20 Inspiring women redefining STEM in the US

by Melissa Kirsch
Oct 20, 2015 at 4:15 p.m. ET

1 /20: Reshma Saujani, New York

1/20 :Reshma Saujani, New York

“Embracing failure is the most important trait I’ve developed in my career,” says Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit working to close the gender gap in technology. In fact, it was after listening to her mentor, Hillary Clinton, concede the Democratic nomination in 2008 that Saujani decided to quit her corporate job and run for Congress in New York. While campaigning, she traveled to schools all over New York City and found an incredible disparity in the way boys and girls approached technology education. Given the stats — there will be 1.4 million jobs in computing-related fields by 2020, and women are currently on pace to hold just 3 percent of them — Saujani knew she had to step in and do something to address this imbalance. “If our country is going to remain competitive in the 21st century, we need to get more women involved in this rapidly growing sector. That starts with education,” she says.

And what an education Girls Who Code provides. In 2012, the organization had just one program for 20 girls in New York. Now it has nearly 500 Girls Who Code Clubs, which bring high-quality computer science education to girls and schools and community centers nationwide. And Saujani and the organization hardly slow down when school’s out: They’ve got 59 seven-week computer science courses that embed girls in companies like Google, Facebook and Goldman Sachs, where they learn the skills that will equip them to pursue 21st century opportunities in tech. “I have been amazed at these girls’ determination,” Saujani says. “Coding can be immensely challenging, but they’re always looking to improve.” She is constantly amazed that the girls she works with develop that essential embrace of failure so early. “I tell our students at every opportunity that learning from your failures will make you stronger, more confident and more resilient for whatever comes next,” she says. As for what comes next for Girls Who Code, it's on track to reach 10,000 girls by the end of this year. “We’re educating the next generation of female technology leaders," Saujani says proudly, “and their passion, talent and creativity inspire me. I’m proud to play a role in unlocking their abilities!”

2 /20: Kimberly Bryant, California

2/20 :Kimberly Bryant, California

When Kimberly Bryant began studying computer programming as a freshman at Vanderbilt University, she didn’t see many other African-American women in her classes. After graduating and working in the biotech industry for decades, she was distressed to find her daughter experiencing the same cultural isolation while attending a tech summer program at Stanford. Determined to redress the balance, Bryant founded Black Girls Code in 2011, with the goal of reaching young girls of color as they’re figuring out what they want to be when they grow up and getting them excited about careers in coding and technology. "Much has changed since my college days, but there’s still a dearth of African-American women in science, technology, engineering and math professions, an absence that cannot be explained by, say, a lack of interest in these fields,” Bryant explains. "Lack of access and lack of exposure to STEM topics are the likelier culprits.” Black Girls Code addresses that lack of exposure by offering tech boot camps, hackathons, robot-building workshops, mentorship programs and field trips to tech companies for girls from underrepresented communities around the country.

Not only do the participants in Black Girls Code programs go on to take computer science classes and start tech-focused clubs at their schools, but Bryant is equally inspired by the increase in assertiveness and self-esteem she’s seen in the girls with whom she works. That change is perhaps most evident at home: "It's inspirational to see my daughter gain self-confidence," she told Tech Republic. "She talks about being a business owner as opposed to being a game tester like before. I've seen her whole vocabulary change.” Black Girls Code has now trained 3,000 girls in seven chapters in the United States and one in South Africa, with plans for eight new chapters in the works. But Bryant’s not stopping there. Black Girls Code aims to teach 1 million black girls to code by 2040. And she’s focused on making this a reality: When recently asked to predict what the tech landscape will look like five years in the future, Bryant replied, "I hope to see a pronounced shift five years from now of women in leadership roles across various industry spaces, including technology, media, politics, etc. I believe this is the age of female-centered leadership, and I'm happy to be working in a space to drive inclusion for women.” And we're pretty happy that Bryant is working in that space too.

