STEMinine – A Supportive Community for Women and Femmes in STEM

Source: https://thenib.com/women-in-stem-speak-up

Jessica Droujko, McGill BEng 2015, retells the story of how she sat next to a rocket scientist on a plane, and how he convinced her that she too can be a rocket scientist. Now, years after that fateful encounter, Jessica is completing her Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, more commonly known as ETH Zurich. As a woman engineer, Jessica saw a lack of exposure of women and femmes in STEM fields (i.e. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), which in turn indirectly discourage young girls from pursuing those fields. Jessica wants high school and university students to be able to ask whatever they want and to find support in their search. Her project, STEMinine, does aims to do exactly that — showcases women and femmes in STEM.

I interviewed Jessica to ask her a few questions about her experience as a woman in engineering, her vision for STEMinine, and her advice for students in STEM. I also got a few golden nuggets on how life is in Switzerland. On a side note, Jessica and I graduated from the same high school. We have a common best friend who linked us together for this exact blog post, in hopes of bringing STEMinine to more people who may need it.

Check out STEMinine and share it with someone who needs it!
Instagram: @stemininevlog
Twitter: @STEMinineVlog
Youtube: STEMinine

What motivated you to go into engineering?

This is my story and only particular to me. Because of my experiences growing up in a single-parent household, I always felt like I need to have security in my life. I knew that I needed to have a good job since I felt like my mom had a difficult time supporting me and my sister at times. I liked sports and I liked art, but I couldn’t see a future in sport and art, and I was good at math and physics. That’s the first part.

The second part is how cool being a rocket scientist sounds. Naturally, I thought that rocket science was out of my reach because I thought that you must be outstandingly smart. A pivotal event was when I sat next to a rocket scientist on a plane while I was coming back from a kayaking trip in Chile. He convinced me that I don’t have to be super smart and to just go for it. I thought “Why not? If this guy says that I can do it, I’m sure he’s right.” I had good grades in high school, so I applied to mechanical engineering at McGill. I enjoyed what I studied, and now, doing my Master’s, I’m super glad that this strange path led me to engineering.

Tell us a little about your work in mechanical engineering.

At McGill, I worked on experimental combustion with metal powders in the Alternative Fuels Lab in the mechanical engineering building. We did experiments on different powders for various reasons – propulsion, factory explosion, etc.

Now, I am doing computational combustion, just for a bit of change. I am using Large Eddy Simulations, a form of Computational Fluid Dynamics, to predict thermoacoustic instabilities in gas turbine engines (It’s normal if this doesn’t make sense to you!). Engines, in general, are prone to vibrations when you try to burn lean, which means burning less fuel. Burning lean is a win-win situation since companies save money and they also pollute less. The trouble is that the vibrations can cause components of the engine to crack. To illustrate how tricky this balancing can be, Apollo 11 ran on an engine that was rebuilt nearly 2000 times just because of thermoacoustic instabilities. There’s no linear relation to predict these fluctuations, so my work now is modeling these instabilities computationally.

What was your experience of being a woman in engineering?

At McGill, it was very normal. I had a lot of friends in chemical engineering, where the gender division was near equal. I also had a few friends in mechanical engineering. It was a huge shock when I moved to Switzerland, where another student and myself were the only women in our program.

My personal experiences as a woman in engineering have been great. The thing that’s hard is everything online, such as the Google Anti-Diversity Memo and internet trolls, that say there are fewer women in STEM fields because of biological difference.

Why do you think this is such a difference between Canada and Switzerland in our attitudes of women in STEM fields?

I think it’s because Canada is so young and so spread out with a relatively small population, whereas Switzerland is a smaller country that borders many other countries, each with their deep and unique history. European countries are so different historically and culturally, yet so close together geographically. Perhaps they act differently on purpose to preserve their identity. Sometimes I feel like the Swiss believe that change is bad and that any change is changing their identity.

What motivated you to start STEMinine?

When I was at McGill, the younger sisters of some of my friends from high school would contact me with questions about studying engineering. They have all since gone into engineering programs. I wondered why so many young girls do not go into STEM fields, and I honestly think that it’s related to the lack of exposure of women and femmes in STEM. It’s hard to be someone that you don’t know, or that you don’t see. Sometimes, the difference between choosing engineering (in the case of my friends’ sisters) and another field is having someone to answer a few simple questions. For me, I met a guy on an airplane, and I want to provide that same resource to students.

What is your vision for STEMinine?

I haven’t thought that far ahead because I’m just afraid that it’s going to fail and plummet to the ground, and I would have made a fool of myself. But what I aspire for is to build a community where people can feel supported, where they do not feel ashamed to come with their questions. My goal is eventually if someone Googles “should I be a (blank) engineer/scientist/mathematician?”, then these videos would pop-up to convince them that they should.

In what ways did your programs prepare you for this work?

Getting two degrees in engineering made me more capable of talking about science, and that has helped me to interview other engineers. Also, during my experience at the Alternative Fuels Lab during my bachelors, the professor drilled it into us that we needed to be good speakers. Every week, someone different would present their research. He always said “Hey look, you’re doing all this work, but what’s going to be the point if you can’t explain it to anyone. If your idea cannot hold someone’s attention, it’s almost like there is no point of doing your work”. He prepared me to be able to ask the right questions, how to answer questions, and speak in front of people.

I also tend not to care what others think. That’s an excellent trait to have, and I think it’s because I have a lot of great friends who love me, and so I don’t have to worry about all those people who don’t.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

To my younger self – not to people in general but just to my younger self – I would say, don’t stress. People in high school always made fun of me for stressing, because I needed good grades to get into a top school and study engineering. I was always stressed out, and what I’ve learned is that there are so many things over which we have no control. I know someone who was the top of his class at McGill with a 4.0 GPA, and was rejected from MIT for his Master’s. When I get stressed, I always ask myself “how do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time. There’s only so much you can do, so try to do your best, and that’s all you can do.

Do you have any advice for women and femme students wishing to pursue a career in the STEM fields?

I think the number one thing is to be flexible within the STEM fields and find something that you thoroughly enjoy, and that’s where your passion will come from. For me, I love combustion. I worked hard at it because I genuinely liked it. Once you find the thing that you truly like, it becomes so much easier to excel at it. And it would suck to work on something that you don’t like.

Another thing is not to get discouraged after the first and second year of university. In general, first year is the worst. You move to a new city that you don’t know, with a bunch of people you don’t, and you take general courses with what feels like seven thousand million students in your class. It’s just difficult, and it’s not even what you signed up for. Third year is when you start learning about engineering stuff. I would advise you to wait at least until third year to drop out of your program.

Something that I use in my life, and that has worked out well for me so far, is always to take the thing that’s scarier. What that looks like can be the decision to go to Switzerland or stay at McGill for my Master’s. At McGill, I know the professor, I know the group, I know the project, and I know that after two years, I would probably have a job here. I could see my future, and that’s very comfortable and reassuring. For Switzerland, I had no idea what the project will be like, and I had no idea what the group that I’ll be working with will be like. But challenging opportunities are where the best opportunities lie. Staying at McGill was one possible path. Maybe it would have been certain variations of that path, but most likely, the path was going to stay predictable. But moving here, the possibilities are endless, and I think that that is what I always aim to do. That’s my last piece of advice.

Instagram: @stemininevlog
Twitter: @STEMinineVlog
Youtube: STEMinine

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