2023 "Women Thrive in STEM" Expert Panel Event

In this unique "Women Thrive in STEM" event, our expert panelists shared with our Kid Teach Kid community their valuable insights on how to build a good foundation in high school, so that you can break free the "glass ceiling" that prevents women from achieving their full potential in the STEM fields, and how to creatively charter your own path and thrive in career in academia, industry, and Information Technology. 

Sage picture
Tina Li Picture
Event Host:   Sage Wang,  Tina Li,  Yiming Zhu
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Panelists:  Maria Pollard, Lei Fang, Dr. Beatriz Luna 

Sage Wang is a junior at Clements High School. She is the co-founder and President of Content Development of Kid Teach Kid. Sage was a 4x Gold Key Winner for the Scholastic Art and Writing Competition; 2-time AIME qualifier, and USACO Silver medalist.  Outside of school. She enjoys playing the cello and music composition.

Tina Li is a senior at Clements High School. She is a 5 time AIME qualifier and a 3 time USAJMO qualifier. She enjoys studying mathematics in her own time, and she’s excited to teach again for Kid Teach Kid again this summer. In her free time, she enjoys hanging out with her friends or watching movies.

Yiming is a rising sophomore in the 2023-2024 school year at Seven Lakes High School. She is a forensics enthusiast who has won numerous medals in Science Olympiad, including placing 5th nationally in crime busters. Other than forensics, she also likes to learn about biology and chemistry. In her free time she likes to watch cooking shows and play oboe/alto saxophone.


Ms. Maria Pollard is a Research fellow at Dow Inc., the biggest material science company in the US.  During 35 years of stellar career as a process development scientist, she has won many internal and external R&D awards. She is also a distinguished Toastmaster and is passionate about mentoring young people.

Ms. Lei Fang is a software development leader at Google. Her 10 years of experience at Google has been focused on developing Android infrastructure and services. She also had 5+ years of experience as a software engineer at Microsoft.

Dr. Beatriz Luna is a developmental neuroscientist known for conducting neuroimaging research on the development of cognitive control, reward, and reinforcement learning from early childhood to adolescence. She is the Staunton Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, and Professor of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, and the founder and director of the Laboratory of Neurocognitive Development at Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic (WPIC).

Key Insights

Develop thick skin to help overcome self-doubt in previously man dominated professions 

Explore a variety of activities to help identify what your true interests are, and where your strength lies  

Master verbal and written communications to make your voice heard, and make your great work known

Find mentors at different stage of your school and career to accelerate your growth 

Besides watching the event recording, please scroll down to read the entire expert event transcript. 

"Women Thrive in STEM"  --  event full transcript

– Sage:

We're really excited to have three amazing panelists with us today. Joining us, we have Ms. Maria Pollard, Ms. Lei Fang, and Dr. Beatriz Luna. And thank you so much to all three of you for joining us. Facilitating our meeting today, we have myself, hello, I'm Sage, and we have Tina and Yiming, who will be helping to facilitate the chat and funnel in your questions, so that we can help answer as many of them as possible.

So first of all, I think it's important that we give a bit of an introduction to this topic today. You may have heard a lot of these like movements that are sort of growing in popularity now, but I think it's important to actually look at some of these statistics, so that we can understand why this topic is so important. So this gender gap in STEM can be seen with how many women make up the STEM workforce, which is only 28%. This is a pretty small minority, and it's important to bring this number up for very important impacts that we'll address very soon.

Some other statistics, only 21% of engineering majors are women, and only 19% of computer and information science majors are women. Again, very small numbers. And in the healthcare industry, only 21% of health executives are women, and only 33% of doctors are women. One thing to notice here is that a lot of these higher positions tend to be filled by men, while many of these lower paying positions tend to be filled by women.

For example, in the healthcare industry, it is more common for women to take positions, for example, like pediatricians or nurses, while executives tend to be filled by men. And because of this, this creates an economic disparity that leaves men in STEM fields having an annual salary of on average, around $15,000 higher than women. Now, obviously this is a huge gap that is important to fill. So let's go ahead and address specifically these impacts.

So here's why this STEM gap and closing this gap matters. So first of all, as we've just addressed, narrowing this pay gap will increase economic security for women all around the world, enabling them to pursue whatever careers they want without fear of money and economic instability being a concern to them. Not only that, having a more diverse workforce as a whole will help to prevent biases and also foster innovation in these STEM fields.

In sort of any part of society, diversity is always a very highly sought out value. And the reason for that is because people of different backgrounds who have grown up in different ways and experienced like different things in their lives will be able to bring their own unique perspectives, their own values and their own ideas to the table. And in the case of women, that's 50% of the population. And including that 50% highly increases the chances that we can come up with bigger and better ideas together.