3 /20: Laura Weidman Powers, California

3/20 :Laura Weidman Powers, California

Laura Weidman Powers feels “discomfort all the time” in her role as co-founder and CEO of CODE2040, a nonprofit that creates opportunities for underrepresented minorities in tech. "I spend a lot of my time meeting with potential partners and funders at tech companies, showing up at their offices to talk diversity inclusion and usually having that conversation with white men,” she says. Still, she feels like people are rooting for her organization to succeed in its mission to ensure that blacks and Latino/as are proportionally represented in tech by 2040. "About once a week or so,” she told Medium, "I get some spontaneous message of support — a tweet, an email from an old acquaintance, someone I run into who has been following CODE2040’s work,” and that sustains her. Powers discovered the power of engineering skills in tech when she was working at a startup while pursuing a joint JD/MBA at Stanford, but she was dismayed at the lack of diversity in the field. After grad school, she partnered with a classmate to found CODE2040. In its first year, the organization placed five Fellows in paid SiliconValley internships — a number that has grown to 25 — chosen from a pool of over 1,000 applicants, with more than 90 percent of CODE2040 Fellows receiving return offers from their employers. Not only do the numbers look pretty impressive, but the Fellows report massive increases in self-confidence after participating in internships at tech companies like Jawbone and Tumblr.

"Just start,” she says when asked for advice she wishes she’d had when she was beginning her career. "Too many people hold themselves back, think of ways to say 'no' instead of 'yes,' particularly when doing something new. Just start, and accept that failing is a possibility... but if you don't do anything, you will definitely fail.” CODE2040 ensures that enterprising students who want to get involved in the tech economy have just those opportunities to try, along with every possibility for success — in addition to the internship program, the organization offers its students mentorship, coaching and skill-building workshops. But Powers doesn’t plan on doing this work forever: "Census projections show that people of color will collectively be the majority in theU.S. in the year 2040,” she says. "It's important to have that shift reflected in the ranks and the leadership of innovation hubs like SiliconValley. We hope we'll have worked ourselves out of a job long before then."

4 /20: Vera Rubin, Washington D.C.

4/20 :Vera Rubin, Washington D.C.

In the run-up to the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize in physics, there was a loud chorus of support and speculation wondering if 2015 just might be the year that Vera Rubin would finally receive the honor — indeed, there’s even a Facebook group devoted to the topic. Alas, the 87-year-old astronomer and pioneer for women’s equality in sciences will have to wait, but the lack of the Nobel makes Rubin’s achievements no less remarkable. Fascinated by stars from a young age, with the assistance of her father, she made her own telescope when she was just a teenager. She went on to Vassar and attempted to attend Princeton for graduate school, but was informed that women were not welcome in the astronomy program (they wouldn’t be for another two decades), so she got her master’s from Cornell and her Ph.D. from Georgetown. Her work centers on what’s known as the “galaxy rotation problem” and the discovery of "dark matter”. Prior to Rubin’s discoveries, astronomers had assumed that most of the mass and gravity of a galaxy are concentrated at its center, and the farther a star is from the center, the slower it would move. But Rubin and her partner, Kent Ford, observed in the 1970s that stars far from the centers of galaxies move just as fast as those that are closer to the center. They explained that there must be some sort of invisible matter, known as dark matter, that exerts extra gravitational pull on the stars far from the center of galaxies. Knowledge about the existence of dark matter allows scientists to measure the size and shape of the universe, to determine whether it’s expanding or contracting and to understand how galaxies hold together.

So what does an astronomer do after she’s essentially discovered the secret of the universe? In 1992, at age 63, Rubin discovered a galaxy in which half the stars orbit in one direction, half in the other. In 1993, she was awarded the National Medal of Science, the most prestigious award for American scientists. Despite her massive success and status as an intergalactic rock star, Rubin has remained a role model and advocate for women in science. She was awarded the James Craig Watson Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 2004 for “her seminal observations of dark matter in galaxies… and for generous mentoring of young astronomers, men and women.” Rubin told the Jewish Women’s Archive, “It is well known that I am available twenty-four hours a day to women astronomers.”

5 /20: Jennifer Doudna, California

5/20 :Jennifer Doudna, California

When we talk about traits we can’t change about ourselves, things that are fundamental to who we are whether we like it or not, we say, “I can’t help it, it’s in my DNA.” Biochemist Jennifer Doudna might take issue with this colloquial understanding of our genetics. In 2012, Doudna and her colleagues made a massive discovery: a new, cheaper technique for editing any organism’s DNA. Known as CRISPR/Cas 9, the technique has permitted scientists to rethink their approaches to altering flawed genes, to consider new possibilities for treating disease. But while CRISPR’s potential for making changes to DNA is incredibly exciting to the scientific community, it’s not without controversy. With a method now so relatively simple and accessible on hand to edit genes, what’s to stop scientists from using CRISPR to create genetically enhanced embryos, from accidentally editing a part of DNA that results in irreversible damage?  

