Resources & Advice from Upperclass(wo)men

By Sharon Henry

Event speakers: (L to R) Catherine Ta, Cynthia Guidry, Frances Diaz, Linyi Xia and Ohimai Unoje


Irvine, January 22, 2016 — 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 percent of all engineers and just 25 percent 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 percent), engineering (18.4 percent), and mathematics and statistics (43.1 percent).

In an effort to help improve these statistics, UCI ADVANCE and Calit2  for the second consecutive year are cosponsoring a three-part series, “This is What a Scientist and Engineer Looks Like: Changing the Face of STEM,” designed to raise awareness about STEM opportunities for women and minorities. The first event in this year’s series, “Resources & Advice from Upperclass(wo)men” was held last week at Calit2.

“UCI was one of the first institutions to make gender equality a priority,” said event moderator Douglas Haynes,  UCI vice provost for academic equity, diversity and inclusion, and director of the ADVANCE program. ADVANCE seeks to promote an inclusive campus culture through peer-to-peer collaboration and education.

 The program’s five-member panel, comprising UCI alumni and current graduate students, shared stories of their inspiration, obstacles and strategies.

Panelists included: Cynthia Guidry, deputy executive director for Los Angeles World Airports, who earned her degree in civil engineering; Frances Diaz, training director/associate director at the UCI Counseling Center; Linyi Xia, junior specialist at Calit2, who earned her degree in electrical engineering from UCI and is currently a graduate student at UCLA; Ohimai Unoje, a UCI graduate student in biological chemistry; and Catherine Ta, a UCI graduate student in math.

Guidry has a professional engineer license and has spent 22 years working with the City of Los Angeles. She recalled her early job experiences. “They gave me the projects no one else wanted,” she said. “And, you take what they give you.”

Xia admitted that it wasn’t too long ago when she struggled with deciding on what kind of engineer she would be. It was only after beginning her first internship that she developed a greater interest in electrical engineering. “I would dream about the lab equipment and wake up with ideas for circuit board designs,” she said. “My goal was to design roller coasters, and working at CalPlug can be like a roller coaster at times,” she admitted.

Not knowing exactly what direction to take is a common dilemma for students. Diaz, a clinical psychologist, urged students to check out resources at the Counseling Center. “It’s a good place to start. Whether it is undergraduate or graduate school, it can be a difficult yet rewarding time in your life. Know that there are resources available to help you reach your full potential and goals,” she said.

It was a high school calculus teacher who enlightened Ta about the variety of opportunities a career in mathematics could offer. Since then she hasn’t looked back. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from UCI in 2011, she’s now on target to earn her doctorate in 2017. She is puzzled that few females seem to pursue advanced degrees in math, because “there are so many things you can do with a Ph.D.,” she said.

Unlike Ta, who knew exactly what she wanted to pursue, Unoje was on track to go to medical school when an internship at a hospital changed his mind. “I discovered that I didn’t want to go into the medical field, but that setback got me on the right track,” he said. “I love biochemistry, and I communicated this to people during my internship; they told me, ‘why don’t you look into research.’” Unoje is now working toward his Ph.D. and conducting research that inspires him.

Graduate school can be challenging and intimidating for even the best students. Guidy waited eight years after receiving her undergraduate degree before applying to graduate school. “The hardest part was filling out the application,” she said. 

Nearly all of the panelists knew of successful former classmates, now out of school and earning six-figure salaries. They agreed that attending graduate school is not only a commitment of time, but a sacrifice of immediate financial earnings.

“When I got into graduate school, I experienced imposter syndrome,” Unoje said. “I looked in the mirror and saw a mouse; now I see a tiger.” What changed his perception is, he now acknowledges, the hard work it’s taken to meet his goals. “I’m not making very much money, but I can sit in a room with anyone and hold my head up high because I know what I went through and I hung in there.”

Two additional events in the series are planned later this year. “Internships and Research Opportunities” will take place on Thursday, Feb. 24, and “Entrepreneurial and Career Opportunities,” is planned for Wednesday, May 4. Both will be held in the Calit2 Auditorium.