Women's History Month: Shining a light on local women in STEM

NOW: Women’s History Month: Shining a light on local women in STEM

SOUTH BEND, Ind., --- This month ABC57 is celebrating Women’s History Month, honoring trailblazers including those right here in Michiana. We’re shining a light on women and girls in STEM, Science, Engineering, Technology and Math across four different generations.

 “I think that any gender could succeed in a field like this,” said Lucia Esquivel, a junior at Purdue Polytechnic High School in South Bend.

The high school student is already looking to break down barriers in the STEM field.

 “I'm looking into pharmaceutical engineering as a career field because I love working with medicine, and I love chemistry, and I'm okay with physics,” she explained.

Esquivel immigrated to the United States from Guatemala when she was just a toddler, that’s when she says her passion sparked.

 “I just started loving it as a young child, because I was introduced to it when I was like, five, because my family are the majority of my family are doctors, lawyers, and engineers. So, I was always exposed to that sort of thing,” added Esquivel.

But not every woman experienced positive influences surrounding the field at a young age.

“…there wasn't very many people like me, I wasn't seeing women like me. Didn't feel like my voice was heard or appreciated.”

The feeling of isolation is one Purdue Polytechnic High School science teacher Moranda Hegedus knows all too well.

“It can be a little lonely, sometimes.”

According to Census.gov women make up nearly half America’s workforce, but only 27% of women make up the entire STEM field.

That number is drastically lower for women of color, especially black women.

“It can be intimidating, you know, being one of very few in this field, but it also is extremely exciting, to help inspire other people,” said Hegedus.

Statistics like these are one of the biggest reasons why Hegedus says she teaches chemistry and biology particularly at a high school that focuses on stem and hands on learning.

 “I think that it's really important that we start tapping into the opportunity of getting them involved at this young age. So, it kind of takes that fear away. So, they kind of understand how STEM can present itself, especially with projects,” added Hegedus.

“I think everybody brings a slightly different perspective to a project or a problem and so it's important for all kinds of diversity in a team,” said Dr. Sarah Leach, the Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Technology at Purdue Polytechnic Institute.

Although the number of women in STEM has started to increase since Hegedus --- and even Purdue Polytechnic College Engineering Professor Dr. Sarah Leach entered the field nearly four decades ago, she believes there are still some obstacles to overcome.

“There are lots of things that that kids do and girls do that prepare them or can prepare them for interesting creative engineering positions. But I think sometimes that's overlooked because they weren't working on car…” said Dr. Leach.

Rachel Lepla is one of Dr. Leach’s students who’s benefited from her representation and influence firsthand.

The college senior is an electrical engineering technology major who already has her sights set high as she gears up to graduate in just a few months.

“I'm pursuing a job at CTS in Elkhart, I'm going to be working in the pedals department, electrical engineer one. But basically, I'm going to be working on designing new brakes for different vehicles and different pedal projects in the field,” Lepla explained.

Whether it’s young females forging a new path as students ---or seasoned educators already excelling in the field--- all are trying to show, that women no matter their age belong in stem.

 “They don't need to be the super smartest person,” said Dr. Leach.

 “…it's not like some farfetched dream that they can be a part of this,” added Hegedus.

“…if you find a passion in what you're doing, then pursue it,” explained Lepla.

“It doesn't matter what your ethnicity, gender, race, is, you can succeed in STEM, you just have to put your mind to it,” said Esquivel.

You can visit Purdue Polytechnic High School South Bend or Purdue Polytechnic Institute to learn more about their programs.

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