prove to be a lengthier process. After being initially tugged between aerospace, mechanical, and chemical engineering, she found herself attracted most strongly to aerospace engineering in college.

“I’m still fascinated with it to today. I’m fascinated by planes I see going overhead. After my undergraduate degree I went on to get a PhD in aerospace engineering as well. In the PhD program you have to make an original contribution to your field. As a result of that, I fell in love with research.You get to ask questions that no one else had answered, apply techniques to things in an unconventional manner, and think outside of the box.”

Her dissertation research focused on making flights more efficient so that airplanes can run using less fuel. She drew inspiration from observations in nature, where birds fly in optimal, V-shaped formations. After finishing her PhD, she started working at the NASA Ames Research Center. She describes the environment as constantly intellectually stimulating.

“Staying a lifelong learner is easy at a place like NASA. There are so many exciting things happening, so many things you can do. I’ve never been bored once.”

She leads two different projects, one on the safe and seamless integration of unmanned aerial vehicles in national airspace, and another to enable precision landing for aircraft (particularly deployable spacecraft).

To those who might want to follow in her footsteps, Wendy advises not cutting corners when it comes to building knowledge.

“You really have to do your homework, do your due diligence. For instance, math builds on itself, so if you don’t understand a concept in math or a particular theory, go a step back and understand that. If you don’t understand that, go back another step. Keep going back until you have the base, the foundation, and then go a step further. My advice is to go one step back and utilize your resources. Go to your library, hunker down, and do the work.”

And it’s important to remember that you don’t have to look or act a certain way to be able to “do the work” of engineering, Wendy says.

“There is no mold that an engineer is supposed to fit into. I like makeup, I like to wear dresses, there’s no ‘oh because of this I can’t look like that,’ or because I like this, I can’t like that. You can like what you want. Sometimes people think that to be an engineer you have to be this kind of person who likes toy cars or likes breaking things apart, but that’s not true. I’m not that kind of person. I’m not into breaking things apart. I like to ask questions. I’m very curious about a lot of things: history, science, how the brain works, architecture, feminism, civil rights. I don’t like to take cars apart and get dirty. But I’m an aerospace engineer leading two different teams on two different projects.”

Not only is Wendy boundlessly curious, but she also exemplifies a belief that everyone has something to learn and teach.

“Mentorship is a two-way street. Someone in middle school or high school could be mentoring their five-year-old cousins and learning from them too: you can give and share as much as you receive, no matter how old you are.”


From Microscale to the Sky: How Dr. Denise Wong’s Robots are Changing our Workforce

Dr. Denise Wong ● Robotics Engineer ● Exyn Technologies, Inc.

Dr. Denise Wong ● Robotics Engineer ● Exyn Technologies, Inc.

“As a kid, I always imagined myself being an engineer, it was just a matter of what kind of engineer I would choose to be!”

As a robotics engineer for Exyn Technologies, Inc., Dr. Denise Wong spends most days at work analyzing flight data from autonomous aerial robots. Exyn is utilizing robotics research to develop autonomous aerial robots for commercial applications. The robot that Dr. Wong works on at Exyn “is a quadrotor aerial robot equipped with a wide variety of sensors and a computer that allows the robot to fly autonomously, without a pilot, and maps new environments it has never flown in before.” The goal is to create a tool that can do tasks that are dangerous or impossible for humans, as well as unpleasant and monotonous tasks that humans would rather not do. For example, an autonomous aerial robot could explore areas of a mine that are inaccessible or unstable for people, perform inventory management in large warehouses, or monitor progress on large construction sites.

Inspired by her mother, a chemical engineer, Dr. Wong started her career in robotics on bit of a smaller scale, working with micro robots. She came to the U.S. from Hong Kong for college and first started studying robots as an undergraduate at Cornell University. She responded to an engineering email her sister forwarded looking for students to work on vibrating particle robots. She was encouraged to apply by the wording of the ad, targeting underrepresented students and students with no background in robotics. From this experience she learned how to design a robotic system as well as design and run experiments. This piqued her interest in research and robotics and she went on to receive graduate degrees in engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in the robotics laboratory of Dr. Vijay Kumar. She entitled her thesis: Actuation, Sensing and Control for Micro Bio Robots. She notes that “biology is the best model for finding super small organisms that are well designed for things we’d like robots to do.” Dr. Wong says that working with genetically engineered bacteria that respond to sensor input, such as light, felt like being inside a “science fiction story.”

Dr. Wong initially found it a challenge going from researching microscale robotics to developing aerial robotics, since microscale robots involve different physics than aerial robots. The coding done in research is different than writing commercial code that needs to be more stable and interact with code written by others. In addition, research is a more solitary endeavor and Dr. Wong is now enjoying being on a team at Exyn and having a support network of people all working toward the same goal. She has learned a lot from this experience including how willing colleagues are to help if you ask. She advises anyone thinking of changing careers — 

 “don’t overthink it! It’s never too late to try something new!”

There is so much about digital technology that Dr. Wong enjoys, such as being able to solve problems that couldn’t be solved before and discovering new information from the large quantities of data that digital technology enables us to collect and analyze. New types of sensors allow humans to “see” things impossible for humans alone. For anyone interested in robotics, she advises students to look to the Internet.

