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We all start out in life as scientists.
You can see this when a child locks on in amazement to some aspect of the natural world they have yet to encounter previously. Our need to experience, process, and understand the world makes childhood ripe with exploration, curiosity, and every parent's bane - boundary testing.
The renowned science populizer and astronomer Carl Sagan said that "every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact." For the few that do trickle through, a myriad of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) interests and careers await.
For girls and women, even if they manage to get through our schools, society, and culture with their sense of wonder and ability intact, pursuing STEM interests and careers have been severely limited by seen and unseen forces.
Alice Hou has both lived this experience and is doing something to change the narrative of the underrepresentation of women and girls in STEM fields. Her Girls In STEM organization has grown from 7 people at Jasper High School in Plano to 20 chapters across the globe.
Alice grew up in Plano, but her family's journey is anything but your typical cookie-cutter tale of suburbia and is not free from struggle. It's this journey and history that has motivated Alice to accomplish the things she has.
Both of her parents immigrated to the U.S. from China. Alice was born in 2001 and two weeks later, the attacks on 9/11 occurred. As a result of the global economy grinding to a halt in the aftermath, her dad was laid off and her mother, who was on maternity leave, was at risk of losing her own job. A constant source of anxiety (and often exploitation) for immigrants in the U.S. on work visas is that their ability to remain in the country is dependent on their employer and not losing their job.
If Alice's mom had lost her job, the family would have been forced to move back to China. Mere weeks after giving birth, she returned to work and compounded their stresses with the challenges working mothers face in the U.S. without guaranteed paid maternity leave.
Seeing the experience her mom endured undoubtedly influenced Alice's desire to confront head-on the challenges women face in society. It also allows her to recognize the sacrifices made to allow her the opportunities she has.
Alice recalls the experience her grandmother lived just a generation apart. "My grandmother led a very different life than the one I'm living right now," she says "growing up she was forced to bind her feet, which was a tradition for young girls in China because that made them more attractive to be married off."
Knowing the opportunities she's been afforded, yet seeing the very real struggles women still face set the stage for Alice to become a change maker.
Changing the narrative
Alice's interest in science started at an early age. A flurry of science fairs, state-qualifications, and of course, experiments followed. This eventually led her to finish high school at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, an early entrance college program at The University of North Texas. She's currently attending UT in Austin.
That's a quick narrative of her journey so far, and it's in the midst of this where Alice started to notice the lack of representation and diversity in STEM education and careers. It really hit home on the first day when she attended an engineering program at Union College in Albany, New York. "I discovered roaming around the engineering building that there was no women's restroom. I kept passing men's restrooms until I trekked all the way up to the fourth floor where I finally found the women's restroom." She says she later learned that for the first hundred years of Union College's existence it wasn't even open to women.
The gender gap in STEM isn't undocumented and, while there has been some progress, the disparities remain. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women make up only 28% of the overall science and engineering workforce. In engineering specifically, it's only 15%.
Lost in these stats are the experiences of the individual girls and women, something Alice knows well. "Walking into a room and seeing a room full of people where no one looks like you, and no one talks like you or has experiences that you have is almost intimidating," she says "I felt right away that I shouldn't be there, that because of things that I could not control I was automatically less qualified to be there."
It's this alienation that sparked the drive for Alice to start Girls In STEM.
Alice started the club as a freshman at Jasper High School in Plano. Seven people attended the first meeting, but in just a few short years it's grown into an organization with 20 chapters in schools across the world.
Girls In STEM now offers a wide array of programs designed to close the gender gap in science and offer opportunities to girls at an age when they're starting to become disenfranchised. This includes workshops, STEM learning, and access to speakers and women currently working in STEM fields.
The learning, however, goes far beyond just STEM. Alice, and the girls who now comprise Girls in STEM's board, found that running the organization itself is a lesson in leadership. She says "Over these four years I have seen them take form into leaders...I have seen them grow into speakers who can communicate a message in a way that is persuasive and empowering."
Girls In STEM is changing the narrative of STEM education. It offers a space where girls can come together, collaborate and walk into a room and see people who share similar experiences. Walking into a room may seem trivial to those who have never felt on the outside, but it's not. "When you see someone who looks like you" says Alice, "you automatically change your mindset into thinking 'I can do what they're doing too', simply because they look like you."
Girls In STEM started out as a way to address gender inequalities, but the team wasn't just focused on that inequality alone. Alice says "we begin to realize that in Plano with all students being out of school, especially students of lower socioeconomic communities, they don't have access to any STEM resources for 3 months, and so with that their intellectual growth in STEM over these three months is relatively stagnant."
This is when the Girls In STEM Summer Expo was born, which is now in its second year. The expo offers the community access to STEM exhibitions, speakers, hands-on learning activities and educational games and trivia questions sessions.
Alice and the Girls In STEM leadership team reached out and partnered with local businesses, such as R2 Technologies and DFW-Alliance of Women and Technology, to support the expo and keep it free for attendees.
While Girls In STEM seeks to change the present and future for girls and women in STEM fields, Alice is also looking backward to make a change. When researching U.S. oral history collections, she noticed something missing - herself, along with her mother and the entire experience of every other Asian-American woman in the U.S.
Alice took to filling the gap by starting the Oral History of Asian-American Project. She has recorded interviews and conversations with Asian-American women who have left a mark on the history of our nation. Some of the subjects include Dr. Ruchi Huang who was the first female professor in the physical science department of John Hopkins University, Texas State Representative Angie Chen Button, and Dr. Alice Huang, the first female Asian-American woman tenured at Harvard University.
Alice says "it's these women who paved the way for the women after them, but whose stories have never been heard, that I wanted to detail."
Paying it forward
It may not come as a shock, but the feats covered here are but a small sampling of what Alice has undertaken. In addition to Girls in STEM, her scientific research, and the oral history project, Alice was also a Miss America's Outstanding Teen titleholder, is a gold medal community service volunteer, classical ballet dancer, and award-winning Chinese Folklorice dance performer.
Upon meeting Alice, at no point did I get the impression her accomplishments were beholden to anyone's expectations other than her own and her drive to acknowledge the sacrifices that came before her.
"It's these types of sacrifices" she says, "for all of the women that come before me that leave me with no choice but to pay it forward, and to create things like Girls in STEM to bring more women into that science lab, so it's less of a stark difference."
For more information on Girls in STEM or to get involved, visit GirlsInSTEMdfw.org