Army Research Laboratory scientist's past inspires STEM workshop for women
January 9, 2012
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Jan. 9, 2012) -- Melanie Will-Cole is a long way from her from her New Mexico upbringing.
But with as many professional accolades as she has pieces of turquoise jewelry, she represents an underrepresented example of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, known as STEM. She is one example of women with varied personal interests and uncompromising style wrapped around highly functioning scientific brains.
For her, that was the point of the Young Women in Science and Engineering College and Career Workshop held at the Battelle Conference Center Dec. 1, at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"I wanted the girls to see past the stereotype, which somehow makes women in STEM appear surreal and untouchable," Will-Cole said. "I wanted the girls to understand that female professional scientists, engineers and mathematicians are 'real people' and that although they have demanding STEM careers they also have families, hobbies, play sports, participate in the arts, music, dance, and are active volunteers within their own communities."
"Basically I wanted these girls to see that they can really have it all, but perhaps not at the same time," she explained.
Cole grew up in New Mexico and she said her high school did not offer any science classes beyond general biology.
"Math classes were fairly solid within my high school curriculum," she said. "I did not particularly enjoy biology, and since I had not exposure to the physical sciences (chemistry, physics, engineering, earth science etc.) in high school I decided to take all the math classes that were offered in my high school. It's not that I was 'in love with math' but that it was the only STEM
class offered in my high school and I just happened to be good at it."
When she told her high school counselor that she wanted to go to college, Cole was advised to take an entrance exam. "Something called the SAT," she remembered thinking. She joined about
30 other high school students who "all showed up at the New Mexico state fair grounds on a warm Saturday morning and took this college entrance test outside, on picnic tables with such rough surfaces that it was difficult to blacken the little circles on the answer sheet with my number two pencil. I remember this like it was yesterday."
This scenario, she said, is a far cry from the SAT prep classes now conducted in climate controlled testing facilities. But her humbled beginnings helped build her character and ignite a perservering spirit, she said.
Her parents were blue collar workers, which she said wasn't unusual for that part of the country. Most of the people she saw growing up were low-income earners of Native American or Mexican heritage and were poorly educated.
"I never knew anyone who attended college except for my teachers in school. New Mexico has a very low education level. In fact we compete with Mississippi with who has the lowest performers on national test scores," she said. "My brother, sister and I are the first in my family to go to college. My sister became an architect, my brother is a doctor and well me, I am a civil servant for the ARL."
For Cole, college was an eye-opener with its abundance of STEM classes.
"In college I discovered the physical sciences and literally fell in love with the concept that science enables an understanding of the world around us," she recalled.
She led a research group at the Army Research Laboratory that invented a breakthrough materials technology that enabled a cost effective solution for realizing temperature insensitive high performance phase shifters for electronic scanning antennas, or ESAs.
"Our research findings are highly relevant to the Army since enhanced performance temperature stable tunable dielectric thin films and their respective devices will enable uninterrupted communications in harsh battlefield environments," she said. "Additionally, the research not only ensures uninterrupted reliable information exchange via On-The-Move ESA's in harsh temperature battlefield environments, but also supports system affordability to promote widespread ESA deployment and soldier survivability."
Cole and other speakers shared college, career and personal vignettes as part of the workshop, and engage in offline discussions with the girls during planned mixers.
"The STEM speakers discussed their careers, their path to attain these careers and highlighting this 'balancing act' between their love of STEM and life activities," Cole said.