 “There’s a lot of open source hardware and software, such as Arduino, that you can get experience and try out in a low risk way some of the common tools in the industry. Get experience with tinkering.” 

Dr. Wong also notes that it is equally important to understand the human-user interface, i.e. “how will a non-technical human interact with the robot?”, as well as other computing topics such as networking. She hopes that many people will consider robotics as a career. “Robotics is a great field with many, many opportunities!”

Mapping the Future: How Olivia Horace is Digitizing Local Communities

Olivia Horace ● GIS Technician ● City of Columbus, GA

Olivia Horace ● GIS Technician ● City of Columbus, GA

When Olivia Horace started high school, she intended on becoming an explosives technician. While it’s hard to beat the appeal of blowing stuff up, an inspirational high school teacher helped her discover she had a talent for computer programming and she turned her interests to software engineering. She found the world of programming purely by chance. Oliva was supposed to be in a wood working class, but was placed into a computer science class instead. At first she hated it, but once she realized they weren’t going to let her out of the class, she started paying more attention and found that she really enjoyed the challenge. The teacher encouraged students to solve problems on their own and Olivia quickly built the skills that allowed her to skip the first required programming class when she enrolled at Columbus State University.

Olivia’s most memorable project in college was a game she created for her object-oriented design class. It was the first time she really struggled with a project and couldn’t immediately figure out a solution on her own. After visiting the instructor, she was frustrated to realize that she needed to redo most of her work. However, she persisted, recreated the project, and did well on her final presentation. The accomplishment of running into concepts she couldn’t grasp, getting help with understanding, and then being able to successfully implement a solution in a short period of time gave her the confidence to face future challenges. It’s also a great example of the importance of failure and persistence in the learning process.

After graduation, Olivia took a job with the city of Columbus, Georgia’s Consolidated Government as a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technician where she maintains and fixes existing systems. She works on digitizing unnamed streets such as parking lots and driveways as well as cemeteries. These are important because emergency responders, such as police, firefighters, and ambulance drivers, rely on these maps being as accurate as possible to provide services to the community. Future projects include digitizing maps from the 1960’s into the system and matching them with local geography.

While Olivia didn’t intend to pursue GIS, she is learning a ton and is proud of the work she’s doing. It’s not everywhere you get the opportunity to learn how to map the world. And that’s her biggest piece of advice for future engineers:

“Don’t be afraid try new things even if they don’t initially sound interesting. You might be surprised!”

For women going into technology she recommends,

“not to be intimidated and don’t let others run you over! Share your ideas. Even if one person ignores you, it doesn’t mean others will. And network, network, network. The more people you meet, the more opportunities you will have for new possibilities.”

Olivia’s next stop is as a software engineer for company in Atlanta. Who knows where life will take her after that?

Changing the Nature of Engineering Education: Lynn Andrea Stein Is Leading Conversations About Identity and STEM

Lynn Andrea Stein ● Professor of Computer and Cognitive Science ● Olin College

Lynn Andrea Stein ● Professor of Computer and Cognitive Science ● Olin College

When asked, “What have you built that you’re most proud of?” Lynn Andrea Stein has a simple answer: Olin. After a decade on the MIT faculty, she joined the founding faculty of Olin College, a Boston-area residential undergraduate engineering college.

“Olin was created to change the nature of engineering education, as called for by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), National Science Foundation (NSF), and industry panels. In particular, Olin augments our students’ technical education with teamwork, communication, leadership, and understandings understandings of business as well as human context and communication. These are skills that traditional engineering education has not always done a good job of teaching.”

It also differs from many other schools of engineering because of its demographics: its student body has consistently been gender-balanced.

“Though it is gender-balanced, we quickly discovered that Olin is still part of the world and all of the social shaping that we experience. So we created the Gender and Engineering Co-Curricular Activity, now renamed Identity and Engineering: a group and regular conversation that helped all of us understand how the society we live in shapes our experiences. I think that framing has been incredibly helpful for generations of Olin students. And we have created programming that we’ve taken on the road to help people have conversations about how expectations and small differences can create a culture and a climate that is not experienced equally by everyone. From semester to semester who is in the room changes; I think pretty much everyone who comes experiences it as cathartic.”

In her own case, Stein learned early on that the sky was the limit from seeing the example of her mother, a practicing physician.

“I’ve been fortunate to have had lots of people who mentored me in various ways. I almost always found that I had to take different parts of mentorship from different people. Having multiple mentors at all times was really important. Because one person would be able to help me figure out my way through one thing and then have blind spots that another mentor could help me with.”

In particular, she cites the value of a peer community of women she found the first time she took a sabbatical, joining a cohort of 40 female fellows at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

“It was the first time in my professional career that I found myself in a group of women exclusively — all of whom were working on significant scholarly creative or other kinds of work, forming a community, learning to speak across disciplines, and giving me a sense of the power of being in an all female context. It was a very different kind of environment from the ones I had been in until then.”

Her positive experience with this community also catalyzed deeper thinking about the ways certain spaces restrict or enable our expression of our multiplex identities.

