Being a Woman in STEM: The Computer Scientist Behind Elements of Evil

“What kind of hurdles have you faced as a woman in STEM? What do you wish people had done differently to support you in your career goals? What kind of role models have you looked up to?” The first few times I heard these questions and their many variations, I was taken aback. Why were people acting as though choosing to study computers was something impressive and groundbreaking?

It took me some time to realize that these people thought I was brave for studying software, in part because building technology feels so alien, a mysterious realm that only stereotypical “smart people” could ever understand. I realized too that some were impressed that I would pick a field that could be very isolating due to the scarcity of other girls. In many of my classes, the girls were outnumbered 14 to one (or more!). Taken with a certain perspective, these two things together could be very daunting.

The thing was, these hadn’t occurred to me before other people pointed them out. Computers were just a puzzle to figure out, and I’ve always liked puzzles. I’m actually not intrinsically tech-savvy: any skills I have come from hours of hard work and stubbornness. I can be very stubborn. I took my first computer class on a dare, and had decided I would not let the programs beat me, no matter how many late nights and tears it took. Well, it took many late nights and tears, but I came out the winner.

As for the extreme ratio of men to women…well, I’m not “one of the guys,” but I’m one of the team. And I’m happy with that. We have good conversations talking about code and commiserating about bugs (and sometimes branch out to talk about day-to-day life). And when I get supersaturated by tech talk, I go to my friends outside of work to enjoy the sunshine (computer labs are notoriously indoors), or discuss the latest book I’ve read (assuming I had time for reading), or just talk about the weather (meteorology is fascinating).

I was lucky. I was taught that no particular field should be characterized by a mindset where one person or group “can” and the other “can’t.” The men and women that influenced me most were those who led me to think that I should learn about and succeed wherever I could find excitement and the drive to work hard – whether computers, history, psychology, or any of thousands of other things. Those people were critical in shaping how I saw myself in the world. Surrounded by supportive role models at home and at school, I never noticed when I was leaping hurdles.

A sincere congratulations to Brooke and her husband on their newborn baby as well! Thanks for sharing your experience about being a woman in STEM, Brooke. If you’d like to learn more about Brooke’s book, Elements of Evil, you can find it here.


Books I Grew up on: Casey Elliott

Books I Grew up on is a blog series featuring guest bloggers who discuss reading in their childhoods: the books they loved, the paths they found to developing a love for reading, and how reading helped them become who they are today! Today’s Books I Grew up on guest blogger is singer and performer Casey Elliott. 

Where did you grow up? What was it like growing up there?

I was born in Riverside, CA and lived there until I was 8 years old. At that point, my family moved to Bountiful, UT where I lived until I graduated from high school (Woods Cross High). Both places were incredible places to grow up. The hills of Riverside provided me with endless hours of exploring the outdoors, ever expanding my collection of lizards and always eating fresh fruit from my grandparent’s fruit trees. Bountiful was a change, but a good one. I found that there were more kids to play with and I quickly found a close connection with several other boys in my neighborhood.

What role did books have in your childhood? 

Once we moved to Bountiful, I started to have a deep desire to read a variety of books. I would often ride my rollerblades (yep, rollerblades!) to the Davis County Library in Bountiful to read Tales from the Crypt, Hatchet, books about tying knots and the outdoors, and books about foreign countries, to name a few. I also found that I loved to do my homework in the library. There was just something about the library that made it easier to focus and learn.
How did you first develop a love for reading?

We would often read the scriptures as a family. I think this really helped spark my interest in reading as a young boy. Being able to consume more of the stories because my parents and older siblings were helping to speed things along really helped me to see that if you stick with a book, the story can get really exciting.

What was your favorite book as a child? Why?

One of my favorite books was called Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. I just thought it was so cool how a young boy could survive in the wilderness with pretty much nothing by a hatchet! I tried it a few times while camping and let’s just say I decided to focus my talent development on singing.
What is your favorite children’s book now? Why?

I really love King Bidgood’s in the Bath Tub by Audrey and Dan Wood. Such a fun book with incredible illustrations. Plus, it allows me to ham it up with my character voices, which my kids love.

What advice would you give to young readers?

I had a hard time learning to read. In fact, when I was about 10, it was recommended that I take some tutoring at Silvan Learning Center. I had learned to read in a way that didn’t allow me to see and read more than one word at a time. I would read each word very slowly from memory, having no understanding of phonetics. I had a really good memory, so I would just try to memorize each word, without really understanding the basics of phonetics and spelling. I was not a smooth reader! I could have easily given up and decided to work on other things, like sports, singing, etc. But I had amazing parents and teachers who stuck with me and helped me to see the incredible things that could come from developing my reading skills – and I have been blessed a thousand times over from sticking with it and learning to get lost in a good book. My advice to young readers is STICK WITH IT! Learning to read and learning to enjoy reading, will be one of the most beneficial skills you develop in your life.

Tell us about any projects you are currently working on and excited about.

