Monday, July 24, 2017

Hear It from a Girl Scout: Working at the Intersection of Biology and Technology

Since 2013 to 2017, Girl Scouts of the USA has partnered with Arconic Foundation to provide ten Girl Scouts with the Arconic Chuck McLane Scholarship, which is available to Girl Scout Gold Award recipients who complete projects related to science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). Uma Mahajan of Girl Scouts of Northern California received the scholarship in 2015 and is studying Systems Biology at Case Western Reserve University. Check out her story, what she has to say about her experience in Girl Scouts, and what her life as a scientist is like.

What have you been up to and how are your college STEM studies going?

As a Systems Biology major, I study the intersection of biology and technology, including computer science, statistics, and math. Through my extracurricular activities, I was employed during the spring of my freshman to work on a mobile app development project, in collaboration with senior MBA students, to experience firsthand the ins and outs of engineering/tech and business collaboration. This project was focused on maximizing energy efficiency in houses. During sophomore year I worked in a lab that generates, cultures, and examines cerebral organoids (“artificial minibrains”) to help uncover the development and causes of autism. Cerebral organoids enable the investigation of many neurodevelopmental diseases in ways previously inaccessible, especially neurodevelopmental diseases that are diagnosed postnatally. These organoids are cultured from human stem cells, and being involved in this lab (in which I’m continuing my work this summer) has also allowed me to exercise my critical-thinking skills, not only when dealing with the biology and helping design experiments, but also when programming to help quantify the results and data we find. Last summer, I interned at Stanford on a meta-analysis study comparing the efficacy of two major ways to treat epilepsy—with drugs or with transcranial magnetic stimulation (a new type of technology). This was part of a Stanford Neurosurgery Lab, and it allowed me to learn more about a field I’m interested in.

In my classwork, I’m also learning more about and applying my interest in the cross between medicine and technology. In one of my major core classes last semester, I modeled the mathematical movement of the eye, specifically in the disorder congenital nystagmus. This was done using Mathematica software and gave me exposure to the fascinating field of mathematical modeling.

What challenges have you faced, and how did you overcome them?

Going to college across the country– to a place where I barely knew anyone and to a college that was relatively foreign in my hometown– was quite a growing experience for me. I flew to my college all alone without my family and, like students from all over the country, entered the whirlwind of meeting people and establishing friendships, growing my professional circle, and learning to make this place my home for the next eight years.

I quickly adapted and embraced college life, and my success was mostly due to putting myself out there—a skill I learned in Girl Scouts. I put myself out there to meet people, to talk to professors and learn about their journeys, to join clubs and volunteer organizations I had a passion in (I joined a women-in-STEM club, and in part discovered my passion for volunteering in Girl Scouts), and to seek job and research opportunities. Girl Scouts really encourages girls to be go-getters, and having this attitude when I got to a new place in a new state was what enabled my smooth transition. Even though I tend to hold myself back at times, by continuing to put myself out there with confidence, I was able to create a college life that I am so grateful for.

Looking back, how has Girl Scouts and the Chuck McLane Scholarship impacted your college experience?

Girl Scouts has been phenomenal in building who I am as a leader and a person with courage, confidence, and character. It was through Girl Scouts that my impulse to set ambitious goals and work through challenges was cemented, most visibly through my Gold Award project. In this project, I organized an event for students and their families at the NASA Ames Research Center to increase their interest and access to science and robotics; overall, 15 companies participated and over 700 people attended. I also started and coached the first two elementary school robotics teams in my school district. Undertaking that project taught me that an idea that can seem crazy and impossible can in fact be more than possible, you just have to keep working at it—asking the right people for help and advice, articulating your needs to others, delegating, and setting plans in advance but being ready for and open to change. That project also taught me an important way to make change—by identifying an issue in our society that I have a passion for, researching and investigating it, talking to others, and reaching out to the field.

Girl Scouts also exposed me to technology and the importance of getting women and girls engaged in creating and building technology, most notably through the Girl Scout Robotics team I was involved with in high school, the Space Cookies. Through this team I got to work with my hands to build something in an arena that has traditionally been viewed as a men’s field (a machine shop), and I also had great opportunities to grow as leader. This team and experience also gave me exposure to business aspects of a team/company, and allowed me to gain experience writing grants and award applications, marketing, and business planning. Moreover, it was here that I discovered one of my biggest passions in high school: mentoring younger students and coaching them about robotics. After helping mentor an elementary robotics team sponsored by the Space Cookies in East Palo Alto for a year, I founded the first elementary school robotics team in my school district at a Title 1 (economically challenged/underserved) school and coached them for two years, through competitions and the off-season. And the school still continues the team!. This experience taught me not just about technology and how to best teach others about it, but also about how the human experience is impacted by it—it was incredible to see how learning to program a robot can excite a fifth-grader who grew up in a household with very limited technology and resources!

Girl Scouts also exposed me to numerous leadership opportunities: networking dinners, including the Forever Green event honoring Sheryl Sandburg and the San Francisco Business Times Most Influential Women event; workshops with executives at LinkedIn and Google; and opportunities to step up and be a leader, whether that by leading a group of young girls at Girl Scout summer camp for 4 years or giving the closing speech at a Forever Green Girl Scout Mother’s Day luncheon. The opportunities it has also given me to interact with successful girls and professionals – such as being on Google’s Made with Code steering advisory committee or being featured in Google’s #InspireGirls campaign for women’s history month – have been inspiring to me.

Being a Girl Scout for 10 years has played a huge part in making me the person I am today, and I am proud to forever be part of this organization as a Lifetime Member.

With regard to the Arconic Scholarship, being recognized for my efforts in high school and for the potential to keep striving in the future is such an honor. Last June, Zahra (another Arconic Scholarship winner) and I had the opportunity to go to Washington, DC, for the Gold Award centennial. We presented our projects and efforts on Capitol Hill and met with our Congress members and Senators to talk about issues important to us and spread the message about the Gold Award and the importance of STEM education and to discuss how to engage young people and girls in STEM. To join a community of young woman all passionate about spreading STEM and who’ve made significant efforts to do this is a huge honor.

How do you take the lead?

I continually try to keep growing as a person. At times I am uncomfortable or hesitant to be assertive and voice my thoughts when dealing with important and decisive matters, whether in class, in the lab, among friends, in meetings with supervisors, or in front of a crowd of hundreds of people. However, the values and lessons I’ve learned from past experiences growing up, many of which are through Girl Scouts, push me to go outside the bubble, take a stance, and use my voice.

I am on the Executive Board of WISER (Women in Science and Engineering Roundtable), a club at my school that supports the inclusion and success of all women in STEM through leadership, mentorship, and outreach. I am the Professional Externship Coordinator, so my role is to help connect members of the club and college community with resources to help expand their horizons. In the past, I’ve held a Mindfulness workshop during finals week that incorporated personal image and personal mission.

I also strive to be an active and engaged citizen in my college, city, and global communities by staying aware of current events and issues and getting involved in causes and subjects I’m passionate about—for example, attending events like the Women of Power Conference in Cleveland or a group breakfast with Margot Shutterly, the author of Hidden Figures, and mentoring younger college students as they navigate their first year.

Girl Scouts offers the best leadership development experience for girls in the world. Everything a Girl Scout does centers around STEM, the outdoors, development of life skills, and entrepreneurship, and is designed to meet her where she is now and to grow along with her. Learn more about the Girl Scout Difference.