“They reminded me that while we talk a lot about the challenge of being a woman in tech, we don’t necessarily talk about the challenge of being a technologist among women. Many of us have the experience of walking into a tech space and feeling that in order to navigate that space successfully, we need to leave a part of who we are behind. We’re working to change that, we want to be able to bring our whole selves into the tech space. That sentence probably isn’t a surprise to any woman who has experienced tech spaces — we have a conversation about that. Sometimes, when I walk into a space full of women, I also feel that in order to be a good participant and successful in that community, I have to leave some of the tech parts of myself behind. We don’t talk about that. We need to start that conversation too. The [Radcliffe fellows group] was a group who accepted me as the whole person I amwas, in a way that had sometimes felt difficult — either being the woman I was or being the tech geek that I also am.”

Creating spaces where people are able to bring their “whole selves” is not only a passion for Stein in her pedagogical work but also the recommendation she gives to young women:

“Find a way to be yourself that’s true to who you are and that enables you to be yourself. It’s easy to believe there’s one way you’re supposed to be. If we have to reshape ourselves to be what the world expects of us, then we’re depriving the world of the gift of who we actually are.”


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Written by Adora Svitak, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. These stories are proudly told in partnership with AnitaB.org in a joint effort to showcase inspiring and diverse women in STEM at the 2019 ASU/GSV Summit.

Inspiring the Next Generation of Innovators

Ruthe Farmer is Chief Evangelist at CSforALL

Ruthe Farmer is Chief Evangelist at CSforALL

“This girl gang of tech women will revolutionize the tech industry from the inside out.”

Ruther Farmer’s proudest accomplishment is launching Aspirations in Computing, a talent development program for young women that identifies participants in high school and then supports them through college graduation.

“That community now numbers more than 12,000 girls, and I continue to have a relationship with them. And now I’m in a position where not only am I helping to shine a light on them and put them in front of people and opportunities, but they are doing that for each other.”

She looks forward to the day when truly diverse teams build technology, because “we’re going to solve a much broader set of problems.”

“People tend to address things that are relevant to them; you’re going to innovate to solve problems that others like you are having, and dismiss other things as ‘less relevant.’ That’s why we haven’t seen as much innovation in women’s health, things like bras and breast pumps and menstruation tools.”

She is also optimistic about the ways increased female participation in STEM fields will impact organizational cultures.

“Having watched now 12,000 girls progress through high school and college and into the workforce, the way that they interact with each other is really inspiring. I’ve seen young women help each other on applications for a scholarship they’re all competing for. It’s ‘coopetition’ — cooperation and competition.”

Ruthe advises young women that not every decision is make-or-break: “I see young women getting really caught up in ‘oh, I have to get the right internship’ or ‘the right college,’ but you’re going to have many opportunities to make choices that will have an impact on your life. Take it in stride and keep moving.” She also cautions against comparing yourself to wunderkinds:

“In our society there can be this obsession with exceptionalism, and it sets people up to feel like they’re failing when they’re actually doing really well. You don’t have to be better than everyone else to be OK.”


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Written by Adora Svitak, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. These stories are proudly told in partnership with AnitaB.org in a joint effort to showcase inspiring and diverse women in STEM at the 2019 ASU/GSV Summit.

Teaching Teachers: How Harvey Mudd professor Colleen Lewis shares CS teaching tips for inclusivity with educators around the world

Colleen Lewis ● McGregor-Girand Associate Professor of Computer Science ● Harvey Mudd College

Colleen Lewis ● McGregor-Girand Associate Professor of Computer Science ● Harvey Mudd College

Colleen Lewis’s career in STEM began as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, when she met a charismatic friend in a physics class.

“She was going to be a computer science major. We started studying together, and she said to me, ‘Colleen, next semester I’m taking this CS class, take it with me? I said no that’s only for smart people, obviously not for me.’ But she is the most stubborn person that I know, so she got me into it kicking and screaming. I ended up loving the content of that first semester.”

The next semester Colleen decided to take another computer science class, without this friend and with decidedly less stellar results. She had to drop the class to avoid failing the class, and when she took it the next semester, she got 5/25 on her first exam.

“At that point, my friends might have thought, ‘maybe you’re not cut out for this.’ But later I did my PhD at Berkeley and taught that data structures class three times. Things can take time to learn, and that’s okay. We have to be really careful about the advice we give ourselves and our friends — even in cases like mine where it seemed that CS obviously wasn’t for me.”

As the McGregor-Girand Associate Professor of computer science at Harvey Mudd College, Colleen’s memories of her early experiences as a beginner in CS help inform her current work on CS education and reducing bias. Her project CSTeachingTips.org is a resource for educators at all levels who teach computer science hoping to create inclusive learning environments.

“Some tips for department inclusivity would be to listen to students, design an intro course that is welcoming regardless of students’ level of prior CS exposure, and to monitor performance patterns, looking for canaries in the coal mine.”

The CS Teaching Tips website includes printable tip sheets on subjects like encouraging help seeking, pair programming, lecturing, and more, with videos and example language by every tip to help guide educators. The tip sheet on department inclusivity reads,

“Have experienced and effective educators teach the introductory courses. This can lead to students finding the department welcoming and supportive. To address differences in preparation, you can encourage students with prior CS experience to skip the first course or offering multiple introductory courses. In addition to providing curriculum customized to their level of experience, students might be less intimidated if everyone in the classroom shares their background.”

