Women in Tech

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/.

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

Nehal Profile Pic.png

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.

Old Code, New Tricks: How Andrea Goulet is renovating code through her business Corgibytes

Andrea Goulet ● CEO ● Corgibytes

Andrea Goulet ● CEO ● Corgibytes

As the daughter of entrepreneurial parents, it was only fitting for Andrea Goulet to learn the ropes of owning her own business at an early age. By age 12, Andrea was running a business that supported her father’s clients — handling everything from logistics and orders to invoices. Her natural ability to understand business was further propelled in college as a marketing student at Virginia Commonwealth University. When an old high school friend approached her about a business proposition after reading her marketing blog, Andrea was surprised to hear what he had to say.

“He told me that the way I think about marketing is very technical. He noticed I used algorithms and patterns, and my thought process included many elements of programming. I was always interested in technology, and he believed I would be a good fit for leading his startup.”

Since 2009, Andrea has become a serial entrepreneur and the founder of several brands, including Corgibytes. What started as a simple side hustle became her ultimate niche and passion. At Corgibytes, Andrea and her team revitalize legacy code, which Andrea describes as “code without trust,” but is commonly thought of as “fixer upper” software that needs to be modernized.

“When people ask me what is the purpose of re-engineering old code, I use this analogy. If you want to remodel your kitchen, you don’t bulldoze the entire house. There is good business logic embedded in an existing system, and there is usually a way to update and modernize something by doing a little bit at a time.”

Andrea explained that for many companies, updating software instead of rewriting it is not only cheaper but more efficient, especially if the code supports many users. To reinvent old code, there are a series of processes Andrea uses. First, she starts with a report that her company calls a “Code Inspection.” Because Corgibytes operates in a digital space without a physical product to touch, this report helps business teams visualize and understand different things that make code very healthy. Her team of developers measure and report on these aspects, such as code complexity, duplication, test coverage, team communication, and more. From there, they are able to decide how fragile the code is and what needs to be repaired. Andrea’s marketing background means that these recommendations, which are usually difficult to decipher by people who don’t code all day, are in plain English. This makes it easy for executives to understand and act on. To effectively lead Corgibytes, Andrea had to first submerge herself into coding classes.

“In the beginning, learning how to code was really hard. It’s difficult to get out of your comfort zone and learn something new. I watched a TED Talk by Carol Dweck about developing a growth mindset, and it helped me see that I can grow and eventually I’m going to learn it.”

The most popular programming languages that Corgibytes supports are Ruby, Python, Java, and C#. With the help of Code.org, Code Combat, freeCodeCamp, and various other learning tools, Andrea has become proficient in coding and she built a team that can help clients with a variety of programming languages.

Andrea shares her expertise through Legacy Code Rocks, a podcast she started that uncovers new tricks that programmers can use on old code. After previously having a marketing background and discovering what it is like to enter the tech industry, Andrea prides herself on being able to create a dialogue between business people and programmers.

“It has been an amazing feeling to translate business, which is my native language, to people who speak code because I understand both very well. Now I am able to help two people who normally wouldn’t be able to communicate effectively work through a problem.”

Her advice to others hoping to develop their own businesses in the technical industry is that the initial idea does not have to be perfect. She believes that anyone can create and develop a business on the side and work to watch it steadily grow over time, just as Corgibytes did. With the added help of a growth mindset, anything is possible.

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This story was told in partnership with Women in Tech Summits (WITS), which hosts events across the United States to connect, inspire and build a community of women building the future of tech. Andrea Goulet is a past speaker and serves on the WITS advisory council. Register for an event near you at https://womenintechsummit.net.

How Melika Farahani Builds Her Confidence and a Path to Success

Melika Farahani ● Software Engineer ● Cafebazaar

Melika Farahani ● Software Engineer ● Cafebazaar

As soon as she showed an interest in technology, Melika Farahani’s family encouraged her to pursue that path. Despite being a young girl, her curiosity in her father’s engineering work with computers sparked an early interest in working in the same field.

Melika first started to explore this interest at Farzanegan High School in Tehran, Iran. As a student, she chose to participate in the Iranian National Olympiad in Informatics, an optional competition in which winners often receive admission to top universities. After several rounds of exams, Melika won a bronze medal in the competition and established a great ranking in Konkour, Iran’s annual university entrance exam. Melika then received admission to the Sharif University of Technology, Iran’s most renowned technical university.

