Office of Public Engagement

STEM into the Future: A Roundtable Discussion with NASA's Saralyn Mark

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Council on Women and Girls launched "Women in STEM Speakers Bureau," where top Administration female STEM specialists participate in roundtables with girls in grades 6-12 across the country. This week, NASA's Saralyn Mark met with students from School for Green Careers.

Senior Medical Advisor in the Office of the Chief Health and Medical Officer at NASA Saralyn Mark reflects on meeting female students at a STEM Roundtable at Barnard College and the future role of  women in STEM careers:

It is not too often when the past meets the future. I had such an experience on September 26, 2011 on the campus of Barnard College of Columbia University. As soon as I walked through the gates of the college off Broadway Avenue in New York City, memories of my school days as a young student from Colorado came flooding back. I even recalled the moment when I entered and saw the campus for the first time on a sweltering and humid day in August with my mother alongside me. This time, I was back to give a lecture at  a biomedical conference exploring the differences in the pain response between men and women. Now I was not the student but the teacher hoping to instill the joy of science in the students in the audience.

One of the highlights for me that day was to meet the future class of college students from the School for Green Careers, a secondary school in Manhattan. Female students in their junior year came to Barnard that afternoon to learn more about careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in a roundtable that I hosted in the Student Union after the conference. These young women, from the Bronx and Manhattan, shared with me their aspirations to be doctors and engineers. Some even told me which specific field they preferred such as heart surgery or civil engineering.

Very quickly their shyness gave way to a panoply of questions including why I wanted to become a doctor, what did I study in college, how did I balance career and family, and did I ever want to give up? Frank questions that deserved equally frank answers. I wanted them to have a realistic view of what it took to have a career in science and the excitement and awe that I felt almost everyday in my medical training (along with sheer exhaustion). As I began sharing my stories, they began sharing their dreams.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Council on Women and Girls have developed the "Women in STEM Speakers Bureau" where women in government in STEM careers lead discussions or roundtables with students around the nation. It has been reported that the gender disparity in the United States in STEM is alarming. According to a report from the Department of Commerce, only 25% of jobs in STEM are filled by women even though 50% of the workforce are women. The outlook is very discouraging if this current trend continues. We know that mentoring and support systems are important to encourage young women to enter these fields.

I remembered the moment that I decided to attend Barnard. It  was when I was told by the college that if I did well, they would help me get into medical school. When I informed them that I also wanted to practice medicine on the moon, they smiled since women were just entering the astronaut corps at the time. Now that I have worked at NASA for over 12 years helping to develop standards for medical care to be delivered on the Moon and eventually on Mars, my goals are being achieved. From even my college days, I realized the value of mentoring or perhaps I should say, "womentoring". Roundtables on STEM will play a valuable role to ensure that women will not only practice on Mars, but also to design the space vehicles that will take us there.

Avra Siegel is the Deputy Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls.

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