Four young women point way to STEM future

Four young women point way to STEM future

Four young Maine women from different towns and schools have a number of things in common. In addition to being exceptional students and recent high school graduates, each also loves math and science and plans a career in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) field.

The students also are outstanding examples of what the future may hold for other young women with a passion for STEM subjects.

“I like biology and am pretty good in math. It’s a good combination,” said Abigail Doyle, who is 18 and lives in Kennebunk. “Growing up, I thought I would be an artist. But as I got into math I started to think about architecture. Then in high school I had more biology classes and chemistry and anatomy and that built to bioengineering. I realized I liked it.”

Doyle will be attending Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the fall, majoring in biomedical engineering. While she wasn’t always a big fan of biology, Doyle, who attended Kennebunk High School, said that changed a few years ago, as classes became more rigorous.

“Math has always been a fairly strong subject for me, but biology is now one of my favorites,” said Doyle. “Chemistry classes were hard but I enjoyed the challenge.”

Jen Bartlett, a guidance counselor at Kennebunk High School, said there have always been girls like Doyle who excel at math and science.

“What has changed is the trend of girls who do well in those subjects and go on to study them in college,” said Bartlett, who has been a counselor for nearly two decades. “But it’s still a bit less common for young women to choose the sciences. When they do, in my experience they lean a bit more toward the health-related sciences than the mechanical or electrical engineering fields.”

Bartlett said that schools are trying to rebalance their programs.

“We have an environmental science program now and more girls are doing that,” she said. “There are more males on our robotics team than females but they are involved. And we have a good representation of girls on our math team.”

Lily Jordan, 18, grew up in Cape Elizabeth. She will attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall and plans to major in math but wants to “explore a bit.”

“I always liked math, but for a long time thought I was a humanities person. I’m into writing. I wasn’t thinking of going into a STEM-related field until my junior year of high school,” said Jordan. “I was on the math team and the more I got into it the more I realized I could have success with it. I also had pre-calculus, which I enjoyed, and statistics. I began to enjoy other STEM-related classes.”

Jordan took physics and learned to code in her senior year at Cape Elizabeth High School. She said it was a real turnaround for her.

“My favorite classes were pre-calculus, calculus, and physics – I took AP this year. I liked it a lot,” she said. “I learned the most from physics. I’m drawn more toward the science fields now, closer to math but interested in physics, coding and computer programming.”

Like her Kennebunk High School classmate, Allison Weaver will major in biomedical engineering. Weaver, 18, said she is firm on the major she will pursue at Boston University in the fall but not sure of the path it will take.

“There is still a chance that I will go to med school. I’m interested in research and tissue engineering and artificial organs. 3-D printing of organs is just fascinating,” said Weaver. “But in five years who knows where it will be. It could be totally different. But there are so many ways to help people in this growing field.”

Science and math have always been Weaver’s strong suit and a passion.

“I’m kind of a well-rounded student but I have always loved math. I taught myself to multiply when I was in first grade. I like math because it doesn’t change – it’s solid,” she said. “I like the nuts and bolts, not theorems. I’m a hands-on, visual learner.”

Rhoen Fuitak will be 18 in late July. She and her family moved from Bangor to Cape Elizabeth when she was half way through second grade. Fuitak will be attending Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., to study physics.

Like Weaver, she has always been attracted to math and science.

“As a freshman (at Cape Elizabeth High School), I took honors physics and loved it,” said Fuitak. “As a senior, I took AP physics mechanics. I enjoy using math to solve real-world problems.”

Fuitak recently completed two weeks of job shadowing at Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners in Hallowell, where she had the opportunity to get a look at the application of science and math in the industry.

While Fuitak said she “honestly doesn’t know” what career path she will take, she does know that she wants to “solve real problems with math and science.”

“I want to use mathematical skills to provide solutions to issues. I also want to travel the world and spend time outside in the field,” said Fuitak, who has run cross country, participated in Nordic skiing and lacrosse and was a captain in all three sports. She will continue to run all three seasons for Wesleyan.

“What job does this? I don’t know, but whether or not it’s out there, I am a person that doesn’t look for a structure. I’ll create my own path,” she said.

Jordan would like to have a job that uses the application of math, algorithms and computations to apply to problems such as conflict resolution or climate change.

“I’d like to attack issues with rigor to more efficiently solve problems,” she said, “I’d also like to travel and include writing in my work.”

Like Fuitak, Jordan was also an athlete in high school, playing field hockey, ice hockey and softball. She hopes to do some intramural sports next year at MIT.

“I was also on debate team throughout high school,” said Jordan, who plays the piano and percussion. “I like arguing and hope to continue.”

All of the students see their future careers as a vehicle to make a difference in the world.

“In my field I will have a great opportunity to help a lot of people. I think about traveling around the world, making things easier/better for the less fortunate,” said Doyle. “It’s a large, vague idea, I know. But working to help others will make me feel like I had done something – that all the money and time spent on education was worth it and will make a difference.”

In addition to being a dedicated student, Doyle has played basketball since the first grade.

“I was co-captain this year. It was a great experience. It teaches leadership, how to be supportive and a role model along with communication skills,” said Doyle, who also hopes to continue learning to play the guitar, something she picked up recently.

Weaver doesn’t have an idea of what her specific job will be when she finishes her education but also hopes it will make a difference in someone’s life.

