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Awards ceremony for young women kicks off mentoring program

Margarita Cejudo Arita, a junior at New Brunswick High School, would like to study engineering in college but she’s not sure what kind of engineering to focus on. She’s looking forward to learning about engineering careers through a new program offered by the Women in Engineering group at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).

Margarita and another student from New Brunswick High School and two from Trenton Central High School, both in New Jersey, were recognized for their achievements at a virtual kick-off ceremony for the program on May 25. The program aims to help young women navigate a path to a career in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). She and the other students learned about PPPL and met their mentors who will provide support and advice to them as they apply for colleges in their senior year.

Margarita, who excels in mathematics and is interested in a variety of STEM fields, said she was glad to hear her mentors say that they tried out different fields and jobs in STEM. “Their journeys to where they are now weren’t straightforward,” Margarita said. “They had to learn different jobs and they had to learn different things. It was an accumulation of all those different skills they got from different jobs that got them to where they are now. I thought that was really cool.”

An online welcome session

The students and about 40 PPPL engineers and staff members took part in the virtual program, which included remarks by Steve Cowley, PPPL director; Jon Menard, deputy director for research; plasma demonstrations by Shannon Swilley Greco, senior program leader in Science Education; and breakout sessions with mentors 

The four young women each received their certificates and awards in the mail along with a laptop, which they can use for their schoolwork and college applications. They will begin meeting regularly with their mentors in the fall and will attend panel discussions and other programs.

Cowley, a theoretical physicist, gave opening remarks in which he told the audience that his father was an engineer and inspired him to pursue a career in science. “Engineers don’t just look like me,” Cowley said. “It’s an opportunity that anybody can take up and we want you to think about a career in which you do engineering and science and find some joy in that.”

“Bringing the change we all want to see”

Ankita Jariwala, the co-chair of Women in Engineering (WiE), an employee resource group at PPPL, said she and other female engineers often find they are the only women in the room. It’s not unique to PPPL given the small ratio of female engineers nationwide. Women still lag behind men in STEM fields. While women made up 48 percent of all workers in the U.S., they represented only about 27 percent of STEM workers and only 14 percent of engineers in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We wanted to figure out how we could bring the change we all want to see,” said Jariwala, a mechanical engineer. “We want to see more girls in STEM. We want to see more women in our engineering meetings.”

“This is our first opportunity to have an impact on young women to get them interested in STEM,” said WiE co-chair Jessica Guttenfelder, a mechanical engineer and technical operations supervisor. “This is our way of having an impact on a completely different community.”

Jordan Vannoy, PPPL executive director of human resources and organizational development, said she credits WiE members with developing a program that partners with the community, strengthens stem pipeline development and provides mentoring and leadership opportunities for WiE members. “It’s important that we recognize the staff that had the idea and the initiative to put this program together,” she said. “It will be most exciting when the first class graduates from college and we will see the impact PPPL had on them.” 

Barbara Harrison, PPPL’s equity, diversity and inclusion business partner, echoed that sentiment. ‘I’m super excited, she said. “I’m looking forward to this growing and strengthening our pipeline by encouraging these girls to build their STEM knowledge and to look at careers in the STEM fields.”

Reaching students in underserved school districts

Swilley Greco, the science education senior program leader who helped organize the program, said she is glad the group reached out to  students in underserved school districts. “We don’t want to focus our internships and programs just to those who already have access to resources,” Swilley Greco said. “We want to make it a very real possibility for all students to come here.” 

Alexandra (Alex) Pantry, an electronics technician at PPPL, reached out to guidance counselors at New Brunswick and Trenton high schools to seek nominations. Pantry said she likes the idea of reaching young women who have less opportunity to join extra-curricular STEM programs. “I was initially drawn to it because in my spare time I do a lot of work reaching out to those in certain communities that don’t have the same access as others,” she said. “I was really excited for the opportunity to continue to do that work.”

Providing guidance through mentoring

Kate Morrison, a PPPL engineer who is deputy head of Facilities and Site Services, said she is looking forward to getting the mentoring program started this summer. The young women will meet with their mentors at least once every three months and will have tours, panel discussions and other activities as well. “Our role will be providing that constant connection and that constant encouragement, letting them know that they have somebody whom they can come to with questions,” she said.

Ashley Cardona-Carillo, a 10th-grader at Trenton Central High School, said she is interested in learning more about engineering. “I know you come up with ideas and I’m going to get to know more about it,” she said.

Naomy Gonzalez Rivas, a junior at New Brunswick High School, is also a self-described “big math person,” who is interested in possibly studying civil engineering. “I don’t have connections with people in this field, so it’s difficult for me to really understand what engineering is about,” she said.

Yaquelyn Rivera, a junior at Trenton Central High School who has a 4.0 grade point average, said she is already deeply interested in science and engineering and is looking forward to learning more. “To me the best part is definitely having mentors,” Rivera said. “I’ve never had a mentor before and I feel like I can learn so many new things from them and they’ll be able to help me on this path.” 

The 2022 awards will be presented at PPPL’s Young Women’s Conference in STEM for seventh- to tenth-graders next March, and have this year’s cohort share their experiences. Joveria Baig, a laser optical engineer, said she hopes the girls receiving the awards this year will inspire others. “I am eternally grateful because someone took the initiative for me 15 years ago during my high school,” she said. “I hope that these girls will use this opportunity to pass on the torch and motivate more young women in the future.”

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 single largest 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, visit energy.gov/science. 

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

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