The 2017 Maine State Science Fair was held on March 25 at Colby College in Waterville, where high school students (grades 9-12) across the state of Maine display their science projects and compete for scholarships and prizes. This was the second year that I have acted as a judge for fair and I wanted to give a word of praise for all the mentors, teachers, and young scientists who worked to design and implement an array of science and engineering projects.

I had the privilege of judging the chemistry category and was very surprised that the majority of contributors in this category were female students. I find it refreshing that more and more females are being encouraged and supported to pursue science and engineering.

Currently, females make up the majority of undergraduate enrollment and number of undergraduate degrees awarded (NSF 2016 report). However, approximately half of all males and only 37.5 percent of females entering college select an area of STEM for a major (NSF 2016 report).

Looking back on my school experiences, from high school to college and then grad school I know how easy it can be to get discouraged with science. However, it’s not necessarily the content or rigor of science, technology, engineering, or mathematic (STEM) fields but more the social and support network that can be the determining factor. In high school, although I excelled at math and science, I was more strongly encouraged by guidance counselors and teachers to pursue English and music.

When entering college I listed myself as pre-med based on my interests in health and medicine and ended up pursuing a chemistry degree. Although my general education requirements had a nice mix of male to female students, all of my upper level chemistry courses had a huge gender bias. I often felt as though I had to prove myself against my peers despite excelling in my classes. I was frequently asked why I was majoring in chemistry and not taking nursing courses instead. My advisor knew I wanted to continue my education beyond undergraduate but besides providing a letter of recommendation for graduate school I never really felt encouraged to go further.

The same gender difference was even further evident in grad school, but this time I found myself struggling with the content and to keep up with my peers. After failing a round of qualifying exams my first year, several of the faculty in the program were telling me perhaps graduate school was not for me. I was beginning to think they were right when a fellow classmate saw me struggling and told me to stick it out. Due to his encouragement and willingness to help tutor me, I was able to pass the qualifying exam. Getting over that hub was a major turning point, and I ended up getting my dissertation results published with Nature.

So my major thought on increasing the number of women entering STEM fields is to encourage them.

Based on the strong showing of female participants at the Maine State Science Fair, I know Maine high schools are on the right track to foster more women in science. STEM is a big industry and covers a lot of growing fields with good paying salaries. What’s even better is that earlier this month, Portland was predicted to be the next technology hot spot, and our state in general has seen a surge in STEM start-up companies over the last few years.

This is just one more reason to encourage and support the youth of today, both male and female, to seek out education and careers in STEM.

Amber Howard has been an assistant professor of biology at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2015. She is a 2011 Ph.D. graduate of Georgia Regents University, and recent postdoctoral researcher for the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory. She primarily focuses her research and teachings on physiology, disease mechanisms, and the biology of aging.

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