And finally, we want to be able to challenge these broader social gender norms, and promote social equality and diversity. So not only are we trying to inspire more females to be involved in STEM, we also want to inspire other similar social movements that also have equally as important values. For example, whether it be things in race or sexuality or just not discriminating people as a whole, we want our movement to be able to inspire others as well, to be able to fight for a world that just in general is more diverse, more equal, and it can share these ideas with each other.

So let's also address what causes this gap to happen in the first place, so that we can go about solving it. First of all, gender stereotypes have been around for centuries. STEM fields are often considered masculine. This often starts as early as elementary school, where oftentimes parents or teachers or their students themselves will assume that it is like more common, for example, boys to be better at math, and that perhaps that's just biologically and naturally true, which has been proven false.

Because of these gender stereotypes, whether it be in school or in the workforce, we create these general male dominated cultures, which basically means fewer, because there are fewer women involved in STEM, we have this culture of being, if you are a woman in STEM, that it's perhaps weird, or that you are less than the men who are working around you, which obviously is not a good thing to perpetuate. And because of all these things, we have fewer role models for young girls to look up to.

Having limited role models of, for example, female scientists, female engineers, all these other things, whether it be in their personal lives, in like popular culture, in the books they read. It's important for all these girls to be able to have women that they can look up to, so that they can know that these paths are very possible, that other people have done it before them, and that they can be inspired to do the same.

And for those reasons, this is why we'd like to present this event for all of you today, because we want to give all of you the opportunity to listen to the experiences and perspectives of these three outstanding women who have managed to succeed, and show that being a woman in STEM is not only possible, but that is able to thrive in these fields just as much as anywhere. With that being said, let's please give a warm welcome to our three panelists today.

First, we have Ms. Maria Pollard. Ms. Pollard is a research fellow at Dow Inc., which is the largest material science company in the US. She has 35 years of experience as a process development scientist. She's won numerous internal and external innovation awards. She is also a distinguished Toastmaster and has a lot of speaking experience, and she is very passionate about mentoring young people.

Next, we have Ms. Lei Fang, who is a software development leader at Google. She has 10 years of experience at Google focused on developing Android infrastructure and services, and she also has five plus years of experience as an engineering manager at Microsoft.

Finally, we have Dr. Beatriz Luna, who is a developmental neuroscientist. She conducts neuroimaging research on the development of cognitive control, reward, and reinforcement learning. She is the Staunton Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, the Professor of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, and also the Founder and Director of the Laboratory of Neurocognitive Development at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic.

And let's first get into some pre-submitted questions. So we had some really good and very interesting questions that we're first going to discuss before turning it over to the audience for you guys to ask whatever questions you like.

Before we get into these five questions, I'd like to remind everyone that while this is a panel, it is also meant to be more conversational. So whether it be any of the panelists who'd like to jump in with any comments, or any of you in the audience that would like to jump in with related questions or comments, please feel free to do so, because this event is here for you guys. And so we can all learn from all these experiences together.

All right, let's get into our first question today.

  • 1.  Our first question is, looking back on your own successful journey in STEM, why do you think women are equally capable of having a thriving career in your field of experience? Ms. Pollard, how about we start with you?

-- Ms. Pollard

I think that one is best to have neuroscientist (Dr. Luna) in the group to address this. But the way I think about it is the way your brain is wired. And part of your brain can be good in math, in my case, physics, not chemistry. And I have a knack of figuring out how to solve problems. I liked it, I enjoyed it. I became in time much better at it. And it has nothing to do with me being a woman or anything like that. It's just how my brain is set to work.

And also what you like to do. You may be good at solving problems, but if you don't like solving problems, that's not good. You have to find the intersection of what you like and what you're good at. And when you find that, if they can pay you for it as well, that's great.

-- Sage

Thank you so much. That was very insightful. Ms. Fang or Dr. Beaches, do either of you have a perspective on this?

– Dr. Luna

Well, I'm happy to share some of the findings that we know about the brain. We are completely capable, there are no sex differences in the contributions that can be made to STEM, be it males or females. There are some differences, for example, females brains develop earlier than those of males. And we have proposed that enable us to have greater awareness of our emotions, which men do not. And contrary to the thought that women might be more emotional at work, in fact, it's often the opposite.

Because we are aware of the emotions that we're dealing with. And I'm in a position where I have to be, now I'm the director of our very large magnetic resonance center. and so forth and, you know, director of my lab, also the president of our society. And I have found that there are aspects of being a woman that have actually been helpful, because of certain insights that we have, because of our ability to the control. But overall, I think we need to think about this. There are really no sex differences, there's no reason to think that, you know, males would be better at STEM than females.

-- Sage

Thank you, that makes a lot of sense. Ms. Fang, did you want to say something?

– Ms. Fang

Yes, I totally agree with the other two panelists. So yeah, although the brain has some difference, maybe we have different personalities, but I never doubt a woman has the capability. So actually, grew up in China, well, women have traditionally been very disadvantaged. However, in my generation, this has started to change: because we were educated with a motto like, like women hold up half of the sky. And then the girls at school actually performed very well including STEM courses.

