'Just Do It!'-- STEM Mentors Must Pay It Forward

Even at a very early age, I faced elementary and middle-school teachers who were more interested in educating boys in math and science and rarely even allowed a girl to answer a challenging question or solve the problem at the board.
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Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

Every daughter has a few cherry-picked hallmark phrases doled out by their mothers that they find highly annoying and yet unnervingly true. Admit it. These are the words and sentences that you hope (as a mom) you never hear yourself repeating -- and time after time, you do. And you begin to think, "I am becoming my mother!" Well growing up, that phrase for me was one that my mom still likes to remind me of: "Just Do It!" As a baby boomer who worked for 45 years and a tough-talking graduate of the Texas Oil and Gas/Education/Economic Development Schools of Hard Knocks (and Prayer Warrior, go figure), my mother swears that Nike stole this catchphrase from women of her generation! Through the years and through life though, I've found this to be absolutely true. When you have a goal: Just do it. When you want to accomplish something: Just do it. When something needs to get done, you don't wait for someone to rescue you... YOU... just DO IT!

In my own life as a scientist, pharmaceutical monitor for worldwide clinical trials and all-around self-professed science nerd, I have come across many challenges which required a "just get it done" attitude. That, coupled with strong faith in God, high self-esteem instilled in by my parents and especially my mom and countless mentors along the way not only ensured my success within the STEM field but it encouraged me to give back.

There were instances as early as elementary school when my confidence in my skills in math and science were challenged. Times like these would be an impetus -- a turning point in which I would latch onto a very important mantra: Hard work plus determination and faith equals success. Even at a very early age, I faced elementary and middle-school teachers who were more interested in educating boys in math and science and rarely even allowed a girl to answer a challenging question or solve the problem at the board. Naturally smart girls all around me from fifth to eighth grade quickly lost interest in challenging STEM-related material, classes and UIL competitions. Some bought into the perpetuated notion (which is totally false) and implications that girls were just not as good at math, science and logical thinking as boys. Note: Don't be afraid to buddy up with boys smart in math and science and insert yourselves in male-dominated groups and organizations! You learn lots of shortcuts and tricks; lipgloss will help -- I'm just saying!

Enduring the hardships that I faced at a young age made me... MAD! It made me realize that there were going to be battles and challenges down the road. Reality began to set in for me if I was going to be GOOD or GREAT at this thing, it was going to be through divine intervention (!), my parents' help and encouragement and a whole lot of hard work to prove that yes, my test scores were up-to-snuff compared to my male counterpoints. Yes, I did understand that theorem in A.P. Calculus in high school. Certainly, I not only welcomed the challenge of my first "O-Chem" test at Penn State but I would volunteer to be the study leader to gain as much information as I could about a subject that wasn't exactly "second nature" to me. That internal drive would later prompt a former supervisor at a major pharmaceutical company to write on my annual review, "This woman has chutzpah -- Promoted. Pointblank, period." My faith dictates my reliance on God; my advice to young women (and men) is to believe in a power greater than yourself.

As a STEM mentor, both in conjunction with The Huffington Post and in "real life" throughout my own life's journeys, I constantly encounter young women who are interested in the STEM field and are usually wildly talented in science, technology, engineering or math but they lack some very important necessities on the road to success: support, hope and faith. I realized that some girls do not have the resources that I did. Mentors who made it their business to ensure that you understood that you not only belonged in a world previously relegated to men but that you could RUN it! A mother who encouraged science fair projects and took a huge leap of faith in sending me to a private academy at age 16 alone -- with just God and prayer. As mentors, we must not reach high positions and levels of success and forget to "reach back" and "pay it forward." We have a responsibility to share our experiences, both good and bad, heartening and challenging to future generations and prepare them for a rewarding yet challenging path ahead of them. I feel the responsibility of informing girls and women interested in the STEM field that succeeding in this industry is not easy but it is worth it. I want to warn them that there will be those who will discourage you: Ignore them. There will be bumps in the road and push-back: Anticipate it and don't give up. If you have a desire, a dream or a goal in mind: Go for it. Put in the hard work, and listen to that still, soft voice. Believe in yourself when no one else does. You do not have permission to give up -- quitting is not an option!

Unfortunately, according to a special education report published by Smithsonian magazine ("Where a STEM Education Can Take You"), only 15 percent of African-American and Hispanic fourth graders perform at or above proficient levels in math and science (as compared to about 52 percent for Whites). By 12th grade, this percentage falls to a staggering nine percent. By the time minority students majoring in STEM-related fields enter the workforce they only represent 3.9 percent of STEM workers as compared to 79 percent of White STEM. workers. The disparity between girls and boys, women and men, minorities and non-minorities is systemic -- one that must be shifted.

Increasing the percentage of women in STEM careers is not only important as a gender-issue but it's important for the purse strings of women and their families. According to research provided by the White House, women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM occupations and the wage gap between men and women in STEM jobs is smaller than in other fields. Not only do girls interested in science and math need mentors and encouragement, but so do undergraduates and graduate students. Women today currently earn 41 percent of PhDs in STEM fields but make up only 28 percent of tenure-track faculty in those fields. As STEM mentors, we must be available to girls and women who want to pursue careers in our fields to ensure the success of future generations.

The question is this: As a mentor, what can we do right now to encourage girls and women interested in the STEM field? As a Huffington Post STEM mentor, I reached out to my amazing mentee (and Brandeis University student) and asked her, "What makes a good mentor?" Her answer gave me food for thought:

I think that a good STEM mentor should be someone who has had a lot of experience in the STEM field and knows how to network in those kinds of jobs. Also, I think a good mentor should teach her mentee about networking and how to act in a professional setting. Being easily accessible and reliable are also great qualities in a good mentor.

After speaking to my mentee guess what I did? I called MY mentor and asked her what it took for her to be a great mentor since she was mine. Her insight opened a whole new world and those items will be discussed in future blogs. Thanks, Natalie.

Imagine if each mentor reflected back on her own journey in their respective industry and remembered all of those "helping hands," who pulled THEM up. Imagine if we allow ourselves to remember the big and small ways that family members, teachers, ministers, colleagues and even strangers have touched our lives and enhanced our confidence in ourselves, in our ability as women to succeed in the STEM field. Imagine if we thought of the biggest challenges and setbacks that we've faced, and shared those experiences with younger girls and women. And shared that yes, you WILL fail... but the true failure is in not getting back up. Imagine if we just took the time (in our busy, busy lives) and shared with young women the truth: That the hardships, the battles, the sacrifices -- they're worth it. And THEY are worth it.

Now turn that imagination into ACTION, mentors.... and "just do it."

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