During her first semester as a computer science major, Melika searched for a part-time job that would allow her to work with professionals and improve her technical skills. She soon joined Cafebazaar, a famous software company that offers more than 170,000 downloadable Iranian and international apps to over 39 million active users.

“I learned a lot from my coworkers and became familiar with cutting-edge technologies in programming, development and software engineering,” Melika says.

Melika continues to work at Cafebazaar part-time. During her four years in this role, she says her greatest accomplishment has been the recommender system project she worked on with a team of five data scientists and engineers. The main goal of this tool was to help users find apps they are most likely to download, making recommendations based on their interests and preferences. To do so, Melika’s team built a model to process the data of users’ interactions with Cafebazaar’s platform and suggest related applications in a list format.

“A big challenge [I faced] was time management. Handling university and a job together was a difficult problem, [but] having this amount of work makes me more organized,” Melika says. “Before this project, I never directly saw my work’s effects but this project had a real result and we got lots of positive feedback from our users.”

Melika used those same time management skills to participate in other projects for both school and work. As a college student, she was a member of the first women’s team for numerous local STEM tournaments. Melika was also a technical staff member in the 2017 International Olympiad in Informatics. To hone her communication skills, she became a teaching assistant for database, data structures, advanced programming and game theory courses.

Melika says she struggled with and overcame the challenge of low self-confidence in the first few months of working. She says that over time, it was a matter of targeting her areas for improvement, such as public speaking, that helped her gain confidence.

“In Iran and even in the world, there are fewer women in tech than men. Also, all my coworkers were older than me, [so] it took some months for me to have confidence to make big decisions at work,” Melika says. “Of course my work teammates had a huge effect on this, but more importantly, I tried to change my attitude. I decided to accept roles, take risks and improve my soft skills, such as speaking.”

Melika currently supports research projects (on a voluntary basis) in machine learning and data science with university research groups in Denmark and Canada. She plans to leave Iran for three months this March to intern at the National University of Singapore’s Institute for Application of Learning Science and Technology research group. Melika aims to pursue graduate studies in other countries to further her career.

“My family’s support really helps me so much. From the beginning, they supported me during the Olympiad,” Melika says. “It’s not very common in Iran for girls to be working at the age of 18, but my family got permission for me to do it. I really appreciate their support and trust.”

Girl Scout to Galaxy Explorer: How Caeley Looney discovered her path to aerospace engineering in middle school

Caeley Looney ● Mission Analyst ● Harris

Caeley Looney ● Mission Analyst ● Harris

It’s almost as if the stars aligned to bring Caeley Looney into the world of aerospace engineering. Caeley was born to two engineers — her mother was a naval engineer and her father worked at a defense contractor. She knew it was only a matter of time before her love for STEM pulled her towards engineering, too.

“I went through elementary school wanting to be a wide variety of things, from a fashion designer to a teacher, but the thought of being an engineer never crossed my mind until I was exposed to robotics.”

When Caeley was in middle school, her parents saw an ad for the local Girl Scouts FIRST robotics program and encouraged her to join. After getting a taste of STEM on this all-girls robotics team, she quickly began exploring different fields. During her first two years at Farmingdale High School in Long Island, New York, Caeley conducted research projects for her science course. When she realized that she enjoyed researching the Mars Rover, Caeley explored her newfound interest in space-related work through similar projects. These high school projects honed Caeley’s interest in STEM to aerospace engineering.

In 2014, Caeley enrolled in an aerospace engineering program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. During the summers before college and after her freshman year, she volunteered at We Connect The Dots, a nonprofit organization that offers STEM-related programs to underprivileged students. Then the summer before her junior year, Caeley had a computer science internship with the Institute for Defense Analyses, where she she got her first look into the defense industry and the U.S. Department of Defense. Caeley went on to complete an internship with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center during her last semester of senior year, where she had the opportunity to focus on aerospace engineering and some computer science.

Caeley is a member of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), a community of more than 1,100 universities, companies, nonprofits and government organizations nationwide working to increase girls’ and women’s meaningful participation in computing. After receiving the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing Award in 2014, she was invited to join the NCWIT Facebook community, a support system of thousands of girls in tech.

“Any time I have an issue or concern, I just go and make a post on our Facebook page,” she says. “Within five minutes, I have ten different girls giving me advice and telling me not to give up!”

While attending the Grace Hopper Celebration in 2017, Caeley was interviewed and recruited as a mission analyst by Harris Corporation, a defense contractor and information technology services provider. She started working at Harris after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in May 2018.