As a software engineer in the high tech industry, actually I had a lot of opportunity to work with many talented women. I'm impressed by their skills, their dedication, and ability to think creatively. So I think I believe women are just as capable as men in computer science and high-tech area, and definitely see people have skills, drive and the creativity to succeed in this field.

-- Sage

Yeah, thank you so much. I think as all three of you said, it's important to consider that males and females may develop biologically in different ways, and have their different strengths. But women are definitely equally as capable in these skills,  like critical thinking and problem solving, as you said.

  • 2. All right, moving on to our next question. What are some key skills or qualities that you think are essential for women to succeed in your field of expertise?

-- Ms. Pollard

Thick skin. Okay. I don't know. I see them going like that. I'm the oldest in the group, by the way, you're lucky you probably have a 60 plus, a 40 plus and a 20 plus, 20 years difference. And they can give you the different perspectives. But really, honestly, you can solve the problems, you could do just as well as the man, but be ready to have to prove yourself over and over and over and over.  And they throw stuff at you, and you have to kind of let it go and keep going.

So yes, I think you at your age thinking the math and the physics and all that, yes, you have to do all that, you have to do well, you have to go to school and pass them. But afterwards, the different skills that I needed more than the basic STEM skills. For me, I had to have thick skin.

– Dr. Luna

I'm older than you might think. I'm older. But I know exactly what you're talking about. I had to develop very thick skin throughout my career. And the higher up I get, the more I have to, I've learned to let things slide. And there have been times when I've been at very, very high level meetings, and it takes a longer time to be heard. But once that happens, It's incredibly rewarding: because unlike men who were immediately heard just because they were white men, the fact that you worked on it, you had to work at it, and all of a sudden you are being heard. It’s an incredible success. And, you know, but you just keep going. You're not going to say, hey, you're finally listening to me.

But you have to be persistent, persistent and let things roll in your back and just keep going. Do not let yourself be derailed by them. Because I mean I don't see men being purposely undermining. I think it's just you know there's so many social factors and cultural factors that have positioned them in that in that manner. It just takes a little bit more time, so patience is of great importance. So that I think I could not agree more with Maria.

– Ms. Fang

Yeah, thank you. I am inspired.

Because actually, when Sage invited me to this panel, when looking at Maria and Dr. Luna's resume, I was, I feel I kind of less confident to come over, but that's kind of a point I want to bring. So I feel be confident and assertive is very important for women to succeed: because women in STEM careers often face like stereotypes and biases sometimes. And then it's important to be confident in your abilities and to speak up for yourself. And then for example, in my early career, I actually tended to be quiet, and I was afraid to express my own ideas. I think because of that, I lost some learning opportunities, and also like that's the opportunities to have more impact and influence.

And also, I think the technical skills are essential for success. However, there are a lot of other key skills and attributes can help women in this field as well: like be confident, be a team player. Because the STEM careers are increasingly collaborative. Be willing to work with others and share your ideas is very important. Like I work at Google, we evaluate employee performance based on a few key aspects.

For example, scope and impact, teamwork, and dependability. So for the scope and the impact in first to the employees, contribution to the team, and overall impact of their work. And teamwork refers to employees' ability to work effectively with others and collaborate towards a common goal. So those kind of things really require, especially for a leader, to reach out more, to increase influence by collaborating a large group of people, and how do you present your ideas effectively, how do you collaborate.

And also, I think it's very helpful to find some mentors as Sage mentioned, there are less women mentors in the in the career. But still it's very helpful no matter it's a man or women. It is always very helpful to find a mentor, and then he/she can provide some guidance and support to help you to navigate your career.

– Ms. Pollard

Yeah. I want to add something that the later justice, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Sai: in dealing with men, even her husband, that she pretended to be deaf quite often. Just let it go.

-- Sage

Thank you guys so much. I think it's very interesting to see how skills like teamwork, but also being assertive are hand in hand in situations like that, where being heard in a room full of men is not just about being able to listen to them, but being able to show them why they should listen to you. And I think that's an important soft skill that we may not realize it’s important for a woman to succeed in an environment like this. So thank you all so much for sharing your experiences.

All right, let's go ahead and look at the next question.

  • 3. So our next question: what is something that you know now about finding a career in STEM that you think you should have done or realized in the past?

– Ms. Pollard

It's again, for me, the same sort of aspect. When I was at the university, my advisor advised me to take some art classes as electives, just to do something different. It was good, but I didn't really enjoy it. In retrospect, had I taken speech or drama or acting classes, I would have been better off.

Because it took me years to find out what you already young ladies probably realizing how important the soft skills are. How important it is to speak properly, to go and tell everybody in the room what you really mean, and get to the point and do it in a way that you will be heard.

