High School Junior's Passion for STEM Empowers Others

Natasha is a junior at The Bronx High School of Science in the Bronx, New York. She is currently captain of her high school's all-girls robotics team, The Fe Maidens, and is a lab assistant researching climate science at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University. She also volunteers at Bronx House, a community center in the Bronx, where she helps teach middle school girls the basics of STEM through LEGO robotics. Natasha loves STEM because it is the basis of all the "cool stuff" that she encounters, and that it allows her to answer her many questions about the world around her. She loves how the beauty and creativity involved in STEM also have many useful applications that can solve our world's most pressing questions. In her free time, Natasha loves a good crossword or Kenken puzzle, reading, and attending hackathons with her friends.

What motivated you or inspired you to go into your field?
I have always loved building and designing things. From building LEGO cities To 120-lb robots, I could never imagine my life without some kind of STEM in it. I honestly cannot tell you the spark for this passion. Maybe it was growing up in a big city and marveling at the skyscrapers and suspension bridges. Maybe it was growing up in a time when everything that seemed cool, like the iPhone, or virtual reality, or autonomous cars, or medicines that can cure epidemics, were fueled by science and technology. I like to think it was a combination of these factors, especially living right in their intersection, that inspired me to pursue the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

What were the first few steps you took to pursue your field in STEM?
When I was in elementary school, my school offered a variety of afterschool programs, such as acting, sports, and chess. When I was in second grade, they created a new activity: science. Although the program was only open to students in third grade or above, since my school was small and there was little interest (yes, what a surprise), they let me, along with a good friend, to participate. Even though the program only did very basic experiments like baking soda volcanoes, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

When I was in seventh grade, I learned about a robotics program called FIRST Tech Challenge, in which students build robots using LEGO Mindstorms to compete in a game that changes every year. I proposed to idea of starting a team to my middle school, but after several tries, they continued to reject my proposals. Undeterred, I started a team with my brother and the same friends for the after school program, running the program from my apartment. We had tremendous fun, and through our excitement, were never intimidated when we competed against high school students twice our size. Just in our second year as a team we won the Judges Award and were Semifinalists at the New York City and Long Island Regional.

All three of us went on to attend Specialized High Schools that focused on STEM, my brother and I participating in our school’s FIRST Robotics Competition teams, the highest level of FIRST Robotics. I became captain of my school’s all-girls team, the Fe Maidens.

What message do you have for girls who aspire to be like you but don't believe that it's possible?
I would tell girls to ignore those who seek to put them down. If you have a passion for something, whether it’s STEM or any other field, don’t let anyone stop you. Whenever someone tried to knock you down, bounce back stronger and prove them wrong. As a member of an all-girls robotics team, I have experienced more than my fair share of discrimination. If you show your best self and how strong you can be as a girl, especially in STEM, no one will be able to stop you from pursuing your dreams.

How have you combated gender/racial stereotypes in STEM?
I believe the best way to combat gender stereotypes is to prove them wrong through your success. By mentoring young girls at a local middle school, I hope to empower them and show them that STEM is not a field for just men. The fact that the program is run by all women shows that girls don’t need the help of a man to create fantastic results. My robotics team is able to compete with teams from around the world and show them that yes, girls can do it too, and maybe even better than some of the boys. As I love to say, we aspire to be a good team, not a good girls’ team.

Why is it important to close the gender gap in STEM fields?
It is important to close the gender gap so that young, bright girls are not discouraged by their underrepresentation in the fields they want to pursue and could be successful in. Because of the lack of women in STEM, I still see women at the top of their fields get talked down to by men who can’t take them seriously, just because of their gender. When there are more women in the room, and more women at the highest levels of STEM fields, men will finally see that women can be brilliant and successful, and finally give them the respect they deserve.

How do you maintain positivity and motivation despite obstacles and barriers?
I maintain positivity and motivation by seeing everyday just how awesome girls can be. Like when I work with forty other girls to build a robot and watch them program, and use power tools, and solder electronics. When I test the robot and see parents and the boys from my school’s co-ed robotics team whispering on the side about how cool we are. Or when we go to competition and see other teams impressed by a mechanism on our robot. Or when I see one of the middle school girls I mentor enjoying herself as she builds a robotic electric guitar, wishing that she could continue robotics when she is older, and I tell her she can. Even smaller things, outside of robotics, when a boy complements a girl in math class for solving a problem in a creative way, rather than the clothes she’s wearing. Of course, there are setbacks as a girl in STEM, but I try to use these as springboards to push myself and others to continue fighting for women to be represented in STEM fields.

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