For girls in science, the time is now

Programs in science, technology, engineering, and math are boosting a new generation of female students—and countering some familiar barriers to success.

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At ISEF 2019, Russian high school student Inna Larina peers through a viewing device she designed with teammate Nataliya Ivlieva. The wireless apparatus is equipped with sensors that map the distance to an obstacle, such as a sidewalk curb, allowing blind and visually impaired people to navigate unfamiliar terrain.
This story is part of our November 2019 special issue of National Geographic magazine, “Women: A Century of Change.” Read more stories here.

Sixteen-year-old Shriya Reddy can't remember a time when she wasn’t excited about science. At seven, she read biology books with her mother, who was studying for her medical board exams. By sixth grade, Reddy was competing in rigorous science fairs. The summer before ninth grade she began doing research in a bioengineering lab at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, where she devised a noninvasive approach for rapidly diagnosing melanoma lesions. The project earned her a top prize at the prestigious International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) last May.

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Esther Anyanzwa (at left) and Salome Njeri created a revolving disk apparatus to help visually impaired and deaf people measure objects. At home in Kenya, the students face skepticism about their scientific abilities as girls. “I really wanted to prove society wrong,” Njeri told the Society for Science & the Public.
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Michaela Samanta, from Tangerang, Indonesia, prepares for the Grand Awards Ceremony in her hotel room with friends. Samanta won a $500 award for her research on bioengineered rice that contains carnosine, a protein building block that is not found in plants but is important for maintaining good health.

“Science dwells on the how and why things happen,” Reddy says. “I really want to be a part of that.” Reddy’s determination coincides with a growing effort across the United States to boost the number of female students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Universities and institutions, from NASA to the United States Naval Academy, are hosting STEM days for girls. Organizations such as the New York Academy of Sciences are pairing women in STEM careers with girls seeking advice and mentorship. ISEF, a program of the Washington, D.C.-based Society for Science & the Public, offers a forum for select high school students to compete at an international level. This year’s event had 1,842 finalists, evenly split by gender, and three of the top four awards went to young women, including Reddy. “Just being part of that experience blew my mind,” she says.

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Michelle Lee, who competed from Austin, Texas, in the biochemistry category, finds a moment to rest during the student celebration. ISEF’s jam-packed schedule includes symposia with professional scientists.

Mary Sue Coleman, a biochemist and president of the Association of American Universities, is optimistic about women’s future in science. When she was in ISEF as a high school student in 1959 and 1960, about 35 percent of the participants were girls. Gender balance matters, she says, because women bring fresh perspectives to tackling scientific conundrums. “People who have different life experiences ask different questions,” she says. Clear gaps remain. Young women at ISEF outnumbered males in microbiology and biochemistry this year, but they made up fewer than a third of the finalists in mathematics and engineering mechanics. More women are getting advanced STEM degrees, but men hold most professorships and leadership roles in STEM-based industries, the Association for Women in Science says.

Still, a transformation is taking place, says Maya Ajmera, president and CEO of the Society for Science & the Public. Young women, inventive and tenacious, are harnessing technology to tackle issues they care about, whether it’s engineering nutritionally advanced rice or using a crocheting technique to design a wearable Bluetooth device. For these emerging scientists, “it’s going to be different,” Ajmera says. “I feel very confident that this generation of girls is in a much better place to take on the world’s most intractable problems.”

Author Claudia Kalb wrote the cover story about Leonardo da Vinci in the May 2019 issue.