For example, women speak at least at 140 words a minute. Men on the average, 120. If you want to be heard, slow down your speech. It works. It is amazing. If you manage to put some pauses here and there, and they're just waiting for you to say, really works like magic. When you speak really, really fast, they just, they can't keep up basically. It's going back to how the brain is wired. So to succeed, just speak a little bit slower, enunciate a little bit, that goes a long way.

-- Sage

Thank you so much. Ms. Fang or Dr. Beaches, do either of you have anything to add?

– Ms. Fang

Wow, thanks for sharing, Maria. I think that's a very good point. Slow down and wait to be heard. Yeah. So for my case, I would like to share, I feel because I grew up in China. In China, it's really academic focused. We had a lot of exams and then we had ranking published every month on the school wall.

So everybody's trying hard to get perfect grades. I felt if I look back, don't focus too much on getting perfect grades. It's important to do well in school, but don't let grades become the sole focus of the education. Instead, like focus on learning and understanding, and be curious to learn more things.

And also like for me, I feel I worried about future too much when I was younger. So now I kind of often tell myself, don't worry about the future. It's natural to be a little bit anxious about the future, but don't let it consume you. Instead, like just focus on the present moment, enjoy the journey, and the future will take care of yourself, yourself.

And also like pay attention to build some soft skills. It's same thing like when I was in school, everything is focus on the academic. We barely spend time to teach soft skills. And then, but working in the company, when I go climb the career ladder, I feel sometimes the soft skills plays an even more important factor to help you to succeed in the career: like some of the skills to help you do how to communicate effectively, how to adjust crucial conversations, how to collaborate with a different type of people, how to show your leadership. So you want to bridge the differences, embrace them. So I think all those things can be built even when you are young.

– Dr. Luna

I have a couple of thoughts to add to these wonderful comments that I've been listening to.

I think when I look back, there are things that, as opposed to men who, all the mentors and everyone, they're helping them with the next step. I wasn't thinking about the next step. For example, where am I gong to go and do a postdoc, which is what you do after grad school and in my career.

And I lucked out.

But I see it now, you know, as a mentor, I am working very hard to help each one of my students get to the next level. And I wish I would have been thinking in that fashion when I was a grad student a year or two before I went to grad school. So that I think is something that when I look back to, you know, kind of be thinking a little bit ahead of the game. And not get lost in the forest of where you are at the moment.

-- Ms. Pollard

I guess we weren't thinking about more than just the next one, because we didn't have any mentors. I thought it was very normal for the super high up fellows to bring young men to show them around and tell everybody, here's my boy, he's young, but he could do it, he's good, you know, and promote them because for a man.

Especially at the time do that to women, it could be misconstrued.  You have an older man, a younger woman, you know, they stayed away from it anyways.

But men help men a lot. So I guess what Dr. Luna and I are doing now is we are absolutely going out of our way to help the young women because we didn't get it, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't give it back. And now everybody knows, I hope everybody knows, when you go to any organization, seek those people that can tell you the truth, that can tell you which way you can improve, and also give you a bit of a boost to help you move up to the next level.

-- Sage

I absolutely agree. I think that for our generation, having teachers or mentors and people to tell us that it is possible for women to do these careers or these majors, has definitely made a big difference and starting to break the stereotypes. And I'm really happy that hosting an event like this will hopefully keep pushing those boundaries forward.

Okay, let's go ahead and look at the next question.

  • 4. So what are some of the critical academic pursuits or extracurricular activities that you have explored during high school or college that you think really helped you build a good foundation for your future success in STEM?

– Ms. Pollard

It was a lot simpler those days when I was growing up. You went to school, you did whatever, you weren't expected to have a resume with all these extracurriculars. You enjoyed to do something, you did it.

But now I think what is required of you is just so much more. So I will probably say what might be good for you is to do something that you enjoy, over and above just the STEM. And if Sage, for example, you seem to be very good at public speaking, take it up. Get really good at it. So you can really put it on your resume or something. You maybe somebody that wants to do something with charity, go for it. Somebody wants to do something with a hobby.

Just do something that you enjoy and that you can put on your resume, but don't put so much pressure on yourselves. Enjoy your life, because you're never going to be 15, 16 again. This is it, one time.

– Dr. Luna

I want to add to what Maria said, and by the way, my name is coming up backwards. My last name is Luna, my first name is Beatriz. But yeah, I do want to build on that. I mean, I had, there were different times like you said, but I'm coming from two areas. From one area is that I'm a neuroscientist who studies adolescents. And I know that that is a time of the brain for exploration.

The brain is very hungry for new experiences, and there is all these chemicals that are in a particular, are behaving in a particular way during adolescence to motivate the obtaining of new experiences.

And for example, when I was a teenager, I wasn't thinking about getting good grades at all. I was out having a good time. I was fascinated by philosophy, and by the emerging discussions about the brain and new neuroimaging methods that now are very old, but I was like, wow.

