Women in STEM: A Profile of AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors
This month, select Smithsonian Institution museums and gardens in Washington D.C. are hosting "#IfThenSheCan-The Exhibit," a display of 120 life-size, 3D-printed statues of leading women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) from around the country. ASM spoke with several of the honorees who are ASM members to hear about their journeys and learn how they are inspiring future generations of women in STEM.
Greetchen Díaz-Muñoz is the Director of Science Education Programs and Community Partnerships at Ciencia Puerto Rico [CienciaPR]. She is currently serving as chair of ASM’s new Inclusive Diversity with Equity, Access and Accountability [IDEAA] committee.
Díaz-Muñoz didn't have a role model in science when she was growing up. "Nobody close to me or in my family, or even in my neighborhood, was a scientist," she explained. Instead, it was her teachers that inspired her. "I told them that I liked science," remembered Díaz-Muñoz, "and they motivated me to pursue my curiosity."
Interestingly, Díaz-Muñoz said that becoming a role model wasn't something she ever considered until she began pursuing her Ph.D. "It's not something you get training for, but if you have the opportunity, you have to take it seriously," she explained. As a AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassador, Díaz-Muñoz is now in a position to be the role model she didn’t have, something she feels is especially important as a Latina woman. "There is still this kind of stereotype, especially in academia, that Latinos cannot do science." She emphasized the need for increased visibility of Latinos in STEM, sharing that she hopes that families, kids and the general public will realize, "if you look like me, you can be like me, or you can be even better than me."
When reflecting on her statue, Díaz-Muñoz was philosophical. "I have always believed that statues are a reflection of our societies, of what kind of things we give importance," she said. "In that sense, having a statue of me, and all these other women, is important because it reflects that we are giving importance to us, and to women like us."
Yet according to Díaz-Muñoz, such measures must go beyond statues. When asked what message she has for ASM members, Díaz-Muñoz did not hesitate. "It is important [for ASM] to be a diverse, inclusive and equitable organization," she stated. "I truly believe that there’s a great opportunity for us as an organization with the IDEAA initiative. But," she warned, "this initiative will be successful only if ASM members and the microbial sciences community fully embrace it."
Dr. Joyonna Gamble-George, MHA, Ph.D.
Joyonna Gamble-George is a neuroscientist working at New York University. Her research focuses on human behavioral mechanisms of HIV risk, mental health and substance use and misuse.
For Gamble-George, scientific inspiration began at home. "My grandmother has always been my biggest inspiration," explained Gamble-George. "She showed me as a little girl the importance of giving back to the community." That idea of giving back to society motivates Gamble-George in her work. "The type of research that I do is about helping mankind and saving lives," she pointed out.
Despite her successes, Gamble-George is disheartened by the lack of recognition for herself, and others like her. "I think a lot of women in STEM don't get the exposure or the acknowledgement that they deserve," she lamented. That’s one reason why she was so excited to serve as a AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassador. "I'm very honored and thankful for having a platform to share my STEM story with the public and expose them to my scientific achievements," said Gamble-George. "I love talking about the science. I love talking about what I do as a scientist and how it is making a difference in people's lives."
Gamble-George is focused on using her platform to raise up early-career women. "You may not see yourself as a role model when you're advancing in a STEM field," she explained, adding that the power of the IF/THEN Initiative lies in its ability to inspire women across all different STEM fields and disciplines. She's already seeing the returns. "This whole initiative has really helped me with my own self-confidence and increased my self-esteem to believe that I am a role model for [young women] who look up to me in terms of what I'm doing," she shared.
Having a life-size statue of herself is an added benefit. "I'm still in awe and in shock about having a statue in my likeness," stated Gamble-George. "It's just so surreal." In keeping with her selfless upbringing, she is excited about how the statue can help her inspire others. "It's a great feeling ... when people come by your statue, and then want to have in-depth conversations with you about what you do for a living. I love it."
Dr. Lataisia Jones, Ph.D.
Lataisia Jones is a Scientific Review Officer at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. She previously worked at ASM as the Senior Ethics Specialist.
Growing up, Jones wasn’t that interested in being a scientist. "I didn’t have a huge role model in science," she pointed out. That’s because Jones "thought being a scientist would be nerdy or geeky, because my examples were Bill Nye the Science Guy or Steve Urkel. They weren’t appealing to me at all."
It wasn’t until her freshman year of college that Jones first met a female scientist, and it was another year before she met an African American woman scientist. Finding role models who looked like her, explained Jones, "were the pivotal points" in her scientific journey. These experiences motivated Jones to become the role model she didn’t have. "My greatest role is bringing people up along the way by sharing my journey," she explained. "I’m trying to excite them about the things that I’ve learned, but also the other wonders of STEM."
Jones was quick to point out that it’s not just her scientific background that she hopes others will find inspirational. "You can be a woman who loves animals, singing, traveling," she said, "and be a neuroscientist who wears heels, dresses and makeup and still be successful." That’s why Jones views the AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassador Program, especially the statues, as so important. "This is a huge platform for me to reach young girls everywhere and encourage them to strive toward STEM careers regardless of the challenges they may face," she stated passionately. "I’m completely excited about the opportunity to serve the community in this way."
Still, Jones is acutely aware of challenges faced by women in STEM, especially those who are from other underrepresented communities. "I’ve been in many different places where I was the only African American there," she explained, "and definitely the only African American woman there." Her message to women of any age was straightforward. "It’s ok to be in a space where you’re by yourself," she stated, "especially if that’s where you need to be to get to your dream."