Skip to main content
Quynh Nhu Le

Graduate students to present at ENVISION: STEM Career Day Supporting Young Women

Event to be held Feb. 24; registration opens Jan. 30
23 January 2024

“It might seem like the only way to succeed as a scientist is to give up your individuality and unique interests, but in these moments, remember we do not have to fit any mold to be a scientist,” said Unnati Akhouri, a graduate student in physics who studies open quantum systems, giving advice to future women in STEM.

Unnati Akhouri

Unnati Akhouri. Image provided

Akhouri will be one of two Penn State graduate students giving keynote presentations at this year’s ENVISION: STEM Career Day Supporting Young Women, to be held Feb. 24 at Penn State University Park.

At ENVISION, students in grades 6 through 12 will hear from inspiring speakers, learn from Penn State scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technology experts, and participate in informal conversations with students and professional scientists. Attendees will also participate in various STEM activities which have previously ranged from making their own microscopes to extracting DNA from fruit and learning about 3D printing.

Unnati Akhouri will also be joined by Quynh Nhu Le, a graduate student in chemistry who studies active soft matter and physical chemistry. Akhouri and Le were both selected to give keynote presentations after competing in the I AM STEM Student Speaking Contest, which gives Penn State Eberly College of Science students an opportunity to develop and share stories of their science journeys. At the I AM STEM contest, Akhouri and Le shared their experiences as women in STEM along with words of advice and inspiration for future women in STEM.

Quynh Nhu Le

Quynh Nhu Le. Image provided

Akhouri and Le were both generous enough to share their journeys into STEM, advice for future women in STEM, and their experiences participating in the I AM STEM contest.

What started your journey in STEM?

Akhouri: I would say my journey in STEM started even before my formal training in STEM did. I grew up in India, and all through my childhood we moved around a lot, which meant that I got to experience vastly different ways of thinking and interpreting the world. I think this made me naturally attuned to sciences because I really enjoyed the interpretive nature of science. We are all in this universe observing things, and through science we get to articulate our interpretations and share them with one another! It’s always a bonus that this sharing of knowledge brings out paradigm shifts and many operational and technological advantages, though I don’t think my younger self was aware of that part; she just enjoyed observing, making a hypothesis, and sharing it with others to learn together!

Le: During my early years, I never imagined developing a love for science, as my guidance was directed towards excelling in literary studies. Yet my fondness for science was unexpectedly sparked in a high school chemistry class. The instant fascination with chemistry provided a great way to understand daily happenings. Curiosity about the world had always been with me since childhood, but full answers remained elusive. As I delved into chemistry, its ability to reveal the mysteries of nature became irresistibly interesting, adding both fascination and fulfillment to my studies.

What inspired you to apply for the I AM STEM contest?

Akhouri: The scientific way of thinking can bring creative ways to solve humanity's challenges. However, despite being fascinating at its core, STEM, in particular physics, is often shrouded by an inaccurate representation of who can be a scientist and who science is for. Furthermore, certain fields in STEM have historically suffered from gatekeeping, resulting in an inaccurate representation of global research and recognition where it is due. In my own experiences — being a brown, international, queer woman in STEM — I had to overcome the inertia of being the odd one out and make room for myself. However, I learned I need not have done it alone. Now, after being in academia for some years, I have learned there is no one way of being a physicist, and there were remarkable people setting examples of what diverse participation in the science community looks like – both in the identity that they confidently wore and in the work they did. This was an important lesson for me. If I had access to those individuals, back when I was in school, developing my identity in STEM, I would probably have had a better outlook towards my career trajectory. So, participating in events like I AM STEM is my way of being the version of myself the younger me wanted. I want to share all the resources and lessons with young students who are at the precipice of starting their own journeys in STEM.

Le: Growing up in a patriarchal society that often limits women's exploration of diverse paths, particularly science, I recognize that many women, including myself, must grapple with societal norms while pursuing their dreams. In the realm of STEM, women have consistently found themselves outnumbered and underrepresented, facing challenges rooted in stereotypes and the undermining of their confidence. These factors discourage many girls from pursuing careers in science. Having navigated a journey to overcome the challenges entrenched in my culture and carve my path in science, I joined the I AM STEM competition with the intent to share my personal story. My hope is to inspire more women to overcome challenges and seize opportunities in the pursuit of their dreams in science.

