Nearly 900 girls find inspiration at PPPL’s Young Women’s Conference in STEM

Written by
Jeanne Jackson DeVoe
March 26, 2024

Venuthika Venkatesan, a ninth grader at West Windsor – High School North, is on a robotics team with another friend, where they often find themselves the only girls. They had no such feeling at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s (PPPL) recent Young Women’s Conference (YWC) in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) East, where they were joined by nearly 900 seventh to tenth graders from New Jersey.

“It’s really cool to see a lot of people who are interested in the same thing as me,” Venkatesan said. “The field of science is very open, and there’s a lot you can do with it. It just never ends. It kind of reinforces that.”

The large crowd of girls spent the day learning about careers in STEM, performing hands-on science experiments, watching cool chemistry demonstrations and having fun at the conference on March 15 on the Princeton University campus.

lecturer does a chemistry demo in front of an audience of young girls
Angie Miller, a professional specialist in Princeton University’s Department of Chemistry, gives chemistry demonstrations. (Photo by Michael Livingston / PPPL Communications Department)

This was the biggest conference in its 23-year history, with the largest number of exhibitors and volunteers. It was also the first year it was titled the "Young Women’s Conference in STEM East,” as PPPL is expanding to the West Coast with the “Young Women’s Conference in STEM West” in San Diego on May 17, 2024.

“It was a fantastic day all around — the girls were very engaged. They were excited to learn all they could and reveled in being around like-minded individuals who also love all things STEM,” said Deedee Ortiz, science education program manager, who organized the conference along with Britt Albucker, administrative assistant for strategic relationships. “If we were able to get even one student to go home and do a little more research on something they saw at the YWC, we did what we set out to do. We’re looking forward to doing the same thing on the West Coast!”

Hands-on activities range from robotics to origami

The attendees had the opportunity to engage in hands-on activities at more than 20 displays. These included steering a robot with a young woman from We Are Girl Scouts (WAGS), creating origami with a volunteer from Princeton University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, learning about forensics at an FBI display and having their hair stand on end from the Van de Graaff generator, an electrostatic device that creates static electricity, at the PPPL exhibit.

A person interacts with an experiment
A young woman experiences the hair-raising effects of the Van de Graaff generator at PPPL’s booth at the Young Women’s Conference. (Photo by Michael Livingston / PPPL Communications Department)

Shreya Visvanathan, an eighth grader at Thomas R. Grover Middle School, said she liked the hands-on activities. “The people who explained things were very interesting, and I really understood everything,” she said.

Jennifer Cassini, a teacher in Patterson, New Jersey, said her daughter, now age 25, first became interested in a STEM field when she attended the conference in middle school. Her daughter first considered a career in engineering, then became interested in environmental science and is now a geospatial data analyst in Virginia.

60 volunteers power the annual event

Some 60 volunteers, most of whom were from PPPL, volunteered at the event. They performed various tasks, from leading groups across the campus or helping out at lunch in Dillon Gym to doing activities at one of PPPL’s hands-on exhibits. Volunteers said they enjoy working at the conference every year and seeing so many happy young women. “I really enjoyed helping with the demo table,” said volunteer Patrizia D’Adamo, a communications specialist and study abroad administrator in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. “Watching the girls’ fascination and their faces made it all worth it!”

“I think they feel ‘I’m not alone. These are my people,’” said Trisha Perez, a senior administrative assistant in PPPL’s Theory Department. “It’s a community that comes together for the conference every year.”

Volunteers at a booth educating young women about science
Young women crowd around the booth staffed by PPPL's Women in Engineering Employee Resource Group members Cate Biava (left), Claudia Bernhardt (center), co-chairs of the group, and Sunny Nyhus, an associate rotational engineer. (Photo by Michael Livingston / PPPL Communications Department)

Keynote speech focuses on cognitive science

Tania Lombrozo, Arthur W. Marks '19 Professor of Psychology at Princeton University, gave a keynote speech in which she explained her journey to becoming a scientist and discussed how cognitive science explains how the mind works in humans, animals and even artificial intelligence.