For many educators who are committed to prioritizing diversity but unsure of exactly how to make that a reality, the website provides concrete and actionable steps that can be implemented right away.

At some schools, the tips are already visible in action. Colleen is proud of the way Harvey Mudd has fostered student community, showed students the breadth of CS as a discipline, optimized the introductory course, and encouraged students to seek help. She says that about half of her students and faculty colleagues identify as women. This is important for creating a diverse community and set of role models. She also speaks about how recognizing sexism must go part and parcel with recognizing interlinked forms of oppression.

“I think it’s important that computer scientists understand how the world works, including systems of oppression like sexism and racism. As a white woman, I think it is my responsibility to push back against the tendency for some ‘diversity and inclusion’ efforts to focus exclusively on White women. There is a tendency to treat white women as the norm and forget that sexism and racism are deeply interconnected.”

Her advice for young women who might want to follow in her footsteps comes from her time slogging through that first data structures class in Berkeley.

“Debug the process. The first time I took data structures, it didn’t go well. I would go to the lab, but wouldn’t know what to do, and I wouldn’t ask for help. Turns out that’s not a great way to learn. A lot of it was pushing through the anxiety of not knowing.”

Ultimately, Colleen’s advice to “debug the process” and be okay with uncertainty isn’t just good advice for studying CS — it’s good advice for life.


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Written by Adora Svitak, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. These stories are proudly told in partnership with AnitaB.org in a joint effort to showcase the inspiring women in STEM at the 2019 ASU/GSV Summit.

Creating Diverse Pathways into Tech

Brenda Wilkerson is the President and CEO of AnitaB.org

Brenda Wilkerson is the President and CEO of AnitaB.org

“I had no exposure to CS in high school and was a pre-med major in college.”

Brenda’s CS journey began by accident. But two programming classes sent her down a different path, and she entered the corporate world as a programmer at Sears. She later became an adjunct professor, teaching continuing education classes to students in a Chicago community college.

“In continuing education, you find the whole gamut of people — from people who have BAs and MAs and are coming back, people 18 to 80 years old exploring tech for the first time. I wanted to become a bridge for those people who wanted to learn tech skills to change their lives.”

After running the division for a decade, she started creating apps for small businesses, and then pioneered CS education classes in Chicago public schools at a time when CS was in only 10 out of 200 high schools. An important part of her work was advocating for CS to be accessible to students outside of the region’s most affluent schools.

“I’m excited about the impact that we can have on an industry that impacts everything in our lives,” she said. She’s passionate about welcoming people from all backgrounds to technology.

“It’s not just for all of us who have gone through the traditional pathways, but those of us who get in through all pathways. Whether you are a student considering it, or whether it is your 4th or 5th career. I’m excited to change the dynamic of who gets to address problems. We have the opportunity to change the story for global problems — from domestic violence to clean water access.”

We can only innovate as far as we push ourselves out of traditional, narrowly defined sites of prestige, though; as she says, “let’s stop hanging out in the same 8 universities.”


Written by Adora Svitak, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. These stories are proudly told in partnership with AnitaB.org in a joint effort to showcase the inspiring women in STEM at the 2019 ASU/GSV Summit.

Dr. Aygul Zagidullina’s Hope for the Future

Dr. Aygul Zagidullina ● Google Developer Expert for Google Assistant, Technology Speaker and Women in Technology Advocate

Dr. Aygul Zagidullina ● Google Developer Expert for Google Assistant, Technology Speaker and Women in Technology Advocate

“Technology is so powerful, that we can use it to make the world a much better place.”

For Dr. Aygul Zagidullina, technology has always been a part of her life. Her first major coding project was the official website for her high school. From there she and her classmates won a citywide competition which inspired her to keep learning more about coding. She studied quantum computing in university, using computer programming to model chemical reactions and earn her PhD.

After her scientific research at the University of Stuttgart, Dr. Zagidullina found herself on a new path working in marketing for Google in Germany where she had a chance to work with some truly top-notch people and brands like Eurovision Song Contest, Fools Garden and many others. She currently is based in London and develops apps for the Google Assistant, Dr. Zagidullina was recently recognized by Google as a Google Developer Expert (GDE) for her contribution to the global developer community. 

She is most proud of the Sunscreen Check app she wrote. Getting ready to deliver a conference keynote on a hot day in Dubai, she asked Google Assistant for the UV index and sun protection recommendations. When Google Assistant had nothing to offer, she did what engineers do when they find something missing, she built it! Sunscreen Check helps users “stay safe under the sun, avoid sunburn, and reduce the risk of cancer by choosing the right sun protection for your current location.” Sunscreen Check is used by thousands around the world and was officially recognized by Google with a “Keeping Users Engaged” milestone pin. This app is a meaningful example of how technology can be used to improve people’s lives.

In addition to creating new apps, Dr. Zagidullina blogs, organizes technology events, and speaks at conferences all over the world (18 countries and counting). She believes nothing is more valuable than human connection. She wants to break the stereotypes people have about “tech people” and increase accessibility and participation in using technology to solve problems. 

Dr. Zagidullina was named as one of the NEXT 100 Top Influencers of the European Digital Industry in 2013. One of her upcoming projects is running a free five-day workshop on programming for the Google Assistant in London as part of her Google Developer Group efforts.

