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Virtual Event Fosters Community, Connection, and Celebration of Women in STEM
Kristine Horvat, Ph.D., the first member of her family to pursue a career in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, helped organize an event to share her passion for STEM with young women.
May 5, 2021
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
When Malaika Matumbu ’22 was growing up in an industrial neighborhood in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she looked up to her father. She fondly remembers how he, an electrical engineer at a local mining company, passionately discussed his work at the dinner table.
Matumbu’s father did everything from helping to design and build the family’s house to repairing cars. Since he always figured out how to make things work, she grew up to believe engineers could do anything. He also taught her how engineers think and solve problems.
Passionate about chemistry, math, economics, physics, and coding, Matumbu wanted to be able to benefit her community. That’s why she became a chemical engineering major, a field that, she says, brings together her many interests as well as unlimited opportunities.
“I knew that I would academically be challenged, and I would gain knowledge and understanding of how to solve complex problems,” she said. “With a chemical engineering degree, the possibilities are endless. We can do it all.”
“Events like this are important because they provide opportunities for women at every level of their careers to connect,” said Matumbu. “We need encouragement and support from people who are or have been in our shoes at every stage of our careers. This support can give us comfort, reassurance, and encouragement to keep working and to believe in ourselves.”
‘The first person from my family to pursue a career in STEM’
One of Matumbu’s professors, Kristine Horvat, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University, served as an event organizer. Dr. Horvat’s interest was, quite literally, sparked by a lightning bolt striking an object about 10 feet away from her when she was 10 years old. As a high school student, she was fortunate to hear Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, speak, and she knew she wanted to pursue a career in STEM.
Held for the seventh time this year, Girl Power in STEM was created as a celebration of women in STEM fields for International Women’s Day. It is an opportunity for attendees to learn about the many career paths that women have taken in STEM, as well as what it is like to be a woman in a STEM field.
“Every year it is very rewarding to hear from speakers, panelists, and audience members about their experiences in STEM,” said Dr. Horvat. “I am the first person from my family to pursue a career in STEM, and therefore, events like this have helped me learn about the opportunities available to me. They have helped me find a support system of motivated women in STEM.”
‘I was reminded of the amazing things we can achieve’
Typically geared toward high school students, the symposium was held virtually this year and opened to everyone. Dr. Horvat hopes it encouraged participants to either consider a career in STEM or to continue to pursue a career in STEM, knowing they have support. Dr. Horvat says it was the support of a father who attended the first event with his daughters who has helped the program run for seven years, reflecting that everyone can benefit and learn from this event.
Held on International Women's Day, a global holiday celebrated every March to commemorate the cultural, political, and socioeconomic achievements of women, the event endeavored to foster gender equality, challenge stereotypes, and promote and support women in STEM fields.
“I think it is important to recognize a need to promote equal rights and opportunities for women and girls,” said Dr. Horvat, whose younger sister, a high school student, was also among the organizers. “The message and goal of the event was to show that STEM careers are just like any other career. No matter what career we choose, we will have to learn how to balance our family and professional lives, and women should not be intimidated to pursue careers in STEM fields just because men currently hold a majority of the positions in those fields.”
For Matumbu, the chemical engineering major, the event was a particularly meaningful opportunity to learn from other women, and she said it left her inspired.
“I was honored to be among so many women who were celebrating each other’s accomplishments,” said Matumbu. “I was reminded of the amazing things we can achieve with hard work and perseverance.
“I was truly empowered by the speakers, panelists, and other women I interacted with,” she continued. “Seeing so many women from different backgrounds celebrating and encouraging each other was an amazing experience. I was encouraged to continue to work toward my goals.”