Highlighting Female Students and Alumnae in STEM

STEM and liberal arts may at first seem like completely different fields of study, but at Saint James, we believe that a STEM program is built within a strong liberal arts foundation.  A liberal arts education prioritizes the relationship between students and faculty with small class sizes and emphasizes logical reasoning, ethical decision making, critical thinking, and better oral and written communication skills. These abilities are highly valued in the scientific fields as well. 

Saint James classes in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) have traditionally been strong, and in the past few years additional courses have been added, such as AP Computer Science as well as Design and Engineering. The FAB Lab has also given students further opportunities to explore engineering and design concepts.

Robert Harry, Director of College Counseling and Upper School Studies, said the Saint James STEM curriculum will undergo a collaborative evaluation with college admissions offices next spring to fine tune our STEM offerings in order to provide students with the best opportunity to pursue those degrees in college.

And while all of our students benefit from our strong STEM programs, in this issue we will highlight just a few of our female students and young alumnae.  Across the country, women have made gains in closing the gender gap in STEM occupations—from 8 percent of STEM workers in 1970 to 27 percent in 2019—but they are still underrepresented, given that women make up almost half of the U.S. workforce.
The gender disparity in STEM fields has been widely recognized, and Saint James seeks to empower and inspire our female students to recognize their own potential to help close the gap.

Saint James received the College Board's AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award for expanding access to AP Computer Science. Ian Brauner, science department chair, noted that adding the design and engineering class gave more students the opportunity to explore that field.

“What’s nice about it is that it’s a non-AP class, so the bar is lower in terms of ‘sure, I’ll try it out,’” he said. “So, some students didn’t particularly have any interest in engineering when they started, but they end up really loving it.”

SJS science teacher Jason Weibel also notes that AP Chemistry has been majority female students for four out of the last five years. Perhaps not coincidentally, female students have received the chemistry prize on Prize Day the past four years, and five out of the last seven.

Dr. Weibel also noted that our three female science teachers—Molly Cyr-Redcross, Kira Harding, and Ashley Leslie ’12—are encouraging young women in the lower forms to pursue STEM classes.  

“By the time they get to me in fifth or sixth form, I have high expectations for everyone,” he said. “I expect all of my students to perform at the same level, and they step up and do.”

Having two experienced researchers in Dr. Brauner and Dr. Weibel has also made a difference for our students. They are both scientists who now teach, and they have been able to use their experience and connections to open up opportunities for our students. 

Camilla Power ‘22

Camilla Power will be attending California Institute of Technology (Caltech) next year, one of the most selective colleges in the U.S.  After taking AP Chemistry her fourth form year, she approached Dr. Weibel with an interest in learning organic chemistry.  He instead offered to put her on a research project in collaboration with one of his postdoctoral advisers at Caltech, Professor Yuk Yung.  

“Last summer, in all but name, Camilla was part of Caltech’s SURF program, which is Student Undergraduate Research Fellowship, but she’s not an undergraduate so even though she couldn’t technically be a SURF, she was in the same program,” Dr. Weibel said.

The research project was with the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Caltech, and they worked on modeling the atmospheric chemistry of the Los Angeles basin in the years following the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo.

Camilla has since joined two other research projects at Caltech, one of which she received a grant to participate in this summer. 

“For the first project, I'm analyzing the potential synthesis of organic molecules in the Martian atmosphere throughout time,” she said. “The other one is researching hydrothermal vent chemistry with NASA JPL.”

Camilla had her abstract accepted and will be presenting at AbSciCon22, a conference run by NASA and the American Geophysical Union for the astrobiology community, in Atlanta, GA, in May.

Camilla has been able to participate in these research projects virtually, though she is looking forward to getting on campus next year.  She said the projects have varying time commitments, but even with the typical Saint James schedule, she’s been able to make it work through careful time management. 

Camilla plans to major in chemistry at Caltech, with either a minor or double major in English.  She has never considered herself a full-on “STEM person,” having a real interest in the humanities and even taking two languages (French and Latin).  
“I greatly value participating in the humanities alongside STEM because it provides me with important critical thinking and writing skills that are applicable to my scientific endeavors,” she said. 

Audrey Johnson ‘22 

Audrey Johnson will be attending Boston University next year, majoring in biochemistry on a premed track.  Both of her parents are psychiatrists, and she said she always felt she would become a doctor.

“I’ve always had that influence from my parents, and my mother especially is a role model,” Audrey said. “She really inspires me. I think a lot of influence from my mom made me want to become a doctor like her.”

She feels Saint James has supported her growth academically. After taking chemistry with Mrs. Cyr-Redcross (formerly Miss Billings), Audrey was fairly certain she would end up going into the sciences. She reached out to Dr. Brauner before her fifth form year to see if he had any STEM-related projects she could work on.  She ended up researching the effects of nicotine on crickets. She studied their neurotransmitters by using a spiker box to track the neuron spikes after nicotine was dropped on the crickets.

