UH Hilo holds 2nd Annual Women in STEM Conference

The conference’s theme, “Educate to Empower: Uplifting All Women in STEM,” was prominent in the panel discussions and various workshops offered throughout the day.

By Leah Sherwood. Photos by Raiatea Arcuri.

Woman standing at front of room, audience seated, PowerPoint screen with the words: I AM A MINORITY IN STEM, THAT IS MY SUPERPOWER.
Neurotoxicologist Alexandra Colón-Rodríguez, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Davis, was keynote speaker at the 2020 Women in STEM Conference, March 5, UH Hilo. Photos by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories, click to enlarge.

The second annual Women in STEM Conference at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo was held yesterday, bringing together leading scientists and educators in the science, technology, and education sectors. The conference’s theme, “Educate to Empower: Uplifting All Women in STEM,” was prominent in the panel discussions and various workshops offered throughout the day.

The underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields has been a topic of much discussion in recent years. A U.S. Department of Commerce report in 2017 shows that women in the U.S. made up less than one-quarter (24 percent) of those employed in STEM occupations in 2015. When race and ethnicity are considered, the representation is even lower. For instance, according to a 2015 National Science Foundation (NSF) report, two in ten science and engineering employees in the U.S. were women of color.

The conference was sponsored by the following programs and offices at UH Hilo: the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science graduate program MATERS Club, the LGBTQ+ Center, the Women’s Center, and the Office of Equal Opportunity.

“We wanted to create space this year to include the voices of underrepresented indigenous women in science in both academic and community-driven organizations,” says Lisa Mason, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program and one of the conference’s organizers. “Next year we hope to have a multi-day event to further these important conversations. I am proud of so many people in our community for helping to support this event.”

Opening remarks

Marina Karides
Marina Karides

The opening talk was given by Marina Karides, chair of the sociology department at UH Hilo. Karides is also the principal investigator of an NSF ADVANCE grant, under which she leads an evaluation of gender equity in STEM across the UH System.

“Our data shows across the U.S. the representation of women especially at high-ranked research one departments can be 20-30 percent of faculty,” explains Karides. “That’s the kind of culture and issue we are trying to address.”

Karides says the goal of the NSF ADVANCE program is to increase the representation, recruitment, retention, and advancement of women. “NSF ADVANCE is not about the culture of calling people out for not witnessing their gender, ethnic or indigenous bias, but calling people in to recognize that diverse ethnic and gender groups in science leads to better science.”

She says that the ADVANCE program also addresses systematic issues within the academic culture and institutional structures that turn women scientists away from these careers. “We have barriers,whether it is differences in pay wages, increased workloads, or lack of institutional support for childcare leave, that we need to change on a policy level within the UH System.”


Alexandra Colón Rodriguez
Alexandra Colón Rodriguez

The keynote address was delivered by Alexandra Colón Rodriguez, a postdoctoral researcher in the B3 (birds, brain and banter) Laboratory at the University of California, Davis. Rodriguez, a science communicator and neurotoxicologist, hails from the island of Puerto Rico. She grew up in poverty in a single-parent household due to her father suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She notes that her background motivated her to obtain an PhD in neuroscience from Michigan State University.

“I never thought about becoming a scientist,” Rodriguez says, whose research looks at how single parenting changes the emotional center of the amygdala in the brain. “An NSF report from the previous year showed that there are a lot of minority undergraduates but it is not reflected at the faculty level. How will these students continue to be pumped about STEM if they do not see anyone like themselves in these higher roles?”

Rodriguez notes that the NSF report shows a large disparity between the number of women and women of color obtaining bachelor and doctoral degrees in science, indicating that women do not go on to obtain advanced degrees.

“There needs to be mentoring, representation, community, and culture; a student’s likelihood to persist in a program depends on whether they have a community,” says Rodriguez. “That is where institutional change comes into play and programs like ADVANCE at UH Hilo allow for this.”

Rodriguez, along with her mentors, initiated an outreach program in Puerto Rico called “Bridge to Neuroscience” in an effort to draw other disadvantaged students into neuroscience, a discipline that few students have been introduced to in the region. She says other scientists could apply similar outreach models.

The keynote address was sponsored by the NSF ADVANCE BRIDGE grant, “Next Steps: Mentoring and Coaching with ADVANCE-BRIDGE Grant at UH Hilo and UHCCS.”

Panel discussion

In a panel discussion titled, “Redefining STEM: Diversifying Perspectives of Science/STEM on Hawai‘i Island,” panelists discussed the intersection of gender race, ethnicity, and indigenous status when doing science. Panelist Haunani Kane, a postdoctoral researcher in the multi-scale environmental graphical analysis (MEGA) Laboratory at UH Hilo, encouraged attendees to “find your community and the people who support you. A lot of times you are going to be a minority, whether it is because you are a woman or you are the only male. Find your people that will be there for you during your highs and your lows.” Kane hails from Kailua, O‘ahu, and is a lead navigator and science coordinator for the voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a.

MEGA lab coral reef research technician Kailey Pascoe offered wisdom gleaned from growing up in Hawai‘i. “Be yourself because you are going to get torn in many directions in STEM and from being from here and wanting to help communities. It is really important to listen to everybody and be present.” Pascoe is originally from Kāne‘ohe, O‘ahu, and is an alumna of the marine science undergraduate program and the tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program at UH Hilo.

Tarisi Vunidilo, assistant professor of anthropology at UH Hilo, cited the importance of pursuing your dreams, even if they are different from your peers. “Follow your heart. That is something that I did myself,” she says. “If your interest is different that is cool. Whatever your heart and passion is go for it. Wherever everything else ends passion continues.”

Four people at sign-in desk.
Graduate students who helped organize the conference are set up to greet attendees at the sign-in table. From left, Michael Stone, Erica Ta, Lisa Mason, and Sarah Norbomb.


Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University.

Photos by Raiatea Arcuri, a professional photographer majoring in business administration with a concentration in finance at UH Hilo. 

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