Empowering the Next Generation of Women-in-STEM Leaders

Oden Institute Hosts UT’s First ‘Rising Stars’ Event

More than 35 of the nation’s best and brightest women in computational and data sciences came together on The University of Texas at Austin campus last week to network, collaborate and gain insight into what it takes to build a successful career in research and academia.

Hosted by UT’s Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences, in partnership with Sandia National Laboratories and the U.S. Association for Computational Mechanics, the Rising Stars in Computational and Data Sciences event was an intensive workshop for women graduate students and postdocs who are interested in pursuing academic and research centers.

Karen Willcox, director of the Oden Institute and professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering, opened the two-day workshop by welcoming the students, postdocs, faculty participants and industry representatives in attendance.

“I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see this room filled with women,” Willcox said. “In computational sciences, as you know, it is unusual to attend a female-dominated event.”

James Stewart, Senior Manager of Computational Sciences and Math at Sandia National Laboratories, echoed Willcox’s opening remarks.

“Our goal with events like Rising Stars is to increase the number of women in this field,” he said. “We want to provide a support network that ensures your success. Hopefully, this is the start of a changed future.”

Originally launched at MIT in 2012, Rising Stars events have been hosted in a variety of fields at institutions across the world. This was the first event in the field of computational and data sciences and UT’s first time to host. Attendees invited to participate in Rising Stars go through a highly competitive nomination process. For UT’s 2019 event, only 37 out of 155 applicants were selected and invited to present their work.

Over two days at the Oden Institute, there were panel discussions, research and poster presentations, one-on-one and small-group meetings and Q&A sessions. Participants shared their specific research topics and findings, personal stories about being women in their field, and encouraging ideas and words of wisdom for those pursuing the next phase of their career.

The first panel focused on how to write and communicate well, a highly relevant topic for early-career researchers who will need to communicate their work not only to industry peers and colleagues but also to the general public. The panel consisted of Rachel Ward, Professor of Mathematics and W.A. “Tex” Moncrief, Jr. Distinguished Professor in the Oden Institute; Sarah Allendorf, from Sandia National Laboratories; and Joel Tropp, Professor of Applied and Computational Mathematics at the California Institute of Technology.

When discussing how to best handle negative feedback in the field, Allendorf shared invaluable wisdom: “There will be conflict in your life as a scientist and engineer. Develop this mantra: I am not my idea. My idea is not my identity. My identity is separate from my work and my ideas.”

Participants also engaged in a series of timed, 12-minute presentations on their research followed by a Q&A with the audience. Presentation topics covered a wide array of research, ranging from balanced model reduction to the use of compartmental models of infection to forecast U.S. elections.

In one research presentation, Claire McKay Bowen, statistician and postdoctoral research associate at Los Alamos National Laboratory, enthusiastically explained the increasing relevancy of her work in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

“Machine learning and AI are, of course, becoming more popular. We’ve known this for a while in statistics,” she said. “But now, we have the opportunity to take prior knowledge, combine it with predictive technology and generate data that could prove to be helpful in the future.”

The workshop’s keynote speaker, Tammy Kolda, Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories, wrapped up the first day with inspirational insight into how one becomes a world-class researcher, highlighting the importance of selecting relevant research topics and believing in your abilities.

“Do you see yourself on a path toward becoming a world-class researcher?” Kolda asked the audience. “I hope you know that you’re on that path. I want you to have the confidence to know that you can get there. You can be world class.”

The two-day event concluded with a final panel on work-life balance, featuring Veena Tikare, from Sandia National Laboratories; Wenting Xiao, from ExxonMobil; and assistant professors in UT’s Department of Mathematics, Joe Neeman and Ngoc Tran. Panelists and participants had an open conversation regarding what it takes to be a successful researcher and industry leader while raising a family and cultivating passions outside of the workplace.

“You have to be intentional. What I find among my colleagues is that those who have a well-rounded life are actually more creative,” Tikare said. “You must not only cultivate efficiency but also an inner knowledge of what is truly important to you.”

Events like Rising Stars provide invaluable opportunities for women to network with other women as they empower each other to break through the stereotypes surrounding women working in STEM-based careers.

As Bowen explained, gender imbalance in computational and data sciences has an impact on everyone upon entering the field.

“When you enter the field, you understand that you will be one of the only women,” she said. “Unfortunately, that can sometimes result in women tripping each other in efforts to reach the top. Rising Stars is great in the sense that we are here to encourage each other. Just to know there are other women and to know that this career is possible is incredibly inspiring.”

Participant Krithika Manohar, a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology, was grateful for the opportunity to participate in Rising Stars as a way to start changing the perception of what women can do in the field.

“I think events like Rising Stars are going to create the most impact for younger generations — we are beginning to see a change that is breaking down gender biases in the computational sciences field,” she said. “It’s a great reminder: you really can do anything you set your mind to.”

--written by Maddie Schulte, Cockrell School of Engineering

Posted: April 23, 2019