Women in STEM innovate and inspire

UNF alumni Kari Bishop studying a traffic map

Kari Bishop loves thinking about traffic.

Unlike others stuck in gridlock, Bishop can’t help but ponder, “In 10 years, will we need a flyover here?” or “Is the signal timing in this corridor working effectively?” All the while, she’s thinking about solutions.

Bishop, ’14, ’16, is a traffic engineer with Arcadis, a Dutch company with a large office in Jacksonville. She is also one of the thousands of women who have graduated from the University of North Florida with degrees in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. She and other women engineers and scientists have a simple message for girls contemplating their future career paths: “You can do it, too.”

A growing need

National statistics show that there are fewer female graduates than males in certain science and math focused degrees — in some cases, significantly fewer.

While female representation in some scientific fields is strong, other areas are not as balanced. The National Science Foundation reported that women actually received a higher share of bachelor’s degrees in biology from 2000-2013; however, during the same time period, females received less than 20 percent of degrees in both engineering and computing.

According to U.S. Census data, women make up 48 percent of the labor force in the United States, but only 14 percent of the engineering labor force.

Dr. Alexandra Schonning, professor of mechanical engineering in UNF’s College of Computing, Engineering and Construction, believes there are several reasons for low numbers in certain disciplines. She said research shows that girls at the age of 6 don’t recognize themselves as being as smart as boys, and that lack of confidence can discourage interest in math and science.

Schonning also asserts that women are attracted to “helping” professions — work they know will make a difference in people’s lives. That perception is not always clear in certain STEM fields, she said, particularly in engineering.

“If you see a nurse using a syringe, clearly that nurse is helping,” Schonning said. “But what may not be as apparent is the fact that an engineer designed that syringe and that person is helping thousands of people.”

Women who have chosen STEM paths at UNF — both students and graduates — are having an impact and share that focus. They want young girls to know that math and science professions are rewarding … and doable.

The road to success

Kari Bishop admits she considered a number of paths before selecting civil engineering as her major. She tried marketing, accounting and even psychology, but finally realized her interest was in engineering — specifically transportation. Today, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering, it is clear that Bishop loves what she does as a transportation designer in Arcadis’ Jacksonville office. “Traffic is my niche,” said Bishop who aspires to be a project manager in the next decade.

Every day, Bishop pores over numbers analyzing traffic patterns and looking for solutions to the region’s traffic woes. She has worked on some high profile projects including feasibility studies for segments of I-295 and I-10, as well as design projects on express lanes in Tampa Bay. In the near future, Bishop plans to sit for the P.E. (Professional Engineer) exam.

One of her highlights working at Arcadis was being selected as one of the company’s Global Shapers — a team put together each year to come up with innovative ideas for the company’s future. Employees who have been with Arcadis less than five years are eligible to apply for the 100 highly sought-after positions. Bishop worked on the team for three months and had the opportunity to travel to the Netherlands for a week to meet with the international executive board.

“Everyone who goes is engaged,” said Bishop who enjoyed working with people from all over the world. Bishop believes that unique perspectives are critical to solving problems — another reason she wants girls to know that engineering should be an option.

“In college, I volunteered as a coach for a robotics team that was all boys,” explained Bishop. “I would always ask girls who came in the room why they were not participating, and they would say, ‘That’s a boy thing.’ It’s important for girls to know that engineering is something they can do.”

The future of science

Jennifer Korchak never had doubts about her future in science. She has always been interested in what she can’t see and how it works, and said her parents always supported her, buying microscopes or whatever she needed to fuel that passion.

As she enters her junior year at UNF, Korchak — who is double majoring in pre-med chemistry and molecular/cell biology and biotechnology — is grateful to have the opportunity to conduct research using top-notch equipment in state-of-the-art labs on campus.

“I chose UNF because of the ‘out-of-the-gate’ research opportunities,” said Korchak, commenting that most research is happening at the graduate level at larger schools, but at UNF, undergraduates, even freshmen, are offered opportunities. Her research focuses on natural products (chemical compounds produced by living organisms), and at the moment, she is studying an organism that produces a compound with anti-cancer properties.

Korchak received a Presidential Research Scholarship and hopes that one day her findings will change the world. “I like the idea of what I’m doing impacting future generations in a positive way,” she said.

And while she is still considering med school, she also plans to get a doctoral degree and continue her research. She recognizes that while she could be helping people daily as a medical doctor, breakthroughs in medical research could help tens of thousands.

Korchak is inspired by a number of women faculty members including Dr. Amy Lane, with whom she conducts research, as well as Dr. Rahda Pyati, chair of UNF’s chemistry department. Korchak recalls a special moment when Dr. Pyati spoke at the Jacksonville March for Science on Earth Day in April. “It really inspired me to see a woman on stage taking charge of the future of science,” she said.

Having that opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives and in the future of medicine continues to motivate Korchak, who, no doubt, will have an impact.

Engineering — a caring profession


Electrical engineering grad student Ayshka Rodriguez, '16, shares that passion for helping others. And she wants the world to know that helping others is what engineers do.

That became clear to Rodriguez during her undergraduate years at UNF working on a project to retrofit toy vehicles for children with disabilities. The Adaptive Toy Project is a joint effort between engineering and physical therapy students that has been lauded nationally and was even featured on CNN.

