Women in STEM

Grassroots Campaigns Aren’t Just for Politicians: How Data Scientist Sarah Asio is Bringing Innovation to Uganda

Sarah Asio, PhD ● Data Science Lead ● Johnson & Johnson

Sarah Asio, PhD ● Data Science Lead ● Johnson & Johnson

Sarah’s journey to STEM began as a young child in Uganda with a fascination for mechanical appliances and electronics around the house. When she began college, she was set on majoring in electrical engineering, but changed her mind once someone told her about the endless possibilities of an industrial engineering degree. She quickly realized that this path would still allow her to enjoy math and science, but in a manner that could positively influence her community back home in Uganda.

“In Africa, infrastructure and development are really important. I understood that my economy needed more input in this area and I made a more informed decision to pursue my first degree in industrial engineering. It would be the best way to make an impact in my country.”

After college, Sarah moved to the United States to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and later went on to pursue her doctoral degree in industrial engineering at Texas Tech University. Sarah eventually made the big switch into data science when her first role at Bayer focused on digitizing agriculture. She developed digital tools and solutions to empower farmers to produce more food with less seed and ground.

“I was able to connect my original passion of making a difference and trying to empower economies to mature and remain sustainable, while also providing for indigenous people so they can develop as a nation.”

Sarah’s current role as Data Science Lead at Johnson & Johnson combines business strategy and developing technical solutions that align with the company’s values and global presence. She believes that data science is the new “gold” that goes hand-in-hand with artificial intelligence. In the next decade, she predicts that services and products will be completely transformed by decades of data from end-users, consumers, and practitioners. Sarah expects to see services across industries that are more customized to the consumer’s needs, as she believes that this type of data has the power to diagnose problems occurring societally and make a real impact.

Sarah herself is no stranger to the challenges and obstacles of the indigenous people in her country. She at one point struggled to afford her studies in the states but credits her Christian faith and persistence in applying for scholarships as her way of overcoming financial challenges. Because she did not have family in the US, Sarah found a sense of community in international student groups that helped her navigate life and education in the Western world.

Outside of her work as an engineer and data scientist, Sarah keeps her ties to Uganda strong.

“I’ve always had a passion to empower people with knowledge and help them see what they’re capable of doing.”

Sarah collaborates with local partners in Uganda to find local talent that want to learn different areas of data science. She teaches them basic courses in STEM, and helps steer them in the right direction to obtain technical certifications.

“I strongly believe in the grassroots approach in finding and training local people with the skills and talents to innovate what they have in order to solve problems in their culture and community.”

Sarah is most proud of this work she has been able to do with Ugandans to assist them in creating influential and innovative products for their communities. When it comes to confidently navigating the workplace as a woman, Sarah encourages women to unapologetically own their accomplishments.

“Look at what you’ve achieved and know that you have the right to be in the environment you’re in. Stand boldly for yourself and let no one overlook you or sidestep you. Own your own truth. Speak confidently and be proud that you earned the right to be there on merit.”

Sarah loves to spend time learning as her journey in STEM continues to evolve. Her personal philosophy is to learn more about other people and use a grassroots approach to help them better understand themselves and how they can help their communities with what they have.


Sarah Asio received a 2010-11 AAUW International Fellowship that funded her master’s degree in industrial engineering at University of Nebraska, Lincoln. 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.

This story was written by Stephanie Nweke, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Connect with her on LinkedIn. We are now accepting applications for our Fall 2019 Journalism Fellowship. Apply here by October 6th!

From Art School to Software Engineering: How Meg Viar is Paving the Way for Female Tech Leaders

Meg Viar ● Software Engineer ● Nomadic Learning

Meg Viar ● Software Engineer ● Nomadic Learning

Meg Viar will be the first to say that how your journey begins is not where it will end. She attended art school at the Maryland Institute College of Art and later received her masters in education from the University of Nevada- Las Vegas. So, how does one jump from art to tech?

Well, it takes time for seeds to grow into trees.

When Meg was a kid, she was active on Neopets, a virtual pet website. She enjoyed building custom items for her pets and began nurturing the desire to build things early on. She was first exposed to coding as an educator, when she taught second and third graders how to code. During this time, she found a coding bootcamp scholarship opportunity. Although Meg didn’t receive the scholarship, she was still able to get a part of the bootcamp tuition funded as a member of AmeriCorp. Her bootcamp journey led her to opportunities to build great software products. She’s most proud of the back-end solutions she built at her last job, Megaphone.

“When I first started at the company, I had no experience with GoLang or working at the kind of scale they see with their ad serving technology. I took time to learn the basics, hopped in, asked for help as needed, and was able to make valuable contributions to that software.”

