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Fun and inspiration for 575 young women at PPPL’s Young Women’s Conference

Some 575 seventh- to tenth-grade girls from throughout New Jersey, as well as Pennsylvania and Maryland, found fun and inspiration doing myriad hands-on activities and meeting female scientists at The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s 15th annual Young Women’s Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) on March 18. They talked to investigators from the FBI, watched colorful infrared images of themselves, played with robots, learned about electronics and plasma physics, saw cool chemistry, and heard about careers in STEM. 

Raisa Rubin-Stankiewicz, an eighth grader at John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton, New Jersey, said she is interested in both astronomy and chemistry and wanted to see everything. “It’s really exciting,” she said. “I really want to learn as much as I can about different topics.” 

About 80 people staffed 30 exhibits at the conference at Princeton University's Frick Chemistry Laboratory. That included 40 PPPL staff members who helped out with registration and crowd control, and staffed a PPPL exhibit. The exhibit included plasma demonstrations like the popular Van de Graaff generator, which demonstrates static electricity by making people’s hair stand on end, and PPPL’s 3-D printers, which created plastic chains and other objects as students watched.

A highlight of the conference was a cool chemistry program in which Kathryn Wagner, of Princeton University’s Department of Chemistry, turned flames various colors using a variety of chemicals.

Despite having twice as many students as last year, the conference ran remarkably smoothly, said Deedee Ortiz, the program manager in PPPL’s Science Education department, who organized the conference. “Every single kid is engaged,” she said. “They’re all having a very good time and they’re excited. If we can get them to research something they didn’t know about before this, I’ve done my job.” 

Ortiz said she never had a chance to take part in science activities as a kid. “When I was a kid, Mom would say, ‘Don’t get dirty.’” It was a different time,” she said. “Now I’m providing them with opportunities that many young women from my generation didn’t have. “ 

One major goal of the conference is to inspire young women to pursue STEM careers. While the percentage of women in science and engineering careers has increased in the past decades, women still constitute less than 30 percent of all science and engineering occupations, according to a 2015 report by the National Science Foundation. They lag even further behind in certain fields, such as engineering, computer sciences, and physics.  

The White House has numerous initiatives to improve STEM education, including President Obama’s Race to the Top Program’s 2013 Youth Career Connect grants to redesign high schools to help prepare students for college and careers. Federal agencies also engage in numerous activities promoting women in STEM. One example is the Department of Energy’s profiles of women in STEM careers through its Women@Energy series. 

Earlier in the day, the students listened to a panel discussion by women from the Association for Women in Science that included neuroscientists, researchers, and science writer Jill Whidby. Whidby, who works for Integrium, a company that manages clinical trials, told students she found her job through networking. “In order to get to the top of the pile it really helps to network,” she said. “As you get older, that becomes more and more important.”

Kayla Seeley, a tenth-grader at Somerville High School, said she enjoyed the career panel. “I think the highlight for me was the people talking about different things you can do in science and what you can start doing now to prepare in different fields,” she said.

Students from the Cultural Academy for Excellence in Mount Rainier, Maryland, treated the girls to a rollicking steel drum concert that brought the house down. 

The day concluded with a speech by keynote speaker Jin Kim Montclare, a researcher and professor in the New York University Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Montclare described her research into creating artificial proteins that can deliver drugs to a specific area of the body in order to fight diseases like breast cancer. 

Montclare discussed how her early interest in nature as a child became a successful career in a cutting-edge research field. She said she was helped and encouraged by several mentors along the way. But she said she has also had to ignore people who told her she wasn’t good enough, including one professor who told her she shouldn’t apply to a certain graduate school because she was a woman. “There are always going to be people who say you can’t do it,” she said. “ What you can do is have selective hearing in that ear. Tune down the people who tell you you can’t do it and tune up the people who are supportive. Use your hard work, roll up your sleeves, and make it happen.”

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. Results of PPPL research have ranged from a portable nuclear materials detector for anti-terrorist use to universally employed computer codes for analyzing and predicting the outcome of fusion experiments. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.


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Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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