Audrey also attended a medical camp last summer in Atlanta, GA, that she heard about through Saint James. 

“We watched surgeries and discussed the procedures, and how to communicate with patients, and different types of medicine for various diseases,” she said.

Audrey said she enjoys trying many different things, and she has been heavily involved in the arts at Saint James, having appeared in multiple plays and musicals.  She received the chemistry prize last May and is looking forward to starting at Boston University in the fall. 

“I’ve done a lot of research on Boston University, and it’s a great place for STEM students because they have a lot of research facilities,” she said. “There are many opportunities to get in the lab a lot quicker than other schools, so I’m pretty excited to start with more hands-on projects.”

Yanny Gao ‘23

Fifth former Ruoyan Yanny Gao recently presented her project in the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (Regeneron ISEF). ISEF is the world’s largest international pre-college science competition and brings over 1,800 high school students from 75 countries. 

Yanny’s project is titled EEG-Based Music Retrieval with Recurrent Neural Network.  It is in a field called music information retrieval, with the most popular example being the app, Shazam.  Shazam is an app that can identify music and TV shows by listening to a short sample of their audio.

“Audio is one of the ways to retrieve music information,” she said. “The term that defines this kind of technique is called audio fingerprinting; it’s similar detecting fingerprints and matching them with those in a database. This matches the tone or sound wave or tempo with those in a database.”

Yanny explained that her approach is less about audio and more about the brain.  She used a machine with electrodes that attach directly to your skull, and the readings show the brainwaves.

“Researchers have shown that there is a correlation between the brainwaves and what music people are listening to,” she said. “My goal is to achieve a higher accuracy in this field of retrieving music based on this kind of brainwave data.”

Yanny had to enhance her knowledge of computer programming, using the Python Programming Language to help achieve her goal. Yanny, who is a member of the SJS Chapel Choir, came up with this idea because her grandmother would hum music, but she couldn’t remember the lyrics or song title.  

“There are a few music applications in China that also allow the humming feature, but the results are not accurate,” she said. “So, I was thinking what if there is another way I can reach a higher accuracy to actually help people find what they are trying to find.”
She said Dr. Brauner was a great resource in preparing for the science fair, helping her to narrow down her original, broader goal, making sure she had all of the correct documentation for the registration process, and running through a mock interview so she was ready for her presentation.

“He told me to define every term that I use or else the judges will think I’m talking about something that I don’t know,” Yanny said. “He told me how to start the presentation because when I’m trying to rewind the whole process of me developing this project, I tend to be really abstract instead of digging into details, and I sound like I’m memorizing and reciting a script.”

Yanny said the presentation, which was completed virtually, was nerve-wracking, but she is pleased with how she did. The results were not in as of the time of publication. Yanny has one more year to consider her college options, but we are sure her future will be bright.

Darcy Farrell ‘20

Darcy Farrell is a civil engineering major who is finishing up her second year at the U.S. Air Force Academy located just north of Colorado Springs, CO. Darcy noted that all Air Force Academy graduates receive a Bachelor of Science degree regardless of major because there are several mandatory STEM classes. She has already taken many including calculus, physics, chemistry, aero and mechanical engineering. 

Darcy did extensive research at Air Force before determining civil engineering was the path she wanted to take.  The civil engineering department at the Academy has a reputation as one of the best and is a very hands-on program.

Air Force engineers perform many of the same responsibilities as civilian civil engineers, but their work is geared toward the goal of sustaining military operations. Typically, Air Force civil engineers maintain buildings and structures on Air Force bases by generating and implementing creative solutions to complicated issues.

For two weeks this summer, Darcy will be shadowing Air Force civil engineering squadrons to see what it will be like as an officer in the field. She will then return to the Academy for three weeks of additional training as well as competing with cadets in other flights on various projects.

“We’ll be building two houses that will get sent to people in need across the United States,” she said. “Then we’ll be visiting things like water plants, waste treatment plants, and different things like that.”

Darcy believes the foundation she received at Saint James helped her adjust to life at the Air Force Academy. 

“I attribute a lot of my success with my science classes at Saint James to Dr. Weibel,” she said. “The extra instruction he provided gave me the confidence to go to my college professors and ask for help.”

Darcy said there were several Saint James classes and projects that helped steer her towards engineering, including launching rockets in AP Physics and a s’mores experiment in chemistry with Ms. Holmes.

A standout on the SJS cross country team, she also noted that physical fitness is a big part of life in the Air Force, and the time management skills she learned at Saint James helped prepare her for life at the Academy.

Darcy, who was also a prefect, said the leadership opportunities she had at Saint James were very beneficial.

“We take a lot of leadership courses, and I already had some experience with leadership at Saint James,” she said. “That was definitely something that I was grateful for once I got to the Academy.”

Darcy lives up to the Saint James motto of “Live Bravely, Lead for Good,” and we look forward to watching her continued success at the Air Force Academy.

Jennifer Yang ‘19

After three years at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Jennifer Yang ’19 will be graduating with a degree in psychobiology this spring. 