Doudna and her team at the University of California, Berkeley are fast at work coming up with ethical guidelines within the scientific community for using CRISPR. She recently testified before Congress about her discovery and its implications. In the meantime, she still finds time to encourage other women to get involved in science. She told the Huffington Post recently, “For a lot of women there is a subtle but I think unfortunately effective discouragement of women pursuing the STEM fields… We just want to show women that they can pursue these fields, they can be feminine, they can be mothers, they can be wives, they really can do all those things and do it on their own terms.” Doudna recalls being encouraged early on by her high school chemistry teacher, Miss Wong, and her biology professor in college who was as attractive and feminine as she was smart and innovative, showing her that it was possible to work in science and still have life outside the lab. So the next time we're moved to blame our DNA for that immutable fact about ourselves, we might do well to think of Dr. Doudna and the incredible changes she’s brought about, both in the realm of genetics and for women in the scientific community at large.

6 /20: Anne Wojcicki, California

6/20 :Anne Wojcicki, California

Anne Wojcicki has been angry about the state of health care in the United States since she was a 27-year-old health care analyst on Wall Street. Disgusted by her insurance company colleagues, who spoke about how best to make a buck off sick people, she left her job, determined to become a doctor. Instead, she concentrated her work on research and, in 2006, started a revolution in personal genomics when she co-founded 23andMe, a company that provides genetic testing for consumers like you and me. The process is simple: For $99, the company sends you a kit in the mail, you send back a sample of your saliva, and in a few weeks, you get a personal report on your own genome, including what percent of your DNA comes from Neanderthals and other populations, connections to far-flung relatives who share your DNA and greater insight into your family tree. 23andMe operates on the belief that DNA is the key to understanding why some people get certain diseases and others don’t, and can be instrumental in research to discover new drugs for treating a wide range of illnesses.

Until November 2013, you also received health-related results from 23 andMe, along with your ancestral data. This included your likelihood for getting certain diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s. The FDA ordered personal genomics companies to stop giving information to consumers about disease risk, saying the tests were unlikely to be accurate in their predictions. 23andMe customers can still make their genetic info available to drug companies and researchers that partner with the company to work on disease prevention and drug therapies, however, and the results of the over 1 million people who have participated in testing are fueling studies on Parkinson’s, lupus, IBS and other diseases. "The reason why we started this company was the research component and the fundamental belief that by really understanding the human genome, we will be able to make significant improvements in quality of life, have a novel approach to therapeutics and eventually understand and detect diseases earlier,” says Wojcicki. She believes the company will continue to find common ground with the FDA in making health risk results available to consumers. When asked if she has any regrets, her work doesn’t figure in: "The only thing I regret is I’d like to have more time with my children. For me, it would either doing 23andMe or doing nothing. I’m driving for change. On a weekly basis, people come up to me and talk about how I’ve saved their life. So I can’t get a better job."

7 /20: Jedidah Isler, Tennessee

7/20 :Jedidah Isler, Tennessee

Jedidah Isler doesn’t take lightly the fact that she’s the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Yale. "I was proud that I had accomplished this thing that I had dreamt about since I was a little girl,” she admits, "but I also felt such a strong sense of responsibility to show the way to other young women of color (and students of color, more broadly) who were also interested in astrophysics. I remember thinking, 'If not me, then who?'" When Dr. Isler isn’t studying black holes that weigh one to 10 billion times the mass of our own sun, a love affair that she detailed in her 2015 TED Talk, she’s addressing that responsibility she feels to young women by advocating for inclusion, empowerment and access for underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. She recently published a paper titled "On Planck’s Law, Blackbodies and the Physics of Diversity,” in which she draws parallels between astrophysical principles and intersectional identities, such as black or Latina women.

Isler is currently a postdoctoral fellow in astrophysics at Vanderbilt University, but she would love to incorporate the teaching of interdisciplinary courses that combine STEM and the topics of social justice and educational access into her academic career. She’s already making this ambition a reality with Vanguard: Conversations with Women of Color in STEM, a Google Hangout series she hosts every the first Tuesday of every month. Vanguard seeks to bring together emerging women of color in STEM with women who are already established in their fields, and introduces participants to panels of "virtual role models” like Chinwe Nyenke, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering, and biologist Giovanna Guerrero-Medina. Isler and her panels of genius women talk about such crucial topics as how they found their way into STEM fields and the hashtag FailingInStem, which highlighted the importance of acknowledging failures as well as success in scientific pursuits. Isler’s a cheerful and welcoming host, and she and her panelists are both awesome and awe-inspiring. If Isler has any lingering doubts about her success as a role model for women of color, she need look only to Twitter and the enthusiastic response her series has elicited: “OMG this is amazing!” tweeted one viewer. "#VanguardSTEM is live and its awesome!” cheered another. We couldn’t agree more.