At Harris, Caeley supports several key elements of satellite analysis. She simulates the orbital mechanics and dynamics of their small satellites system and her responsibilities include plotting different orbits, defining station keeping boundaries and optimizing spacecraft subsystems. Caeley says she is lucky to learn about a variety of systems rather than diving specifically into one topic.

“I always get to learn about different systems. I get to learn about things like balancing a power budget, sizing solar panels and developing a communications link budget. It’s great because I never get bored!”

“Any time I have run into a challenging situation, I have forced myself to step back and remember why I am in that situation: to become an aerospace engineer,” she says. “It has definitely been difficult to remember that while I’m in the midst of a tough problem but that has always been what gets me through. Well, that and ice cream!”

Caeley also battles the stigma against mental illness with the support of her service dog, Charlie. With her special furry friend by her side, Caeley says he is one of the biggest reasons she was able to make it to where she is.

“Mental illness is something that I struggled with for a greater part of my life and once I got to college, many of the symptoms worsened,” Caeley says. “My service dog has helped me realize that my disability shouldn’t hold me back from achieving my dreams and literally reaching for the stars. He reinforces my self confidence every time I begin to doubt it.”

Her advice for others — don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Caeley says that her incredible support system and a list of things that make her smile are what get her through the tough times.

“It made it a lot harder to give it up knowing that I’ve worked since the sixth grade towards this [goal]. Don’t give up,” she says. “This world needs women in computer science, aerospace, etc. Without us, progress isn’t made, so remember that.”

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This story was told in partnership with NCWIT Aspirations in Computing.

Joanna Tong blazes a trail for women in biotech and chemical engineering

Joanna Tong ● Supplier Collaborations Technical Manager ● Genentech

Joanna Tong ● Supplier Collaborations Technical Manager ● Genentech

For many of us, medicine is the sought after solution for a cold, flu, or allergy. It can be the promise of a cure or a healthier lifestyle. For Joanna Tong, medicine is much more than that. It is the opportunity to make an immediate and tangible impact on the lives of those overcoming chronic illnesses. As the Senior Technical Manager for Genentech, Joanna is primarily focused on the overall quality of the medicine, its production, and its ability to be transported to different companies.

As a young student, Joanna enjoyed biology and genetics, and considered becoming a biologist early in her career. While studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she was exploring different paths that aligned with her ambitions, when a professor recommended chemical engineering. After taking a few classes in the field, she grew to like the discipline because it empowered her to think outside of the box.

“In school, I did traditional lab work, however I found it more interesting to utilize technical problem-solving skills that are involved with engineering.”

Joanna put her skills to the test when she began interning at Genentech, over 10 years ago. Genentech gave Joanna the chance to dip her foot into the biotech and pharmaceutical worlds and allowed her to realize how much she loved the work she was doing.

“When I say that I help ensure we make high-quality medicines for patients, most people don’t realize that the medicine we make is quite different and much more complex than the pills you would see at your local pharmacy. Most of the medicines Genentech makes are proteins that are delivered via an IV infusion at a hospital, and those proteins are made by live cells that we grow in giant bioreactors. You have to control for and understand so many variables to keep the cells happy and producing the protein you want. It’s an incredibly complex process.”

Joanna spent most of her career as a Manufacturing Engineer, which plays an essential role in Genentech’s production of high-quality drugs. The complex drugs could aid those with serious medical conditions such as colon cancer, lung cancer, multiple sclerosis, and arthritis. One of the many important part of that role was making sure that the medicine-producing cells were effective and safe. Now, as a Supplier Collaborations Technical Manager, Joanna’s tasks are less focused on the manufacturing process and more on collaborating with suppliers.

“I work with the suppliers that give us the ingredients and equipment we use to make our medicines. It’s important to partner with them because if we don’t have good starting materials, it’s hard to have good quality come out the other side.”

As one of the only girls in advanced math and science classes early in her educational career, Joanna understands what it is like to be a minority in a technical field. Because of this, and in addition to her job, she now serves as the Regional Lead for Pharma Technical Operations Women Professionals at Genentech. Through this organization, she develops programs and organizes monthly events that help over 1000 women in the Pharma Technical Operations in the Southern San Francisco organization accomplish their career objectives while building the company’s pipeline of future leaders.

“I think opportunities for women in STEM are already changing and increasing. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked for a lot of amazing women leaders. It helps to have role models and mentors.”