Kat Huang‍

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Reflections from a Girl in STEM

November 03, 2020

In my third year of high school, I decided to organize an event called Science and Us. The idea was to introduce fellow high schoolers to people in science communication and give them an opportunity to make projects explaining complex topics to the public. I did this because I realized I was interested in science-adjacent fields and “science and society”, and although I knew that professions like science journalists and policymakers existed, I didn’t know how to become one of them.

This chain of reasoning requires a weird logical leap. Supposedly, I didn’t know how to pursue a type of career, and instead of finding the answer, I created an event to help others learn about these careers? One superficial explanation, suitable for this superficial framing of the problem, is that running events was a default thing to do in my mind. I had recently helped co-organize a local hackathon for the first time, so logistically speaking, events were a feasible (though not necessarily best) option on the table.

I knew I didn’t want my efforts to end when the event(s) ended. I wanted to change people’s beliefs about what they could and should be; to send a PSA that it’s fine to be excited about a wide range of things, and possible to pursue hobbies and professions that fulfill them all. I hoped to give people the confidence to approach any topic, undeterred by complexity — no more saying, “That’s too hard for someone like me.” Introducing peers to science communication happened to be my chosen vehicle for this broader goal.

The messier explanation

It turns out what bothered me wasn’t that I lacked a clear path from high schooler to science journalist. I was frustrated that careers like this were completely absent from career conversations in my environment. Helping people understand the technical side of issues we face seemed critical to our present and future, but the career resources most available to me — personality quizzes, Bureau of Labor Statistics charts, occasional guidance counselor chats — weren’t designed for surfacing these roles.

I also held an anti-disciplinary mindset. I’ve written some variation of, “Just as the borders between nations are human-made, there’s no real line where chemistry stops and biology begins,” in some essay every year since I was 13, but an email I read today sometimes between drafts of this post eschews such verbosity: “Disciplines don’t exist. They are our invention.” For practical reasons, it makes sense to restrict the scope of classes and jobs to a set of related topics. But these fabricated divisions are taken too far: entire people’s identities get coerced into an academic subject. What began as a model for simplifying the world is used to define adults and inform how children should come to think of themselves.

Belief in disciplinary divisions is pervasive, and so are beliefs about the prominence of certain disciplines. For example: “Of course, STEM jobs are growing fast and it’s important to have lots of people learn to code.” In many people’s eyes, these are simply facts without agendas, and they fade into the backdrop unquestioned. The very grouping together of the fields in STEM, though, is strongly connected to immigration policy, education policy, international competitiveness, and national defense. Years of rhetoric and campaigns have indoctrinated certain beliefs about STEM among the American populace.

From these beliefs has sprung up an ecosystem of resources seeking to encourage students to pursue STEM. As a high schooler, I benefited substantially from it. I contributed to it. I was also impacted by it in ways that were less than beneficial. I think the ecosystem is overdue for more candid conversations about whether and how we ought to be encouraging people to pursue certain beliefs and interests, how that impacts society at large, and, yes, what knowledge even is.

An overlooked exclusivity, and no space for casual interest

Today there are many initiatives to encourage people of underrepresented genders and races to pursue STEM. These initiatives create an ironic exclusion of their own by painting a picture of what women (for example) in STEM should be. This depiction might fail to be intersectional, or perhaps it doesn’t resonate with some women but gets applied to them anyway. I didn’t consider myself a woman in STEM until I got recognition for being one — an unexpected award that melted a few layers of internalized impostor syndrome-ception (“not only am I not a great coder, but I am actually Not a Coder at All” I say as I write Python scripts) but also introduced peculiar side effects.

As a pre-teen, my still-developing interests, like coding websites, were deemed as “tech” and I was framed as a “person in tech.” Over the years, I gained the vocabulary, a familiarity with the major programs and people, and a network in tech. I feel confident, though not necessarily comfortable, navigating tech. I don’t take this for granted. But I’ve also participated in years of over-compensation: defining myself in terms of negations — “no actually I’m not interested in computer science” — which precluded me from wholeheartedly exploring tech once I actually wanted to.

STEM initiatives collectively contribute to a situation that, to me, feels all-or-nothing. If you’re interested in the content but don’t identify with the image, there’s less support and room for you. Either swallow the discomfort and go all in, or complicate the popular narrative, which can be tricky to do — your intentions can be misinterpreted, and you’re going against institutions with numbers and resources.

They also make it easy to fake-support equity in STEM. Teaching middle school girls how to code doesn’t fix things if female engineers don’t feel safe at companies. Yes, we can pursue multiple issues at the same time. But it’s all too easy for individuals and companies to support the former, pat themselves on the back, and get excused from caring about the latter.

False dichotomies

STEM is described as left-brain, logical, computational. But STEM subjects don’t have a monopoly over this skillset, nor do they solely involve logical deductions. Social science fields have computational work, and analyzing literature or history involve pattern-finding and critical thinking. Some of the most important skills to have in STEM are interpersonal ones, writing, and thinking creatively. It’s good for people to know how to think methodically and turn to that tool when appropriate. It’s too far when people in STEM are depicted as always thinking like a computer, and this is seen as superior to being “emotional” and “subjective,” as if these are even traits we can even eliminate.

The nature of truth and seeking truth

In journalism, objectivity isn’t all that laypeople might think it to be. Every stance, including upholding the status quo, is political. Ignoring the human factor precludes us from recognizing, addressing, and accounting for biases in what is reported. The same goes for science, which is a product of processes that are social, involving networks of living and nonliving entities, and institutions that are political, from universities with government funding, to DIY biohacker collectives. Yes, science produces results we should trust, but science itself can and ought to be analyzed too.

We need to teach being more comfortable with uncertainty. The message I’ve received is that the world is segmented into fields, as are the jobs we must work, the classes we take to get those jobs, and ultimately the identities we construct. Certain people are suited for certain fields, which come with their connotations. Science, in particular, is largely a static collection of facts produced by people from the past, unlike you and me. Not only is this mode of presentation inaccurate, it also leaves us ill-equipped to understand why findings sometimes seem to contradict themselves, leading some people to renounce them entirely. Seeing science as a done deal also doesn’t invite us to consider contributing to science.

These are my beliefs when I started Science and Us, and my beliefs now. Every year I’ve learned more concepts, had more experiences, and found new language to articulate them. At times, this problem seems too abstract, too intellectual. Why write unsolicited thoughts about STEM diversity initiatives and stretch it all the way to the foundations of truth and knowledge? I remind myself that if it’s abstract, it’s abstracted from my lived experiences. I believe that what we teach and learn fundamentally shape how we (allow ourselves to) see ourselves.