Working at Megaphone was a major turning point for Meg because it emphasized the importance of on-the-job learning, especially since she came from a non-traditional background. Software engineering can be scary because the answer is not always obvious, but this is also one of the most rewarding parts of the job for Meg. It leaves room for critical thinking and creativity. She finds herself constantly drawing on her experience as an educator in her work as a software engineer, applying educational theory to her own learning in the field.

“I struggled with worries about whether or not I was a ‘real’ software engineer. When I discovered the importance of problem-solving and self-directed learning in the field, I was better able to recognize the value I brought to the team.”

In order to overcome her ‘imposter syndrome,’ Meg also built self-confidence by drawing upon her experience in working with LET’S GO, a non-profit whose larger-than-life vision was to build a STEM identity in underserved students. LET’S GO focused on cultivating persistence and creative thinking in the students they worked with. Meg applied these same principles to build confidence in her work as a software engineer.

Mentorship was also a crucial part of Meg’s career and confidence-building journey.

“One thing that was helpful to me was having a woman as a manager, who was another software engineer. She was generous in sharing the steps she took and how she was able to navigate her career.”

Meg saw her mentor speak internationally at conferences and be transparent about her journey in STEM. Her mentor helped her to remember that she didn’t need to be isolated while working to establish herself. Finding a network of people she identifies with in her own field of interest is one of the most rewarding aspects of Meg’s career today. Her fulfilling experience with her mentor encouraged her to seek out opportunities to mentor other women. In Washington D.C., she worked with high schoolers through Girls Who Code, a non-profit that aims to increase women in computer science. Meg’s mentorship role helped her to focus on coding and “get over the hump of what programming is and who it’s for.” Peer mentorship also helped Meg build and maintain a sense of community.

“As women, we’re often our biggest critic and we judge ourselves by an unmanageable standard. Go out with confidence, take stock of your own skills, and bring value to your team. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help.”

Ultimately, Meg is proud of the community and network she has built of both young and experienced women in STEM. She still loves to learn, and serves as a reminder that the knowledge you gain from one chapter of your journey can benefit you down the road in ways you might not expect!


This story was written by Stephanie Nweke, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Connect with her on Linkedin.

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.”


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?

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.”

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.

———

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?”

———

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

Breaking Down Walls with Open Source Technology: Srishti Sethi’s developer advocacy at the Wikimedia Foundation

Srishti Sethi ● Developer Advocate ● Wikimedia Foundation

Srishti Sethi ● Developer Advocate ● Wikimedia Foundation

Going to school in India, Srishti Sethi found little inspiration in the unyielding rigidity of her curriculum and teachers who prized rote memorization more than creativity from their students.

“Back then I was in a space where I had no guidance from my lecturers or professors. I was interested in what I saw happening outside of the curriculum — places where I could learn and grow.”

It was friends and classmates, not professors, who first taught her about open source software — software that anyone, not just the creator, can freely use and adapt. The concept of open source was a revelation.

“For me, the appeal of open source was freedom, collaboration, peer learning, and transparency.”

Srishti’s interest in open source led her to new communities. She writes on her blog about borrowing her mother’s laptop in 2009, her third year of college, to attend the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) conference in Bangalore. She continued to attend that conference and numerous others, and in 2011, participated in Google’s Summer of Code (GSOC).

“As part of GSOC, I helped develop educational software, which introduced me to this exciting intersection of technology and education. After working for a couple of startups back in India, I found myself wanting to enter a research program that would allow me to keep contributing to education technology.”

A friend told her about Mitchel Resnick’s storied research group, Lifelong Kindergarten, at the MIT Media Lab. That’s the group behind Scratch, the block-based programming language known for its child-friendly design. Reading about Lifelong Kindergarten online, Srishti immediately felt drawn to their work.

“But I was like ‘they’re not going to accept me, who am I?’ I applied to seven grad schools, including MIT, but I thought I probably wouldn’t get in.”

Despite that self-doubt she did get in, and completed a Master’s degree in Media Arts and Sciences. Srishti’s research focused on the intersection of education and technology, including designing online learning platforms to engage people in peer learning.

“When I was done, I asked ‘Where next?’ At that point I was adamant about going to an organization that was interested in free knowledge and shared my values.”

The Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs Wikipedia, was a natural choice. In her role as a Developer Advocate, Srishti supports new developers in the massive volunteer community that upholds Wikipedia.

