PPPL’s Young Women’s Conference Highlights STEM Career Paths for Students

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
March 29, 2023

Jashanty Simo, a student at Paterson STEAM High School, was inspired by the advice she heard at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s (PPPL) Young Women’s Conference in STEM at Princeton University on March 16. The early career female researchers and engineers she met advised her to “just be who you are.”

That kind of encouragement is what the Young Women’s Conference is all about. Women make up about 27% of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) occupations, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the event aims to do its part to change those statistics and to “inspire the next generation of scientists,” said Deedee Ortiz, event organizer and program manager in the Science Education Department.

Now in its 22nd year, the Young Women’s Conference is just one of numerous programs led by PPPL’s science education team to help make the STEM pipeline more diverse and to carry out PPPL’s mission of educating the public about plasma physics and fusion energy as a clean, safe and virtually limitless source of energy.

Largest number of students in event’s history

The Young Women’s Conference was held online the past three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and this year it returned to an in-person event with nearly 800 seventh to tenth-grade girls in attendance. It was the largest number of students in the event’s history.

“It was great to see the energy back to where it was before the pandemic,” Ortiz said. “The girls had a great time, and the exhibitors had a great time. I loved seeing these girls’ faces light up. That makes the whole event worthwhile.”

Students from schools across New Jersey took part in activities at 22 exhibits at Princeton University’s Frick Chemistry Laboratory. Exhibitors included the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories, General Atomics, and the Seward Johnson Atelier. PPPL had the largest number of exhibits where volunteers led hands-on activities that included hair-raising experiments on a Van de Graaff generator — an orb-shaped device that creates an electric charge — fun with magnets, and building circuit boards. Even PPPL’s Emergency Services Unit staff were on hand to help students try on a full firefighting outfit.

More than 40 PPPL volunteers

The event would not have been possible without the help of around 40 PPPL volunteers, who did everything from registering students, to acting as group leaders and lunchroom monitors, and helping to pass the microphone during the keynote speech. “We would never be able to pull off something of this magnitude without their help,” Ortiz said. “We are nothing without them!”

Volunteer Catherine Biava, an engineer and co-chair of Women in Engineering (WiE) Employee Resource Group, said she enjoyed working at the event. “I always love to teach students,” she said, “and I like that we’re encouraging women to come into STEM fields.”

“I talked to a lot of kids,” said another volunteer, Rebekah Beer, a senior expert control analyst. “I’m very impressed with all the things we’re doing. I like seeing the surprise in their faces when something didn’t go the way we thought it would.”

Student Mayerly Liriano wants to be a scientist, and she enjoyed all the hands-on experiments at the conference, especially the fingerprinting and the CPR machine demonstrations by PPPL’s Emergency Service Unit. “I’m enjoying this because when I grow up, I want to do medicine or science,” she said during the event. 

Women in Engineering’s Math and Science awards

A group of women standing.

Women in Engineering Math and Science Award winners with members of the Women in Engineering group. (Photo by Jeanne Jackson DeVoe/PPPL Office of Communications

The program included the WiE group presenting its Math and Science Award to five high school juniors in New Jersey. The students receive a laptop, a certificate and award, and will be mentored by members of the WiE group during their senior year.

The five award recipients were:

  • Jennifer Dong, Hillsborough High School, advocates for gender equality in her AP physics and calculus classes and tutors children in mathematics 
  • Madison MacKenzie, Biotechnology High School, started a Modern STEM Discoveries section in her school newspaper 
  • Riddhima Medatwal, Hillsborough High School, led a partnership between her robotics team and IBM to promote STEM education  
  • Jocelyn Reynolds, Newton High School, volunteers at her local Emergency Medical Squad and is taking EMT training 
  • Riddhi Trivedi, Watchung Hills Regional High School, an honors science student who practices coding in her free time 

“I’m really interested in the mentoring aspect of this program,” said Riddhima. “I really like that we’re going to get to talk to women who are successful in their fields.” 

At the career panel, moderated by Hekima Qualls, head of procurement at PPPL, panelists advised students to find people who will support them as they move through their education and their careers. “It’s really helpful to have an ally in the room,” said Julie Fooks, a scientist with General Atomics.

The panelists also said their career paths did not always follow a straight line. Hayin Candiotti, a senior project engineer at Abbott Laboratories, said she wanted to be a doctor since she was a child. But when she got to her junior year of college, she decided she wanted to be an engineer instead. Her parents were shocked at first, she said, but are very proud of her.

“It was really cool how two or three of the panelists didn’t necessarily go into the field they started with,” said Jiayi Li, a middle schooler at Princeton Charter School.

Encouraging future female scientists

Keynote speaker Liz Hernandez-Matias

Keynote speaker Liz Hernandez-Matias, a scientist and senior education specialist of Ciencia Puerto Rico, a nonprofit focused on scientific careers, communication and education in Puerto Rico.

Liz Hernandez-Matias, a scientist and senior education specialist of Ciencia Puerto Rico (Science Puerto Rico), a nonprofit focused on scientific careers, communication and education in Puerto Rico, had similar advice. “Your path is not linear,” she told the audience at Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus. “It’s more like a road with entrances and exits.”

Hernandez-Matias had each girl in the audience draw a picture of what they think a scientist looks like, and the majority drew female scientists. She showed a picture she drew as a girl that depicted an older male scientist who looked a lot like Albert Einstein. “I want you to say that scientists look like me,” she told the young women.

In the end, many of the young women said they most appreciated seeing so many other young women who are interested in science. Jennifer Dong, one of the award winners from Hillsborough High School, said most of the students in her science classes are boys. Her friend Riddhima agreed. “It was so amazing to see this many girls,” she said.

The following PPPL staff and students volunteered:

Diana Adel

Max Curie

Joanne Kaiser

Margaret Porcelli

Carol Ann Austin

Patricia Devine

Margaret E. Kevin-King

Fredy Rabanales

Alexandra Avila

Jeanne Jackson DeVoe

G. Douglas Loesser

Sharon Rajarao

Kshitish Barada

Priya Durairaj

Robert Lunsford

Michael Starkey

Rebekah Beer

Laszlo Glant

Angela Mayfield

Jasmine Thomas

Jack Berkery

Mariya Goliyad

Makia Mcfarlane

Marianne Tyrrell

Jovian Cheung

Rose Huber

Robert Oh

Sangeeta Vinoth

SJ Cohen

Ankita Jariwala

Alexandra Pantry

Haley Wetzel

Alana Coleman

Jen Jones

Mary Payne

Han Zhang

Doménica Corona

Donna Kaiser

Renata Piccione

Gretchen Zimmer


PPPL is mastering the art of using plasma — the fourth state of matter — to solve some of the world's toughest science and technology challenges. Nestled on Princeton University’s Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, New Jersey, our research ignites innovation in a range of applications including fusion energy, nanoscale fabrication, quantum materials and devices, and sustainability science. The University manages the Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the nation’s single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences. Feel the heat at https://energy.gov/science and https://www.pppl.gov.