Fueling Ambition: Empowering Girls (And All Students) In STEM

Kamini Varma, Vice President, Research & Development, Genetic Sciences at Thermo Fisher Scientific

Table of Contents

Women comprise just 34% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As a result, female STEM professionals report challenges like exclusionary work cultures, a lack of role models who look like them, and persistent stereotypes like “men are better at math” that perpetuate the cycle of fewer women in these fields.

 

As a Southeast Asian woman and Vice President of Research and Development (R&D) at global life sciences leader Thermo Fisher Scientific, I am passionate about helping the next generation of women in STEM have as fulfilling an experience as I do – while nurturing their confidence and resilience to overcome persistent challenges and change the status quo. I am grateful to work for a company that’s committed to making STEM education more equitable and accessible for all young learners globally, including populations like girls who continue to be underrepresented in STEM fields.

 

As a mother, I’ve been especially fortunate to participate in a few different modes of STEM education. I have two kids aged 10 and 11 and we do a lot of DIY projects at home, which is always engaging and sometimes messy! For instance, we incorporate the concepts of math (measuring cup fractions) and chemistry (why do we use baking soda?) while baking brownies. It’s fun to see my kids get the “aha” moment when what they learn in school is being incorporated in a real-life scenario. I also volunteer at their school makerspace classes and see how kids bring their ideas to life with energy and creativity.

The power of partnership

Thermo Fisher has invested in STEM education programs for decades. We believe nurturing a STEM workforce that reflects our diverse society will enable us to solve the world’s most complex problems for all of society. It all begins with inspiring and engaging students from a young age. The more exposure students have to high-quality STEM learning experiences, the more opportunities they will have to build a broad range of skills—from science and reading, to creativity, to 21st-century skills like productivity, adaptability and communication—which leads to greater confidence and success in STEM coursework and careers.

We can’t achieve this vision alone, which is why we partner with leading organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) that share our commitment to STEM access and equity. Partnering with BGCA enables us to support and engage with populations who are vastly underrepresented in STEM and the life sciences—including women, people of color and students from households with limited financial resources. Since 2016, Thermo Fisher and BGCA have been connecting more youth with high-quality STEM learning experiences that can inspire and propel them into thriving STEM careers. During the 2021/2022 school year alone, we reached 30,000 students across the US through our programming and support.

Breaking down barriers through experiential learning

Experiential learning opportunities in STEM are tremendously valuable. For instance, students retain concepts much better through active learning. A hands-on approach to STEM education helps kids explore their creativity and bring their own unique signature to projects. This is a virtuous cycle as it can help students discover the wide presence and applicability of STEM and help build their confidence. Thermo Fisher’s partnership with BGCA supports this approach. Our sponsorship of Boys & Girls Clubs’ DIY STEM platform (a hands-on, activity-based STEM curriculum for youth ages 9 to 12) includes original content and special events that engage youth through hands-on activities and exposure to Thermo Fisher professionals, including our passionate colleague volunteers.

Additionally, experiential learning promotes a growth mindset (versus a fixed mindset). Studies have shown that fostering a growth mindset can effectively break down persistent gender-based stereotypes (like “boys are better at math”) that could deter girls from pursuing STEM careers. Growing up in India and attending an all-girls school until college, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by female role models and experience less gender stereotyping. But gender-based stereotypes continue to hinder the confidence and success of girls and women in STEM globally. A growth mindset not only helps girls and women overcome these stereotypes by revealing that practice—not innate ability—improves performance, but in doing so, it helps discredit these stereotypes altogether, benefitting future generations.

As a leader, I am very intentionally focused on diversity, equity and inclusion within my organization. When it comes to stretch assignments (projects that give colleagues opportunities to learn and develop new skills), I think about how and where we give exposure to rising female talent and make sure they have the visibility to continue building their leadership muscles, voice and influence.

STEM mentors and role models

I have been fortunate and deliberate to seek out both male and female mentors to help me grow along my academic and career journeys. In my role today, I have the honor of working with some of the brightest engineers and scientists, mentoring the next generation of women STEM leaders, and demonstrating that STEM is for everyone. I’m fortunate to work alongside colleagues who share may passion. Thermo Fisher colleagues are incredibly engaged in making a difference in their communities. Last year, our colleagues volunteered 120,000 hours and reached 85,900 students and 4,800 educators (including BGCA) through STEM programming. When students and Club kids engage with our diverse colleagues, it not only builds their confidence in pursuing STEM, but it also connects them with supportive professionals who look like them or share their life experience. Seeing themselves in STEM careers is a critical factor to students pursuing and persisting with STEM learning.

Boys & Girls Clubs girls have especially benefited from interacting with volunteers and mentors who help them explore the world of STEM. I was particularly moved by Club kid Alexandra B.’s story – one that is all too familiar. Before she developed an excitement for STEM discovery, she believed that math and science simply weren’t for girls. Though she performed well in those subjects, she felt that exploring other interests would help her “fit in better” with her peers. A programming class at Alexandra’s Waltham Boys & Girls Club, however, changed her perception of STEM. “I realized there is science and math behind almost everything we do – like how algorithms work for TikTok,” the seventh-grader says. “More importantly, I realized that girls can do whatever they want to do. If I want to be interested in something, I can be.”

I was also thrilled to learn the story of sixth-grade Club kid Nicolly S., another Waltham Club kid who saw STEM in a new light with the help of her role model, Ms. Sophia. Nicolly says, “Ms. Sophia helps me with understanding problems and motivates me to work harder. STEM is different here at the Club: the learning environment is fun and allows me to have an open mind and not worry about getting something ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I just focus on learning or making something new.”

My most influential role model was my aunt. She worked at a nonprofit whose scientific research supported the development of improved agricultural outcomes, particularly for populations experiencing food insecurity. I was enamored with seeing her go to work each day as well as seeing how science and genetics were being used to solve a real-world problem. My aunt’s example transformed science from a theoretical school subject to a practical life utility. Following in my aunt’s footsteps, I majored in genetics and chemistry before receiving a PhD in biochemistry and spending two decades in the biotech field.

 

Today, one of the ways I engage in mentorship is by co-leading a program for women across research and development organizations at Thermo Fisher called Female ColLAB. The program is sponsored by our Chief Scientific Officer and our goal is to create a networking and mentoring circle for women leaders to develop the skills and tools to focus on their career growth and increase their impact within the company. We are in the second year of this program, and we are already hearing stories of positive impact from colleagues who participate.

Looking ahead

At Thermo Fisher, we see every day how diverse perspectives and new ideas are critical to fueling innovation, advancing science, and ultimately making the world a better place. This continues to drive our commitment to nurture a STEM workforce that reflects the diversity of the world around us and solves critical challenges for all of society. We have an existential responsibility to help all students, including girls, realize the depth of their passion and capability to thrive in STEM coursework and careers, so we can achieve this reality.

I’m heartened by the progress we’ve made as a society to date. For instance, historically, there tended to be much fewer women in engineering-related fields relative to other STEM fields, like biology. However, with the growing awareness and emphasis around gender equity in STEM education, we are now seeing more women engineers, and I think this will continue evolving in a positive direction.

My advice to every girl with an interest in STEM subjects: always be curious, be passionate and never let any limitation bog you down. As long as you do that, the sky’s the limit.

Learn more about Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s partnership with Thermo Fisher at www.bgca.org.

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