My Journey to STEM: Inspiring the Next Generation of Girls & Women in AI

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Breaking news, girls are actually good at math. So, why do women only make up 25.5% of computer and mathematical occupations in the United States? My name is Olivia Toth and I am currently a data analytics major at McKendree University. As a young girl, my father always told me that I was good with numbers. But when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, jobs in the STEM field never crossed my mind. To me, artificial intelligence was only attainable in Hollywood movies and being good at math was the death of my elementary school popularity. Reflecting on those years, I can distinctly remember a chant that was often used to embarrass fellow classmates.

“Girls go to Mars / to get more bras / Boys go to Jupiter / to get more stupider.”

This rhyme contains two of the myriad stereotypes about women and men– the former value appearance, the latter knowledge. From the beginning, I was socially taught that men and intelligence go hand in hand, the same way women and appearance do. How did I make my way past what I was taught and end up studying in the STEM field?

The answer is: other women.

It all started with Elena Glassman. Middle-school Olivia, was a wrestler who dreamed of one day competing in the Olympics. Athletic success and educational success, seemed like something that could never happen jointly. But Elena Glassman was a student at MIT who also wrestled. Eventually she would go on to become an assistant professor at Harvard University, who teaches PhD Students in computer science, data science, human-computer interaction, etc. For the first time, it occurred to me, that I could be a successful female athlete and a successful female scholar.

Excelling in classes, became something I enjoyed in high school. Marketing, graphic design, and public speaking were classes that I deemed fun, not algebra or chemistry. In fact, I took every required STEM class, in the first two years of high school, so that I could spend the last two years actually enjoying classes. Mrs. Jaclyn Lesser was the female math teacher for the required algebra course. The dread of passing a math class, started on day one. I did not apply myself in class nor did I do the required homework. However, she relentlessly spent extra time trying to help in the classroom and offered extra chances to do homework. Eventually, she got frustrated and said to just turn any work in, or I would likely fail. Confused, I inquired why incorrect work should ever be passed in. Mrs. Lesser proceeded to say that the point of the homework was not to be perfectly correct-but to practice failing. Failing teaches a student exactly what not to do, so they learn to do the opposite. I came to the realization that it wasn’t that I didn’t like STEM classes-I did not want to fail. In math, the solution is either right or wrong. But in a class like public speaking, the probability of success is not 50/50, so the possibility of failing is not as imminent. The freedom of failure allowed me to see how enjoyable math actually is.

A few years later, I travelled over 1000 miles to be a female wrestler for McKendree University’s Women’s Wrestling Team. Upon arrival, I found myself struggling to find a place to fit in academically. I liked art, problem-solving, helping others, constantly learning, teaching, and spatial reasoning. After pouring over all of the school majors available and even trying a few, I still felt like I had not found the right one. So I decided to try math, the same subject I had hated only a few years earlier.

Dr. Heather Dye is a professor of mathematics at McKendree University. She has countless publications, presentations, and awards under her belt. About a year and a half ago, Dr. Dye went out of her way to apply for a PIC Math grant which would allow her to teach a project-based class called Industrial Statistics. This grant gives mathematical sciences students access to a program that prepares them for industrial careers through engagement in real industry research problems. I had previously mentioned to her that I loved infographics, and she suggested that I join the class. Without any prerequisites, she let me join. She taught us how to use R, how best to clean up raw data, how to formulate a beneficial research question, and ran the class in a real-world business setting. Five months later, our class group presented a successful project at the MAA Mathfest 2017 in Chicago, IL. The project opened my eyes to the possibility of working in a field that utilizes math, computing, critical thinking skills, creativity, and even art. I confided with Dr.Dye about my wishes for a data science like major at McKendree, thinking that it was likely not to happen. However, she proceeded to research, plan, and propose a course structure for a data analytics major. It is now a major at McKendree, with the possibility to focus on finance or sociology. Not only did Dr. Dye help to cultivate my hopes and dreams, but she paved a road for future students with interest in data analytics.

Following the creation of the data analytics major, I spent a lot of time with Dr. Dye. Both in outside of class, she was always willing to help with anything that a student would need. She has written recommendations for countless students looking for jobs/internships and was/is always ready to give advice. She often told me, “apply for any internships that you have interest in, even if you do not have the necessary qualifications.” So began the process of applying for internships. With each and every application, I proceeded to continually get denied for the positions. I thought that applying for an internship, without all the necessary qualifications, was setting myself up for failure. However, by the end of my sophomore year, I had options to accept internships for positions that I was not qualified for. Dr.Dye’s advice and support, allowed me to bypass the limits I had placed on myself. I would have missed out on so many possible opportunities because I deemed myself unprepared to be successful.