8 /20: Adriana Gascoigne, California

8/20 :Adriana Gascoigne, California

Adriana Gascoigne never thought she’d end up working in tech, but in the early 2000s, she found herself working in marketing at a Silicon Valley startup. She also found herself the only woman in a company of 35 people. Where’s the diversity? she’d ask herself. It’s just a bunch of 25- to 35-year-old men. The company was doing very little to attract women, and Gascoigne found there wasn’t any sort of organization where women could gather to discuss the experience of working in tech, never mind figure out how to address the industry’s gender imbalance. So, in 2007, Gascoigne founded Girls in Tech, a nonprofit “focused on the engagement, education and empowerment of influential women in technology and entrepreneurship.” Eight years later, Girls in Tech has over 25,000 members, with 52 chapters on six continents, including funding from the U.S. State Department for a program in the Middle East.

Gascoigne believes tech is an awesome place for women to work and that girls need to be inspired to get involved with STEM subjects at a young age. That’s why Girls in Tech has so many programs to get girls psyched about technology — from app-building workshops to business-plan designing workshops, mentorship programs to Lady Pitch Night, the world’s largest women’s business pitch competition. And Gascoigne asserts that women not only benefit from working in tech, but tech benefits from women. “Women communicate differently, I think,” she says. “There are certain characteristics to a woman, like multitasking, problem-solving, being able to listen and cultivate certain relationships and distinguish how a relationship will benefit the longevity of the company — these are all things that we miss when 50 percent of the population is not represented in tech fields." She’s devoted to Girls in Tech’s mission of empowering women: “The most rewarding thing about what I do is helping and seeing women access entrepreneurial skills to create educational and business opportunities for themselves,” says Gascoigne. “It’s truly empowering to witness and be a part of.”

9 /20: Linda Kekelis, California

9/20 :Linda Kekelis, California

When Linda Kekelis was a child and thought about what she’d be when she grew up, she confined her dreams to the role models she saw around her: She would be a teacher or a mother. Thanks to Kekelis’ work as CEO and executive director of Techbridge — a nonprofit with the mission to inspire girls in science, technology and engineering — the options for girls today are far more numerous. Techbridge grew out of Kekelis’ own experience living in Oakland, a city famed for its diversity. She was disappointed to see that the tech workforce did not accurately reflect this richness of talent, and set out to give Oakland girls the chance to pursue studies and careers in which they could inspire and be inspired by technology. “I wasn’t sure that they would,” says Kekelis. “Not because they didn’t have the potential, but because they didn’t have opportunities.” Enter Techbridge’s hands-on after-school programs and mentorship programs designed to even the odds and empower girls to design their futures in science, technology and engineering. Now with programs inOakland,Seattle and D.C., Techbridge alumnae are twice as likely to pursue a college STEM degree than the national average.

“It’s not enough to make after-school STEM programs available at schools in underserved communities," says Kekelis. “We have to be strategic in whom we engage in these programs, from schools to teachers to role models." Kekelis credits encouraging teachers in helping recruit a wide range of girls for Techbridge. “Oftentimes it just takes an afternoon for a girl to realize that she really does like to tinker and that Techbridge is a place where she belongs,” she says. She advises girls to not feel afraid, to ask for help and support from teachers and other adults if they’re interested in STEM. And she tells parents looking to get their kids involved in STEM programs that they need not be engineers or scientists themselves — they need not have attended college or even speak English as a first language. “Ask girls questions about what they did in science or math class,” Kekelis advises. “Encourage and help them get to after-school or summer programs. You don’t have to be a professional parent to be an enthusiastic cheerleader.”

10 /20: Lisa Randall, Massachusetts

10/20 :Lisa Randall, Massachusetts

For most of us, the closest we’ve gotten to considering the possibility that there are more than three dimensions was in reading A Wrinkle in Time. Not so for theoretical physicist Lisa Randall: "I started off liking math, but wanted to do something more connected to the world. Understanding how things work is a fantastic thing,” she says. And so began a lifetime in science, beginning with winning the Westinghouse Science Talent Search at 18 and both undergrad and graduate work in particle physics at Harvard, where she’s now on the faculty (and was the first tenured female theoretical physicist in the university’s history, a designation she also earned at MIT). Randall is known as “a star professor of the stars” because of her work on the existence of extra dimensions, discoveries that have excited the scientific world, as they explain such phenomena as why gravity is the weakest of Earth's four fundamental forces and suggest there are other worlds that exist beyond our own.

Randall is loath to discuss the topic of women in science, preferring instead to focus on her work. When her book about hidden dimensions came out, she said, “My primary reason for writing the book was to help the public better understand the complex science of particle physics. But a side benefit was to show that there are women out there doing this. I’ve had enthusiastic responses from both men and women.” And indeed, as celebrated as Randall is for her discoveries, she’s also equally well known for making heady science relatable to the layperson, in both books and regular appearances on shows like Charlie Rose and The Colbert Report, and she even wrote an opera about theoretical physics that premiered at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Her new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe, is out this month. It probably won’t be as easy a read as Madeleine L’Engle, but we’re sure it will be just as riveting.

11 /20: Tracy Chou, California

11/20 :Tracy Chou, California

Tracy Chou is a software engineer for Pinterest, and while the scrapbooking site is indeed admirably coded, it’s not her day-to-day work at Pinterest that has made her famous. In October 2013, Chou wrote and published a post on Medium in which she declared that “[e]very company has some way of hiding or muddling the data on women actually in engineering roles” and pressed tech companies to reveal the number of female engineers they employ. "The actual numbers I’ve seen and experienced in industry are far lower than anybody is willing to admit,” she wrote. "This means nobody is having honest conversations about the issue.” Chou was determined that these honest conversations should come to pass, and she published Pinterest’s stats (11 women out of 89 engineers), and over 200 companies, including tech behemoths like Google and Microsoft, followed suit.

The number of women in tech fields evidenced by the companies' revelations is indeed low, but Chou’s call to arms did just what it was intended to do — it got people talking. “It felt hypocritical that we were being so disciplined about using metrics in building our products, yet not at all with workforce demographics, she told Vogue. If we didn’t even know what the baseline was, how could we know if some new strategy to improve diversity was helping or not?” Chou’s no stranger to the experience of being one of only a handful of women in her field. Before landing at Pinterest, she studied computer science at Stanford, interned at Google and Facebook and was an early employee of Quora. "I felt earlier on in my course work when I wasn’t doing as well, the guys were very willing to help me figure out problem sets," she said. But when she began to excel, the guys were miffed that she was able to solve problems faster than they were. Chou continues to shine, both as an engineer and an advocate for women in her field. At tech conferences, women rush to have their photos taken with her, she’s a much sought-after speaker on diversity issues, and this past July, prompted by her Medium post, Pinterest issued plans for adding more women to its workforce. But she sees her work as far from done: "Of course, the popular refrain that 'we still have a long way to go', while tired and overplayed, is still too true to go away anytime soon, she says.

12 /20: Shafi Goldwasser, New York

12/20 :Shafi Goldwasser, New York

“Cryptography today is not just about fighting the bad guys,” Israeli-American MIT professor Shafi Goldwasser recently told the crowd at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Whereas in the past cryptographers focused on wartime application of their work, the present-day cryptographer needs to think about such developments as cloud computing, where the need for data to be safe and secure must be balanced by the need for users to access their data. Goldwasser could teach the NSA a thing or two about data encryption — along with her partner, Silvio Micali, she won the 2012 Turing Award, known as “the Nobel Prize for Computer Science,” for "innovations that became the gold standard for enabling secure Internet transactions.” Goldwasser was only the third woman to win the award in its 47-year history.

Goldwasser is credited with co-conceiving of the “zero-knowledge proof,” a method by which one person can prove to another that a given statement is true without divulging any other info. While this may sound close to impossible to those among us who had a hard time proving that a right angle is 90 degrees in high school geometry, the practical application of this discovery is one with which we’re all familiar. Smart credit cards that have chips embedded in them use a form of zero-knowledge proof to convey necessary information to make a transaction without divulging secret data. In a world in which we hear every other day about a new data breach of a giant company, in which we’re constantly vigilant about the danger of identity theft, Goldwasser’s work is more crucial and fascinating than ever.

13 /20: Majora Carter, New York

13/20 :Majora Carter, New York

"Inequality takes on many forms in different settings and countries, but it's never good,” says Majora Carter. "I have been the victim of inequality in the past and will be in the future, but i have also benefited from the support of many great people and institutions. I want to bring as many people as I can into a competitive space where meritocracy isn't just a dream, but a functioning reality.” To that end, Carter has devoted her career to working with urban communities who have been left out of economic growth initiatives in the past. Her work with  Sustainable South Bronx created green jobs for low-income New Yorkers that both revitalize and environmentally restore the neighborhood, winning a MacArthur Genius award in 2005 for her efforts.  


Carter’s latest project is StartUp Box, which addresses both the needs of companies who aren’t getting the  quality software testing they need from their offshore providers, and the needs of residents of low-status communities who lack access to tech economy. Carter calls the program “urban onshoring,” and it not only provides participants with experience but also with mentorship from tech leaders who give participants invaluable career guidance. (We’ve been fans of Carter for a while—her awesome pitch for StartUp Box brought the house down at the 2015 BlogHer conference, and won hera year of marketing and media support from SheKnows Media.)  And Carter’s not stopping with the South Bronx — she’s working with New Orleans, Detroit and rural communities to bring urban onshoring project to other parts of the country. “My goal is to create opportunities in technology in poor communities,” Carter says. “I am a girl from the hood, and my passion is to make sure people see the goodness and humanity in people.” 

14 /20: Wendy Freedman, Illinois

14/20 :Wendy Freedman, Illinois

We learn in science class that the universe is 13.8 billion years old — but just how on Earth do we know this? Meet University of Chicago professor Wendy Freedman, the astronomer who led the Hubble Space Telescope Key Project, which in 2001 measured the expansion rate of the universe — the Hubble constant — determining both its size and its age, with an uncertainty of 10 percent. Now she’s on to the Chicago Carnegie Hubble Project, which, with the aid of three telescopes, will allow her to get as close to 3 percent accuracy in determining the universe’s age.

Freedman has led many major telescope projects, including serving as the director of Carnegie Observatories (she was the first woman on their permanent scientific staff) and a 12-year stint as the chair of the board of directors for the Giant Magellan Telescope, which will collect more light than any telescope in history has, and has a resolving power 10 times greater than the Hubble. "I always felt I was born at the right time, she says. "A lot of women before me, it was their efforts that allowed a younger generation to succeed… The opportunities for women to become directors of major observatories — those were opportunities that didn’t exist just a few decades ago.” She believes we need to start early, encouraging girls to get involved in science. She feels we’ve come a long way since she had a physics teacher who would say, “The girls don’t have to listen to this,” but we’re not all the way there. "I feel really pleased at all the progress, but watching my own daughter and hearing some of the comments that were made in her science classes, I still think there is a ways to go.” Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 13 billion years.

15 /20: Amanda Stiles, California

15/20 :Amanda Stiles, California

Perhaps you or someone you know went to grad school, got a master's in business or teaching or law or the fine arts. Amanda Stiles went to grad school too, but her studies were in outer space. She studied at the International Space University in France, where she got a master's in space management, perhaps the coolest discipline imaginable. After stints training Space Shuttle crew members and NASA, where she tested software for a robotic mission that orbited the moon, she landed at SpaceX, a private rocket company “with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.”

While Stiles’ line of work is irrefutably exotic, she sees space study as a much more mundane necessity for students. "Space never fails to capture the imagination, and can be a powerful motivator for the young minds who are the future of our country,” she wrote in a NASA award-winning essay. "Spurring interest in science and technology at an early age has the potential to improveU.S. math and science scores and an eventual increase in the number of college students graduating with science and engineering degrees.” She also sees space exploration as the answer to many urgent environmental concerns — as our population increases and resources are depleted, "the exploration of space could ultimately be key in the long-term survival of humanity, as space has the potential to provide humans with a nearly boundless supply of energy and materials for consumption while also offering plenty of room for population expansion.” If ever we colonize another planet, we have no doubt that Amanda Stiles is going to be one of the first ones there, planting the flag.

16 /20: Aprille Ericsson, Maryland

16/20 :Aprille Ericsson, Maryland

Aprille Ericsson's career as an aerospace engineer has included a lot of firsts: She was the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Howard University; the first American to receive a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, the aerospace option, from Howard University; and the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in engineering at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. But even though Ericsson has her hands pretty full at NASA working on a project that would bring dust from the Martian lower atmosphere back to Earth, she still finds time to give lectures that motivate future engineers, with titles like “A Rocket Scientist Grows Up in Brooklyn, NY,” in which she talks about how she went from the projects of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where she was the only black student enrolled in the Special Progress Program in her high school, to MIT and NASA. Of particular interest to her is how young girls’ scores in STEM subjects plummet as social pressures increase. "This downward spiral is especially severe for girls of color, girls with disabilities, girls living in poverty and girls who are learning English as a new language,” she says. "The United States cannot afford to lose more than half of its talent and the fresh perspective that women and minorities can bring to these critical fields. We must work together across the boundaries of skin color and gender."

She encourages young people with an interest in aerospace to apply for summer programs at NASA and NOAA to get hands-on experience, as she did. "The summer following my junior year of HS, I was participated in the UNITE (now called MITE) Program... I visited an Air Force Base in NH. There I was able to sit in the control tower and fly in a flight simulator (I received a pilots score). UNITE was extremely instrumental in my consideration of career choices. It led me to the decision of entering the aerospace field,” she wrote. She created an “email pipeline" for underrepresented groups in the tech to share grant and employment information, and plans to develop satellite and aerospace research centers at historically black colleges or universities. She takes seriously her obligation to help the next generation of scientists — as one of her favorite quotes from Alex Haley goes: "If you see a turtle sitting on top of a fence post, you know he had help getting there.”

17 /20: Trachette L. Jackson, Michigan

17/20 :Trachette L. Jackson, Michigan

Can math be used to treat cancer? Trachette Jackson certainly didn’t think so when, as an undergrad at Arizona State, she attended a talk in the math department called “How Did the Leopard Get His Spots?” Confused as to how this question had anything to do with math, she was surprised to find that you could use mathematical models to understand much of what we see in nature. "I think that was probably the point where I knew I was gonna go into […] mathematics as it applies to biology for the direction of my future work,” she says. Now a professor at the University of Michigan, Jackson specializes in mathematical oncology, using math tools to understand the growth of tumors.

Jackson founded the Marjorie Lee Browne Scholars Bridge to the Ph.D. Program at Michigan, which gives students from underrepresented backgrounds the opportunity to pursue a master's in applied mathematics to continue on to get a Ph.D. The program includes mentoring, tutoring, workshops in topics like personal finance and technical writing and full funding. And she’s passionate about getting more girls involved in math — she’s on the executive committee for the Association of Women in Mathematics, which works to recruit girls into the mathematical science by offering workshops, conferences and travel grants for female mathematicians. "I think we're lucky in our department that there is a definite presence of the women. When I first came in 2000, at least three of the women faculty personally took me under their wings. I had wings all over me!” she told Scientific American. "I know in some departments, there are maybe one or two women. We're lucky enough to have double digits."

18 /20: Lisette Titre-Montgomery, California

18/20 :Lisette Titre-Montgomery, California


Lisette Titre-Montgomery’s bio on Twitter says she’s “the Olivia Pope of Game Development.” If you have any doubt what Titre-Montgomery has in common with one of the most badass characters on television, just check out her body of work — she’s contributed to some of the industry’s highest-profile games, including Tiger Woods Golf, Dance Central 3 and Transformers Age of Extinction. Sure, Olivia Pope is an expert at bending people to her will, but she’s got nothing on Titre-Montgomery, who creates her game characters using 3-D digital modeling, molding them expertly so they move like real people, their limbs bending realistically, their facial expressions convincingly human.

While Titre-Montgomery has achieved massive success in game development, she’s equally passionate about the ways in which game-based curricula can be used to get kids involved in STEM careers — a passion that’s landed her speaking gigs at organizations like NASA and Girls Who Code. "In the tech world, coding is often referred to as the 'third language,' providing another means of communication outside of written and oral language skills. In fact, coding should be considered another language requirement, as a supplement to the traditional English grammar or foreign language class. It has the potential to make young people better writers and communicators,” she wrote in The New York Times. She’s also a member of Blacks In Gaming, which provides “networking, mentoring, educational and entrepreneurship guidance” in effort to “demystify the gaming industry for people of color.” She wants to change the fact that she’s pretty much the only African-American woman in her field. “We need more diverse ideas. We keep seeing the same thing over and over again.” To that end, she publishes on her website a list of tools that STEM educators can use to create lesson plans for gaming-based education. She might not be saddled with scandal, but she’s smart and successful, an inspiring leader in a competitive and male-dominated field, making her self-proclaimed identity as the Olivia Pope of gaming seem pretty darn accurate.

