How Women in STEM Policy Opened Up New Possibilities For Me

Surprisingly, my passion for chemistry came through a third grade science experiment where we mixed sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and acetic acid (vinegar) to observe an exploding, volcanic chemical reaction that not only mesmerized my young, eager eyes, but solidified my pursuit of this dream. I graduated from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona with a Bachelor’s of Science in Chemistry and I am currently a chemistry Ph.D. candidate at Syracuse University.

During my time at Syracuse University, as a former NSF – Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeship (IGERT) Fellow, we were required to take a list of courses outside of our academic discipline. One of the required classes was Science, Technology and Public Policy in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. It was in that class that I began to understand how researchers and scientists shaped the way scientific policy was formed. From the public policy standpoint, I was also introduced to what goes into making and reforming science policy. Through the PLEN Women in STEM Policy seminar, I was able to see how some of this works through the lives of women who were making it happen.

The seminar focused on the intersection of science and public policy, and it surprisingly touched on how I could help. The majority of the women who spoke about their experiences in shaping science policy, either directly or indirectly, had advanced degrees (Master’s, Ph.D., J.D.). This was really encouraging because as a scientist my question was, “What role can I play/ what can I bring to the table as it relates to policy? To my surprise, many of the women mentioned that there are not enough scientists in the policy realm. Here, I always thought that policy people majored in/studied policy. PLEN has showed me that someone with my scientific background can make just as much of a difference in the daily life of our nation through work on the policy front.

Attending a PLEN seminar as a graduate student, my goals were two-fold. First, I was hoping to be radically impacted by leading women in both the science and public policy fields. I was hoping to be able to capture success stories and witness moments of greatness as these women discuss how they defined an unprecedented path in their careers. Second, I was hoping to be able to connect with the other undergraduate attendees to help encourage, influence and answer questions for those who were thinking about graduate school or an advanced degree in a STEM discipline. After attending the Women in STEM Policy seminar, I can say that what I learned greatly surpassed what I could have imagined. Networking with both conference presenters and other conference attendees gave me another drive and interest in the intersection between science and policy and how it can be used to promote interest in STEM fields. Without this conference, I would not have been exposed to the truly limitless opportunities available outside the academic, research and teaching realm.

If you now ask me what I want to do when I graduate, I would still say I want to be a chemist; but I also want to be a STEM leader, a policy influencer, a women and minority advocate and a game changer. PLEN has opened my eyes to the vast array of positions available for women in STEM in the government, non-profit and private sectors. Meeting the incredible women that presented at the Women in STEM policy seminar reinforced that, in many ways, your job does not define you. Many of the multi-faceted positions came about because these women were determined to make a difference.

One overarching theme during the seminar was that there is more than one path to get where you want to go. Many of the women discussed how the roads to their careers were not stereotypically linear. They emphasized how they broke barriers, shattered expectations and defined their roles, positions and impact in the world. If I had to give one piece of advice to future PLEN generations it would be: find your passions in life and let those passions dictate and influence your career path. That way when you relive and retell your success story, you will know that your success was a passionate determination to achieve your dreams.


Alisha Lewis attended the 2016 Women in STEM Policy seminar as a Ph.D. candidate at Syracuse University.

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