I accepted a position to work with a company called Garnet Hill. I had never even heard about SQL or worked on a solo data analytics project, but I showed up the first day, ready to learn. Throughout the internship, I worked with an amazing data analytics team. Doug McCann, Grant Ruggles, and Tina Lemire-were the members of this versatile team. Throughout the highs and lows of the my project, they helped me follow through with creative ideas, taught me about databases and how to use SQL, shared their personal experiences in the data analytics field, and gave me honest feedback on my work. For the entirety of the summer, I worked next to Tina Lemire. We were the only women on the team, and she went out of her way to make me feel welcome. From our conversations, I learned that Tina had actually started as a customer service representative for Garnet Hill in 1991. Without a college degree, she taught herself the skills needed, to be the technical analyst that she is today. I asked her how she accomplished this, and she gave me many different pieces of advice. She recommended that I attend conferences, explaining what a great opportunity they are, even if you aren’t fully knowledgeable on the subject. For the last 28 years, she has worked hard to not only excel in her present position, but to actively better herself as a woman in STEM. To this day, I know that if I ever needed advice or help with anything learning related, she would be more than happy to lend a hand.

All of these women, in their own way, uplifted and inspired me to be where I am today. I am not only a McKendree Women’s Wrestler, but a Data Analytics Major. I joined the McKendree ACM chapter, and worked my way to becoming the vice president. Throughout this time period, I studied independently, researching different areas of data science. I found neural networks fascinating and started reading books like Bayes Theorem by Dan Morris and Michael Taylor’s books on Neural Networks. Without knowing it, I was stumbling upon what some would consider as part of artificial intelligence. And then I had the courage to actually begin the process of starting my own data science club. After making this decision, I researched conferences that would be beneficial to attend. The goal was to find a conference that would help decide how to shape the club in a successful way. I found the REWORK Deep Learning Summit in San Francisco, which was projected to be the #1 Best Artificial Intelligence Conference for Business Leaders in 2018-2019. As a student-athlete I knew that the conference fees would not fit in my tight budget, so I reached out to @reworkkatie on twitter. She replied within hours and the company then provided the means to attend the conference for free.

Throughout the two day conference, I was overwhelmed by the amount of people willing to speak with someone like me. I don’t have a college degree or even true experience in deep learning, yet every person I met was passionate about answering questions and lending their own advice.

I sat next to Geetha Srikantan for a majority of the conference and she happily told me about her life’s work. She explained she had actually been working in the computer science field since 1996 and is just now in the process of building her own tech company.

On the first day of the conference I stopped by the Pure Storage booth and was welcomed by Emily Watkins, a speaker at the summit. She went out of her way to explain what her company does, and suggested applying for an internship.

At the end of the second day, Sarah Hooker, a speaker at the conference and a deep learning researcher at Google, spent over an hour answering the questions of a group of 10+ students. She made sure to include each young student in the conversations and motivated each of us to follow our own passions.

While waiting for a taxi, Alicia Kavelaars welcomed questions about her professional experience and how she became the co-founder and CTO of OFFWORLD.

Each of these women-could have used their free time in a multitude of different ways. However, they chose to spend their time helping to grow and guide another woman in STEM.

This is a continual pattern that has shown up in the entirety of my life. Each of the women I have spoken about, humbly showed me that a woman can be successful in anything that she works hard for. They fought for what they believed in. They encouraged branching out of comfort zones. They convinced me that it is never too early to start a professional career or too late to begin a new business venture. They displayed just how possible it is to have a job that encourages creativity and passion. They provided insight on things like internships and future jobs. They are examples of true hard work and intrinsic motivation. But most of all, they inspired me to help others pave their own paths in the STEM field by founding The Future Data Scientists of the World (FDSW).

FDSW is a club made up of a team of students who are actively on a mission to better the world around them. We are a club that welcomes any student who would like to join, regardless of their major. The purpose is not just about learning what it means to be a data scientist, but developing the each student’s personal passions in this extensive field. From artificial intelligence to infographics, we hope to cultivate and find what the members truly enjoy while working in a team-like setting. Whether it be data science competitions or practicing on open source data, we will all work together to learn the necessary skills to accomplish these tasks. As the founder, I am currently looking for companies or nonprofit organizations, who would like to provide us with real-world experience. We would be willing to help solve data focused problems are questions that you might have, for free. If you would like to help build the next generation of Data Scientists, please contact olivia.toth16@mckendree.edu.

I hope that you can learn from my mistakes. Do not spend your life thinking that math is too hard. Learn to not fear failing. Try things that do not seem fun. Reach out to those women around you, who have already paved their path into the STEM field. Challenge yourself to pave your own path.

If you are a woman who is currently in the STEM field, I hope that you see how the smallest of words can change someone’s entire life. I encourage each of you to continue to be an inspiration to others. Even if you cannot see the results of your actions, know that there are hundreds of young women like me who are effected by you. Thank you for being the pioneers of a new generation of women.

Above all, I hope that each of you allow yourself to push past gender norms and fight for the things that you love.

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