Encouraging female interest in STEM

By Sharon Henry

STEM panelist
STEM conference panelists answering questions from the audience: (From left) Athina Markopoulou, Doris Mattingly,Gina Heitkamp, Lisa Varga and Denise Khaw.


Irvine, April 22, 2015 —  College women seeking careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM fields) may find themselves outnumbered by males in their classes and labs. Women remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce as well, comprising only 13% of all engineers and just 25% of computer and mathematical sciences. Furthermore, minority women comprise fewer than 1 in 10 employed scientists and engineers.

According to the National Science Foundation’s 2014 report on Science & Engineering Indicators, women receive more than half of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in the U.S. in biological sciences. They receive far fewer, however, in computer sciences (18.2%), engineering (18.4%), and mathematics and statistics (43.1%).

In an effort to help improve these statistics, UCI has sponsored a three-part series designed to raise awareness about STEM opportunities for women.

The final event in the series, “This is What a Scientist/Engineer Looks Like: Changing the Face of STEM: Entrepreneurial and Career Opportunities,” took place Wednesday, April 15, in the Calit2 Auditorium.  Sponsored by Calit2 and UCI ADVANCE, a program designed to advance excellence through a commitment to equity and diversity, the last installment featured a panel of  women with successful STEM careers, who detailed their experiences and offered advice to attendees.

Advice and encouragement

Lisa Varga, chief executive officer & founder of Phoenix Energy Technologies, acknowledged the professional challenges inherent in building a company, including “finding the talent and hiring for the culture.” She also pointed to challenges of time and personal sacrifice, both of which she has experienced in her personal life, but said the rewards of building a company override those demands. “You get to do a lot of great things,” she told the budding entrepreneurs in the audience. Varga also touted the importance of building networks. “A personal network is priceless,” she said, adding, “Start now. Don’t wait until you graduate.”  Additional advice: “Network without trying to get something back. Do it with a humble heart, and what you give will come back tenfold.”

Doris Mattingly, a 25-year technology industry veteran, is the director of engineering for Lantronix, a smart networking and communications company. Mattingly advised future engineers to use employment interviews to dig into a company’s culture.  Prospective employees should ask about turnover rates, and ask to speak to other employees. Mattingly suggested asking: “How large are the teams?” “How often do they have team meetings?” “How long are projects?” These questions will help determine what type of culture the company has, and if it will be a good fit for the prospective employee.

Athina Markopoulou is an associate professor in the Samueli School of Engineering and co-founder of Shoelace Wireless, Inc., a startup company that designs solutions to make mobile Internet faster, cheaper and more reliable. She shared her opinion that “Engineering is very cool and very creative, but if you’re here, you already know this.” She advised against fear of risk, and admitted that in the past she “was too careful, and didn’t take the risk.” That kind of behavior can result in missed opportunities, she warned. But her best recipe for success in a STEM career is, “Hard work, and get your stuff done.”

Gina Heitkamp is co-founder of iBesties, a line of books, dolls and online entertainment that aims to inspire entrepreneurship and technology learning in young girls. Heitkamp, along with her sister Jenae, were winners of UCI’s 2014 Merage Business Plan Competition. The sisters were the first all-female team and first toy idea to win the 11-year-old contest.  “It sounds super easy to make a doll, but it’s not,” she said. As a MBA graduate from the Merage School, Heitkamp urged STEM students to work with business students to develop a product, and combining the talents from both disciplines can lead to success. She also urged  attendees not to strive for perfection but instead to “go for MVP (minimum viable product), adding, “That’s how you have to be as an entrepreneur," she said.

Denise Khaw, employer outreach specialist at UCI’s Career Center, discussed the skills companies are seeking. While expertise in subject matter is the priority for most firms, soft skills – being a team player, having good communication skills and contributing to the company’s culture – are considered imperatives as well. “Employers are also interested in things that happen outside the classroom, and activities that force you to take a leadership role, “ she said. Khaw encouraged students to participate in UCI’s Job Shadow Program as a way to held build a network and improve their skills. The program pairs students with professionals for an opportunity to spend one day in the workplace during spring break. This year, 126 students were placed with more than 70 companies. The Career Center also offers students the opportunity to have their resumes reviewed, get help with cover letters and participate in mock interviews. Students can visit


for more information.

Choosing a STEM career may not always be easy but the rewards are plentiful, the panelists agreed. Asked what advice she would give her younger self, Lisa Varga summed up the event’s message succinctly:  “Enjoy the ride the entire time. Nothing is unsolvable. You can come up with the answer.”