Words of Wisdom: Women of Color in STEM discuss Mentorship and Balance

Blog Post by Kelly Baker, AmeriCorps member and Diversity Fellow at Science Club for Girls

panel1(Left to Right: Dr. Monica Hall-Porter, Dr. Mareshia Donald , Dr. Alissa Myrick , Maya Hanna, Dr. Victoria Abraira, Dr. Laurel Royer ) 

 

Science Club for Girls hosted a panel discussion last month called “Women of Color in STEM: Finding Mentorship and Balance.”  The panel featured the fabulous Dr. Monica Hall-Porter, assistant professor of Biology at Dean College, as the moderator.  The panelists were five highly accomplished women, Maya Hanna from Pfizer, Dr. Alissa Myrick from Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Mareshia Donald from SEED Academy at MIT, Dr. Laurel Royer from Exponent, Inc, and Dr. Victoria Abraira from Harvard Medical School.

 

The event was intended to be an evening in which panelists discussed challenges they’ve faced in their careers as women of color in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields, as well as practices for successful work/life balance. The panel took place at Simmons College, in partnership with the Simmons Institute for Leadership and Change.

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Dr. Hall-Porter jumped into the questions by asking the panelists if they had mentors and where they found mentorship.  Each panelist acknowledged the importance of seeking a mentor either professionally or personally—in fact, all of the panelists reported that they have had several mentors over the years.  Some of the mentors they had were administrators of programs for undergraduates, peers, work colleagues and some relationships were formed at formal mentoring groups.

Dr. Myrick threw in some advice for those who are shy when approaching someone to be their mentor—she finds it useful to write down the questions she wants to ask them to help start conversation, and to keep in mind that often people really enjoy the opportunity to help young professionals and colleagues.

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I was struck by how candid the panelists were during the discussion.  Dr. Hall-Porter was charming and humorous, bringing a degree of levity to an often-serious subject.  The room felt abuzz with energy during the entire event.

When discussing what the women did to find balance, they gave a range of answers. Some ran or volunteered.  Others mentioned filling free time with fun activities and finding meaningful work that gave them a level of control and leadership over their work/life balance. Dr. Abraira made a great point that as women we absolutely can “do it all” – from excelling academically to doing chores around the house, but that doesn’t mean we should “do it all.”  She advised women to ask for help when they need it, whether from family, friends, or their partner.

Dr. Donald also brought up the point that work life balance is rarely 50/50 and it is, to a certain respect, a conscious choice one makes.  She said that sometimes she’s 70/30 motherhood/work, and other times the pendulum will swing back towards work. She regularly checks in with herself to make sure that she is comfortable with the balance ratio in her life, and make adjustments accordingly. 

Dr. Myrick spoke briefly to being a solo parent—she said she values carving out time with friends when she is “just me, not a scientist, not a mom” as a way to balance work and home life.

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The women had great advice for the middle and high school students present (some of whom are currently Junior Mentors in Science Club for Girls). When considering what colleges to apply to, they weighed the cost, the types of programs and majors, and the school culture.  When applying to graduate schools, they considered research opportunities, faculty, program, weather, cost to travel (to go home and for family to come), and location. 

Cost was an issue for about half the panelists–many selected colleges at state schools, or where they were able to get a scholarship.  One panelist advised young women to apply for big 10 grad schools—they’re free, then use money for select schools that may be “safety.” Their final suggestion for female high school and college students of color was to take advantage of opportunities when they come along.

The most special moment for me was when, right after I thanked the panelists for their illuminating discussion, two teenaged girls rushed up to one of the panelists and immediately started asking questions.  The look of eagerness and interest on their faces highlighted to me that they had felt engaged throughout the panel and had gained a lot from hearing these incredible women speak about their lives and aspirations.

A sizeable portion of the audience stayed for 45 minutes after the panel, talking with the speakers and with each other.  A common refrain I heard was that more conversations like these need to happen, and how wonderful it was to have a room of women of color in STEM coming together to talk about their careers, lives, and strategies for success.

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We are hoping to have future panels in a seminar series on the subject of gender, race, and mentorship in STEM.  If you’d like to sign up to hear about future events of this nature, please go to our website: http://scienceclubforgirls.org/contact-us

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