“I’d like to do something like engineers without borders, traveling and doing something similar,” said Weaver. “I’d like to work in under-developed countries and help people improve their conditions and escape poverty. I’m an outdoorsy person. I’m active and hate not being active.”

Weaver said there is so much to do outside in Maine, including participating in sports.

“I love to play soccer,” she said. “I played here at KHS, and was captain this year. I’m hoping to play, on the intramural level, in college.”

Another area the young women have in common is support and inspiration from their families.

“My family is very supportive. And this was something that I chose for myself. They didn’t force me into it,” said Weaver. “My dad is an engineer.”

Fuitak said her interest in physics was strongly influenced by her father, who, she said, manages a company that is “based on wood science and economics.”

“He taught me dimensional analysis on our chalkboard at home when I was in fifth grade,” she said. “My family is very supportive of my plans and encourages me to take any opportunity I have to explore the field.”

Doyle said her father, who is a financial analyst, went to school for electrical engineering at Northeastern, so he understands her choice.

“My mother likes the math route,” said Doyle, “she encouraged me (to pursue it).”

While her family supports the decision to go into a STEM field, Jordan said, “it took a while to sink in. I think they kind of assumed I’d go into a humanities-oriented field.”

Teachers have also made a positive impact on each of the students.

“I absolutely loved physics and calculus. My teachers were amazing and there’s never a time in the day when I don’t enjoy using my calculator and equation sheets. Math comes easy to me. Equations and functions are like fun puzzles for me,” said Fuitak.

One instructor at Cape Elizabeth High School stood out for both Fuitak and Jordan, physics teacher Dr. Michael Efron.

“Dr. Efron went to MIT. It’s cool in his class – very rigorous but also fun,” said Jordan. “It introduced me to interesting possibilities in science and physics.”

Fuitak said it is easy to see that Efron “loves what he teaches.”

“His enthusiasm about math and science has rubbed off on me. His stories about Newton or the atom collider in Europe fascinate me. He teaches to ensure students gather interest and understanding rather than just an A in his class,” she said.

For Weaver and Doyle, a standout instructor was Glenn Black, a chemistry teacher at Kennebunk High School, who retired last year.

Doyle said Black made chemistry fun and interesting.

“He worked some biology into chemistry, too. I had AP chemistry in my junior year. It helped me with my AP biology this year,” said Doyle.

“I had Mr. Black for sophomore chemistry,” said Weaver. “He was a great teacher. And he invited Coach Rafferty’s daughter, who is in bio engineering at Penn, to come into his class to speak to us. It was so interesting and I thought this is something I want to do. I ran into her when I was visiting Penn during my junior year. It inspired me – another woman in the field.”

Speaking of women in STEM fields, are any of the four students concerned that they will face issues and barriers in their studies and career choices because of their gender?

Doyle has found gender to be a non-issue in her education thus far.

“[High school] feels inclusive, even and fair. I will be going to a predominately male school, though,” said Doyle. “I hope gender becomes a non-issue in the future. I feel like we’re progressing forward. Worcester Poly Tech is focused on getting more women into engineering. I don’t think I’m going to feel disadvantaged in any way. But there are social issues around gender – it’s not just STEM related.”

Fuitak believes that although more women are becoming interested in physics, there is still a gap between the number of men and women in math and science fields.

“Naturally, I will be facing the mental barrier of working in a field with many men. However, I grew up with three younger brothers,” said Fuitak. “There were only about five girls in my AP physics class of 30. But I’ve never been intimidated by the idea of working with men. Our minds all work the same. I don’t think this will be an issue in the future.”

Weaver knows it’s a possibility going forward, but said she hasn’t faced any issues with gender.

“I may encounter it in the future, but schools are trying so hard to get women into STEM fields that I think that will change. Biomedical is fairly balanced, but other engineering fields are still male dominated. But I think it’s not like, ‘You can’t do that’ anymore.”

For Jordan, gender has created some issues with regard to education.

“In my earlier years there was a huge gender imbalance in math and coding groups. There were times I was the only girl or one of a few. On the fifth grade math team I was the only girl. I felt out of place. When I didn’t see any other girls in it, it was hard to see myself there,” said Jordan. “I left it for a bit. It felt uncomfortable. But I went back in ninth grade. It became less of an issue for me personally, but I think it is a major imbalance.”

Jordan did participate in an after-school coding class where both teachers were women. But she is concerned that stereotypes of women not being STEM-oriented still persist.

“It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I hope it becomes less skewed going forward,” she said. “Being aware of it lessens it, I think. We need to change the perception of not associating women with science or math. We need to see where those perceptions are coming from and address them.”

While she is firm on her major – biomedical engineering – Allison Weaver, a recent graduate of Kennebunk High School, is not sure what avenue that major will take post-college. Weaver starts her studies at Boston University in the fall.Biology is a favorite subject for Abigail Doyle, who will attend Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the fall. The Kennebunk High School graduate plans to major in biomedical engineering. Courtesy photosLily Jordan plans to major in math at Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall, but wants to explore other science-technology fields in college. The Cape Elizabeth High School graduate is also interested in physics and computer programming.Always interested in math and science, Rhoen Fiutak plans to major in physics at Wesleyan University in the fall. While a student at Cape Elizabeth High School, Fiutak “absolutely loved” physics and calculus classes.

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