GAINS gains new perspective by hosting STEM mixer with professionals

Madera Longstreet-Lipson, On-Campus Editor

At the national conference for Girls Advancing in STEM (GAINS) held at the University of Pennsylvania in November 2019, Saffron Patel ’22 rotated through several tables of professional women before finding a researcher in neuroscience, her field of interest. Leaving the event, she said, she felt inspired to create a similar conference at the school—an opportunity for interested girls to meet a diverse range of women in STEM—but make it better through clearer organization.

Saffron shared her idea with GAINS Co-Presidents Sanya Goenka and Sofia Chen (both ’22), also in attendance at the 2019 event, and the three juniors began collaborating to make Saffron’s vision a reality. On April 28, they hosted the GAINS mixer, an hour- and-45-minute online event open to female students at the school as well as the larger GAINS network and girls from the local non-profit Science Club for Girls.

“It’s important to be able to have female role models in STEM because we’re an underrepresented group in STEM,” Saffron said. “It’s encouraging to see people who look like you in STEM careers.”

Preparation for the mixer involved polling the GAINS club to see what types of women they would want to hear from, compiling a list of women that might be interested in speaking at the event, emailing those women to invite them to speak, and creating a website for participants to register and learn about the speakers.

Forty-three students, including girls from Greenwich Academy and Melrose High School, logged on to Remo to attend the event and hear from 13 speakers: hematologist Elisabeth Battinelli P’22; organic chemist Mary-Margaret O’Donnell-Zablocki; dentist Preetha Chally P’14; geologist Kate Hardock; pediatric primary care physician Gracia Kwete; Mithu Bhargava, a senior vice president for an enterprise technology company; Diala Ezzeddine P’22, a chief executive officer in the biotech industry; Eva Gómez, a nurse and doctoral candidate in population health; Chrystal Lewis, the head of medical affairs for a CRISPR technology company; Katy O’Brien, a senior engineering manager at New Balance; Morgan Sorbaro, a software engineer at Facebook; and Jessica Tytell, a chief scientific officer at a new biotech company.

One takeaway from those introductions, Saffron said, was that students, even passionate GAINS members, don’t need to figure out what they want to do right now.

“You don’t need to have your whole life planned out at the age of 16,” she said. “So many of the women either went into college thinking they were going to do one thing and completely changed their mind or even didn’t know what they wanted to do. It’s about the experiences you have and the people that you meet during your career.”

In her keynote address, Francesca Dominici, co-director of the Harvard Data Science Initiative, discussed her career path and offered insights Sofia Khoury ’23 said she appreciated.

“One of my favorite moments was when Dr. Dominici was saying something about never giving up even when many people tell you that what you’re doing is impossible,” Sofia said. “It was very inspiring, and it was great advice.”

After the introductions, students visited different professionals at various Remo “tables” that work like breakout rooms on Zoom.

Sofia Chen, who spoke with Ms. Hardock and Ms. Bhargava, welcomed the setup as a way to get personal when larger settings can feel intimidating, she said.

“It was a really great opportunity to get specific questions answered and get to meet people face to face in more intimate conversations,” Sofia said. “This way you can get more one-on-one advice and hear about things that they might not talk about in group settings, like challenges they’ve gone through.”

Sofia asked the women she spoke to about obstacles during their careers and finding a passion within the STEM field, to which they answered staying confident and being open to new experiences were key. Other participants asked about college majors or a day in the life of the women.

Sanya said she was impressed with the eagerness of girls and women at the mixer, especially when, during other calls, participants are often encouraged to stay on mute.

“Everyone who signed up was just so enthusiastic and genuinely interested in the event, whether it was the women who we invited, or the students,” Sanya said. “Having such enthusiastic people there made the event really lively and fun.”

Aleeza Riaz ’25, who hopes to become a doctor and heard about the event from Middle School Science Department Head Wendy Svatek, said she appreciated the club’s work and attended because she wanted to meet a diverse group of women in STEM.

“Even if someone may not enjoy STEM or think they don’t, then they can discover a new part of themselves, or they can also build on something they already really enjoy in or out of school,” she said.

Upper School Science Teacher and GAINS Faculty Advisor Jennifer Gatti, the self-proclaimed chief details officer of the event who helped Saffron, Sanya, and Sofia recruit speakers and attendees, said the turnout of so many different women on different STEM paths was impressive, making for an experience she never encountered as a student.

“I definitely had teachers invite speakers to our classes to learn about career possibilities, but I’m jealous that girls had this opportunity to meet multiple women in the same space and get to interact with them more directly,” she said.

Dr. Gatti hopes to help other student leaders run a similar event in the future, she said.

“It’s a valuable opportunity to be able to ask questions of someone that you might want to learn more from and to just be inspired by women who do a lot of really cool things,” she said. “I also think the student organization aspect of it was amazing. It was so gratifying to see something that the students thought about actually come to life.”