LACKAWAXEN TWP. - Science, technology, engineering and mathematic professions are not specific to men. During a Women in Science symposium presented by the Wayne Pike Workforce Alliance, Lacawac Sanctuary and Field Station a few weeks ago, women in various STEM related fields shared that message, along with their stories with female high school students.

Eileen Cipriani, the deputy secretary for workforce development for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry told the students to seek mentors and follow their passions because they must find a career they are passionate about, that will allow them to make a living.

Despite making up half of the country’s workforce, women hold 30 percent of the STEM jobs and fewer STEM undergraduate degrees Cipriani said. For the women that are in STEM fields, they earn 33 percent more than women in non-STEM professions. Generally, she said women don’t enter STEM fields because there is a lack of female role models and gender stereotyping.

Over the years Cipriani has found herself to be the lone female in some situations, such as today she is the lone deputy secretary at the Department of Labor and Industry. These instances, she said, require “courage” especially when she may have a different opinion then her colleagues. It has taken her time however, to develop the confidence to speak up. Despite the obstacles, there is “always a way” women must look and work hard. As well, she told the students that their opinions and ideas matter so they must “speak up and be heard.”  

The Area Manager for the Southwestern Energy Inc. Nicki Atkinson told the students of her profession and 25-year career. Initially, Atkinson didn’t know what she wanted, but once she realized her interests were in mountains and volcanoes, she became a geologist. Deciding that path though, she called a “risk” but at the same time it was her “passion.” Once she graduated, Atkinson didn’t know what was next and so, she eventually earned a second degree in minerals which led her to join a gas company in London. It was from that experience, that Atkinson realized she wanted something else and she went on to study petroleum. Once she graduated from college, Atkinson said it was “scary,” while also being a great “foundational experience” that set her in the right direction. She told the students they must take risks and be able to ask for help.  

Since starting her career, Atkinson told the students its important to “keep current” and continue learning while also continuing one’s passion which all takes “time and effort.” Her job changed to more of a managerial and leadership position six years ago, which she was surprised to realize she liked. There are times, it is not easy to try something new. Not knowing what they want, Atkinson told the students that’s okay, but they must have courage as they move forward.  

Dr. Vera Cole, who is an engineer and educator at Penn State University told the students she went to college knowing she liked basketball, but later chose mechanical engineering because she liked science and math since she was “curious about how things worked.” As she approached graduation, Cole panicked and ended up taking a writing job for an electronics magazine which led her to learn the purpose of various products. Being a writer with an engineering degree, Cole said shows that engineering provided a “solid foundation for directions” which depends on an individual’s interests and abilities.

Later on, Cole went to a company that manufactures computers and built circuit boards where she had over 200 employees. Once she earned her PhD through a program at Arizona State, Cole now works at Penn State leading faculty for energy and sustainability policy programs and is in charge of a bachelor of arts degree and a bachelor of science degrees. Her present job, Cole said is a “rewarding unexpected chapter” of her life. To the students, if they choose engineering, the profession is “boundless really” because of the “many directions” that degrees can be applied to. Everyone doesn’t necessary understand everything, but she suggested if interested in engineering, the students should try to master the basics because solid math, science and communication skills will be adoptable to the possibilities. She concluded that, engineering gives a “great opportunity for meaningful work.”

A Biomedical Electronics Technician at the United States Army Medical Material Agency Alicia Skaluba told the students that someone in her position simply fixes medical equipment and can work in a private industry with regular hospitals or manufacturers of medical units. Or, like Skaluba biomedical technicians can work for the army. In her position, Skaluba can work on 100 pieces of equipment a week which she loves. As well, she enjoys the traveling component of her job since she’s traveled the world.

When Skaluba was a teenager, she told the students all she knew was that she wanted to help people and so, she tried to become a nurse. When that didn’t work, a biomedical technician was suggested, which was a surprise since she didn’t know anything about electronics. She went on to graduate college with a 4.0 which was triumphant for her, because of the many who said she couldn’t achieve that, in part because she is a woman. Today, she told the students she loves her job not because of her ability to travel but because she is able to “support our war fighters.” And so, Skaluba told the students that they should find their interests and do what they want.

A local female professional and Wallenpaupack graduate, Meg Welker who is a senior environmental professional at Northeastern and Leigh Regions Transmission and Substations for PPL Electric Utilities said realizing a good job was so close to home was a surprise. Always liking to “get dirty” and the outdoors, finding a profession that was connected to the outside was important to Welker. Since she liked school, Welker figured she’d have a career relative to education. But, since she liked science too, when it was suggested that Penn State had an environmental resource management program she went, even though she didn’t know what it meant. A broad major, Welker said she knows “a little about a lot of different things” now as well as where to look if information is needed.  

For her job, Welker said a general science background is good and so, she works with regulators as well as local, state and federal agencies which means a background in government or regulations is good too. She told the students they should take advantage of internships and ask a lot of questions. To ensure the natural resources are protected while PPL is still able to provide electricity, she goes on inspections too.

Welker told the students this is their time to explore and that networking is a “critical ability” that will help them. But, also that if necessary, anyone at any point can change their mind and “shift gears” regarding their career path.

After the panelists spoke, several students asked questions, including one about the women wishing they knew something when they started their careers, that they know now. Welker said she wished she knew what someone’s day looked like and she would’ve taken more advantage of opportunities she had to go job shadowing.

While she knew mechanics exists, Sklauba said she knew nothing about biomedical and so she wishes she attended more college open houses so she learned more about such professionals. Whereas Cole wished she thought more about how the world would change with time. Atkinson wished she had done some job shadowing which would’ve given her more information before college.

Other questions consisted of the importance of needing to know a second language, which Sklauba was the only panelist to respond. Then there was a question about their careers affecting their personal lives. Since she is single with no children, Skaluba said her personal life isn’t as affected. Whereas the others acknowledged sometimes there are personal challenges, but also suggested setting boundaries to separate work from pleasure.  

Then, questioning the importance of a community college education verses an ivy league degree. Dr. Cole, told the students that it is the “quality” of their education that their employers will be most interested in their “ability to deliver.”

Following the program, a senior at Delaware Valley Annastasia Geros who wants to go into the science field and needed information regarding college, said she wanted to hear how the women ended up where they are today. The day, was “awesome” because of all the information. Prior to the program, Geros said she wasn’t familiar with all of the discussed professions. From the program, also a DV student Grace Riexinger said that while she had an idea of what she wanted, she did not realize there were so many options.

A junior at Wallenpaupack Area High School Rachel Tirjan who has an interest in medicine and is considering attending med school, said she attended the symposium because she was interested in hearing the panelists’ stories. She learned that a person may not take a direct path to find their career and the individual must decide themselves.

A freshman at Wallenpaupack, Kelsey Matsen was considering biomedical engineering before the symposium because she is interested in medicine and engineering, but also has an interest in how prosthetics help people. The panelist, she said, were “very interesting.”

This was the third Women in Science Symposium presented by the Wayne Pike Workforce Alliance, Lacawac Sanctuary and Field Station. Each year Lucyann Vierling, the executive director of the alliance said the event grows with five districts attending this year. Career exploration she said is “critical for the youth” of the community and there are many opportunities in the area. Such an event is necessary because the students are then exposed to the jobs that are available to them. But, having women talk of their career paths Vierling called an “eye opener to a young person.”