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International Women’s Day: Faces of Women in STEM

In honor of International Women’s Day, I decided to interview and highlight 5 UT STEM professors on their research and experiences as a woman in STEM. From the beginning, UT has been an institution to inspire and lead the world in research. These professors do exactly that in their fields and I had the privilege of speaking with them about their stories.

Dr. Audrey Brumback

Dr. Audrey Brumback is an MD Ph.D. at UT Austin who studies neurological mapping of autism spectrum disorder and the physiological impacts of the disease while treating patients. She was introduced to science and biology at a young age by her father who was a neuropathologist. “I’m very privileged my dad was a neuropathologist so I grew up around brains. He clearly loved what he did and I thought it was really interesting.” Dr. Brumback found her true passion when she studied at UT Austin. In balancing both practicing medicine with her research, Dr. Brumback uniquely impacts her patients’ lives on both sides of her career. “On one level I give hope to my patients. When I see them in the clinic and I tell them that their child has autism spectrum disorder, they ask me ‘what is that’ and ‘why’, [truthfully] I don’t have a lot of answers  for them but I’m working on it.”

The ability of doctors to understand the genetics of disorders like autism are rapidly improving, but scientists don’t currently understand how those genetic patterns come together to influence behavior. “My hope is we can map out the circuits involved in these behaviors then we can use neuromodulation therapies to treat [multiple different versions of the disorder] regardless of the genetic background. ” Treating that final common pathway and understanding how physiology leads to behavior will help us bridge our understanding and acceptance of mental disorders as a whole, including anxiety and depression.

She also spoke on the adversity she has faced as a woman in her field. As a practicing doctor and researcher, it becomes hard to remain perfectly objective in professional settings. Part of that means facing the realities of being a professional woman in STEM.

“The biggest adversities I’ve faced are [2 things]. One is crying in professional settings. It’s seen as this sign of weakness and it’s the worst to feel that coming on and not be able to stop it. It’s socially acceptable for a man to be angry but for a woman to cry, which is what I do, is [seen differently]. Another thing is imposter syndrome. It helps that there is a term for it. It helps me that when I’m having those thoughts I can recognize it and accept it”

To overcome adversity or imposter syndrome and have success in STEM or any other career, she suggests making your opinions known with confidence. “It took me a while to realize first If I didn’t make my opinions known then people would assume I didn’t have opinions about things.” No matter what imposter syndrome may tell you, “No one else has your genetic makeup and grew up with your experiences and no one processes information like you do. You are unique.”

Dr. Kasey Faust

Dr. Kasey Faust is a professor in civil engineering with a focus on critical infrastructure and human interaction in accordance with those systems. She studies the implications of those systems and possible improvement. Her passion for civil engineering began with her passion for social work as an undergraduate, but instead of working one on one with people, civil engineers work with a community. Dr. Faust’s research mainly focuses on the resiliency of fixed grid systems (cities) in response to dynamic population changes. Population change occurs in a number of ways from external to internal stimuli including natural disasters, war and famine causing a refugee crisis, or cities declining in population due to lack of infrastructure (like Detroit or Flint).

On a day to day basis, Dr. Faust says her students inspire her the most with their own motivation and drive to make an impact.  Of the engineering majors at UT and generally in the US, Civil Engineering tends to be the closest towards gender equity in recent years. When Dr. Faust went to school she was one of 2 women in her civil classes.

“[In general,] you deal with microaggressions and things like being spoken over. [A lot] of times those are personality things.”

According to Dr. Faust, the important thing is to stay true to yourself and your identity. Do not give up parts of yourself for society or other people, even if that means saying no.

“[The best advice I ever got was from my grad mentor,] ‘ Don’t say yes to everything because then your yes doesn’t mean anything.’ “

Dr. Luisa Gil Fandino

Dr. Luisa Gil Fandino is a textiles professor at UT with an interdisciplinary background in many parts of STEM including architecture, industrial design, computer science and engineering. She first got introduced to textiles while working at a sports industry job and doing administrative work assisting designers on off-road sports accessories. After going to graduate school for textiles, she got her start in the heart of the textiles research field.  Her research now focuses on the sustainability of textiles.

The hardest adversity she has had to face as a Latina professor in STEM is having to be diplomatic when finding racial bias and handling it.

