I’ve spent most of my career happily lost in space — working on research to answer some of the big cosmic questions: How old is the universe? What is it made of? Can we trace its evolution over the past 13.8 billion years, from a primordial soup of basic particles to the formation of galaxies, stars and planets?
It’s been a fascinating adventure, and one that has led me to an unusual next step for a theoretical physicist.
As the executive director and CEO of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, one of the top institutions of its kind, I’m now working to invite every curious mind in our community — and beyond — to join me in this adventure.
This is not a frivolous invitation. Our future as a region, nation and planet depends on our ability to build a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-savvy workforce that is well-trained in the basics of these fields, as well as the art of how to learn new skills and concepts in a world that will continue to change at a rapid pace.
To be successful, we need to make sure that we are truly extending this invitation to every curious mind, providing the education, support and encouragement essential for success in STEM careers. As much as we might like to think otherwise, the field is not yet level for women and minorities, especially in physics, engineering and computer science — and this needs to change.
Gender is still a factor in how talented scientists are identified and supported and none of us, myself included, are free of biases. Fortunately, perfection is not a prerequisite for effecting positive change.
Increased awareness of these biases can lead to concrete steps to mitigate their impact, and organizations can implement policies and processes for hiring, mentoring and advancing all staff that will increase retention of talented individuals in a more gender-neutral way. This is especially important in fields where women are in the minority, as is the case for many STEM fields.
Further, most students have no idea of the variety of STEM-related career opportunities, the impact of these careers on our lives and our community, or the overlap between their interests and these careers.
This is especially true for young women who may not be introduced to these topics with the same encouragement as young men — yet who would be fascinated by learning more.
What exactly does an engineer at your company do, and how does this fit into the bigger picture of efforts to improve our quality of life or the economic vitality of our region? How can students integrate their passion to both explore and make the world a better place into a career in a STEM field?
Our challenge as leaders is to understand that curious minds and STEM skillsets are not the province of either gender, and to actively engage these minds in the work that we love and value. ●
Evalyn Gates, Ph.D., is executive director and CEO at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History