In the future, Dr. Zagidullina sees great things for the tech industry and hopes that more people are drawn to it for passion rather than monetary gain. There is such potential in developing innovative technologies, such as sensor networks and AI, to make life improvements, especially in health and education.

To overcome challenges, Dr. Zagidullina recommends surrounding yourself with positive people, remembering why you started, and being persistent. 

She advises women not to be discouraged by the low numbers of women in tech; “be excited to be a groundbreaker. Be a part of positive change and make it your mission to help break stereotypes.”

She's Got Game(s): How Asema Hassan channeled her passion for art into creating video games that fight dementia

Asema Hassan ● VR Programmer ● DZNE

Asema Hassan ● VR Programmer ● DZNE

Asema Hassan is addicted to developing video games. She has channeled an early interest in art into a career creating and programming video games. Asema has a particular passion for games that can change the world for the better; games that can be used to improve education, promote personal growth, and build communities. Asema had her first full time job as a software engineer at a game studio while completing a Master’s Degree in Computer Science at COMSATS Islamabad. She developed over 35 educational games before moving to Germany to complete another Master’s in Digital Engineering at Otto von Guericke University, specializing in Artificial Intelligence. She now works as a Virtual Reality, VR, programmer for DZNE, the German Center for Neurodegenerative diseases, developing simulations and games to fight Alzheimer and dementia. Asema is especially excited about how advances in VR can increase the power and influence of games.

Asema doesn’t just create games, she is also an advocate in the game development community. She volunteers at gaming conferences and co-founded the International Game Developers’ Association (IGDA) Pakistan in 2018 to help build a community network for game developers in Pakistan. Asema is currently an Advisor and International Representative of IGDA Pakistan and actively mentors game developers in the community to create a viable career path in games and to help improve the quality of game production. She is also working with Pakistani Women in Computing (PWiC) to establish a PWiC Europe — Berlin Chapter.

Asema started her education in a school founded by her parents to educate the children in their village in Azad Kashmir, Pakistan. They had lost their jobs in Kuwait after the first Gulf-War (1990–1991) and had returned home. Asema’s experience in the Jhelum Valley Public School watching first hand her parent’s passion for education, has been a constant motivation to always strive to learn and accomplish more. When she finishes one project, she is ready to move on to another. The Jhelum Valley public school has now been operating for more than 20 years and currently serves more than 350 students ages 5–16. Although the students are in a rural area where electricity and Internet access is scarce, Asema dreams someday of bringing gamification to the school to help improve student outcomes.

Asema has faced her share of challenges, but always looks to the positive. She encourages others to try to do the same.

“Never give up, no matter how hard the situation gets, keep moving forward. Enjoy every step of your journey towards a goal. But remember once, you have reached a goal you will look for another one. It’s a natural human tendency to evolve and grow with time and circumstances.”

Asema is optimistic that more women in tech will help improve the culture in ways that improve circumstances for everyone. Such as opportunities for part time work, remote/flexible work schedules, and the recognition that working too much is counterproductive. “Crunch time can be avoided by planning ahead!”

For women interested in getting into games, Asema advises not to be afraid. There are lots of opportunities and women already in the gaming industry. Look for a mentor.

“It is tough for women, but you have to stay focused on what you want. Keep learning and keep improving yourself. Find someone to support and push you.”

The Technologists in the Studio: Nettrice Gaskins highlights the connections between communities, cultures, arts, and STEM

Nettrice Gaskins ● Educator, Artist and Current Program Manager ● Fab Foundation

Nettrice Gaskins ● Educator, Artist and Current Program Manager ● Fab Foundation

Nettrice Gaskins’ technology journey began in a seemingly unlikely place: an arts high school in Louisville, KY.

“I was on a visual arts track. During my junior year, a teacher who taught pottery decided she wanted to teach computer graphics. So she recruited students in their senior year who needed to take an elective. Initially, I was not interested in computer graphics, but she opened up a new area of interest for me, and that work is what got me into college.”

Nettrice’s winning computer graphics portfolio entry in the Pratt Institute National Talent Search led to her major in Computer Graphics as a college student; in the early 90s, it was among the first Computer Graphics degree programs in the country.

“A lot of the things that we were learning were at the cutting edge. What we now take for granted because of Pixar and Disney and animation was at that time very experimental.”

While at school, Nettrice joined a collective with students from numerous other disciplines.

“I didn’t really hang out with the computer graphics kids. I hung out with fashion folks and engineering students — the collective was broader than what I majored in. I think that had an impact on the work I was doing. We would hang out and listen to the same music; some of them were DJs, and there was a production element of the collective that included making music using the college radio station’s equipment — producing demo tapes and doing parties in Manhattan. People took on entrepreneurial projects in addition to what we were doing on campus.”

The creative collective of fellow students at Pratt led her to an interest in amplifying voices that are often missing in the general public’s notion of “technology.”

“There are voices that we think are far away from technology, when that’s not the case — it’s just that the way they engage with tech is far from what we conceive of as the mainstream. The people in the studio, making music, wouldn’t think of themselves as ‘technologists.’ It’s not introduced that way in the media. When I was at Georgia Tech and minoring in cognitive studies, I didn’t think of myself as a scientist. I remember a professor telling me, ‘Nettrice, you are a scientist. You are doing scientific things.’ There are a lot of similar examples of artists and practitioners in different cultures on the cutting edge of STEM, but no one’s attributing them to STEM or STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts, and math] in any way when they are very much a part of that.”

