The Graduate Committee in the Society of Women Engineers (GradSWE) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) is an organization dedicated to promoting diversity in graduate education in engineering and science to enable innovative and creative solutions to the future technical challenges facing society. While enrollment of women in graduate programs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields has increased over the last two decades,  highlights that attrition among female graduate students in STEM programs may be because women are more likely “missing relationships with advisors or mentors” than men. Moreover, exposure to the various career options to someone with an advanced degree in a STEM field is lacking at many universities. Therefore, GradSWE organized the first annual weSTEM (Women Empowered in STEM) Conference, held in the Thomas M. Siebel center for Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on Saturday, April 20, 2013. The goal of the this event, which brought together nearly 60 female graduate students from across 21 disciplines as well as 14 accomplished female professionals, was to provide a forum through which current and future STEM leaders could motivate and inspire each other to develop solutions for the next generation of technical and societal challenges. The conference was conceived and organized by 8 graduate students working in various STEM disciplines at Illinois: Angeli Gamez and Sofie Leon (Civil and Environmental Engineering), Neera Jain, Danielle Joaquin, Jin Kim, Samantha Knoll, and Ritu Raman (Mechanical Science and Engineering) and Ashley Gupta (Bioengineering).
weSTEM planning committee, speakers, and national SWE leaders
The conference was a one-day, single-track event consisting of a series of two keynote speakers, five session speakers, and a panel discussion. We welcomed accomplished female professionals in STEM to share their experiences and advice with the conference attendees who come from 21 different STEM departments across Illinois. We also hosted members of the national Society of Women Engineers (SWE) graduate leadership team who are leading the national effort to increase involvement of graduate women in SWE. Noteworthy was the diversity featured among the speakers; not only did the speakers represent different stages in their careers but they had each pursued different career paths with their advanced degrees.
The two keynote speakers at the weSTEM conference were Dr. Nina Tandon and Dr. Omnia El-Hakim. Nina Tandon, Senior TED Fellow, described the value of following one’s curiosity and pursuing a variety of interests even while working towards an advanced degree in a specified technical area. Nina’s experiences in consulting, academia, and industry showcased the versatility of career opportunities that her advanced degree had made possible.
Banquet lunch during keynote address from Dr. Nina Tandon
Omnia El-Hakim, former Director for Diversity and Outreach at the National Science Foundation, spoke about changing challenges into opportunities. Her unique experiences facing diversity in the form of cultural, language, and gender barriers throughout her career in STEM served as an inspiring example of how viewing challenges as opportunities led her to not only succeed, but to excel in her personal and professional life. Both keynote speakers provided attendees with powerful and thought-provoking messages, encouraging attendees to stay focused and enthusiastic during the most challenging times of their careers and empowering them to succeed in the future.
Students mingle with keynote speaker Dr. Omnia El-Hakim
The session speakers each highlighted different issues/concerns commonly faced by graduate students as they begin considering what careers to pursue. Nevertheless, resonating themes emerged such as following what you are passionate about and facing challenges head-on. Roshni Kasad discussed her experience of transitioning to a career in outreach in the non-profit sector after completing her PhD in molecular biology and offered a rare glimpse of an alternative career path, which has helped her realize her true passion. Marilyn Tears offered her perspective on a lifelong career in industry at Exxon Mobil and the value of networking throughout one’s career. Similarly, Jackie Kunzler discussed her long career at Baxter and shared some of the challenges she faced by pursuing her advanced degrees after building a family. Amy Wagoner Johnson discussed her unconventional path to a tenure-track faculty position and shared advice on how to navigate a career as part of a dual-career couple. Finally, Kate Rogers Davis described her choice to balance industry and academia by simultaneously working full-time at PowerWorld Corporation and holding an appointment as adjunct professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Illinois.
Following the individual speakers’ presentations, a panel discussion featuring additional female professionals provided attendees with an opportunity to ask questions and begin a discussion on the themes that had emerged throughout the day.
The success of weSTEM 2013 can be characterized, quantitatively and qualitatively, by
Students register for the conference and sign up for SWE membership
- Of the nearly 60 attendees, 25 attendees applied for National SWE membership upon completion of weSTEM 2013
- 71% of surveyed attendees indicated that they are very likely to attend future GradSWE events
- When asked what they gained most from the conference, over 35 of attendees agreed that they gained
- Inspiration from women who were once in your position as a graduate student
- An opportunity to network with other female graduate students at Illinois
Students network with one another during breaks
Both the attendees and invited speakers had very positive feedback after the conference. Here are just a few of the comments the planning committee received:
“I really enjoyed the tone that was set because everything was shared from a personal perspective.”
“I like the way the organizers encouraged speakers to talk about certain topics – I found that really helpful.”
“Every talk has empowered me to think that I can pursue whatever I put in my path as long as I persevere and focus on it.”
“[weSTEM 2013 was] an inspirational, relaxing atmosphere in which networking and interacting with other attendees as well as speakers was easy and natural.”
The conference was made possible with the support of its sponsors at the University of Illinois as well as numerous corporate sponsors. The organizers would like to thank the following organizations for their invaluable support, with special gratitude to the Exxon Mobil Corporation and the Society of Women Engineers Program Development Grant for their significant and generous donations.
Society of Women Engineers Program Development Grant
Sargent & Lundy LLC
College of Engineering
Department of Aerospace Engineering
Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Department of Animal Biology
Department of Astronomy
Department of Atmospheric Sciences
Department of Bioengineering
Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering
Department of Chemistry
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Department of Geology
Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering
Department of Physics
School of Molecular and Cellular Biology
Attendees are welcomed by the GradSWE and weSTEM registration tables
To build upon the success of weSTEM 2013, the Graduate Committee of the Society of Women Engineers plans to host the 2014 weSTEM Conference on April 19th, 2014 at the University of Illinois I Hotel. Next year’s conference will feature a dual-track format to offer a wider range of topics and presentations to attendees. For more information, visit the conference website at www.weSTEMillinois.com.
 Wu, L., et. al. To Recruit and Advance: Women Students and Faculty in Science and Engineering. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2006.