What did you gain from the experience, and did reflecting on your own journeys cause any self-revelations?

Akhouri: It really did! I am glad you asked about it. Before writing the presentation, I had this very formal view of what I wanted to express. Looking back, I would say it was maybe a little too formal. I think I was having a hard time getting out of the “write like an academic” pull. However, when I sat down and started actually working on the presentation and the write-ups, I asked myself, ‘What would the younger, the high school version of me want to hear?’ And that opened a whole different stream of memories and thoughts. I am saying memories, because it was important for me to go back and revisit my younger days to bring back important realizations about how we make decisions with the information we have. This helped me highlight the importance of having access to mentors, libraries, and internet sources. These were all crucial for how I navigated my way in academia. Looking back highlighted for me the trends in times when I felt supported and confident versus less confident in my undertakings. This realization is an important one for me because it helps me to be mindful about my chosen work environments now and in the future.

Le: Participating in the I AM STEM contest, I gained insights into the shared challenges faced by contestants, rooted in the cultures we come from. Pursuing a career in science has required us to navigate complex processes and discover our true identities, defying societal expectations to follow our STEM dreams. Joining the I AM STEM contest has proven to be one of the most significant decisions of my life. It not only allowed me to share my personal experiences but also provided a platform to connect with others who have faced similar challenges. Witnessing diverse backgrounds converge around shared obstacles related to gender in pursuing science careers has been a powerful and unifying experience.

What is your favorite aspect of your research?

Akhouri: My favorite aspect of my research is the communication. I love learning new, cool facts through my own exploration or by reading the research done by other people and then sharing them with others. I am really enjoying mentoring younger graduate students in my group. I love being able to figure out something new and share my journey and perspective on it and then get feedback about other interpretations and possible follow-ups. It’s like you’re re-searching the same territory to come back with more treasures! I would also like to add that I love that getting trained in physics and math has given me the tool kit to answer and tackle problems in other sciences. I am grateful that I get to attend talks and hear about research done in a wide range of fields at Penn State or on the internet.

Le: My research provides a distinctive opportunity to explore the intricacies of living matter at the micrometer scale. One particularly captivating aspect involves observing the movement of oil droplets under the microscope. The phenomenon of these nonliving systems exhibiting lifelike behaviors adds a fascinating dimension to my work. I also love sharing my research with friends from non-science backgrounds and witnessing their amazement at how tiny oil droplets can exhibit movement on their own. I enjoy their fascinated reactions and often guide them through simple experiments at home using oil and dish soap to demonstrate the mechanisms behind these oil droplet movements.

Finally, what advice do you have for future women in science?

Akhouri: At its core, science is playing with the unknown in the universe by asking questions and using them to make predictions to the best of our knowledge. The best scientists are the ones who ask questions, learn from every experience, find creative ways to apply skills, collaborate, and dissent from stereotypes and biases. Finding yourself being in the minority or in an environment that promotes a fixed mindset or innate abilities excessively can be immensely hard to tackle. It might seem like the only way to succeed is to give up your individuality and unique interests. In these moments, remember we do not have to fit any mold to be a scientist. Use your multidimensional interests, origin stories, and experiences to find what drives you. And you might not feel your very best every day. Approach that challenges by forming your team, your community that can pick you up when you are low. Put up posters of trailblazers who have come before you. Search for media that can expand the way you form your viewpoint of what science is, who does science, and who science is for.

Le: My advice for future women in science is to cultivate confidence in themselves and fearlessly pursue their dreams. It's crucial not to let external influences or self-doubt hinder your progress. Instead, take proactive steps to initiate positive changes in your life. Seize the opportunity to empower yourself and carve your unique path — there's no need to wait.

About ENVISION: STEM Career Day Supporting Young Women

The primary goal of ENVISION: STEM Career Day Supporting Young Women is to help girls and young women see themselves in the STEM fields. However, ENVISION is open to all students who are currently in grades 6-12.

Throughout this experience, attendees will hear inspiring speakers, learn from Penn State scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technology experts, and participate in informal conversations with students and professional scientists. Attendees will learn what women in STEM do, what they can accomplish, and how STEM is relevant to their own journey.

More information can be found on the ENVISION website.