I learned about PLEN through students from my school, St. Lawrence University, who had attended PLEN seminars in past years. The Women in STEM Policy seminar exceeded my expectations; we heard from an incredible variety of accomplished women who spoke to us about their career and how they’ve come to where they are now.
Two themes really stuck out throughout the seminar that resonated with me. First, so many of our speakers talked about the varied and indirect path they took to get to their current job and passion. Many had not even heard of the world of policy work and had planned to go into hard science and lab work. As PLEN calls it, the concept of the ‘career jungle gym’ illustrates that the direct path that students often imagine they will take, such as proceeding from college to graduate school to getting a PhD to having their own lab, actually is not as common. Our speakers had done half of their PhD program and changed to policy work, had started as a lab technician, realized they didn’t want to do that for their whole life and switched to policy, and had taken so many other varied routes. It was informative and reassuring to hear these accomplished women talk about doubt, confidence, and the diverse range of routes they took throughout their career.
The second theme I saw throughout the week was the importance of a support network of women. We heard from a panel of three women on the first day, called “Coding the Future,” which spoke to the support women provide each other in male dominated fields. The importance of this was emphasized again and again in all the STEM policy sectors we heard from – on the Hill, at the Pentagon, in data analysis and computer sciences, at NASA, etc. At the NIH, Dr. Kay Lund emphasized that women support each other and help to raise each other up, and never tear other women down out of competitiveness. Speaking with other PLEN seminar attendees after hearing this talk, Dr. Lund’s words really stuck with us, and we especially appreciated the female support that we saw even among speakers on the same panels who were meeting for the first time. Ultimately, this PLEN seminar opened my eyes to career opportunities and potential paths, but even more importantly, it showed me the importance of women empowerment and support.
Margaret Kelly attended the 2017 Women in STEM Policy seminar with the support of a scholarship from the Hopper Dean Foundation. She attended this seminar during her junior year at St. Lawrence University.