When pursuing a career in STEM,  it is better to be open to taking chances and not getting too comfortable in one place. “Change is good. The more you fail, the easier it is to get back up.”  As an undergraduate student, it is good to try to get exposure in research or even “get a coffee job in an industry to learn the ins and outs.”

Dr. Maya Henry

Dr. Maya Henry is a professor and researcher of speech pathology in the Moody College of Communication. She first learned about communication disorders as an undergrad in a class she took on language and the brain. “[We] learned about how linguistics can be mapped on to the brain and also learned about this thing called aphasia which is the disorder I work with [now]. It was interesting to me in an abstract sense and also seeing the human side of it. [I remember] a person with [aphasia] came to our class and thinking I’d never seen something more interesting or more devastating. This person was perfectly intelligent but was unable to communicate. ” She went to grad school for speech pathology, got involved with research and has stuck with it ever since. She hopes that one day the treatment they research and implement at the lab will become the standard of care rather than the exception to it.

“On a more direct level, we see patients every day.  These are people [who have neurodegenerative diseases] who have been told [almost always] by physicians that there’s nothing they can do. That they have a diagnosis that is ultimately going to rob them of their [ability to communicate] and eventually they will pass away. But when they come to our lab they are told ‘well actually there are things you can do.’ There are ways to improve communication and protect it.” Her work with patients and giving hope to people in need of it constantly inspires her. ” I think that’s inspiring but it’s also a healthy dose of perspective [that] we should never take our health or brains for granted.”

In Dr. Henry’s experience, adversity as a woman in STEM arises in subtle ways.

“Despite the fact, my parents were always very supportive and encouraging of what [my sister and I ] wanted to do. You certainly get messages as a young girl from your teacher [or] society that there are certain things that boys do better [than girls].”

To overcome such subtle adversities, Dr. Henry advised to be aware of biases and societal pressures and to not be afraid of trying things that are new or intriguing.

“Overcoming what is pretty subtle and implicit in how people treat you is the biggest challenge because you internalize a lot of that without really knowing it and it shapes how you [view yourself and your abilities]…I think along the way I had to reshape my own ideas about what I could be good at. And it means sometimes setting yourself up for failure. In terms of our academic selves, you don’t really know what you are going to be good at until you try it. So I think giving yourself the opportunity to fail even if its intensely uncomfortable for us is really important.”

Dr. Lydia Contreras

Dr. Lydia Contreras is a professor in the field of engineering and spans multiple disciplines including biomedical and chemical engineering. She knew from a young age that she wanted to go into a field of math and science and also wanted to do something that helped people. That eventually evolved into researching biotech to impact the medical field itself. Her lab focuses on cell regulation and responsive behavior to environmental factors.

“You [hear about] DNA and RNA in biology class and that sort of thing defines biology and they are very highly regulated. The dream [of the medical field] is to be able to regulate cell behavior. ” The more immediate impact of her research is to better ensure and inform the general public on how the environment impacts them and giving them tools to understand.

Dr. Contreras assessed that as a woman in STEM, the truth of the matter is that even if there is an improvement and a movement to positive change the fields overall are still male-dominated and it is hard to fit in and move forward in careers if someone doesn’t align as easily with mainstream culture or ideas.

“I think that the biggest adversity is that the field remains very uniform overall…a lot of times you battle the feeling of ‘I have to be myself’ and it feels like that is not enough because it isn’t mainstream or aligned with the majority. The field is still very male-dominated. So you are trained to not naturally align with it. Your leadership [or service ] style are different and don’t align with the stereotypically male personality. You have to surround yourself with positive energy and people to reassure yourself. “

She spoke on how important it is to play an active role in setting goals and voicing opinions where important decisions are being made.

“I think one [piece of] advice is just to sit at the table and play a much more active role on being part of any conversation that is an important part of your career. Actually daring yourself to put yourself in those socially awkward situations [make you learn] and give you challenges [and can advance your career]. Sometimes we limit yourself to people who look like us and talk like us but that’s not necessarily the best option.” •

Be sure to check out 3 more stories of amazing professors on the Spark Magazine Instagram Story!

By: Shroothi Ramesh

Graphics by: Adrianna Torres

Shroothi Ramesh is a second-year Mechanical Engineering student at UT Austin. Besides writing for Spark Online, in her free time, she enjoys singing opera & Broadway and sketching.

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