FSU Women Dominate STEM

Patricia Birch, director of Inclusive Excellence Initiatives, hosted the event “Women in STEM,” celebrating female FSU professors who work in the College of Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math (STEM), via Zoom March 26. 

The panelists introduced themselves and shared their various jobs and areas of interest. 

Professors of biology Andrea Kozol, Cara Pina, and biology chair Aline Davis, kicked off the introductions. 

Davis said her special interests include neuroscience and hormone behavior. She is currently examining the presence of estrogen from birth control pills in wastewater both before and after treatment.

Kozol said she isn’t currently active in research, but described her past work of insect ecology and conservation biology. 

Pina is a microbiologist who covers numerous fields such as bacteria, genetics, and biochemistry. 

“I do lots of things!” Pina exclaimed. 

Catherine Dignam, chair of the chemistry and food science department, titled her job as a “Synthetic Chemist” as she is interested in designing and combining new molecules. 

Ishara Mills-Henry, professor of chemistry, described herself as “a biologist by training.

“I have worked with everything in molecular biologies, such as animal models. They let me teach chemistry somehow. If you want to put a title on it, you can call me a biochemist,” Mills- Henry said. 

Dignam discussed how synthetic chemistry goes along with analytical chemistry because to provide proof of newly-created molecules, they have to be characterized. She is interested in using spectroscopy, a method used for understanding the structures of atoms and molecules, to distinguish her molecules. 

Recently, the research Dignam and her students have focused on is molecules that are precursors for antibiotics. 

Mills-Henry touched upon her research of the human eye, and said she “has always been fascinated with how the eye works.”

She said her work progressed from simply understanding how the eye develops from a single cell to how cells work to produce vision

Santosha Adhibhatta is also an engineer and physicist in addition to being a professor in the physics and earth science department. 

“I bring both perspectives into my teaching. I look for innovative methods to teach,” she said. 

Sylvie Lardeux, a principal data scientist at CVS Pharmacy, said she initially worked as a veterinarian but decided to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience instead. 

Mirari Elcoro, professor of psychology, previously worked in the STEM department at another institution, but now mainly teaches psychology at FSU. 

Aside from being a professor, she is a behavior analyst who has an interest in figuring out the intersections between the brain and behavior. 

Elcoro also has training in behavioral pharmacology. 

Margaret Carroll, the founding dean of STEM, started in the biology department in 1992. 

“I am probably the person who has been on the committee the longest. I am really happy to be here and hear these discussions,” she said. 

Constanza Cabello, vice president for diversity, inclusion, and community engagement, said, “You are all [the panelists] speaking another language to me.” 

She continued, “But, I am so fascinated by everything you [the panelists] have to share with us – this is great!” 

Birch asked the panelists how they got involved with STEM and what aspects of their work bring them joy. 

Davis answered first, describing science as a subject she “has always loved.” 

She said she grew up gardening with her family, which sparked her interest. Then, she learned about the human body and hormones in the brain, a specialty she said she “fell in love with.”

Davis touched upon how she “loves lighting the fire with science for students” and how she motivates students to study the fields they are most fascinated by. 

Pina described her passion for STEM, attributing it to her inherent curiosity to solve problems. 

She relayed a memory of her father and brother building a circuit board for a school project and explained her eagerness to figure out how it operated.  

Throughout her undergraduate education, Pina registered for classes that required problem-solving and she majored in biochemistry. Before attending graduate school, she said she worked on analyzing prostate cancer. 

In graduate school, Pina studied bacteria but also became interested in physics saying she “did all the things.” 

Similar to Pina, Dignam discovered her passion for science at a young age as she said her father, a physicist, encouraged her to learn about science. 

She added there was no way anyone in her household would not go into the sciences.

Dignam explained her difficulty choosing a college major – a science-related subject or French. 

She said her father encouraged her to take science courses in college, even if she pursued another major because if she changed to science, it would be hard to catch up. 

Ultimately, after “soul-searching,” Dignam decided to pursue a degree in science. She explained how she thought there would be more career opportunities with a science degree than with a foreign language degree. 

Dignam chose chemistry because she said she was interested in glassmaking.

“It was a bit of a capricious decision,” she said. 

During her junior year of college, Dignam began to conduct research, which she described as “helpful to the development of a scientist.”

She explained how the research field is competitive and stressful because scientists have to raise their own money for their research.

Dignam turned to teaching at Framingham State because she said she finds undergraduate students to be more “collaborative.” 

She explained how the most exciting part of her job is to understand and teach science in a way that excites students. 

Birch noted how Dignam’s dilemma in choosing between two majors she was passionate about is a common and difficult choice students have to make. 

Like Dignam, Lardeux has a scientist in her family – her mother was a physicist. 

Lardeux described her time working as a veterinarian in France saying, “It was not enough.” So, she completed her degree in neuroscience while still in France, then ventured to America to complete her postdoctoral degree. 

She said, “The great thing about science is you can evolve and change direction.” 

Cabello asked the panelists if there was a single moment, or mentor, that made them sure STEM was the field for them. 

Pina explained how she did not have a singular moment, but she did discuss an advisor who was doubtful about her pursuit to study chemistry. 

She described how she desired to be in the honors chemistry section in college because “there were a bunch of things” that excited her about the subject. Her advisor, whom she had not met before, told her she couldn’t do it. 

For the rest of her academic career at University of Massachusetts Amherst, she said he did not properly advise her. 

Pina discussed how she struggled academically in college and graduated with lots of “C’s” on her transcript. 

“I was in a position where everyone thought I couldn’t do it. I looked for ways to get around that assumption,” she said. 

After college, Pina worked as a technician for nine years. Her boss encouraged her to apply to graduate school. 

She explained how she had a strong relationship with her boss and that her boss wrote her a letter of recommendation, helping her get into graduate school.

Pina offered advice to the audience. 

“One of the most important things to remember is that doing poorly in a class does not mean you are bad in the subject. Doing poorly in a class means you are not in a position right now to do well,” she said. 

Pina continued, “Not passing doesn’t mean you are never going to pass. You should continue with it if it’s something you love to do, and that’s ultimately what I did.”