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Overcoming barriers

EERC women scientists open up about challenges in pursuit of STEM careers

Amanda Livers
Amanda Livers (right), a research geophysicist at UND’s EERC, said, as early as middle school, she detected subtle, non-blatant suggestions that certain science and computer-related classes weren’t meant for girls. Photo by Kari Suedel.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a common question to ask children.

But what if, when you answered, you were told you couldn’t do that? And what if the fact that you couldn’t do it was because you were a girl?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 1 in 3 adults holds a bachelor’s degree or higher. The National Science Foundation reports that 57.3 percent of bachelor’s degrees in 2013 were earned by women. While college degree attainment rates are higher for females, that is not the case within the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. Women earn 17.9 percent of the degrees awarded in computer sciences, 19.3 percent in engineering, 39 percent in physical sciences and 43.1 percent in mathematics.

The Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at UND employs 174 full time people, 60 percent of whom have degrees in a STEM field and hold STEM positions. Of those degree-holders at the EERC, 17 percent are female.

Experiences in childhood can greatly influence education and career decisions. The female scientists and engineers at EERC shared their early experiences in their paths to earning STEM degrees.  These women represent a full spectrum of backgrounds and generations. Some graduated from college in the 1970s, and others as recently as 2016. Answers to the question “What DID you want to be when you grew up?” varied from architect to interpreter to marine biologist.

“My earliest memory of wanting to pursue a STEM career was around age 10,” said Kerryanne Leroux, senior chemical engineer. “I wanted to be an astronaut and the first person to walk on Mars.”

“I grew up in a large family of eight kids,” said Patty Kleven, Laboratory Analyst. “My siblings went to college if they knew exactly what they were pursuing—such as teaching or nursing. It wasn’t an option for us to explore in higher education, so I had never really thought about it. I wasn’t able to pursue college courses until I was employed at the EERC—after I was married and had children.”

Even with their differences growing up across different generations, they all have one thing in common: at one point in their childhood, they were told science or math wasn’t for girls.

Read more about the educational experiences of women scientists at the EERC, including reflections on the negative messages they endured growing up, important family support networks and other influencing factors.

– Article written by the EERC’s Nikki Massmann. Photos by Kari Suedel.