And I was just going with that sort of thinking. And just yesterday, I was talking to some of my colleagues, one of them who is a Stanford alumni, and she helps with the admissions process of some of the students and so forth.

And she made a really interesting remark. She said, you know, you interview these kids, and they're all like cookie cutters. They have all these AP classes and all this extracurricular activity. And a lot of them are, there's so many of them that they're not becoming, they're not coming to the top.

The ones that are coming to the top are ones who are really more holistic people who are interesting, and have gone out of their way to really develop who they are in a sincere fashion, not just following what the rules have been telling them they have to do to get to the next place.

So, there are a couple of things that I've heard my colleagues today say:  One of them is follow your curiosity, and do what find what you really love to do. And you are at an age where that becomes really important.  I didn't say, I'm going to be a neuroscientist or anything, but I knew that that was fun for me to hear about the brain, to try to understand what does the mind mean. And I'm a developmentalist and I love kids and so forth and I loved my adolescence. So, you know, those are the things that have really guided my trajectory going forward.

-- Sage

That makes a lot of sense. I think I also agree that it's definitely really important to see:  like all these extracurriculars or pursuits as more of like a search for passion, rather than just filling out something because it's expected of us.

Ms. Fang, did you have anything to add?

– Ms. Fang

Sure. I'm actually really inspired by Ms. Maria and Dr. Luna. So actually for my story: When I was a kid, I didn't really have the luxury to pursue my own passion. I felt a lot of times the past were defined by teachers, by parents, and then I kind of just followed.

And then the reason I chose computer science, partly because at that time computer science was becoming hot. And also like I became very interested in computer science in high school, because when I first time saw a computer and then they did amazing things.

But at that time we didn't have many like actual curriculars activities available in my age. So at the beginning of like when I went to college when I started to take that as major, I regretted actually in my first year. I feel that the computer was not as interesting as what I thought before. And it's hard for me to understand the logics, and what we learned about C++. Somehow the C++ pointers at that time was quite hard for me to pick up.

And then, but I'm glad when I look back, I didn't give up because in China at that time, we couldn't really change the major. So I have to stick to it, but the patience to learn more definitely make me feel more comfortable, especially when I started to do some small projects with my classmates together, then it became more and more interesting. So I feel for the curricular project, I couldn't say too much because when I was a kid, I didn't have many to choose.

But when I look at my kids, my older one is a rising high schooler. And then they started like actual curriculars, much younger age. Actually, at his fifth grader, he said he wanted to be a software engineer. At that time, I was doubting whether he really, he really wanted to pursue that. And then he just checked some online free courses from Coursera and then to see, and after a semester, happy year, he said he still wants to do that. And then we started to find some courses and the local resources for him to get deeper into this area. Also, he has some friends, took those kind of similar activities as they did together and then they discussed the problems. And I feel it's become one of the sources of joy for him.

So yeah, I think it does follow your passion, follow your interest.

– Ms. Pollard 

I guess some of you could say: that's good. But what on earth is my passion? I don't know, right? Because Dr. Luna said, hey, you're just a teenager, you just now should be exploring.

What I found, and I have a 26 year old son, he is taking those aptitude tests. I came into engineering through aptitude tests. I was very, very good at math. I loved physics. I think math and physics together is just fun. It's a game. I don't care for chemistry that much. So I took a bunch of aptitude tests. And when I came to the US, and they told me engineering was pretty much at the top, and that's what I did.

My son on the other hand, believe it or not, he's the son of two chemical engineers and he's a lawyer. because the part of the brain that works great for him is logic and language, and not symbols and math.

If you are being pushed into a profession by your parents, don't go there, resist it. You're not going do very well. And Dr. Luna says, yes, you're just not going do very well. You have to go with what you love so much. You are set to do: That you love it, that it's not work. Then the classes aren't as difficult. Then work isn't as difficult. Then the males around you, eh, you don't worry about them, you keep going. If you love what you do.

I would spend more time on that. If you like physics, you're an engineer. If you don't like physics, and you like chemistry, maybe you should go to chemistry or you go to medicine, for example, if you still like STEM. But physics is the one that differentiates between those two.

– Dr. Luna

Yeah, I mean, I very much agree that you should not. I mean, parents are trying to be helpful, but no one's going to know what you want to do but yourself.

And right now, you may not know what you want to do. So give yourself room to find what it is. It took me a while. It was only through college that I gravitated to the things that I really liked. And I liked the fact that here in the States, you're able to choose different classes. I took ceramics, I took philosophy, you know, and a lot of psychology and neurobiology type of courses.

And that's how you find what, you know, what you really like. And it's the ones that where you really do well at. I have zero artistic abilities. I married an artist, and my grown children, their thirties, I have both gravitated to music and art. And that's fine.