“We run mentoring programs to draw in new contributors to Wikimedia projects. I help coordinate the Wikimedia Foundation’s participation in the Google Summer of Code and Outreachy. Those two programs help us bring in folks who are underrepresented in tech.”*

Srishti says it’s deeply fulfilling to see the GSOC and Outreachy mentees’ personal and professional growth, from the projects they complete at the end of their internships to their progress through jobs and grad school applications. She can relate to their journeys: her own experience of stumbling into the world of open source technology ultimately gave her a concept — and a community — that acted as guiding lights throughout her career.

Indeed, when Srishti reflects on her current role and the volunteers, collaborators, and interns she’s been able to work with, she reflects on her own past.

“Through my work, I see so many people like me, who may be in academic settings with very little exposure to opportunities or guidance, just like I was, craving opportunities and a sense of direction. These projects and open source programs that bring in new contributors make a difference in their lives.”

Srishti advises others thinking of careers in STEM fields to keep experimenting and learning in order to find their direction.

“Finding your passion doesn’t just come automatically, it comes with a lot of experiments. For me, the beginning was a bit challenging. I kept asking ‘what next, what next?’ Even now, I’m still thinking critically and asking how I can tie what I’m doing to the bigger picture of impact.”

*Google Summer of Code, which is open to university students, is accepting applications between March 25th to April 9th.

*Outreachy is accepting applications between February 18 to March 26. A few projects have extended deadlines until April 2. They recommend that applicants start on their applications a couple weeks in advance of the deadline.

The Hidden Value of Detours: How a serendipitous stumble into a cyber-cafe catalyzed Gladys Maina’s IT career

Gladys Maina ● Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Professional and Mentor in Kenya

Gladys Maina ● Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Professional and Mentor in Kenya

Gladys Maina wasn’t always going to be an IT professional. A dutiful daughter, she initially obeyed her parents’ directions and pursued a medical laboratory certification, following in her medic father’s footsteps.

“Then during a long holiday, a friend introduced me to a cyber-cafe. These had just started coming up in Nairobi, Kenya in 2004. They said, ‘Here, you can pay a bit of money and then you can access the internet.’ I came from Nyahururu, a village, so I was very impressed. I remembered thinking, ‘this is what I want to do.’”

Gladys describes the halcyon days of the early internet with fondness, reminiscing on MSN and chatting with people around the world. The feelings of liberation and connectedness that the early days of the internet provided proved to be alluring distractions from the career opportunities that awaited her in the medical field. She got her opportunity to switch sectors when a friend recommended her for a sales position at a newly opened a cyber cafe. After working in that role for three months, she became a cyber cafe attendant.

“That meant internet was free. I could research as much as I wanted, and had a computer at my disposal.”

Later, she studied information of management systems at Kenya Methodist University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Nairobi. Now, she’s optimistic that young women from similar backgrounds as her, who haven’t grown up in Kenya’s biggest cities, will have a more direct path to tech access. She points to innovations like the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) communications protocol, which enables information and money transfer over basic phones.

“For instance, you can use a standard phone to enroll in M-Shule [mobile learning management platform delivering educational content via SMS]. You don’t really need to have a smartphone for you to access technology. The government of Kenya is trying to digitize a lot of schools and services, from issuing tablets to students to establishing walk-in centers such as Huduma where you can access internet and get government services.”

Access isn’t everything, though; it’s always helpful to have somebody model what success looks like and encourage you throughout your journey. That’s why Gladys is active in mentoring young women pursuing STEM paths, working closely with African Women in Technology since 2016, and mentoring girls through the Ghana-based Nsesa Foundation. The experience of working with young women has left her with strong beliefs about the importance of lifelong learning and letting youth choose their own paths.

“Mentorship is a symbiotic journey where you are both learning. I believe you are never too old to be taught and never too young to learn. I would tell [parents and educators] to let their young ones pursue their dreams.”

She alludes to her own decision to switch fields as one of the reasons she feels strongly about giving young people the freedom to decide their vocations, and says that choices about work can cause friction in relationships between parents and children. In such situations, all is not lost.

“You can finish the degree that your parents are paying for, get a job, and then work toward what you want to do. That’s what I did. My parents finished paying for the medical laboratory school, but for my diploma, bachelors and masters, I paid using my own money.”

Her story is a testament to the value of flexibility and risk-taking, starting small and working your way up. Today, technology has advanced from the days when Gladys worked as an attendant in a cyber-cafe and chatted on MSN. So too have public perceptions of women in tech.

“Now people can celebrate women like Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer. Here in Kenya I look up to Dr. Chao Mbogho, who has been changing the narrative and showing that women can make it. We aren’t born with a male brain or a female brain. You can achieve what you want, you just have to put in the hours, then keep on going. Sometimes it will get tough, but you have to keep going, keep learning, and keep developing yourself.”

