PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. (April 5, 2012) -- As one of only eight U.S. women scientists selected for a science exchange program with Brazil, Picatinny Arsenal engineer Lauren Armstrong is helping to promote greater participation by women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly referred to as STEM.
"Retention of women in advanced science is very low, both in the U.S. and Brazil," Armstrong said. "While the graduation rates for men and women in hard sciences are nearly equal, the gender gap is significant in upper-level positions."
Armstrong is a chemical engineer in the Advanced Materials Lab of the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center. She was selected from a pool of 600 applications received by the Department of State to participate in the science exchange late last year.
Eight Brazilian women scientists traveled in March 2011 to the U.S. on a similar exchange, where they visited U.S. universities and attended the 55th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the theme of which was empowering women and girls through STEM.
According to a report from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economics and Statistics Administration, women "are vastly underrepresented in STEM jobs and among STEM degree holders despite making up nearly half of the U.S. workforce."
The State Department's Office for Global Women's Issues and the Brazilian government's exchange program for women in STEM aim to eliminate discrimination in the recruiting, retaining, and advancement of women in STEM.
Aside from promoting STEM among women, Armstrong said the exchange had additional benefits.
"Science is a global industry and it is important to know what is going on, not only here in the U.S., but also abroad," she said.
"Brazil's economy has risen to sixth in the world, and is rapidly growing. We will be at an advantage if we can continue to work cooperatively with them. Creating a more global network is essential to technology development, so as not to reinvent the wheel."
The agenda for the December visit consisted of a trip to research institutions and technology centers in four Brazilian cities in the Brazilian Northeast, the Amazon Region, and the Southeast.
"In Rio de Janeiro, we visited several different research institutions, including The Brazilian Center for Physics Research, The Museum of Astronomy and Science, and the Brazilian Academy of Science," Armstrong said.
At each site, the delegation discussed the various challenges women face in STEM and how their combined efforts might eliminate or minimize such obstacles.
"We were able to meet with several people from the Brazilian Academy of Science, a non-profit organization that acts as a consultant to the Brazilian president on a variety of science related issues: education, regional poverty, health, energy, and fund distribution," said Armstrong.
"Finally, our trip culminated in the capital city of Brasilia. This was perhaps the most important part of the trip, as it served as a forum to share what we had learned in our visits to the various Brazilian institutions," Armstrong said.
While in Brasilia, the group attended the Third National Conference on Policies for Women that had been convened by Brazil's Secretariat of Policies for Women.
The President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, and UN Women Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet, attended.
EQUALITY FOR WOMEN
"We watched President Rousseff deliver a speech in which she outlined her goals for women's policies in Brazil and urged women to demand equality in all forms," said Armstrong. "In addition, we were asked to share our recommendations as to how to minimize the gender disparity and retention in advanced STEM."
Armstrong said that during a round-table discussion on mentoring women in science, it became clear that the concept of mentoring does not exist in Brazil as it does in the U.S.
"In fact, the word 'mentor' does not even exist in Brazilian Portuguese," Armstrong added.
The group emphasized the importance of mentoring throughout various phases: secondary education, university/graduate studies, and industry.
Armstrong's group is developing a website that will outline its experiences with recommendations on how to increase STEM involvement by women both in the U.S. and abroad.
"We will explain the mentoring concepts and hopefully have a forum where women can come to be mentored," Armstrong said.
For Armstrong, her own path toward science was a natural inclination.
"I've always wanted to work as a scientist in one form or another, but it was not until college when I was drawn to chemical engineering," she said. "I've always loved chemistry and math, so it was a logical fit."
Armstrong started working at Picatinny in March 2009 in the Center for Nanotechnology and Particulates in the Advanced Materials Division.
Her primary work is developing novel nanomaterials for a variety of structural and pyrotechnic applications.
"I liked the fact that I could come to Picatinny and get critical, hands-on laboratory experience with nanomaterials while continuing my graduate work in materials science," Armstrong said.
"I think that advanced degrees in science are extremely important for research and development scientists in any field. I love that here at Picatinny employees are encouraged to go for advanced degrees. It especially nice that they have arranged for several universities to offer degree programs right here at the Arsenal.
"We are constantly discovering new applications for nanomaterials as solutions to technology gaps in a variety of fields," Armstrong added.
GRAPPLING WITH NEW SCIENCE
"While it keeps the job exciting, it can be frustrating at times because the science is so new. When you're engineering novel compounds, often times you have no basis for comparison in literature, etc. It is important to remain open-minded."
Armstrong had advice for young employees just starting a career at Picatinny.
"It is crucial to find a good mentor who can guide you throughout your career, whether it be in research and development, acquisition, quality control, etc. Mentoring can come in many forms and often it is possible to have more than one mentor to whom you can go for advice."