Scientists stress importance of perseverance and flexibility at PPPL’s Young Women’s Conference

PPPL’s 2022 Young Women’s Conference in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) was a national bicoastal virtual event this year. Young women on both coasts enjoyed the opportunity to get career advice from early-career female scientists, learn about research by visiting booths run by PPPL and other institutions, and hear a keynote speech by a plasma physicist.

“It was great having the event on the West Coast,” said Deedee Ortiz, Science Education program manager at PPPL, who organized the event. “I was very happy we could offer the event to young women virtually this year and I’m looking forward to it being in person on both coasts next year.”

The Young Women’s Conference brought together about 300 seventh to tenth-grade students for the 21st such event sponsored by PPPL. As it did last year, the conference took place in a virtual meeting place designed by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) that featured an auditorium, a lobby, and exhibit hall with virtual booths.

Ortiz thanked the organizing committee for helping to put together the event. Included on the committee were Arturo Dominguez, head of Science Education; Shannon Swilley Greco, senior program leader; Hekima Qualls, head of Procurement at PPPL; Carol Ann Austin, administrative manager in the Director’s Office; as well as Julie Harris, marketing communications coordinator at General Atomics Energy Group in San Diego; and Elizabeth Starling, scientific outreach coordinator from the DIII-D National Fusion Facility at General Atomics.

Advice from career scientists

One student from South Plainfield, New Jersey, stopped in at PPPL’s virtual booth to see some plasma demonstrations and chat with Swilley Greco. The student said she was happy to get some good advice from the career panel. “It’s really encouraging because I was kind of worried about what I was going to do and they said sometimes you don’t exactly know what you’ll do until you start and learn,” she said. “It was cool to see other people who are like me and are excelling in these amazing fields!”

Sami Butler, an eight-grader at Princeton Charter School, said she enjoyed chatting with investigators from the FBI forensics unit as part of their display. “The virtual format was an advantage because you did not have to talk face to face with anyone if you did not want to,” she said.

Raya Kondakindi, another Charter School eighth-grader, said her favorite was Princeton University’s Baby Lab, which studies how infants learn. “It was really interesting to learn about things that happen in my state and town that I didn’t know about before,” she said.

The Young Women’s Conference also featured an awards ceremony in which members of PPPL’s Women in Engineering (WiE) employee resource group recognized a high school student who will receive mentoring and support from WiE to pursue a career in engineering or other STEM fields.

Multiple paths in STEM careers

In the first career panel with researchers from the East Coast, students and researchers discussed the importance of persistence in pursuing their science careers. “To be a scientist you need to have persistence and you need to be clear about what you want but also be flexible,” said Liz Hernandez-Matias, a senior educational specialist at CienciaPR, a nonprofit organization committed to the advancement of science communication and education in Puerto Rico. “I know that I want this but there are multiple ways that I can reach that goal,” the educational specialist said.

Hernandez-Matias said she had professors tell her that she shouldn’t get married and have children because both would distract from her career. But she ignored that advice and was able to get married, finish her graduate degree and have children. She had a job before she graduated. Her professor later admitted he was wrong to say those things to her, she said.

“Getting up after getting knocked down”

Naia Butler Craig, a student at Georgia Institute of Technology, echoed that advice. “I don’t think I’m here because I’m super-smart or super-talented,” she said. “I think I’m here because I kept getting up after getting knocked down.”

Hayin Candiotti, a senior project engineer at Abbott Laboratories, said being flexible is also key. “It’s OK to change your mind and it’s OK to not know,” she said. “I wanted to be a doctor but also I was good at math and calculus. I shadowed a doctor…and I realized it’s not for me, that I enjoyed engineering more than I enjoyed medicine.”

The second career panel, organized by researchers at the General Atomics and the DIII-D National Fusion Facility, featured several plasma physicists. Cami Collins, a physicist and group leader in the Fusion Energy Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said she has been interested in fusion energy since the fifth grade when she first learned how fusion energy could help contribute to combating global warming. “Knowing that you’re contributing to society – I think about that every day,” she said. “It’s a big factor in my life.”

Kathreen Thome, an experimental research scientist at DIII-D, said she also is driven by the mission of producing fusion energy, and she enjoys the fact that her job has so much variety. “It’s not the same thing every day,” she said. “Every day is so different and that’s so fun that it’s not boring.”

Hekima Qualls, the head of PPPL Procurement who moderated the panel, stressed the importance of having a fulfilling career. “That’s where you’ll be the happiest, if you feel like you’ve found something you love and you can sustain yourself and be a productive member of society and you can also contribute to the greater good,” she said. “That’s when you feel like you’ve hit the trifecta.”

Keynote speaker focuses on her career path in plasma physics

In her keynote speech, Eva Kostadinova, an assistant professor at Auburn University’s Department of Physics, discussed her career journey to become a plasma physicist. She encouraged young women not to be afraid to enter STEM careers. “You don’t have to be a certain type to become a scientist…The only thing that’s important for science is interest,” she said. “If something interests you and you’re willing to work for that, it will work out.”

Kostadinova explained how her plasma physics research ranges from exploring the origins of life, to the effect of solar flares and geomagnetic storms on communications on Earth. Her research also includes the question of whether humans could live elsewhere in the solar system, such as a moon of Jupiter. Kostadinova has worked on research related to heat shields on Galileo, a space probe that is exploring Jupiter and its moons and the asteroids Gaspra and Ida. She did this by using the DIII-D tokamak to simulate the superhot plasmas found in space.

“This is a fantastic machine,” Kostadinova said. “The plasma in these tokamaks can reach temperatures as hot and hotter than the core of the sun and be as dense as those plasmas around Jupiter.”

Kostadinova grew up in a small town in Bulgaria. She became interested in physics through her tenth-grade physics teacher. She came to the U.S. to attend college on a full scholarship at Furman University in South Carolina, arriving with just $200 in her pocket. She went on to earn a graduate degree in physics at Baylor University, graduating in just three-and-a-half years. She won an outstanding paper award for her graduate research related to the International Space Station, which in turn led to a book.

Kostadinova concluded with a quote from physicist Richard Feynman, who said, “I was an ordinary person who studied hard. There are no miracle people. It happens they get interested in this thing and they learn all this stuff, but they’re just people.”

“Women this time are at the forefront of everything,” Kostadinova said. “We live in the most exciting times we’ve ever been in and everything is up for grabs!”

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