And that is the way we let them experience and find what they really want to do. You'll hear that over and over again - find your passion. Don't get nervous that you don't know right now, what it might be. Just give yourself room to be able to explore and find it.

-- Sage

Thank you all so much. I think a lot of that has really resonated with me. I think that especially where a lot of the times we feel pressure to pursue certain things, because perhaps other people, our peers, are more drawn toward them. Our parents want to push us toward them. But like you all said, finding what you really want to do is definitely the best way to ensure that in the future, not only will you be happier studying it, but you'll be more likely to make contributions and refine real discoveries. So thank you all so much.

And our last pre-submitted question for you guys today:

  • 5. What is one big challenge that you had to overcome during high school or college that served as a steppingstone and inspired you to pursue your successful career in STEM?

– Ms. Pollard

Someone else go first, please.

– Dr. Luna

You inspire us Maria, so go ahead and go first.

– Ms. Pollard

I went to high school in Greece. I was in an all-girls high school from seventh grade on. The challenge that we had was, where did you find the boys, Really? They were not around. We came very, very close with each other. We would get together and do homework, solved a lot of problems.

In Greece, maybe it's like in China, you have to take this national exam to go to the university. I was coming to the US, but a lot of my friends stayed in Greece. And I was pretty good with all those courses so I would work with them, and we'd solve a lot of problems to get ready.

For me it was a bit of language, it was a bit of difficulty if you wish.  Because it's one thing to read and write very well, and another thing to speak it, especially when you're thrown in South Texas with the accents that they have here. It took me a while to get used to that. Probably about a year to feel very, very comfortable with the language.

But I did not see anything in front of me that I said I couldn't do. My guess, the way that I am wired is to think the little engine that could, you know the little book that your parents read you when you were little, I think I can, I think I can. It's like, sure, they could do it, I could do it. And that was it.

So I can't really think of anything really that big impediment that I had to overcome other than maybe the language.

– Dr. Luna

I had a very unusual trajectory, probably not from any of the panelists or the public here. I was an extremely rebellious teenager. I did go to an all-girls school in Washington, D.C., and I was asked to leave because I was a little bit too rebellious. And even though I was in the honors algebra class, I was extremely, you know, it was a big shock in my life to be asked to leave. It's all of a sudden like, oh my gosh, I guess I crossed the line one too many times.

But my honors algebra teacher was like, don't worry, you're going to do great. And so I had to overcome this, you know, transition of, can I do it? Will I be able to do it? I could see that my father knew that I was someone who could do it. And his disappointment was not at me being asked to leave school, but of the fact that he knew I could do more. And so I did.

So the last year I was like, fine, I'll get straight A's. You know, that's what they want me to do. And then when I went to college, I just could not believe that I could sit down in a class and they were telling me all this amazing information. And I went from this rebellious teenager to a complete what you would call nerd. My friends were my professors, and I just could not get enough knowledge, could not stop reading and going to the library, and finding out more and more and more. So I guess in a way what I had to, the stepping stone was just my own self and my own adolescence to find what I really, really love.

-- Sage

I was just going to say thank you guys for that. I think overcoming not only the challenges of like being in a class full of males for some of these more stem-oriented classes where these stereotypes exist, but also Dr. Luna, as you mentioned, overcoming like yourself, and going from one part of one phase of your life to another, where you're realizing what you truly want to do is definitely very important. I'm sorry, Ms. Fong, did you want to say anything?

– Ms. Fang

I just want to share one of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome during the high school year was my lack of self-confidence. I think I was shy and didn't really like to speak up in class. I also I often wanted to hide myself rather than showing up. I didn't really have much interest to make friends, because I didn't want to deal with the complexity in the relationship.

So this made me like difficult to build a close relationship with other classmates. So when I get to college, I decided to make a change. So I made efforts to talk to more people, get involved in more different activities. This definitely helped me to build my confidence, and also helped me to make good friends, and also enjoy my school life. So overcoming my lack of self-confidence was a big hurdle, but also a stepping stone to my success in the future career.

Because it taught me the importance of being confident and being outgoing. It also taught me the importance of networking and building the relationship. So I think even those days, nowadays, when I look back, it's constantly like, my past experience can remind me. I need to reach out because I'm still more of a shy person. But now because of those kind of experience, encourage me to overcome my personality, like to reach out more, to speak up more.

-- Sage

Thank you so much, Ms. Fang. I also definitely agree. I think pushing yourself just outside of your comfort zone in general, as you've all said, is a great way to find opportunities.

All right, so now that we've gone through our five pre-submitted questions, we want to go ahead and completely turn it over to you guys in the audience. If you ask any sort of questions that you're curious about, whether it be something that our panelists have already discussed or something else entirely, so please feel free to drop anything in either the chat or the Q&A.

