Girls in STEM

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).

The Art of Code and the Code in Art: How Aimee Lucido Blends Code, Music and Writing to Tell Her Story

Aimee Lucido ● Senior Android Engineer ● Uber Eats

Aimee Lucido ● Senior Android Engineer ● Uber Eats

“I love working on hard problems that actually touch people, I love working with a team, and ultimately, I love shipping a product to millions — if not billions — of people. That feeling never gets old!”

Aimee Lucido loves being a working engineer. One of her most memorable projects at Uber was the development of a robust and stable UI to allow drivers to get a bonus by recruiting riders to sign up to become drivers themselves. The project spanned four different teams, three microsystems, and involved large changes to the API. As the sole engineer on a very large full-stack project, she had to learn new languages and navigate differing team priorities.

Aimee got interested in coding in middle school through games and continued her interest in high school. She went on to receive degrees in computer science and literary arts from Brown University, and a fine arts master’s degree from Hamline University in creative writing for children and young adults.

Her advice to anyone who thinks they might be interested in coding: Just give it a try! See how it might be related to other interests you already have. Learning anything new can be a challenge. She recommends breaking challenges down into steps.

“If I’m feeling overwhelmed by something (or, more often, too many somethings) it helps me to make a list. Checking things off that list gives me a feeling of completion, and also it ensures that I don’t forget anything. And so often a really hard challenge feels hard only because there are so many tasks to accomplish, but no one item on the todo list is particularly strenuous. So if I remember that a big task is made up of lots of little tasks, it instantly becomes more manageable.”

In an effort to inspire more girls to share her love for engineering, Aimee authored a new children’s book, Emmy in the Key of Code, that will be published in September 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Versify.

“It’s about a twelve-year-old ex-musician named Emmy who accidentally ends up in a computer science class, and finds herself connecting with code the way she always wanted to connect with music. It’s told in a hybrid of verse and Java code, and my hope is that kids will read it for the story, not realizing that they’re secretly also learning computer science.”

Adding to her passion for engineering and writing, Aimee is a lot of other things: A marathon runner, a musician, a crossword puzzle creator. And that’s the message that Aimee Lucido embodies: Computer science can be the main focus of your life or it can be just one of the many things you do. And you can use code itself to do the other things. Aimee sees math, music, art, poetry, and code as, essentially, the same thing: A way of communicating; a recipe to convey something to the world.

“Once you know code, it bleeds into everything you do.” Besides her first novel being about the connection between music and code, Aimee uses coding to help her make crossword puzzles she has published in The New York Times, Crosswords With Friends, and smaller indie publications.

Aimee is a vocal advocate for diversity in computing. While she knows that underrepresented groups, including women, still face challenges in the field, she appreciates the opportunity to be involved in the charge for change. Part of her work at Uber is to help increase diversity through leading by example and sharing her own experiences.

Her advice for anyone struggling to find a place for themselves in the tech industry is to “keep yourself loosely defined” and “say yes to everything” to maximize opportunities and possibilities you can’t yet imagine.

“Change your definition of yourself often; it keeps things interesting. But make sure to say no to things that don’t move you towards your goals.”