Empowering the "NeXXt" Generation of Women Scientists

Jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are the backbone to economies around the world. From sectors such as agriculture and information technology to health and environmental sciences, STEM expertise is needed now more than ever to build knowledge-based communities, to solve global challenges, and advance nations. However, ongoing barriers to STEM careers disproportionately preclude women from obtaining the expertise and professional skills needed to contribute and propel these sectors forward. Studies attribute negative stereotypes of women and girls in science, gender biases in the classroom, and a lack of mentoring support to the disparity of women in STEM fields. 

The implications of the underrepresentation of women and girls in STEM are vast, as these barriers affect economic and national security and the future competitiveness of nations. Simply put — we must identify and nurture the best and brightest or our research and development will negatively suffer. This is why investment in STEM education for women and girls is smart. 

The State Department’s Office of the Science and Technology Adviser, alongside the New York Academy of Sciences actively work to address this challenge through the NeXXt Scholars Program. NeXXt recruits and equips women in science through one-on-one mentoring with successful female scientists, professional development, and cross-cultural communication and leadership training. Since its launch in 2011, the Program has equipped 71 American and International Scholars (hailing from 47 Muslim-majority countries) with skills needed to remain in STEM fields. 

On March 14th young women representing Bangladesh, Egypt, Malaysia, Morocco, Sierra Leone, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and the United States, who study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at 9 U.S. women’s colleges gathered for the 3rd Annual NeXXt Scholars Program in New York City. This day long conference featured women role models in informative panel discussions and interactive sessions on cross-cultural communication, leadership in STEM, and a Model UN gender and science simulation. 

This year’s conference began with an exciting science communication ice-breaking session on cross-cultural communication, led by Dr. Marga Gual Soler from Arizona State University and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Mentors and Scholars were taught tools drawn from theatrical performance to develop cross-cultural communication, leadership and interpersonal skills. “Too often STEM graduates struggle to manage the personal and emotional dimensions of doing science. These transformational workshops help develop leadership, confidence and interpersonal skills to succeed in any career path they might choose and forge personal connections among participants from different national, cultural and disciplinary backgrounds,” stated Dr. Soler. 

Following this session scholars heard from a panel of esteemed female scientists featuring Dr. Yaihara Fortis-Santiago (New York Academy of Sciences), Dr. Mande Holford (Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center), and Dr. Shane Mayack (Ligo Project) on leadership skills needed to succeed in STEM, which encouraged students to leverage their leadership skills in order to continually advance in the STEM ecosystem. “Seize opportunities such as fellowships and internships while completing your undergraduate degree in STEM, it is these types of enriching opportunities that offer you cross-disciplinary collaboration and hands-on experiences in your future fields”, said Dr. Yaihara Fortis-Santiago. Dr. Holford added, “There’s no one recipe for succeeding in STEM, for me it’s about staying true to who you are and the goals you want to accomplish, and finding a collaborative team to get you there.”

Scholars and mentors were able to put their leadership skills to work in the Model UN Gender and Science simulation, which allowed scholars to create policy interventions for critical STEM issues around the world. NeXXt Scholar Fatu Jambawai of Sierra Leone, of Cottey College, said, “before participating in this Model UN simulation on gender and science I never thought my background in science could contribute to creating international policy inventions in STEM.” Fatu now looks forward to joining her school’s Model UN team to contribute to these active policy discussions and simulations, which equip participants with negotiation, teamwork, and a deeper understanding of world issues. 

To conclude this inspiring day NeXXt Scholars heard from Dr. Angelica Perez-Litwin, Founder of Latinas Think Big, a progressive platform and national tour aimed at showcasing Latina Innovators. Dr. Perez-Litwin discussed the challenges and triumphs she has encountered in STEM and encouraged Scholars to continue in their pursuit to future careers in STEM. 

Scholars summed up the day as feeling inspired and hopeful for their future in STEM. NeXXt Scholar Rabeb Layouni of Tunisia, of Mt. Holyoke College, said she looks forward to NeXXt Scholar Annual Meetings because, “[These meetings] give us a glimpse of what our future may look like…as we are exposed to a number of successful women in STEM. It is a very inspiring and refreshing experience and quite frankly is my favorite time of the school year.” 

At a time when the global challenges we face are more complex, and interconnected, it is vital that we invest in equipping women and girls to fill the jobs of the future in science and a technology. Initiatives such as, the NeXXt Scholars Program encourage and sufficiently train American and international female scientists to participate and lead in the booming fields of science, technology, and innovation. 

About the author: Frances Colon serves as Acting Science and Technology Advisor to the Secretary of State, in the Department of State’s Bureau of Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment.  

Apply for the Program or find out more information, by visiting www.state.gov/e/stas/nexxt/ or email [email protected]. Follow @STASatState on Twitter for updates from the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser.