Conference Challenges Girls To Enter Science & Technology Fields

Monday, Apr 15, 2013

 Elle Starkman/PPPL Office Of Communications

Some 360 young women from seventh to tenth grade spent the day immersed in science and technology at the Department of Energy's Princeton Plasma Physics Lab's Young Women’s Conference on March 22 at Princeton University.

The budding scientists, mathematicians, and engineers from 40 schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania took part in hands-on experiments, got a first-hand look at working laboratories at Princeton, and talked to female scientists and engineers from PPPL and across the country at the conference, which was based mostly at the Frick Chemistry Laboratory.

 Chloe Heller, an eighth grader from Community Middle School in Plainsboro, said she realized she needed more role models when she was asked to name women scientists from history to prepare for the conference and she could only name two of them.  She said it was encouraging to see so many women scientists in one place. “It is interesting to see women doing this,” she said. “It’s interesting for all kinds of stuff, especially when you get to see what all the people are doing and to see you could do this too,” she said.

 Ninaad Desai, an electrical engineer at PPPL, told the students about her experiences as an electrical engineer at PPPL. She described how she uses her love of science and mathematics working on high-voltage equipment on PPPL’s NSTX experiment and other large experiments. “That’s what motivates me: science and mathematics,” she said. “Because everything is a mathematical equation.”

 Jayatri Das, the chief bioscientist at the Franklin Institute, spoke about the brain, which will be the focus of a new display at the museum that opens in June. She gave students some demonstrations of how the brain doesn’t always perceive things accurately. In one, she showed a video of a group of young people in white shirts tossing a basketball back and forth with people in black shirts. Das asked the students to count how many times the people in white shirts tossed the ball. When she finished, she asked, “How many people saw the gorilla?” Only half the group raised their hands. When she replayed the video, someone dressed as a gorilla clearly walked in during the middle of the game and tossed the basketball. Half the audience didn’t see it because they were so busy counting.  “Each of our brains is creating an individual reality and we have no idea how that works,” Das said.

 More than 40 people from PPPL volunteered at the conference at the registration desk, running hands-on experiments, leading tours and speaking to the teen girls about their work. There were 10 tours of various laboratories at Princeton, including the chemistry laboratories at Frick, the Peyton Hall Astrophysics laboratory, the Icahn Laboratory’s molecular biology/genomics laboratory and the geosciences and oceanography laboratories in the Guyot Hall.

 The conference featured 55 exhibitors giving hands-on demonstrations and conducting experiments on everything from dust storm to forensic science to FBI techniques. PPPL’s display, including the ever-popular plasma ball, was a favorite. “I like the static and your hair coming up,” said Monae Murphy, a seventh grader at P.J. Hill Elementary School in Trenton.

 Another popular exhibit was by Courtney Kaita (the daughter of PPPL’s Bob Kaita) who is working on Wall Street, but focused her exhibit on her other love – the cello - to demonstrate the physics of sound. She played the cello herself and let others take a turn. “Music is just organized sound,” she told the crowd. “You have ongoing vibrations in the air around you.” Elle Starkman/PPPL Office of Communications)

 After a full day, the students moved to McCosh Hall where they heard a talk by keynote speaker Heather Paul, an engineer who designs space suits and other equipment for NASA and is the lead engineer for a future spacesuit life support system. “I’m an engineer and I’m going to give you this challenge,” Paul told the crowd of young women. “I want you think about how you can engineer your career.”

She showed photos  on the job at the Johnson Space Center in Houston where she plays a number of roles –  designing, building and testing space suits and other hardware for the international space station. “I would like to point out I was the team leader,” she told the young women. “Who else is on my team? A bunch of boys.

In some of the photos, Paul and others tested out equipment under water to recreate conditions in deep space, and tried out equipment in the desert and in zero gravity.  Other photos showed Paul and her team members living in an enclosed space to test out new life support systems during what she jokingly called “a slumber party.”

At the end of her talk, Paul showed a photo of two figures in space suits with their faces blank and invited the students to imagine themselves as astronauts. “I want each of you to think about how you can contribute,” she said.

 Paul’s statement echoed the closing remarks of conference organizer Aliya Merali. She noted that 500 people had come together for the conference because they support women in science. “If you have the passion and drive to pursue a certain field, nothing can stop you,” Merali told the young women in the crowd. “Each of you is capable of changing the world through your interest in science and don’t forget it.”