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Taking Up Space in Space: An Interview with Scientist Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt

With the White House Science Fair this week and last month's series on women in education, I was lucky enough to interview Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt, a radio astronomer and L'Oreal USA For Women in Science Fellow. Check out her thoughts on promoting diversity and how she came into the field.

The below interview has been edited for clarity and length. 


What were your own experiences as a student when you were growing up? 

I think as girls we are given constant messages to hold ourselves back: don't take up too much space, don't be too loud or too assertive. It's hard to know how much we pick up either consciously or subconsciously, but I know that I was a very quiet student until I got to college. I didn't ask many questions and whenever I came across something that I didn't understand, I would usually try to tackle the issue on my own with my textbooks. Of course with learning, you get out what you put in so looking back now, I wish that I had asked more questions!

Were there any moments, stories, or mentors that shaped your interests in the sciences?

In college, I was one of only two girls in my 50-person physics class, and the men in my class didn't want to do homework with me because I was a woman. I don't particularly like being told what I can do, let alone what I can't do, so I decided to see for myself whether I had potential as a scientist. I also smoked those guys on our midterms, so it was their loss.

Were you always planning on going into the sciences? 

I was never that little kid with a telescope in her backyard nor did I come from an academic family. I actually thought I might be a political speech writer. I never saw myself as good at math until one of my high school teachers suggested that I take a more advanced class. I am so grateful to him for seeing that potential in me and for encouraging me to push myself harder in areas that felt less familiar.

What were some of the main obstacles to your success in regards to your gender?

Not having female scientists as role models was a huge obstacle for me. It's hard to envision yourself as a scientist if none of the scientists that you see look like you. It wasn't until I got to graduate school that I interacted with a female scientist, an extremely impressive woman who became my thesis advisor. Now I sometimes find it challenging to balance the demands of being a parent with the demands of being a scientist. Being a woman in a male-dominated field means that sometimes the infrastructure, things like maternity leave or lactation rooms, isn't in place yet to support you. So you have to work a bit harder to create it.

What do you think the source is for the bias we have against women in the sciences? How do we remedy them?

It's human nature to size each other up based on our outward appearance and so unconscious bias, the assumptions we unconsciously make based on social norms and deep-rooted stereotypes, definitely plays a huge role here. Supporting women and other minorities in science goes a long way toward pushing back on these stereotypes. Both the L'Oreal For Women in Science Fellowship and now the L'Oreal UNESCO International Rising Talent award which recognize the strength of my research, as well as my commitment to mentoring, are great examples of programs that make it clear that women are not only welcome in science but needed.

In the K through 12, and even college classroom, we can use materials and focus on stories that highlight the contributions of women to science. For example, I remember volunteering in a Los Angeles high school and being struck by a science poster on the wall: it highlighted the contributions of 50 scientists, all of them white and male. There was not a single white male in the class - how were they supposed to be inspired by that? So, I worked with NASA to create classroom materials that celebrate a more diverse group of scientists.

What are some of the overlooked strengths girls and women bring to the sciences?

Studies have repeatedly shown that in addition to raising the number of qualified candidates, having a diverse scientific community brings different perspectives to a problem and leads to an increase in creativity. You don't get progress using the same old thought processes and the same old ideas. If we can borrow L'Oreal's tagline: "Science needs women"!

What can educators and parents do to help mitigate some of the issues girls face in our education system?

This is something that I think about a lot, being a parent myself. In many cases, female and students of color need help finding role models. Promoting diversity through teaching starts with active recruiting of students of color who, in a culture that repeatedly tells them they don't belong, often benefit from direct encouragement. Simple efforts to tell individuals that they are ready for a more difficult class or that they do not need any special background for an introductory class can help to increase participation.

I work hard at the middle school level both to show younger students that science is fun and to challenge their view of how a scientist "normally" looks. I am currently an active volunteer with Dark Skies, Bright Kids, a group that provides an after school astronomy program to underserved rural and minority elementary and middle schools. Thanks to support from the Fellowship from L'Oreal USA's For Women in Science program and now the International Rising Talent award, I'm able to pursue my research while putting in extra time and effort into these much-needed volunteer activities.

What advice would you give to 15-year-old you today?

Don't let anyone tell you that physics, or anything else for that matter, is for boys. Find out for yourself whether or not you like something and don't give up on it if you do like it. Also, ask questions! The smartest people that I work with are the ones that ask the most questions.

Anything else you'd like to share?

Sabrina_Stierwalt_13_DA.jpgIn addition to mentoring, I am also very passionate about making science more accessible, so that we don't view it as something that is only done by old white men in lab coats somewhere. As part of this effort, I host a weekly science podcast called Everyday Einstein where I give summaries of interesting topics across all of science. There is also an associated blog post if you prefer reading over listening and it's completely free - all you need is an internet connection to tune in!

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