Bringing WV’s female scientists out of the shadows
Op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail
June 18, 2017
by Anne Barth
To the best of my knowledge, there is no West Virginia Hall of Fame for Women Scientists. With the release last year of the movie “Hidden Figures,” I propose that we at least create a virtual one and make Katherine Johnson from White Sulphur Springs the first inductee.
The film, which told the story of NASA’s African-American female “computers” and the critical role they played in the race to the moon, was thrilling, revealing and inspiring. Their achievements — not heralded until decades after the fact — are truly remarkable. Much credit goes to Margot Lee Shetterly, whose book was the basis for the film.
How many of my generation of women might have been inspired by these incredible women if we had only known of them? If my outstanding female seventh-grade science teacher had known about Katherine and her colleagues, I know she would have shared their story with us. But they were “hidden figures,” and their story has only recently become known to the general public.
Who else might be inducted in a hall of fame for women scientists? Perhaps it will be Dr. Maura McLaughlin, director of WVU’s Center for Gravitational Waves and Cosmology and professor in the WVU Department of Physics and Astronomy. Her work with the Pulsar Search Collaboratory lets high school students join the search for new discoveries in the universe, using the vast research capabilities of the Robert C. Byrd Telescope at the Green Bank Observatory.
Or maybe the next inductee will be Dr. Anne Fischer, a Charleston native and George Washington High School graduate who is on the leading edge of breakthrough technologies for national security at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA was created during the Eisenhower Administration and paved the way for the modern internet, miniaturized GPS technology and the stealth technology that led to the F-117 Nighthawk.
Both of these outstanding women scientists are on the program for the upcoming Women & Technology Conference, to be held June 26 in Charleston. They’ll talk about their research, but they’ll also talk about their journey to a career in science, and this will help promote better understanding of how we can encourage more girls to pursue studies and careers in STEM: science, technology, engineering and math.
Thank goodness their stories aren’t hidden, and we can hear first-hand how their work is advancing our understanding of the universe and developing life-changing and life-saving technologies.
In addition to two stellar keynote speakers, the conference will explore how millennial women in tech fields approach challenges and overcome barriers. Another session will examine what it will take to create a tech revolution in West Virginia. (Spoiler alert: the need for more broadband connectivity will likely come up.) And a communications workshop led by professionals will give everyone insights into the best strategies for telling your story and making a difference.
It’s a well-known fact that women are under-represented in STEM fields and technology companies, even though the problem is recognized across the nation and there are strategies to improve the numbers.
Developing this potential source of untapped talent could help to diversify and grow our economy, and encouraging more women to enter tech fields and become tech entrepreneurs is an important goal for West Virginia and the nation.
TechConnect has hosted the Women & Technology Conference series since 2012 to encourage women involved in technology education and research, private enterprises, the public sector, investing and entrepreneurship. We’re proud that this year’s event is presented in partnership with the Charleston Area Alliance, with the conference luncheon combined with the Alliance’s Elevations Professional Women’s Network Luncheon.
Who comes to the conference? Women working in technology fields, as well as those interested in pursuing or migrating to a technology-focused career. In addition, anyone interested in exploring ways to bridge the tech gender gap and inspire future generations of girls to pursue STEM fields is encouraged to attend. And that includes men, who can be strong allies in the cause.
When Dr. McLaughlin and Dr. Fischer take the podium, I expect there will also be some young girls who are learning to be mathematicians and software coders in the room. One day, some of their names may be inscribed on the West Virginia Women Scientists Hall of Fame!
For information about the Women & Technology Conference, visit techconnectwv.org/events.
Anne Barth is Executive Director of TechConnect West Virginia, a statewide economic development organization dedicated to the advancement of science, technology, and the innovation economy in West Virginia.