I’d really love GENTRI to produce a “Where’s Stephen?” Children’s book some day. Stephen is our music director and we’re always trying to find him when we travel!

ABOUT CASEY

Casey Elliott is from Riverside, California, and is renowned for his powerful vocal and acting ability. He has toured the world as a performer, including his role as Radames in the U.S. National Tour of Aida and the first ever Broadway tour to perform throughout Mainland China. Other theatrical credits include Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, Zorro in the premiere of Zorro the Musical, Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. As a solo singer as well as alongside other reputable vocalists, Casey has graced the stages of many prestigious venues throughout the country, including multiple appearances with the Utah Symphony. Casey holds a degree in business management from Weber State University, and currently works for a notable technology company. He and his wife have four beautiful children. Visit the Gentri website for more information.


Week of Mindfulness: Day 7

This was the last day of my week of mindfulness using the Meh Activity Book. I’ve been surprised and delighted by how much 30 minutes a week has helped me get into a better state of mind for my new job and for facing life more generally.

Today’s mindfulness activity: the healing power of nature.

 

 

 

Today, I went for a walk. I am lucky to be quite close to little nature spots, and I chose today to go to one of my favorite ones. This is a place where I often go running in the mornings, and it’s a good place to think, get some fresh air, and enjoy the beauty of nature.

Luckily today was warm and sunny. I didn’t take my page from the Meh Activity Book with me on my walk, but when I came home, I wrote down some of the things that I had seen, heard, and felt. It was a good reminder that being outside and having that quiet space to think can be a perfect environment for being mindful. The exercise is an added bonus too!

 

 

Thanks for following my week of mindfulness! Remember that you can download the Meh Activity Book for free and work on your own journey to be more mindful of your thoughts and feelings. Many thanks to Deborah Malcolm, who created this lovely activity book and the even lovelier wordless picture book from which it stemmed, Meh. If you want to learn more about Meh, visit the Meh product page.


A Week of Mindfulness: Day 6

Today’s mindfulness activity: filling the fish tank.

The 30 minutes of mindfulness activities with the Meh Activity Book today makes me think of a phrase of the movie Finding Nemo. The phrase is, “Just keep swimming.”

I really enjoyed coloring these adorable fish and making a few of my own (although they do not look nearly as nice or detailed as the ones from the worksheet). As I was doing it, I was thinking about that phrase, “Just keep swimming” and how hard it can be to stay afloat sometimes amidst stress and anxiety. I guess it’s best to just take things one day, one hour, one minute at a time. Just keep swimming!


A Week of Mindfulness: Day 5

One thing that has helped me the most in life to get through the stressful times is to have other people that I can turn to for help. When life becomes exceptionally overwhelming, it’s impossible to do it alone.

Today’s mindfulness activity: who can you talk to?

Although there’s many people that I could have put on my list, I chose these top 5. These are people that I talk to at least weekly, and often daily, and who constantly give me support, encouragement, advice, and a listening ear. Today as I spent a few minutes thinking of and writing down this list of people I can turn to, I realized just how lucky I am to have friends and family who love and support me like they do.

For anyone interested, you can download the Meh Activity Book yourself, and use this page to create your own list of people you can talk to.


A Week of Mindfulness: Day 4

It seems very fitting that today’s mindfulness activity has to do with focusing on tasks to do one at a time because with classes starting next week, my to-do list is feeling very long.

Today’s mindfulness activity: breaking down the mountain.

I love how this page of the Meh Activity Book illustrates how tasks on a to-do list can quickly pile up and overwhelm us. I know that the way I evaluate and measure my day’s productivity and my worth is directly tied into my completion (or not) of all the items on my to-do list. Yet, waking up to see that long list of things to do can sometimes freeze me with the anxiety of “the mountain.” How in the world can I complete everything that I am supposed to do? Sometimes the stress of it is so bad that I end up wasting time procrastinating or hiding from my list because I cannot bear the thought of tackling everything.

So today, I took a moment to re-evaluate my to-do list. I tried to prioritize the most important things (putting them at the top of the list) and then I went to the first item and spent a few hours tackling it.

I actually had a very productive day today, but I noticed that I didn’t feel nearly as overwhelmed as I usually do. Once I had made my prioritized list, I tried not to look at it as a whole, but just to move on straight to the next task once my previous one was done. I tried my best not to get too distracted by other things that come up during the day (like non-urgent emails), and by the end of the day, the mountain seemed a lot more manageable.

It was a simple mindfulness activity, but a very useful one!


A Week of Mindfulness: Day 3

So here I am on my third day of mindfulness with the Meh Activity Book.

Today’s mindfulness activity: Balloons.

In the activity book, there are a few pages that talk about how you can use a balloon to address your negative thoughts about yourself and replace them with other thoughts. This can be done by writing your thoughts in the drawn balloon on the worksheet, but I decided to use real balloons for two reasons: 1) we already had some on hand and 2) balloons are fun.

