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A day of inspiration as NJ First Lady Tammy Murphy joins more than 700 girls at PPPL’s Young Women’s Conference

New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy came to the Young Women’s Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) organized by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory on May 21 to cheer on the more than 700 seventh-to-tenth-grade girls having fun with science activities and promote STEM education in the state.

Murphy watched girls doing hands-on activities at Princeton University’s Frick Chemistry Laboratory that ranged from operating robots to an FBI display on forensics investigations to interacting with PPPL’s plasma demos. She said she believes the Young women’s Conference is a model that should be replicated and expanded. “I am here to encourage the girls,” Murphy said, “and I like the fact that PPPL is the energy and the voice behind this. I’m just really glad we’re doing this.” 

Gov. Phil Murphy has emphasized the importance of developing technology and innovation industries for New Jersey’s economic development. Murphy repeated Gov. Murphy’s quote that, because of New Jersey’s history as an incubator of technology, “We were Silicon Valley before there was a Silicon Valley.” She added that, “We need STEM and STEM education in order to take this state to the 21st century.” 

Changing STEM job statistics 

PPPL, a collaborative national center for fusion and plasma technology funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, has organized the Young Women’s Conference for 18 years with the aim of changing statistics showing that a comparatively small percentage of women are entering STEM fields, particularly in engineering and physics. Although women constitute 50 percent of the college-educated workforce, only 40 percent of women receive degrees in science and engineering and only 29 percent of those were employed in science and engineering occupations in 2015, according to the National Science Board. And women continue to represent a small portion of certain fields, with just 14 percent of women in engineering, 28 percent in the physical sciences, and 26 percent in computer and mathematical sciences. 

Girls from schools throughout New Jersey and a few from out of state participate in the conference. One group, the Cultural Academy for Excellence, came all the way from Mount Rainier Maryland. They took part in 37 hands-on activities, including displays by Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories, the Liberty Science Center, the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, and several groups from Princeton University, including the Baby Lab and the Neuroscience Institute. The conference is funded by the DOE Office of Science (Fusion Energy Sciences).  

“They’re excited, they’re enthusiastic, they’re engaged and they’re having fun and learning at the same time,” said Deedee Ortiz, the Science Education program manager and organizer of the conference. “You can’t beat it. It’s the best way to learn!” 

More than 50 volunteers

Andrew Zwicker, head of Communications and Public Outreach, said he believes the event was the most successful one yet due to the work of more than 50 volunteers, from PPPL, the Princeton Site Office, and Princeton University. “You could feel the energy and enthusiasm of the students about the science they saw,” Zwicker said. “The volunteers spoke with tremendous excitement about the research they do and it all happened because of the tremendous power of our volunteers!” 

In addition to scientists and engineers, there were also several young women participating as exhibitors. Girls from the WAGS (Women and Girl Scouts) Robotics Team, of West Windsor, showed off their robot. Among all the high-tech gadgetry, Vinathi Muthyala, an eighth grader from Hightstown, and her sister, Sahi, an 11th grader, showed girls math tricks using a pencil and paper. “I think a lot of girls typically don’t like math, but we’re trying to change a lot of that,” Sahi Muthyala said. “Math’s totally important because it’s the basis of STEM.” 

Brenda Krampert, from Spring Lake, brought her daughter Bryce, a ninth grader, to the program for the second year in a row. “I think this is one of the most generous opportunities for young girls,” she said. 

Rebecca Ochan, a high school student from Highland Park, said she enjoyed seeing such a range of STEM fields represented at the conference. “Just being at this conference gives me an idea of what I might want to do,” she said.  Her friend, Sciera Gaither, also a tenth grader, said the hands-on experiments helped her connect the dots. “The conference tells you, “Why do I need to know this?” she said.

Breakout speakers and a chemistry show

The girls heard breakout speakers Jodi Schottenfeld Roames, a lecturer in Princeton University’s Department of Molecular Biology, and Kamana Misra, principal of the start-up company BioThink LLC and president of the Association for Women in Science, New Jersey chapter, discuss their careers. They also watched things go boom in the popular chemistry show by Katherine (Kitty) Wagner, a lecture demonstrator in Princeton University’s Chemistry Department and director of Princeton Chemistry Outreach. 

Eva Shahab, an eighth grader at Princeton Charter School, said she particularly enjoyed hearing Roames discuss her career. “She was really excited about what she did and she just loved it,” Shahab said, “so that was really inspiring.” 

Keynote speaker recalls encouragement of teacher 

In her keyote address at Richardson Auditorium, Celeste Nelson, a professor in Princeton’s University’s departments of Chemical & Biological Engineering and Molecular Biology, and principal investigator of the Tissues Morphodynamics Laboratory, discussed her journey to becoming a scientist. 

The daughter of a father who was a cab driver and a mother who was a teaching assistant in Denver, Nelson said she never considered becoming an engineer until a high school teacher told her that her math and science skills would make engineering a good career choice. Nelson went on to get an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering and biology at MIT. She said she pursued a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine because she wanted to lead a research team “It’s incredibly creative work and I was hooked,” she said of engineering.  And along the way she also started to love teaching.  

Understanding how animals develop lungs

She discussed her research into how various animals develop organs, such as the brain or the lungs. Nelson said her “favorite organ” is the lungs. “Theyre an amazing feat of natural engineering,” she said. The lungs are composed of 8 million tubes that deliver oxygen to a gas exchange surface in the lungs that is 100 square meters in area or about the size of a tennis court, Nelson said. 

Scientists are trying to understand how the lungs develop in humans and other mammals as well as other animals such as birds, so that they can mimic that process to design an artificial lung, Nelson said. “Our hope is that one day in the future we’ll be able to use these different strategies to build organs, not only for basic biological research but also so that everyone can breathe a bit easier,” she said. 

Nelson concluded by encouraging the girls to find mentors who will inspire them as her teacher inspired her. “I hope you’ve had a wonderful day of science today,” she told the group. “I hope you leave here believing that if you want to do any sort of science, engineering, or math-based discipline, you have that power at your disposal, and at the very least, thank your teachers!” 

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. 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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