Stepping Up for STEM on Capitol Hill
By Ann Pauley
Silvia Medina-Balcazar is passionate about her biochemistry major and her minor in mathematics. She’s president of Ladies FIRST, a student club at Trinity focused on science and math. She mentors D.C. high school students who are interested in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.
When she was invited to go to Capitol Hill and advocate for programs that encourage more girls and women to pursue STEM majors and careers, she jumped at the chance.
“I really believe it’s important to have more programs across the country that support women in STEM,” said Medina-Balzacar. “We can help do that by sharing our experiences with members of Congress.”
Yarely Rodriguez, a senior biochemistry major, agreed. “Anytime you have an opportunity to talk to someone in a position to influence changes in policy is a step in the right direction.”
Rodriguez, Medina-Balzacar and five other Trinity students spent a full day on Capitol Hill, meeting with members of Congress and their staffs. They were joined by Dr. Kerry Luse, associate professor of mathematics, and Dr. Sita Ramamurti, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of mathematics.
The day was organized by the Association for Women in Mathematics and the Trinity delegation teamed up with students from George Mason University and faculty from a number of institutions. They met with Republicans and Democrats in both the Senate and the House. By the end of the day, they visited 55 Congressional offices.
The goal for these meetings was to increase awareness of an important issue and talk about ways to address the problem. There is a steady decline in the number of girls and women who study math and science as they progress through middle school, high school, college and graduate school. Studies show that systemic bias and stereotypes start as early as elementary school and are diverting talent away from STEM careers.
Several bills being considered by Congress are designed to strengthen STEM for all students, from elementary school through college and doctoral programs. There are also legislative proposals specifically focused on supporting women and girls and students of color in STEM.
Meeting with Congressional staff members was a new experience for these students and they were eager to be part of the legislative process. Rodriguez recalled one of her meetings with a Senate staff member: “She was very interested in what I had to say. I told her that in high school, I did not experience a lot of immersion in STEM, and she was surprised by that. By sharing my story, she gained a better understanding of the need for more support for STEM.”
Sayra Lopez, who just finished her freshman year and plans to major in nursing, is from Georgia and chose Trinity because, “D.C. has lots of political activity which I like.” Lopez enjoys math and science and was eager to share her enthusiasm with members of Congress: “Anything I can lobby for that I am passionate about – I’m there!”
“You have to make yourself heard, you have to have a voice,” said Lopez. “I have a voice and I need to make sure it’s heard. It was a very empowering experience.”
Joicy Carvalho also just finished her first year at Trinity. She plans to major in psychology and study neuropsychology in graduate school. “They wanted a diversity of majors participating,” she said. “I love the STEM area. I’m into math and science.”
“I want to take advantage of every opportunity at Trinity,” she said. “This was a completely new experience for me. I had never been inside the House and Senate office buildings, and here I had a chance to meet members of Congress and their staff. Even though I was looking forward to it, I must admit, I was nervous.”
Once she joined her group on Capitol Hill and started meeting with Congressional staff, Carvalho hit her stride. “We were encouraged to share our own stories and they were interested in what we had to say,” said Carvalho. “I attended a predominantly white high school. I was introduced to STEM, but I didn’t feel supported as a woman – and as a woman of color. We should be talking with girls about STEM in elementary school.”
As Rodriguez talked about her day on Capitol Hill, she also reflected on her four years at Trinity. “When I first came to Trinity, I didn’t think I was strong enough – brave enough – to have a voice. I was shy. In high school I didn’t raise my hand and I didn’t like to do presentations. Through my Trinity experience, my confidence has grown stronger and I’ve become bold. I didn’t think I could be that person who told her story and advocated for what’s right. Trinity has given me the tools to be that person.”