June 17, 2013

Encouraging Girls In STEM: An Interview with Dr. Lana Yarosh

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Lana_Yarosh_PhD

I remember growing up and wondering what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was 7 when I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. That decision was based on several conversation I had with a family friend. It wasn’t until I was in my teens when I finally met a woman lawyer. Prior to that, I never thought about whether “girls” could be lawyers.

Then there was the emersion in science in high school. I was fortunate there were a number of girls in my classes. Girls who, like me, could hold their own. It wasn’t that we weren’t given the “she’s a girl” look. Rather, we were all able to establish ourselves as capable. I was the only girl on the High-Q (think quiz bowl) team. I know I was chosen because I excelled on the tests and could answer the questions, but in the city I was just one of a hand full of girls out of more than a dozen teams, and many believed I was just window dressing.

So when BabyGirl asks me about science and math and engineering, I work very hard to find women who are working in STEM careers. And while we don’t allow but a few hours of TV time a week, Design Squad has been a staple in our house for years (despite only having one season available on AppleTV). Seeing older girls competing with boys in a STEM-intensive challenge is motivating and encouraging for BabyGirl.

When I was offered the opportunity to speak to Dr. Svetlana “Lana” Yarosh at AT&T Labs Research, I couldn’t turn it down. A young woman whose parents are both scientists, Dr. Yarosh didn’t gravitate to STEM naturally. Despite being a trailblazer, with a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry, Dr. Yarosh’s mother didn’t direct her daughter onto her path. Instead, Dr. Yarosh said her mother encouraged her to find her own passion and excel at what she loved. That’s probably the best advice we can give our daughters, while still helping to create opportunities for them.

Dr. Yarosh was generous with her time, as well as being candid about her experiences as one of only a few girls in her STEM-focused classes.

Me: Why do you think there are still so few girls pursuing STEM education?

Dr. Yarosh: Even today, one of the challenges is actually keeping girls engaged. Often, teachers and instructors will overlook the contributions girls are able to make, and male students may be intimidating with their ‘I have been doing this for years’ talk.

Me: When I think back to being an engineering student, I just shake my head in agreement. There weren’t many girls and we were often ignored. Why do you think girls, even now, shy away from STEM education as they move up in grade?

Dr. Yarosh: Without the opportunity to learn about the various programs, girls may believe certain classes, such as those in Computer Science, are boring or require you to sit behind a computer focused on a screen. Girls aren’t given first-hand experience so they have to rely on what they read or see on TV.

Me: How do we change this perception with girls?

Dr. Yarosh: Mentors are a great way for girls to ask questions about the jobs women are doing. By participating in mentorship programs, women in STEM careers are reaching out to girls in elementary, junior high, and high school. It’s also important for girls to find women who are doing things they’re interested in doing and ask them how they did it, what path they took.

Me: What is one piece of advice you’d give an elementary school girl who is interested in STEM?

Dr. Yarosh: “Be Fearless!” Don’t let fear dissuade you from learning. Don’t let other people who brag that they’re really good at something stop you from trying.

Me: Teachers are often a big influence on girls when it comes to pursuing interests in STEM. What advice would you give teachers to help them keep girls engaged and interested?

Dr. Yarosh: Encourage play, especially at the lower grades. Encourage girls to try and not be afraid of breaking things. Let them know that if they do break it, it’s OK, it’s part of learning.

Me: Now that you’ve got your Ph.D. and are working alongside other women to create real-world products and services, what are a few things you’d change if you could go back in time?

Dr. Yarosh: I would stress out less. I was too worried about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’ve realized now that we never really grow up. I’d also play more and not be worried that I was doing something wrong because I hadn’t been working with something since I was a kid. If you keep trying things you’ll get a sense of where you belong.

Dr. Yarosh created a path that worked for her. It was through mentors and teachers who encouraged her to keep at it that she has been able to merge her love of psychology and technology. And one thing I found especially significant was that she found ways to measure her success. Rather than rely on ways others were measuring success, she created ways to boost her confidence and keep her motivated to continue rather than get discouraged and allow other’s perceptions of success determine her path.

I appreciate Dr. Yarosh taking time to share her thoughts about Girls in STEM with me. I can relate to a lot of what she talked about, having been discouraged from pursing an engineering degree because I was girl in a male-dominated program. Twenty years later, things are improving for our young girls. And it’s women like Dr. Yarosh who defy the odds and pursue their passion who are the role models parents like myself seek out for their daughters.

While there are more women in STEM careers now, I’m often searching to find examples for BabyGirl. I have found that there are many, like Dr. Yarosh, who are not only working in their chosen field but are searching for opportunities to bring their passion to a new generation of young women. As Dr. Yarosh has shown, the path to your passion doesn’t have to be one that everyone else takes.

About Dr. Yarosh:

Svetlana “Lana” Yarosh is an HCI researcher at AT&T Labs Research in New Jersey. She was born in Moscow, Russia and immigrated to America with her family in 1995. She received two Bachelors of Science from University of Maryland (in Computer Science and Psychology) and a Doctor of Philosophy from the Human-Centered Computing program at Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research falls primarily in the area of Human-Computer Interaction, with a focus on Ubiquitous and Social Computing and a special interest in Child-Computer Interaction. Lana has a passion for empirically investigating real-world needs that may be addressed through computing applications, designing and developing technological interventions, and evaluating them using a balance of qualitative and quantitative methods. Most recently, she has created the ShareTable — a media space system supporting synchronous remote communication between children and parents in divorced families. Her work has been featured on CNN, has won multiple innovation competitions, and has been recognized with a Fran Allen Ph.D. Fellowship Award. Lana is honored to have been the recipient of numerous grants and scholarships including the AT&T Labs Research Graduate Fellowship, the IBM Graduate Fellowship, and the Nokia University Funding Award.

Sara

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