We are gathered by the small inkling of happenstances. Among the piles of snow, a mighty brisk, cold wind passes by, in the heart of Washington DC during the U.S. government shutdown. I ask you to visualize this: a group of future STEMinists, scientists, policy leaders, lawyers, enthusiasts, doctors, and optimists. I quickly realized that no one participant is the same; there is something delightful I can learn from everyone that will transcend the five days I’ve spent outside my element.
Imagine this: a Californian shouldering through the cold and wishing she was holed up in her hotel room with hot tea and a good book. However, I’m out and about each day on my way to serendipity. My feet are perpetually cold and my cheeks also flushed with faint redness as all my blood rushes to my countenance exposed to the cold air. Being cold would be an understatement. However, in its own way, the city is warm and inviting. My peers are equally warm. Sometimes I have found myself bonding with a new friend over my ill-equipped winter clothes and how I wish winter education was mandatory in California as I shiver through the inflexible, strong winds.
On our first day, I realized how momentous this was to be surrounded by incredible people interested in making positive strives in STEM. The more I talk to people, the more I resonate with my cohort who have a sense of determinism and urgency to take life seriously. The gravity of the work they are doing in their communities and college through their research, lab field works, extracurriculars, internships, and free time speaks volumes to the type of caring person they all are. The dialogues are not unison choirs mimicking each other’s identical thoughts. We process our independent thoughts and ideas not so we can boast our intelligence or wield unknown knowledge over each other, but instead we pool together our knowledge to support each other. There is no gap that can’t be remedied by empathy and explaining.
By the sheer amount of time we have spent with each other during the seminars, especially during our quest to find the best vegan pupusa and phở in DC, I’m surprised by the passion each person emanates in our spur-of-the-moment discussions. People’s passion comes out for healthcare research on underrepresented minorities, for cyber security, civic tech, and discussions about the balance between the government and the private sector in policy. I quickly realized that this is unique. I’m surrounded by energetic symposiasts—similar to those in Plato’s Symposium but, instead, we don’t need wine to articulate frankly the issues and problems that we want to see changed in our generation. We are direct and clear as we further investigate more arenas of policy and our passions: corporate responsibility for environmentalism, reproductive justice, accessible healthcare for all, equitable internet access, and more that we consider so central to our future.
One of the first sites we visited was the Verizon Technology and Policy Center, one of my most profound experiences during my time in the seminar. Upon stepping foot into the office, the immediacy and fluidly of the horizontally organized art exhibit on a brief history of the Internet captured my attention. Even after I left, I sometimes scroll through my phone, zoom into my small screen to look at the details and descriptions of each squared window of the exhibit, each a silver of Internet history. This is what the nexus of art and technology should do by explaining the complexity into simplicity. I notice the office is also pervasive with incredible tactile and tangible exhibits depicting emerging technologies: a sophisticated tractor simulator using VR headsets showcasing the advancement of futuristic agricultural education, physical replicas of smart city trash cans that notifies the city when it is full, advanced touchscreen monitors showcasing commercial and industrial uses of speculative technologies that would possibly influence invited public policy officials and politicians to take an active, hands-on approach to learning Internet of Things technologies. That dynamism of Verizon’s technology meet policy playground space welcomes all individuals to engage in this possible future.
Looking back, I came into the PLEN Women in STEM Policy seminar being open-minded without an idea of what to expect. I knew I wanted to pursue a meaningful, impactful career where I could influence positive decision-making. Yet, at the same time, I wanted to be part of the current discussions concerning science education and funding, because of the digitality of everything in the world was being revolutionized by technology. Attending the seminar, I was also surprised by the various crucial STEM industries currently affecting policy from energy, to telecommunications, to healthcare.
At the same time, I didn’t anticipate such jovial and enlightening conversations in my cohort. The sparks in our conversations are what inspired me very deeply to be excited about STEM policy after I left. I can’t thank PLEN enough for providing me a scholarship to cover the hotel and seminar fee and giving me the opportunity to be part of the 2019 STEM Policy cohort and connect with my wonderful peers who are equally thoughtful as they are driven. Now that I’m back at USC, I find myself at times wondering how to connect this experience back to people on my campus. How do I communicate STEM and policy? How do I communicate that I was in a space surrounded by many of the most wonderful, empathetic future STEM leaders who are driven, intelligent, and kind? Like some of my PLEN peers, I was invigorated by the desire to proliferate and inspire other students interested in bringing more women to these STEM policy seminars. My next mission now that I’m back at USC is to become a PLEN ambassador and encourage all aspiring women in STEM to consider policy in their science and technology trajectory. This tapped into my desire to envision science as a public showcase to inspire those about STEM technologies for social good. So, now that I’m back, I hope I can encourage those who never anticipated integrating STEM and policy in their non-related STEM interests. As an aspiring lawyer and scholar interested in cyber laws, privacy, online communities, and the ways IRL experiences inform online experiences, I took that chance to apply and had been forever changed.
Sandria Tran is a second-year student at The University of Southern California graduating in May 2021. She is studying Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, and Media Arts. She received a scholarship sponsored by STEM for Her to attend the 2019 PLEN Women in STEM Policy seminar in January 2019.