She cites numerous examples, like lowrider culture, where people re-engineer cars based on a desired aesthetic, and musical production in hip-hop, where technological processes are required to use machines to break music apart, sample, and layer sounds.

“In hip-hop it’s called cutting and scratching. People at MIT Media Lab took that idea of the DJs ‘scratching’ and created Scratch [a block-based visual programming language]. Now kids all over the world use Scratch, but no one makes the connections back to DJ’ing, so DJs don’t even realize that they’re computational and that they’re using scientific methods. But they are. Calling that to the forefront is what I’m interested in.”

Later she encountered graffiti artists who used mathematical concepts to plot out murals. Nettrice discovered that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Dr. Ron Eglash had developed a tool called Graffiti Grapher. The tool allows users to create graffiti images on a computer using geometric concepts. It’s an example of a Culturally Situated Design Tool (CSDT) — a tool that allows students to learn math and computing principles through cultural arts that may already be relevant and familiar in their lives.

“We used Graffiti Grapher during a STEM Arts residency in New Mexico working with high school students in Albuquerque — kids who were exposed to graffiti every day. We were able to make a connection, not just to graffiti but to other culturally relevant things, including ancient indigenous designs on pottery. Most of these students were not really artists or focused on STEM areas, but because of the tools and content, they were quickly able to pick up on these concepts.”

Cultural symbology can inform more effective pedagogy for teaching STEM. It can also help educational programs retain students who are searching for meaning in their work. Nettrice shared the story of an email she received from a Nigerian-American recent bioengineering graduate who was feeling disillusioned about her field, and their subsequent conversation.

“Then one day I got a box and when I opened the box, I saw these Nigerian head wraps or ‘Gele’ that she had connected to STEM concepts — taking her own culture and merging it with what she had learned in school. She had some new ideas about what she could do as a graduate student. It was as simple as making that connection, saying ‘there is something embedded in you, something that is common to you, that you can bring with you into your work.”

Reminding students that their personal histories, intergenerational knowledge, and cultural heritage can all play a role in the work they do is an empowering message that Nettrice shares frequently.

“I see all my students as having their own knowledge systems and assets. Every single student comes with something. Kids are not empty vessels. They come to the table with something valuable from a community and a culture. The more you can help them make that bridge between what they have and what they want to do, the more engaged they will be, and the longer they can stick with it. We have to make that connection.”

Rebel with Code and a Cause

Victoria Concepción Chávez ● Grad Student (Master’s Candidate, Urban Education Policy) and Research Intern at CS4RI (Computer Science for Rhode Island)

Victoria Concepción Chávez ● Grad Student (Master’s Candidate, Urban Education Policy) and Research Intern at CS4RI (Computer Science for Rhode Island)

Victoria Chávez’s teenage rebellion was taking computer science as an elective in high school. Her mother and grandmother had immigrated from Guatemala to Chicago for a better life for Victoria and had no idea what computer science was, but they noticed that people working with computers on television did not look like Victoria. They were hoping she might become a doctor. But Victoria was “blown away by all the cool things [she] could do through programming and by the sequential thinking and amazing problem solving it entailed. As frustrating as debugging was, it was the most rewarding academic challenge [she] had ever encountered.” 

Despite her family’s trepidation about her newfound passion, Victoria was hooked. When her teacher unassigned a complex hangman game as “too hard” for the students, Victoria kept at working at it for months until she got her code to work. She remembers being so happy that she cried. Victoria advocates that persistence and patience in problem solving are essential.

Victoria shares a deep feeling of responsibility to help others. At her first Hackathon, she developed an SMS-based app called SNAPy that would tell users which stores accept food stamps. The idea came from her own experiences growing up. 

Her recent work continues her desire to make a positive difference. Victoria is a research intern at Computer Science for Rhode Island (CS4RI) while working on a master’s degree in Urban Education Policy at Brown University. She is looking at ways to make computer science, as well as education technologies, more accessible to students with disabilities, including ways to integrate universal design into CS curriculum. She has found that a lack of awareness of different forms of disabilities, as well as a lack of resources, hinders this process.

Victoria has advice for future engineers: “Take care of yourself and find a support system. Hard work takes a toll on mental and physical health. You need to find people who have the same values and can help you get through the obstacles and struggles. You can help them too.”

Victoria feels lucky to have friends and mentors to help lift her spirits, remind her of goals, and give her permission to have a bad day or two. She also learned the value of making mistakes and learning from them. 

“You WILL make mistakes, learn from them and correct for the next time. No matter how much you know, there’s always something you don’t know. You have to be comfortable with that and with others calling you out on that and learning from it.”

Victoria is proud to be paving the way for future females in tech and encourages other women to do the same. One example is being an active member of NCWIT’s Technolochicas community, inspiring Latinas to create the future of tech.

“We need to get through the tunnel so we can help other women through the tunnel. If you have the mental and emotional bandwidth to get through it, it’s important to pave the way for others.” 