Rodriguez has been with the project since its inception, and it is the focus of her graduate thesis. “I love helping people,” Rodriguez said. “Outreach has always been a part of me, so I feel that this project is the perfect combination of me being able to help others and use my engineering skills.”

Rodriguez said the partnership between the engineers and physical therapy students brought together different approaches to solving problems. She said exploring different angles and different perspectives is a key reason having more women in the field is necessary.

“I had the same male lab partner through three of my undergraduate years,” Rodriguez said. “He saw things differently than I saw them, and we fed off each other. It’s that type of dynamic that makes projects successful.”

Rodriguez is researching the possibility of embedding sensor technology on the vehicles to assess the improvement of a child’s function and ability to operate the car over time. Instead of depending solely on observation in a physical therapist lab, she is looking for quantitative data to support what the physical therapist may be seeing.

Rodriguez, who was a recipient of the Osprey Community Engagement Medallion service award, is adamant that improving lives is what engineering is all about.

“I think it is important for girls to know that the option is there,” said Rodriguez. “That they can do this, and make a difference.”

Experience, confidence open doors

Confidence is a key to success, and chemist Alisia Ratliff, ’10, said UNF not only prepared her for the real world, but also gave her the knowledge she needed to excel in her field.

Though Ratliff selected chemistry as her major planning to go to dental school, she said she quickly fell in love with lab work. “The instrumentation at UNF was exceptional,” said Ratliff. “The wide array of instruments that we got to touch in our UNF laboratory really gave me an edge when I was looking for a job after college.”

While Ratliff has worked in labs for much of her career, she now spends her time managing projects, and reviewing and interpreting data as a project coordinator at ADPEN Laboratories Inc., a contract laboratory that analyzes chemicals in pesticides and test crops. The lab is hired by companies to ensure compliance with government standards mandated by agencies like the EPA and FDA. She said compliance levels vary around the world, so what may be appropriate in the United States may not be allowed in another country for the same product.

Ratliff said the rigors of the chemistry program made her work much easier after she graduated, particularly analyzing data. “It allowed me to be confident in what I was doing,” she said.

Ratliff also appreciated opportunities to participate in field experiences during her time at UNF. One such experience was at NASA working with students from other universities on a weather balloon.

As the only nonengineering student on her team, Ratliff recommended certain materials to protect the electronic components as the balloon traveled through climate changes. At the time, her team’s balloon was the first in the program to successfully reach into space.

Ratliff is proud to be one of many women working in her field of chemistry and is grateful for the knowledge and experience she received at UNF.

“My career has changed drastically from what I thought I would be doing for the rest of my life,” said Ratliff, “and I love it.”

More than just cars

Alexi Zaremba, '15, came to UNF to play soccer.

The student-athlete was focused and disciplined with a penchant for math and science.

As the daughter of a civil engineer and accountant, Zaremba said doing poorly in math was not an option growing up, and she always recognized its importance in the world.

Today, the UNF mechanical engineering grad creates valves as a design and requisition engineer with GE Oil and Gas. Like so many others from the School of Engineering, she was offered the job months before she graduated.

Zaremba’s work includes translating technical specifications from customers into valve designs for use in water industry reservoirs and in the food and medical industries. The broad application of mechanical engineering principals was something she didn’t fully recognize until she got to UNF.

“My first thought of mechanical engineering was cars and the automotive side, and I wasn’t really interested in that,” Zaremba said. An Intro to Engineering class during her freshman year changed that perception.

“We had projects that were civil, electrical and mechanical,” said Zaremba, who particularly enjoyed the analytics and mechanics behind building a trebuchet [an advanced, medieval–style catapult] during the semester. After the class, she was sold on the mechanical engineering tract.

“Once you understand the fundamentals of how things work and problem-solving, you can take that to a wide range of industries,” she said.

Zaremba believes that is a critical message to get out to girls and boys alike.

“Mechanical engineering encompasses so much — you can impact the medical field, work in the power and water industries, and so much more,” Zaremba said. “It is important to broaden that view.”

Recruitment, retention and advancement


Broadening that view is exactly what Dr. Alexandra Schonning and others at the University are doing.

Schonning is director and founder of UNF’s new Center for the Advancement of Women in Engineering, aimed at promoting recruitment, retention and advancement of women in the field.

The Center’s efforts start with outreach at the elementary level. “We want all children to know that engineering is a profession appropriate for women and men, and that it is a helping profession,” Schonning said.

She said recruitment is critical because there is a need for highly competent engineers, as well more diversity in the engineering. “We need diversity — all kinds of diversity — in the field to better identify the most important problems to solve and develop the most successful solutions,” said Schonning.

Programs in other areas on campus are also aimed at recruiting and retaining more women in STEM fields. Last year, UNF was one of two institutions in the state selected by the National Center for Women in Information Technology to participate in its 2016-18 Pacesetters program, to attract more women to computing. At UNF, 14.8 percent of students enrolled in computer and information sciences in 2011 were female. That number rose above the national average to 18.59 percent in 2016, a trend that School of Computing director, Dr. Sherif Elfayoumy, hopes to see continue through its partnership with the NCWIT.

“Our participation in the Pacesetters program will not only give us access to the methods and expertise of much larger institutions, but also will allow us to share our efforts to promote computing to female students with other institutions,” Elfayoumy said.

UNF joins schools like Purdue, Carnegie Mellon, Penn State and Rutgers, as well as companies like Apple, Intel and Bank of America in the Pacesetters program.