Okay, I see a question here. Someone asks:

  • 6. What would you say are some of the most rewarding aspects of your STEM career that bring you joy or fulfillment?

– Ms. Pollard

For me, solving a problem. You know, when a runner runs and they get a high, when I solve that problem, I get that high. I also absolutely enjoy doing it with other people. I like getting in front of a blackboard with one or two colleagues, and we throw out the questions, and we talk back and forth, and altogether we come up with a solution or a direction, or something like that.

I've been doing it for 35 years now, and I still go. And it takes me an hour to go to work, and an hour to come home every day, because of the people, and the interesting problems. That is what we're trying to tell you. If you like it, it is not a job. It is a joy.

– Dr. Luna

That's a direct parallel to what I love in my work as well. And I call it discovery. We have these questions,  and I love having my graduate students and my postdocs and collaborators and so forth. And there are many times when it's incredibly energetic, fun and even funny.

And I'm known for being a risk taker, and the questions that I ask. And people are like, no, you're crazy. That's taking it too far. I'm like, no, we're going to do it. But I never hear when people say, oh, I don't know, it's too hard. For me, that just means we need to do it. It's not that it's not doable. And that is extremely fun. Extremely fun, like Marie was saying.

Coming up with solutions and then all of a sudden having a discovery, it's so incredibly rewarding where you're like, oh, wait a minute. So that's what this means. Nobody had thought about it this way. And we're making a contribution to society, and therefore you know, to the greater good of the community and so forth.  I mean, I've informed briefs to the US Supreme Court and so forth where I had to translate my science. And it's extremely rewarding.

And the other thing that is very rewarding for me is mentoring my students. And they come, you know, so young and curious, which by the way, for me, that's the one thing that I put at the top of the list when I'm interviewing students. I want to see your curiosity. I don't really care that you have straight A's and you're like, uh, I want to see someone who, number 1, comes to the interview, well-prepared, knowing the science that I've done, and then will ask me any questions. No questions are stupid. But the fact that you were thinking, you're like, well, I wonder if this or that, I'm like, that's the person that I want. And when I mentor and I start to see the change, and we have these interactions where I say, look, I'm just planting seeds in your brain. You know, this may not make sense to you yet, but you'll see, I'm just waiting for it to germinate. And then you see these ideas come out and, you know, the years go by and then by the third or fourth year, you see that there's critical thinking that in there's passion and that they're enjoying it. I really make a big deal that I want people to enjoy what they're doing. It's a lot of hard work and, you know, I'm never, you know, looking at what everyone is doing, I let them go. And I see the hard work that they are inspired to do. And I love to see that that brings me a lot, a lot of joy. And I've won mentoring awards because I just, it's something that I love to see a young scientist emerge.

– Ms. Pollard 

Yeah, curiosity and tenacity are the two aspects that I would say. Just don't give up. Whatever it is, just go for it. And that's where you find the gems, yes. You need both, I think. Very good.

I wish I lived nearby so we can meet with Dr. Luna because we're very, very similar in thinking.

– Dr. Luna 

I think so too. Or why don't we meet in Greece?

– Ms. Pollard 

That would be great, wouldn't it?

– Dr. Luna

I gave a talk in Alexandropolis.

-- Ms. Pollard

Oh, okay. So you went by my hometown of Kavala on the way, I guess.

-- Dr. Luna

Oh, I guess so. I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere, like how beautiful is everything around me. The people are wonderful...

-- Sage

Thank you guys so much for sharing on that. I also agree that I think curiosity and problem solving are very closely correlated in that they both drive each other and create this positive cycle. Oh, I'm wondering about this thing. It seems impossible. But I need to know the answer. And as you guys talked about, tenacity as well, and not giving up and trying to find those solutions. Thank you guys.

I see another question here. Someone asked specifically a question for Ms. Fang. They asked:

  • 7. Besides computer coding and programming, what other technical skills are highly valued at Google and Microsoft that we can start cultivating even at a high school level?

– Ms. Fang

This is a very good question. I actually, I feel besides coding and programming, definitely have like, so everybody, lot of like problem solving skills, right? You can build like through different activities.

No matter whether you are working on robotics or working on different clubs, like even for like business planning, those kinds of stuff is all related to problem solving. How can you make the ideas, and be able to write it down and then to break them to two different pieces and then to find the people to buy in your ideas,  and then to be able to communicate with them, and make that more concrete plan.

Because in Google, the culture is very bottom up. A lot of times, the features are designed, is initiated by engineers. But you still need to go through the process to convert your idea to part of the product. So in that way, you need to go through the early design phase, and then become more concrete, and then find a sponsor and then communicate with others, leverage others' efforts as well. Because often times you find the problem could be very big for you alone to solve. And then for that time, you probably need to reach out to different teams, even cause PAs, right, product areas in order to solve a bigger problem. So I think all those kind of skills can be practiced, prepared in high school, like taking on more like leadership, and the more like critical thinking, those kind of skills.