Her mother and grandmother still don’t understand what computer science is, but they love how happy it makes Victoria and all the wonderful opportunities it has brought her way.

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This story was written by Hillary Fleenor, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow, and told in partnership with NCWIT.

The Nature of Engineering: How Claire Janisch harnesses the power of nature, the world’s best builder

Claire Janisch ● Director Biomimicry South Africa ● Co-founder Biomimicry For Africa Foundation

Claire Janisch ● Director Biomimicry South Africa ● Co-founder Biomimicry For Africa Foundation

Claire Janisch’s journey to find her life’s passion began as an intern in a chemical plant during her undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She compares being in the plant to visiting a new, and strange land, like traveling to Mordor from the Lord of the Rings. Dismayed by the environmental destruction she observed that seemed embedded in most manufacturing processes, she felt certain that it did not have to be this way. She envisioned manufacturing processes that create useful things while nourishing the local ecosystem instead of destroying it. So, she enrolled in a master’s degree program in environmental process engineering, focusing on cleaning up polluting industries, and then worked on sustainable development projects in industry, agriculture, urban and commercial applications. Although she was doing important work, Claire still felt that something was missing from the manufacturing paradigm.

“It struck me that all most [of them] were doing was trying to slow down or minimize their negative impact on the environment. I wondered if there was an option for chemical engineering to leave a beneficial or regenerative environmental footprint.”

That’s when Claire discovered biomimicry. Biomimicry is “the practice of learning from and emulating nature to design sustainable products, processes and systems.” Nature already has created environmentally friendly solutions to engineering problems. Through biomimicry, humans can learn how reimagine modern society in ways that help to ensure a habitable planet for future generations. Claire is most proud of the work she is doing with BiomimicrySA, an organization she started in 2009, to bring experts in biomimicry technologies to South Africa to address pressing problems such as the current water crisis. One of these projects was in the top 10 for a European Green Tech award. Her team worked with John Todd Ecological Design and others to design a low cost, low tech wastewater treatment and stormwater management solution for a settlement near Cape Town.

“The project resulted in improved health and environment for the community as well as prevention of pollution of a downstream river that is used to irrigate important export crops from South Africa.”

Claire encourages women to consider engineering as a career with a mindset of helping to shift the field. Engineers take ideas and bring them into reality, but that process of creation can also lead to destruction. Claire believes her role as a woman in engineering has been to bring a feminine perspective of nurturing into a discipline that has been dominated historically by a lack of concern for environment impact. Women have a unique perspective.

“We need feminine perspectives in STEM, not just women who think like men, but women who think differently from men. We need the softness and nurturing, we need balance.” She points out that biomimicry itself is a wonderful example of that balance. “A spider web is strong and tough, but it is also nourishing because it can be eaten when it’s over.”

Claire advises future engineers to surround themselves with mentors to help get through challenges. And be open to finding mentors in unexpected places. Claire has found nature to be her biggest influence.

“I am lucky enough to have nature as my mentor and I am continuously inspired and amazed by the genius and wisdom in the way that organisms and ecosystems solve complex problems.”

Finding Superwomen: How supportive mentors and a love for art jumpstarted Becca Refford’s career

Becca Refford ● Web Developer ● Women in Tech Summit, TechGirlz

Becca Refford ● Web Developer ● Women in Tech Summit, TechGirlz

“I have this old busted-up computer. You want to take it apart and get to the guts?”

When Becca Refford heard those words from her aunt, Steph Alarcon, she had no idea that her childhood love of making would later help other young women launch their own STEM journeys. Becca’s aunt introduced her to an organization called TechGirlz, which provides free, hands-on workshops for middle school girls to help them “get their hands dirty” with all kinds of technology.

“We offer a little bit of everything. We offer plenty of programming workshops, but we also offer workshops in graphic design, virtual reality, security, robotics, smart textiles, the list goes on! The more that I started learning about TechGirlz, the more I started thinking, ‘wow I wish there was something like this for me when I was growing up.’ ”

As a student at a competitive high school, Becca encountered negative attitudes toward careers in creative fields, often being asked “what are you going to do with an art degree?” so she looked for alternative ways to do what she loved.

“The minute I found out that there was a path to creative pursuits using technology, I was sold. There’s no dichotomy between being creative and being in tech. If you’re into art or design, consider UI and UX, how people interact with technology or graphic design. In this day and age technology touches absolutely everything. I want to break down that misconception of ‘you need to have a math brain to do tech.’ ”

Becca knows this firsthand, because it was her work in marketing that initially led her to web design. After producing numerous graphics for TechGirlz, she decided that she could scrape together enough knowledge of the scripting language PHP to completely overhaul the website in 2016.

“TechGirlz was the first website that I ever launched by myself and took from start to finish. That got me really excited about web design, thinking ‘I could do this as a career.’ ”

Becca went on to design the website for the Women in Tech Summit. Her belief in her abilities to design websites from scratch took off because of support from other women.

“The TechGirlz founder, Tracey — she’s my Superwoman. She exemplifies what a super savvy business woman looks like: knowing your strengths, but also knowing exactly where to find a solid group of people to fill in those blanks for you. I watched her do that with hiring Karen [long-time Program Director, now Advisory Board member at TechGirlz], another one of my Superwomen. Karen is detail-oriented, she’s got spreadsheets for everything. She is more on top of it than I could ever hope to be in my entire life.”