19 /20: Daphne Koller, California

19/20 :Daphne Koller, California

“If you put an instructor to sleep 300 years ago and woke him up in a classroom today, he’ll say, ‘Oh, I know exactly where I am,'” says Israeli-American computer scientist Daphne Koller, noting you could hardly say the same of fields like agriculture or health care. Koller is the co-founder of Coursera, an online education platform that offers free classes in partnership with top universities. The idea to start a company offering massive open online courses, or MOOCs, came to her in the fall of 2011. A MacArthur Genius award winner and former Stanford professor, Koller began to wonder why she should keep giving the same lectures year after year. "I could package it in much smaller, bite-size chunks that were much more fun and much more cohesive, and then use the class time for engaging with students in more meaningful ways,” she says. She began offering her own courses online, and her idea was proven instantly effective — hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world signed up to take classes with her and her colleagues. "I was awed by the impact of these courses and their ability to reach hundreds of thousands of learners from different countries, backgrounds, ages and genders. It was clear to me that this opportunity for transformative change was not something we could ignore, and that realization led us to launch Coursera in early 2012,” she says.

While it’s pretty amazing that any of us can hop online and take, say, an Ivy League psychology course, for fun, Coursera’s impact is poised to be much more massive. “Something that really struck me recently was insight from a recent data report we did on the true impact of online learning. It showed that MOOCs do have a tangible impact on the careers and lives of people of all backgrounds, not just the college educated," Koller says. "In fact, outcomes were strongest among those from emerging economies and those in the lowest socioeconomic status. It was very exciting to learn that open education has the strongest impact on those who need it most.” She doesn’t, however, believe that online education can totally replicate the experience of being in a physical classroom. The ideal scenario, she says, "is a blend of standard online content and a local mentor who knows students individually.” At the rate that Coursera is growing, Koller’s assertion of the classroom not having changed in 300 years will soon be obsolete. Coursera currently has 1,100 courses from 121 universities, and a whopping 15 million students. And about three-quarters of those students are from outside the U.S. As Koller said in her TED Talk, "Maybe the next Albert Einstein or the next Steve Jobs is living somewhere in a remote village in Africa. And if we could offer that person an education, they would be able to come up with the next big idea and make the world a better place for all of us.”

20 /20: Mayim Bialik, California

20/20 :Mayim Bialik, California

For many of us, Mayim Bialik will always be Blossom, the smart and spunky teen she played on the early-‘90s sitcom of the same name. For others, she’s Amy Farrah Fowler, the sometimes-love interest of Sheldon Cooper she plays on The Big Bang Theory (for which she’s been nominated four times for an Emmy award). But in between these two iconic roles, Bialik shed her actorly identity and took a decidedly different path: "I started studying to become a neuroscientist after spending my teenage years acting on Blossom,” she says. "I loved the brain and wanted to learn everything I could about it.” Bialik attended UCLA, earning a Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2007.

When asked what the most exciting thing she’s learned in the course of her work as a scientist, Bialik sounds like the bubbly teenager she once played. "Everything about the brain is the most exciting thing! How we feel, how our brains remember things, how we speak and move and how we are moved to tears by music; it's all amazing!“ And she’s determined to bring this same spirit of discovery to fans of her acting and her popular blog on the Jewish parenting site Kveller with her new “unapologetically nerdy” site GrokNation, founded on the premise that "there is a meaningful way to approach every issue — whether it be acting, science, parenting, faith —whatever it is; there is a way to “grok” it, to look at every issue and find the underlying importance and meaning in it.” For those girls who look at the socially awkward crew of scientists with whom Bialik's character hangs on The Big Bang Theory and think STEM's not for them, she has some words of encouragement: "The STEM field is a wonderful place for creative young women who are ambitious and enthusiastic. People think STEM fields means you are stuck in a lab all day. Women in STEM fields work with animals, and we go to exotic places, we study the weather and we study space — the possibilities are endless and we need female voices in STEM for sure!” In an interview in 1991, a 15-year-old Bialik described speaking up to a producer when she discovered a sexist joke in a Blossom script:”I gave him a piece of my feminist mind,” she said. "It’s important for young women to have positive role models.” Twenty-four years later, she’s more of a fantastic role model than ever.