While at Saint James, Jennifer spent three summers interning at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the lab of Dr. Harry Malech, the Chief of the Genetic Immunotherapy Section (GIS).  She worked in gene therapy and conducted her own research on a disease called Hyper IGM Syndrome after meeting a young patient with the genetic disorder. Jennifer received an honorable mention for her research in the highly-competitive Baltimore Science Fair.

Even though Jennifer said she did not know where she would be placed when applying for the 8-week paid fellowship at NIH, her passion for gene therapy has continued. At UCLA, Jennifer works in the lab of Dr. Donald B. Kohn, a renowned physician and researcher who has developed new clinical methods to treat genetic blood diseases using blood stem cells that have been modified to remove genetic mutations. Dr. Kohn’s landmark project is on ADA-SCID, a condition where babies are born without an immune system and often don’t survive past the first two years of life, and his research has cured more than 50 babies to date.

Jennifer is working directly under Dr. Caroline Kuo, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Rheumatology at UCLA, on another immune deficiency disorder caused by a mutation in the DOCK8 gene.

“Babies with those mutations can’t fight off infections so they ultimately don’t live very long. Before gene therapy was a thing, they mainly did bone marrow transplants,” Jennifer said. “But that is limited to patients who have a matching donor or else they have to go through other burdensome treatments like enzymatic therapy.”

Jennifer explained that in their research they attempt to edit the gene sequence and then infuse them in the patient’s bone marrow where they will self-renew and create a continual supply of healthy blood and immune cells.

“It’s actually fascinating. When you hear about it from the outside it sounds like it must be complicated having to engineer so many things but it’s quite straightforward,” Jennifer said. “DNA are made of different nucleotides, and these patients usually have one mutation. So, all you have to do is replace that mutation and then infuse that and the patient’s immune system kind of magically restores. I think that’s very cool.”

Jennifer will continue her work in the lab next year and then plans to head to medical school for pediatrics. Her father is a scientist, and she was fascinated by trips to his lab as a child, but ultimately, she remembers her mom being sick when she was young, and that made her want to become a doctor.

“The doctors would tell me things, but I was not able to understand what they were saying and that was frustrating to me,” she said. “I think that motivated me to study medicine so that I can actually interpret what’s going on and be able to help other people to know what’s going on with their body and treat them.”

Ashley Leslie ‘12

Ashley Leslie ’12 not only pursued a career in STEM, but she is also helping future generations of Saints find a passion for chemistry after returning to Saint James as a teacher.

Ashley remembers taking an introductory physics course with Mrs. Matthews as a third former, and said she just could not grasp the material. After a long conversation with Mrs. Matthews, she said she started to realize that nobody is born with this kind of knowledge. 

“Everybody has to troubleshoot; you have to be wrong sometimes. Einstein was not born understanding the theory of relativity,” she said. “So finally, I just thought ‘Ok, I can do this.’ I felt empowered at that point.”

After that realization, she started having a lot of success in her science classes and received the biology award on Prize Day. She credits Saint James for developing her love for science.

Ashley then earned a degree in biochemistry with an emphasis on chemistry from West Virginia University. She was a teaching assistant for three years in a chemistry lab, and also did two years of biophysics research, looking at the proteins involved with Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases.

Following that, Ashley earned her master’s degree in biological sciences from Carnegie Mellon University. She conducted research for her thesis on a specific time in the egg development of fruit flies, determining how different parts of the cytoskeleton would interact with one another. 

While in graduate school, Ashley had the honor of meeting Dr. Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist who has done pioneering work in CRISPR gene editing, after she had won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Ashley was a new mother to her son, Theo, and had a chance to speak to Dr. Doudna about her experience.

“She said that she would have her kids come into the lab with her, and that was really meaningful to me,” Ashley said. “She said, ‘Being a mother and being a woman never stopped me from doing what I wanted to do.’ And I think that was really empowering to me as a woman in STEM and helped me to encourage women to go further in STEM as well.”

Ashley then started working at a new Proctor and Gamble lab in Martinsburg, WV. She worked in Research and Development to test and optimize protocols for the plant to test for purity of materials coming in. 

Ultimately, she said she always knew she wanted to be a teacher. Ashley and her husband Patrick and two children, Theo and Juniper, moved into Coors Hall two years ago.

“It has been really nice to see students who didn’t think they were going to be science people become very interested in science,” Ashley said.

Ashley also remembers the cutthroat nature of science majors in college, with high dropout rates. She said she wanted to teach just before that stage, in high school, where learning is supposed to be fun.

“Not everyone is born with how college chemistry works; you’ll get there, and you just have to believe in yourself a little bit,” she said. “When I was in college, I did see all of those people drop out, and disproportionately they were women, so it means a lot to me that more women are going toward science. I really think this next generation is going to break that mold and go further and further because I don’t think they’ve been told as much what they’re expected or not expected to do; so, it’s really great that I can be one of those guiding points for them.”

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