Materials Science and Engineering students hope to inspire future women in STEM

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Imagine being surrounded by complex equations and diagrams in the dead of night, preparing for your thermodynamics exam tomorrow. You had a project due the previous day and you just returned from a research conference in a different corner of the country. Overwhelming, isn’t it? Not for this group of six female materials science and engineering students. 

Tight-knit friendships have allowed them to excel in a field that has traditionally been male-dominated. Elizabeth Ancin, Victoria Christensen, Katy Gerace, Isabelle “Izzy” Gordon, Courtney Mensch and Cat Pomorski will soon graduate, culminating a journey full of leadership, research, collaboration and friendship. They have represented Penn State at national conferences and completed competitive internships and held prestigious research positions.

“We were in so many different places last summer, we were pins across the globe on a map,” says Mensch, who is from North Caldwell, New Jersey.

So how did this group come into existence? Some were from the same sorority or attended the same summer orientation as first-year students in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, some were from the same hometown, but it was really the Materials Science and Engineering major that brought them closer.

“Sophomore year, I met Izzy while walking to the career fair. We had the same major, we hit it off and that was the start of our friendship,” says Mensch.

Diverse majors, diverse interests

The Materials Science and Engineering major has something for everyone. Each member of the group is concentrating on different areas of materials science, including ceramics, metals, biomaterials, 3-D printing, electronics and polymers. The major caters to their unique interests by focusing on transferable skills and techniques. Ancin, originally interested in fashion design before she came to Penn State, found that she could focus on textile materials through her classes. After she graduates, she will be joining ViaSat in Carlsbad, California, as a reliability engineer.

Whiteboard walls and computers in the Steidle Building encourage them to brainstorm ideas and help each other in a collaborative learning model that promotes them to work together in groups.

“Every year when we get into a class, our professors recommend that we do homework together instead of separately,” says Christensen, who is from Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

The group meets once a month for Material Advantage (MA), a club at Penn State that organizes outreach events, networking sessions, talks with professors, industry events and service work. MA has ties with major national organizations like ACerS, the American Ceramic Society; AIST, the Association for Iron & Steel Technology; ASM International, the Materials Information Society; and TMS, the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society. MA also brings together speakers from the department to familiarize students with the major and its diverse concentrations.

“We are the probably the most woman-dominated executive board on campus,” says Gerace, also from Lansdale, Pennsylvania.

Meet our students: Victoria Christensen

As a student, materials science and engineering major Victoria Christensen conducted research, presented at national conferences, got involved in service activities as a leader and built a close network of friends.

Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences

Passionate researchers and leaders

Undergraduate research has been the highlight of their academic careers. Christensen, who is one of the youngest members of the the President's Council of Student Advisors, a student group in the American Ceramics Society, has participated in events like the Materials Science and Technology Conference, Materials Research Society Fall Meeting, and International Conference of Advanced Ceramics and Composites, and networked with top professionals. The special network she has formed during these conferences has allowed her to visit materials science and engineering programs in universities all over the U.S. She has recently received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship and will be attending the University of California Santa Barbara to obtain her doctorate in materials science and engineering.

“Greater involvement in research conferences nationally and internationally can allow scientists to come closer, present their work and share their ideas,” says Christensen.

They are also members and leaders of the executive boards for other campus organizations. Mensch is the executive event director of Relay For Life of Penn State, an organization that has raised more than $1 million for the American Cancer Society since 2015. Christensen is the executive director of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences benefiting THON group. Gerace is a member of the Presidential Leadership Academy, a competitive seminar taught by Penn State President Eric Barron and Peggy Johnson, dean of the Schreyer Honors College.

Meet our students: Cat Pomorski

Materials science and engineering student Cat Pomorski conducted research, taught classes, honed her leadership skills and built friendships during her time at Penn State

Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences

Inspiring the next generation of women

According to the Economics and Statistics Association, women held only 24 percent of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) jobs in 2015. Likewise, women make up only 25 percent of college-educated STEM workers.

As undergraduate researchers, the six students aspire to encourage more female students to enter STEM fields. They participated in the Eberly College of Science’s Envision: STEM Career Day for Girls on Jan. 27 for a full day of science enrichment that included breakout sessions with hands-on activities, speakers and a chance to interact with Penn State staff, faculty and students.

Gordon, a dedicated rock climber and resident assistant on campus, reflects that throughout college she tried to create strong women communities by supporting other students. She will be attending Montana State University to obtain her doctorate in materials science and engineering, but doesn’t see her passion for adventure going anywhere.

“When I was a first-year student, I came in undecided, and looked up to my resident assistant who was also studying materials science and engineering. He convinced me to major in materials science and engineering. I also eventually took the role of being a resident assistant. Now we’ve come full circle. I am responsible for 40 women students on my floor. It feels great to be a mentor to other female students, and I want to continue doing this for more girls in middle and high school,” says Gordon, a native of Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Pomorski participated in Women in Science and Engineering Research (WISER), which provides first-year women students with research opportunities and mentoring, with an ultimate goal of retaining women in the traditionally male-dominated fields of science and engineering. Throughout her time at Penn State, she has been inspired by the additive manufacturing work of her faculty adviser, Allison Beese, assistant professor of materials science and engineering.

“It was important for me to identify a role model in materials science and I found that figure in Dr. Beese,” says Pomorski, a native of Erie, Pennsylvania.

The group’s most striking similarity is their ability to seek help when they need it.

“Through my major, I learned to ask for help. Coming to Penn State I knew I wanted to be a materials science and engineering major. It would be a shame to give up on something that was your dream just because you didn’t ask for help,” says Mensch.

Each one of them also aspires to create a supportive environment in their lives outside of materials science and engineering. This group will graduate this semester, promising to keep in touch and encourage more women in STEM on their way.

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Last Updated April 27, 2018