The mentorship Becca received from women like Tracey and Karen proved pivotal in her professional journey, and she encourages other young women to find mentors early in their lives as well.

“Finding a mentor — not just anybody, but somebody who you look up to personally and whose values you respect — is huge. Get your hands dirty. Say yes. Find a little bit of time to volunteer, join a group, or offer your skills or talents to an organization that you can really get behind. That opens doors to meet women who can speak to the specific challenges you face. Ladies gotta stick together!”

The value of mentorship goes both ways, with mentors often learning a great deal from their mentees. Becca mentioned that she learned from the girls she taught in TechGirlz camps.

“They knew what they wanted. All we had to do was put the tools in their hands and they would fly. When we were packaging our workshops, TechShopz in a Box, so that people anywhere could teach girls, we faced doubt from parents and organizations who thought the curriculum would be too hard for twelve-year-old girls. They could not be more wrong. These girls were capable of grasping big concepts: minimum viable product, prototyping, user flows. Don’t undersell these girls for a second, because they are whip smart.”

Ultimately, the value of mentorship is far deeper than career advancement and networking connections. In December 2017, Becca was biking in Philadelphia when a delivery truck struck her and ran over the bottom half of her body. She spent a year re-learning how to walk.

“The women who I had surrounded myself with for the first couple years of my career — Tracey and Karen, these superheroes — were the first ones to scoop me up in such a scary and awful time. Coming out to my parents’ house way outside of the city just to spend time with me. Helping me transition back to working again. To have emotional bonds with these women was just absolutely breathtaking. That’s the power of community.”

Just as Becca seeks to do away with the notion that technology and creative pursuits are diametrically opposed, her personal story evokes the idealism and values of the early internet — the idea that technology, at the end of the day, is about bringing people together.

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This story was written by Adora Svitak, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Connect with her on Twitter.

WITS has several summits happening around the country. Learn more and check out their event schedule at https://womenintechsummit.net/.

The Thousand-Mile Engineering Journey: How Patricia Garcia left the comfort of her hometown and Latino heritage to pursue engineering research

Patricia Garcia ● Undergraduate Student and Research Intern ● Florida International University

Patricia Garcia ● Undergraduate Student and Research Intern ● Florida International University

“At just 18, I was leaving my family and Latino culture… and walking away into an unknown, mysterious world in search of that elusive adventure I longed for.”

It took guts to fly out of her hometown for the first time for a 10-week internship, but Patricia took the leap of faith to transform herself into a researcher.

Patricia grew up in in Miami and attended the Young Women’s Preparatory Academy (YWPA). With its strong focus on STEM and incorporation of technology in almost all of its courses, YWPA encouraged Patricia to pursue her passion for science and math by looking into engineering.

“When I walked into Young Women’s, it was almost like the gender bias and the sexism many women in STEM [face] vanished,” Patricia says. “I didn’t see myself as an aspiring ‘girl engineer.’ I simply saw myself as an engineer.”

Back home in Florida, Patricia was often told that her hopes to one day become a mechanical engineer were pursuits for “a man’s job.” But after much reflection, Patricia knew that societal influences could not deter her from pursuing her dreams.

What inspired Patricia most was watching her mother’s illness continually take a toll on her without any firm diagnosis, despite numerous tests. During Patricia’s senior year of high school, her mother underwent a Percutaneous Endoscopic Gastrostomy (PEG) tube placement because she was no longer able to obtain the necessary nutrients.

“The only logical answer for my [never-ending] questions [was] the application of engineering principles and design concepts,” she says. “At that point in my life, I decided I would explore the intersection of engineering and research.”

As her mother’s health steadily improved, Patricia sought learning opportunities that incorporated the engineering principles she hoped to examine more deeply. In 2017, she took on a full-time research position at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). During this summer before her freshman year of college, Patricia focused her research on creating bio-engineered scaffolds to enhance the regeneration of damaged tissues and organs.

“To better understand the material properties of the composite patch, my project focused on evaluating the integration of the fibrin microthread and fibrin hydrogel phases,” she says. “After my time at WPI, not only did I solidify my passion for a long-standing interest, but I [also] developed the confidence in myself to pursue my goals.”

During the summer of 2018, Patricia spent time as a biomechanics project researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over the course of nearly two months, she worked on a biomechanics project that consisted of engineering 3D skeletal muscle tissue.

“With everything that life threw at me, I look back and think… I could’ve just decided to give up and be average, but why be average when you have all these opportunities given to you,” Patricia says. “If it’s out there and I know about it, there shouldn’t be any reason why I won’t try to go get it.”

Patricia is currently a sophomore at the Florida International University Honors College and is pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering with a research interest in the mechanical design of medical devices and prostheses. She has recently been selected as a McNair fellow at FIU. While she is awaiting notification from several prestigious universities for research positions, she hopes to one day develop products for a company in the biomedical field.

“You know yourself better than anyone else, so there’s no reason why someone other than yourself should be able to tell you whether you can or cannot do something,” Patricia says. “Who is going to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself?”

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This story was written by Shruti Kumar, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow, and told in partnership with NCWIT Aspirations in Computing (AiC).