Inspiring Women in STEM
February 11 is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. As we celebrate women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) this month, six incredible women at the University of Arizona share their unique journeys.
"If my dad can write software, so can I."
— Adriana Stohn
Adriana Stohn came to the University of Arizona thinking she’d pursue a career in electrical and computer engineering. Then things changed. “My freshman year,” she says, “I became convinced that optics was the future of electronics. So, I am now majoring in optical engineering and minoring in electrical and computer engineering.”
In addition to her undergraduate studies and her work in the College of Optical Sciences Polarization Lab and Women in Optics student club, Adriana is the lead facilitator of the Arizona chapter of “Girls Who Code.” She helps girls in middle and high school learn STEM-critical computer science skills by teaching them how to code. The community and resources that Girls Who Code creates give young girls the confidence to learn coding. Stohn recalls one girl who had tried learning on her own and quickly became discouraged. But after coming to Girls Who Code, she felt the material was much easier to understand.
Stohn is not only interested in empowering young girls with the valuable skill of coding, but also in doing research that can inspire future generations. "I like being on the frontier of discovery. These moments happen once in a blue moon...it’s a lot of failure and not knowing what to do next. But it’s those moments when you know you’ve done something important that no one else has done before."
"I don’t want to sit in front of a computer all day. I want to be interacting with the world."
— Stacy Tollefson, PhD
Dr. Stacy Tollefson does just that. She interacts with people all over the world to share her knowledge of hydroponics. She discovered geology as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh and became fascinated with the movement of water and water chemistry. She came to Arizona to get her master’s in hydrology and is now a faculty member.
While she didn’t start off as gifted in math, she knew she needed to put everything she had into hard sciences and engineering if she wanted a career in water systems and chemistry. “Peer support was essential,” she says. “In my civil engineering classes there were more women than in mechanical engineering, and it was great to have some strong women in the group to work along with.”
Tollefson’s passion for hydrology was further inspired by a visit to Disney World. There, she saw a huge show of hydroponic systems at Epcot Center’s Land Pavilion. The systems were built by faculty at the University of Arizona and produced gigantic squash and grew citrus trees in sand. Tollefson couldn’t get back to Arizona soon enough to find the faculty who were responsible. As a result, she discovered the university’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.
Today, Tollefson is a professor and production manager for the rooftop greenhouse on top of the Student Union where they grow tomatoes, cucumber and peppers. She teaches anyone (not only agriculture students) how to grow hydroponically. She also gets visits from people in other countries, like Kenya, who want to learn what she knows.
Her advice to women in STEM: “It’s a matter of being strong and going after what you want to do, even if there are big challenges along the way.”
"I think that surgery is artistic — you can get creative with it and it is very impactful."
— Kayenat Aryeh
Kayenat Aryeh was inspired to pursue medicine when she was a young girl living in Pakistan. After a tragic bombing outside a mosque she was visiting with her family, a number of wounded and dead were brought inside and nobody knew how to help them. As she watched from the window, she knew she wanted to help people in pain by becoming a doctor.
One of her majors is molecular and cellular biology. She is also passionate about art and her artwork has been featured around Tucson. She says the two go hand in hand and believes that “being a well-rounded person makes you more empathetic and understanding.”
Her family immigrated to the United States under refugee status. Aryeh was seven at the time and English was her sixth language. When Aryeh told her mom she was going to be a doctor, her mom was very encouraging. Aryeh shares, “She is the strongest mother I know. She is a single mother of five and works and goes to school.”
As a first-generation college student, Aryeh didn’t know what to expect. “It was hard — I didn’t know things that seem obvious now, like renewing my FAFSA every year. I didn’t know how important SAT and ACT scores were,” she says. Resources like Think Tank and professor office hours were essential.
Ultimately, she hopes to perform surgery in war zones, where they need more medical professionals. While she tries not to compare herself with other students who might not have had to work as hard in college, she wants to inspire the next generation. “I want incoming students to know that it’s possible! You can take out loans, become an RA to save on living expenses, apply for scholarships in your college. But you have to motivate yourself. It’s up to you!”