Lombrozo said her favorite subjects in high school were English and mathematics. She might never have become a scientist if she hadn’t picked up a book about human language and begun reading about the science of cognition. When a science teacher offered her an internship at the University of California San Diego — the first institution to have a cognitive science department — she was hooked.

“When you pursue science and related fields of inquiry — nobody has figured this stuff out. You’re on the frontier of what we know, and I found that truly exciting,” Lombrozo told the young women who gathered in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium for her speech.

crowd of girls with keynote speaker giving a speech
Tania Lombrozo (left), the Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Psychology at Princeton University, gives the keynote speech to a crowd of young women. (Photo by Michael Livingston / PPPL Communications Department)

Women in Engineering awards honor four local students

The day also included PPPL’s Women in Engineering (WiE) Employee Resource Group presenting its Math and Science Award to four high school juniors in New Jersey who show promise in STEM. The four winners will receive a laptop, a certificate, and an award and will be mentored by members of the WiE group during their senior year.

A group of people standing on a stage
The Math and Science Award winners with Claudia Bernhardt, chair of PPPL’s Women in Engineering Resource Group (far left); co-chair Cate Biava (third from right); 2023 award winner Riddhima Medatwal, Hillsborough High School (second from right); and Michael Ford, associate laboratory director for engineering. (Photo by Michael Livingston / PPPL Communications Department) 

The four award winners 

  • Isabelle Baumann, Somerville High School, took a class in cybersecurity and is pursuing a career in the field.
  • Luisa Buss, Princeton High School, has loved mathematics from an early age and uses it to creatively solve puzzles such as using multivariable calculus to design a safer road. Buss tutors other students in mathematics.
  • Elizabeth Krzyanowski, Hunterdon Central Regional High School, took higher level courses in math and science, courses in engineering and architecture, and an introduction to engineering class for high school students at Columbia University.
  • Oluwadarasimi Ajewole, South Brunswick High School, takes advanced placement classes in math and science and helped found an organization to tutor children in math and science.

Ajewole said she was delighted to receive the award and to have the opportunity to be mentored by PPPL engineers. “It’s like a burst of motivation,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d ever get an award at Princeton, but here I am. I’d say it’s inspiring!”

Chemistry demos and career panel inspire students 

Four panel speakers on a stage
The career panel at the Young Women’s Conference. (Photo by Michael Livingston / PPPL Communications Department) 

Students were also treated to chemistry demos by Angie Miller, a professional specialist in Princeton University’s Department of Chemistry, who showed a figure made of marshmallows expand in a vacuum chamber and other chemistry demonstrations, eliciting “oohs and ahs” from the audience.

At a panel discussion on careers by women in various stages of their career moderated by Hekima Qualls, head of procurement at PPPL, the panelists advised young women in STEM careers to find a support system, even if it’s outside their classes or their jobs. Jasmine Sadler, CEO of The STEAM Collaborative, recalled being the only Black woman in the aerospace program. “One way I got through it was I was in a dance crew,” she said.

The panelists also advised the young women to find a career they are passionate about. “Go into a job that you love where you can make a difference in the world, and you’re challenged every day,” said Hayin Candiotti, a senior project engineer at Abbott Laboratories.

Kathreen Thome, a plasma physicist at the DIII-D National Fusion Facility at General Atomics in San Diego, said events like the Young Women’s Conference can help young women find their future careers. “Do events like this,” she advised the audience. “Explore what you’re interested in!”

The PPPL Science Education team that organized the conference
Andrew Zwicker, head of strategic relationships at PPPL, with PPPL’s science education staff: Program Manager Deedee Ortiz, who organized the conference; Arturo Dominguez (center), head of science education; Shannon Swilley Greco, a senior program associate; and Britt Albucker, an administrative assistant and conference organizer. (Photo by Michael Livingston / PPPL Communications Department)


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