The Data Scientist Who Mastered Multitasking: How Sundas Khalid Became the First Female in Her Family to Pursue a Degree and Career

Sundas Khalid ● Data Scientist ● Amazon

Sundas Khalid ● Data Scientist ● Amazon

Sundas Khalid had never considered attending college, let alone a profession in engineering. As a young woman coming from a conservative family in Faisalabad, Pakistan, she says receiving an education and building a career was unheard of.

Shortly after finishing high school in Pakistan, Sundas got married and came to the United States in 2004 to live with her husband. After a six-year gap in her education, she decided to pick up where she left off and further her studies. Sundas attended a community college for two years before transferring to the University of Washington in Seattle in 2012. While earning her bachelor’s in business administration, she simultaneously raised her 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

During her time at UW, Sundas interned at Amazon as a financial analyst intern and worked with databases. She won first place for her presentation among all the interns and was offered a position. At Amazon, she recognized a newfound passion for technology.

“I never considered tech as an option because no one in my family or friend circle studied tech,” she says. “And it was a bit late, as I was three months away from graduation.”

In the last three months before graduation, Sundas took a database management certification course and began interviewing for Amazon’s technical and analytical positions. In 2014, she graduated from UW as valedictorian and gave a speech to an audience of 3,000 students, parents and faculty at the Husky Stadium.

The path to success has not always been easy for Sundas, especially because she has been raising two children while building her career. In difficult times, she says she reminds herself of her husband’s support and stays inspired by those around her.

“I look at where I was and where I am. Compare yourself to yourself, not to another person,” Sundas says. “Don’t compare yourself to other people because everyone has different journeys.”

Sundas started attending the Grace Hopper Celebration in 2016 and has not missed a conference since. In 2017, she took part in the local Seattle chapter as a member of the speakers’ committee and was in the data science committee the following year. In 2019, she plans to be on the mentoring committee.

Through the AnitaB.org community, Sundas connected with the two co-founders of Pakistani Women in Computing (PWiC) in 2018 and now leads the PWiC Seattle Chapter.

“To overcome imposter syndrome, I’ve started surrounding myself with women who look like me and pursue similar career paths,” Sundas says. “[I have been] mentoring young women who are entering tech and helping them shape their future.”

Sundas currently works as a data scientist in Amazon’s A/B testing platform and Weblab, the centralized science team for testing and launching new features for the Amazon site worldwide. She has given over 20 presentations and has worked with several Amazon teams, including Alexa, Amazon Music, Search (A9), Amazon Devices, Amazon Kindle and Prime Now.

In November 2018, Sundas won two awards for exemplary work at Amazon with her non-Prime experience (NPX) team. After five years at Amazon, she says that she has taught herself data engineering, statistics, machine learning, SQL, R and Python with the help of courses and the people around her.

“If you have a dream, make sure you have the right people around you,” Sundas says. “It’s about who you involve in your life and surrounding yourself with people who believe in your dreams.”

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.”

Empowering Women in STEM Around the World

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Wogrammer is excited to introduce you to our newest board member, Nehal Mehta.

Nehal grew up in Mumbai, India and moved to the US for her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan. While she has built an impressive career in the tech industry she did not grow up thinking she’d become an engineer.

“I did not always want to be an engineer. I didn’t even know what engineers did. I thought that they worked on factory floors. However, I liked math and science in school.”

She was all set to go to business school, when she found herself in an accounting class truly bored and decided to look at other majors. So, with help from a college counselor, she took some new classes which steered her towards analytics and tech.

“I loved my programming and statistics classes. I embraced that area and graduated with a degree in Computer and Information Systems.”

From there Nehal embarked on a decades long career in tech, growing in leadership roles and building strong teams. She especially excelled at growing, mentoring and managing large teams across multiple countries.

Leveraging her vast technology background Nehal moved into strategic partnerships at Symantec and Veritas. More recently she joined Genesys as their Director of Global Strategic Alliances. Having lived and worked in multiple countries, Nehal is a global citizen who deeply believes in the power of bringing together diverse cultures and communities. She shares how her varied experiences allow her to, “draw parallels in the challenges that working women face across the globe and how we can positively move it forward through removing conscious and unconscious bias.”

Nehal brings years of passion and experience advocating for women and kids in STEM. She regularly speaks at conferences, highlighting the importance of networking and building a strong personal brand.

Her advice for women is to “build a personal board of directors and to actively give back to your network.” You can read more about her advice in this post, “Who’s on your Personal Board of Directors.

Join me in welcoming Nehal to our board and the Wogrammer community! You can connect with her on LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.