"After bringing my kid into work, many women wrote to me and said, ‘You showed me that you can do things differently.’"
— Kim Ogden, PhD
Mentorship was a significant factor in Dr. Kim Ogden’s career path, and she is now paying it forward as an advocate and inspiration to the next generation of women in STEM. Ogden grew up in a small town in upstate New York. “There were 90 kids in my graduating class in high school. That was the town. Everybody went there,” she says. “I liked chemistry in high school, which sounds a little weird, but I did like chemistry and math. My mom always had a can-do attitude, you know? Do whatever you want.” Her mom, who was a nurse, encouraged her to explore different universities, including Syracuse, where she went.
Ogden instead opted for the University of Pennsylvania. There, she had a lot of potential career paths she could follow, but chose engineering, in part, because of her mentors. She shares, “One of these people is still a mentor to me today — Warren Seider — he’s been teaching for 50 years now. He took me in and asked, ‘Well, what do you want to do? Do you want to go to grad school?’ and I was like ‘I don't know, I’m just surviving!’” Ogden did more than survive. She got into research her sophomore year. “That made a difference — you hang out with the graduate students.”
At Arizona, Ogden is a professor of chemical engineering in the Chemical and Environmental Engineering department and a renowned biofuels expert. Her research focus includes designing bioreactors to produce alternative fuels from things like algae. These types of sustainable solutions will help address the increasing demand for water, food and energy, which are all connected, across the globe. Ogden’s goal is also to “foster leadership, especially in young people,” she says. “It’s important to encourage faculty to mentor. It’s important that that is part of our jobs.”
"Never stop working and never stop trying. You’ll never know how good you can be if you don’t try."
— Hannah Whetzel
Hannah Whetzel is proof that if you work hard towards your goals, you can achieve them. She was born in Tucson and found a passion for math and running when she was in high school. Her teacher, Ms. Kerry, inspired an appreciation for math and encouraged Whetzel to work hard. She says, "I didn’t think that I was very smart or good at math!" But when everyone else stopped trying, she tried harder. At the same time, her high school coaches told her she should be on the University of Arizona track team. "I didn’t think I was that fast" she says.
Whetzel's love for math turned into an interest in mechanical engineering and her passion for running has led her to be a three-time PAC-12 All-Academic honors recipient. Today, she is inspired by her track and field team to excel not only on the track but also in the classroom. She likes knowing that if she understands course material she will be able to help her classmates with their studying as well. Whetzel says that "Excelling in academics or running leads to success in the other."
While she has accepted a job at Raytheon Missile Systems after graduation, Whetzel eventually wants to do something medically related with athletics because she has had many injuries. She’d love to apply her knowledge and make athletes lives easier in the future.
"I hope I'm inspiring young girls. When I was a kid I was always looking for someone like me and often couldn't find it."
— Emily Walla
Emily Walla grew up on a farm in Lowell, Arkansas. One night she looked up and saw the Milky Way. She immediately fell in love with
Walla is currently a third-year undergraduate pursuing a double major in astronomy and physics and a minor in linguistics. She combines these fields of study by doing science writing and making complex material easy to digest for readers. Walla is also part of the Astronomy Club, which has given her the valuable opportunity to "connect with the community, teachers
"We also do a lot of outreach in the club," she explains. "We go to elementary schools, talk astronomy, physics sometimes, and set up telescopes, play board games or watch movies as people who are interested in space."
The most challenging thing for Walla is managing her time. "I'm a student. I take a lot of classes. I coordinate outreach events for the astronomy club. I mentor freshmen who are new to the astronomy department. Plus, I write as a science communications intern through NASA's Arizona Space Grant. Making sure everything gets done is the greatest challenge while maintaining friendships and making sure I call my mom." To help with this balance, Emily utilizes the insight and counseling services at the Counseling and Psych Services, known as CAPS.
Her advice to other Arizona Wildcats: "If you want something, go for it. Email people, talk to people. With NASA internships, there is a human being on the other end. If you remember that and remember there is a human connection you can make, you can talk to anyone."