Women In STEM — The Power Of Support Networks

Diana Murgulet, Data Scientist, Viktoriia Oliinyk, Data Scientist, Roxana Pamfil, Data Scientist, Yusra Ibrahim, Machine Learning Engineer, QuantumBlack

In this final instalment of our series, exploring the various ways colleagues pursued STEM careers, we hear from our peers who have been guided, advised and supported by those around them.

A supportive network, whether this involves family, friends or mentors in academia or professional life, can have a significant influence on someone’s trajectory through life. As we can see from the anecdotes below, this support can range from decisive counsel about a specific issue to general encouragement and reassurance.

Pursuing a STEM career was the natural endpoint of my long-term passion for technical subjects. Maths has always been my favourite — it’s both logical and creative, and provides a unique sense of fulfilment when I suddenly understand a concept that had previously seemed out of reach. When I started university, there was no question as to what I would study.

I had many incredible teachers in school and professors at university, but a special influence was my undergraduate thesis adviser, Professor Michael Brenner. I was studying pure Maths at the time but chose to work with him to explore the world of applied sciences. His curiosity and joy of discovery were so inspiring that after each of our weekly meetings I would dig through difficult papers with renewed enthusiasm. That project gave me confidence in my ability to tackle hard problems and that confidence still serves me today.

I have been lucky enough to study and work in environments where I felt supported and valued, even in situations where the gender imbalance was glaring. At the same time, like most women in STEM I have experienced my share of careless comments from people who assumed I knew less than I did. In those moments, I remember why I’m in this field to begin with: a STEM career enables me to do what I’m good at, work on challenging and important problems, and learn new things every day.

I have always had a broad variety of interests and a deep conviction that all avenues were open to me regardless of my gender. This attitude turned out to be a blessing and a curse. I struggled immensely when I had to choose a university degree — the options I seriously considered ranged from Drama to Physics to Neuroscience. My mom was strongly against the idea of me going into STEM, arguing that it would be a very solitary and boring experience.

At the time I didn’t know how incredibly diverse careers in STEM could be, so I compromised and began a degree in Political Science with a minor in Maths. I was fascinated by the world of ideas and greatly enjoyed my first year a lot; however, I constantly experienced a gnawing feeling that I’d made the wrong choice. My course didn’t involve as much Maths and Statistics as I would have liked and I was missing the excitement of coding.

Luckily I had the right people around me, to whom I’m incredibly grateful. One of my mentors, a Professor of Statistics, noticed my interest in Maths and suggested switching to the Applied Maths and Computer Science department. It was a tough choice — I would have to master an entire year of coursework within a month and would still ‘lose’ a year. To make that decision I spoke to dozens of people, hearing stories about difficult exams but also about new opportunities and exciting subjects.

I decided to go for it and have never regretted my decision. My education in STEM allowed me to understand and speak the language of Maths and opened the doors that otherwise would have stayed closed. But most importantly, my life is full of amazing people and never boring thanks to my job in STEM.

I went to high school in Egypt, where students must choose between studying Maths to proceed to engineering school and Biology to enter medical school. I wanted to study Maths as I loved it, but my father wanted me to study Biology. He was convinced that medical schools were more suitable for women than male-dominated engineering schools.

He almost persuaded me, so I attended one Biology class. I returned and firmly told my parents that Biology was not for me and that I would instead study Maths and attend engineering school. My parents were supportive and respected my choice.

At the time I shared a computer with my brother. While he predominantly used it to play games, I was more curious about how it worked and wanted to learn how to build a computer. I decided to study Computer Science and joined the Engineering Faculty at Alexandria University. I like challenging the stereotypes about women — what they should do, how they should carry themselves and what they are good at. I decided to pursue what I’m passionate about. It is not always easy, but it is great fun.

I was always torn between Humanities and Sciences and I wanted to do both. My parents are engineers and firmly believed that I needed to be good at Maths, so they always encouraged me to stay close to STEM.

I realise now that much of this encouragement can be attributed to growing up in Romania. Former Soviet countries tend to see far better gender balance across STEM. All my Computer Science teachers were women and the vast majority of girls in the years above me chose to study STEM subjects, so I had plenty inspiring role models. I particularly enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of programming and could already code confidently by the end of high school.

I postponed deciding between my two passions as long as I could by beginning a double major in Computer Science and English Literature. My key inflection point was at the end of first year — I had hoped to progress onto modules with a strong practical component, such as Robotics and Cryptography. However, I soon realised that I’d be unable to take any of these fun subjects if I retained both majors. I consulted my university tutor, who advised that it was time to make a decision based on what I enjoyed most. Following this guidance, I transferred to the Computer Science degree, which led to the start of a career in Data Science.

STEM’s gender imbalance can sometimes be discouraging, but one of the many reasons to be positive about the future is that there have never been as many supportive networks for women in STEM as there are today. Your local options will be easy to find with a quick internet search, but our colleagues have had fantastic experiences with Women in Machine Learning, who operate globally, as well as with Women In Data and Code First: Girls in the UK. These organisations cater to women in STEM at various stages of their professional journey, but all offer a variety of networking options, guidance and education, alongside opportunities to network and meet peers.

We’d certainly recommend researching similar options in your region — even those of us already pursuing a career in STEM can benefit from a supportive network.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this series and wish you the best of luck in your career — if you’d like to explore opportunities with QuantumBlack, please do visit our Careers page.

An advanced analytics firm operating at the intersection of strategy, technology and design. www.quantumblack.com @quantumblack