-- Sage

Thanks so much for sharing that. I see another question, which I think is also very interesting, which is:

  • 8. What are the best ways to improve verbal communication and public speaking skills. Do any of you have any thoughts on that?

– Dr. Luna

Well, I mean, I can speak for myself. I, even though, you know, you see me now as someone who is very social and perhaps confident, it was very difficult for me in the beginning to be able to do public speaking. And I had to really force myself, and it took me a long time, actually, even as a postdoc, it became very difficult until I was told by a research assistant who worked for me.

When you're giving these talks, stop worrying about what people think or if they're judging you. They are actually here to hear what you have to say, and what your science is. And for some reason, that really made a change in my public speaking. And then practice and practice.

Even nowadays, I practice my talks before I deliver them. And now, it becomes an easier one to do. And I'm sorry, I'm distracted. I'm getting some calls from my family. I might have to go.

-- Sage

Oh, that's the case. Oh, please. Thank you so much for your time and all of your thoughts.

– Dr. Luna

All right, thank you.

– Ms. Pollard:

I'll take up this one about public speaking.

I was without 25 years when a colleague invited me to a Toastmasters meeting, and I didn't really want to go. But I couldn't tell him no, so I went.  One part of Toastmasters meeting is to only give speeches that is not a presentations that you practice and you prepare, it's an impromptu. You get up, they ask you a question and you have one or two minutes to answer it.

And they said, would anybody from the audience, visitor like to do it? I couldn't, I was just absolutely frozen. And that's when I thought to myself, I’d better join and learn how to do this. Because after 25 years doing research and giving a lot of speeches, if I can't do it and I'm frozen, I've got a problem. And what I found is it is a learned trade, and it is extremely, extremely important part of your attributes of what makes you a very successful person. And I don't mean in STEM. I don't mean in medicine. I don't mean as a professor or researcher or anything. I don't care what you do.

Being able to put out your message succinctly to somebody, adjusted to your audience, so they can hear you. You can talk and they're going to go, but they don't really hear you. To really pay attention to you and have an impact, you have to master it. You have debates at school, you have speech classes, take them. If I had the chance to help my son, I would send him to drama classes, more than anything, to learn how to use your body and control your body.

-- Sage

That makes a lot of sense. Thank you for sharing that.

I see another question here:

  • 9. Can you share with us some learning resources and experiences that gave you a big boost in your STEM career? For example, the aptitude test that Ms. Pollard mentioned.

– Ms. Pollard

There are psychologists at school that gave them to me, but I think at any school, your counselor could give them to you. You could probably get a dozen for like $20 online. Try them all. The other one, and Dr. Luna could talk about that because I found out with my son, apparently when you take an IQ test and you get a number, it's just an average of the two hemispheres. And in some people, that...she could tell us more detail. I'll tell you what they explained to me.

One part of the brain can be better or higher in intelligence than the other, or wired better than the other. And knowing which one, that also might help you. I am pretty good at both, I think, but my son, for example, is all language. And for him, had I known that earlier, we would have known which way he would academic career them later. We have the expert to explain it to us, please.

– Dr. Luna

Well, so predominantly the two hemispheres really collaborate a lot. but you're right that there are some aspects that become more predominant, and that will be determined by your biological genetic predisposition, and how that is working with your environment. And that's what's happening in the beginning of your development through childhood and so forth.

In an adolescence when the brain starts to decide based on a use it or lose it fashion, what is going to become predominant in the brain, just like a muscle. The more that you use, but it's very much determined already by your predisposition that was automatically determined.

But there's a lot to be said about, practicing, like practicing talks or other things that you are passionate about and are difficult. The more, especially now at this time of your brain development, that is telling the brain: because the brain is just, it's not trying to be good or bad. It's just saying: Okay, you use that a lot. We're going to myelinate it, and solidify that circuitry, and that's going to become very much who you are going forward.

So in some senses, those aptitude tests might tell you a little bit of what's predominating at the moment that you should listen to. I think what Maria said is correct. Listen to what is already emerging is something that is particularly good for you. But again, let yourself open for explorations, because that could build into a different trajectory. Your son became a lawyer, but He could have been an actor or a teacher.

– Ms. Pollard

but not an engineer, that's for sure.

-- Sage

All right, thank you all so much. That was definitely an enlightening discussion. That's about all the time we have today. But I really want to say thank you guys all so much and everyone in our audience,.

Let's please give it up for our three outstanding panelists today. You have helped to share so many different insights and perspectives, and I hope that everyone in the audience can walk away with at least a few new things that they've learned today. We really appreciate you guys taking the time to speak today.

– Dr. Luna

And Sage, thank you so much for organizing this and your comments were really very insightful.

– Sage

Thank you so much. And to everyone in our audience, thank you all so much for attending today's event.

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