As a lot of women (and men) do, I often dislike the way I look and have negative thoughts about my body. So that was the first negative thought I decided to address. I thought of the negative thought as I blew up my yellow balloon. Then I held the balloon and thought of a more reasonable thought to replace that one. My new thought was: “I am trying to eat healthy and be more active, and I do not need to look like a supermodel to look good. I am healthy and strong.” Then I let the balloon and the negative thought go.

I tried these with other thoughts related to my ability to do my best in my new job or my fear that I will never be able to know everything about my research area. And even though they were only balloons, my heart was a little lighter afterwards.

This particular activity is one that Deborah Malcolm, author of Meh, has used in presentations about her book. I hope it’s something you’ll all try out for yourselves!


A Week of Mindfulness: Day 2

Why is it sometimes so difficult to articulate the things we are good at or the things we like about ourselves?

Today’s mindfulness activity: filling my head with positivity.

This page of the book suggests filling the head on the page with what you like about yourself or with other things that make you happy. I was having difficulty coming up with a good list for the former, so I chose to go with the latter.

I filled my head with hugs, cake, diet coke, Scotland, artichokes, writing, books, bubble baths, and rainy days. What makes you happy?


A Week of Mindfulness: Day 1

Hi, I’m Rachel Noorda (co-founder and editorial director of ThunderStone Books). I do not usually write personal posts for this blog, but Deborah Malcolm’s Meh Activity Book has inspired me to try a week of mindfulness.

To me, mindfulness is being aware of how I am feeling and thinking. Mindfulness is being present and doing activities to stay calm and keep from being overwhelmed. The Mental Health Foundation defines mindfulness as “an integrative, mind-body based approach that helps people to manage their thoughts and feelings.”

I’ve recently started a new job teaching at a university, and my husband and I have moved 1200 miles away for said new job. Needless to say, there is a lot of stress and anxiety that goes along with a big move and a new job. I was trying to think of ways in which I could be more aware of how I was feeling and take action to help minimize my anxiety. That’s when I decided to use the Meh Activity Book for a week of mindfulness.

Today’s mindfulness activity: coloring.

Things are busy, so I decided to set aside just 30 minutes (a manageable amount of time) to focus on mindfulness each day. For day 1, I spent the time coloring two pages with crayons. I am not an artist, as should be clear by the quality of my coloring, but I’ve found in the past that coloring is a nice way to keep my hands busy and relax myself while I think about the day.

 

I’m looking forward to Day 2!

You are welcome to download the free Meh Activity Book and work on your own week of mindfulness. We could all use some time to be more aware of our feelings, thoughts, and mental health.


Books I Grew up on: Braden Hancock

Books I Grew up on is a blog series featuring guest bloggers who discuss reading in their childhoods: the books they loved, the paths they found to developing a love for reading, and how reading helped them become who they are today! Today’s Books I Grew up on guest blogger is computer scientist and machine learning PhD student at Stanford, Braden Hancock. 

 

Where did you grow up? What was it like growing up there?
I grew up in the suburbs of southwest Ohio. It’s a magical place that nails perfectly (in my opinion) the balance between living too far apart from other people (total farm land) or on top of each other (sprawling apartment complexes of Manhattan). Evenings were spent at the ball field, the park, or playing outside in the yard.

What role did books have in your childhood? 
With 9 kids in the family who (almost) all loved to read, we kept the library busy. My mom had two separate library cards (since each card has a max item limit of 50 books), so we would get somewhere between 50 and 100 books each week. If you read through your allotted books too quickly before library day (usually Tuesday if I recall correctly), you’d end up reading the encyclopedia or your siblings’ books while you waited for a chance to refill.

How did you first develop a love for reading?
It’s hard to remember the beginning. It was just always there. I think it helped that my older brother really enjoyed reading. I saw how much he liked it, and that made me want to read the books he was so enjoying. And then my younger brother saw the books that I was enjoying, so he wanted to read them. And then our younger sister saw him…

What was your favorite book as a child? Why?
I really enjoyed the Bailey School Kids books when I was in young elementary school; I think I was very proud that I was reading “chapter books”, and mythical/folk creatures (vampires, leprechauns, werewolves, witches, frankenstein, etc.) are so much fun as a little kid. Good fodder for the imagination.

What is your favorite children’s book now? Why?
Now I enjoy the Olivia books when I read them to my 2-year-old daughter. They’re good books for kids—nice pictures, simple words, clear story—but they have all sorts of fun hidden gems for the parents, too, that make them fun to read.

What advice would you give to young readers?
Redwall. Such a good series. Look forward to the day that you can start reading the Redwall books.

 

ABOUT BRADEN
Braden is a computer scientist working with artificial intelligence at Stanford. Right now he’s trying to write programs that will let us teach computers just by talking to them instead of typing into them. We can already control some computers with voice, but we don’t yet have very good ways of teaching them new things with voice. He’s excited to change that!