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Conference encourages STEM careers for women


The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A physicist listening to pulsars in a search for gravitational waves and a manager of an agency that seeks new technologies for defense and civilian applications highlighted the Women & Technology Conference on June 26 in Charleston.

About 120 women – and a few men – from varying backgrounds gathered at the Embassy Suites to learn about opportunities for women in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and how to create them.

Maura McLaughlin, a professor of physics and astronomy at West Virginia University and director of WVU’s Center for Gravitational Waves and Cosmology, talked about how some researchers at WVU were part of an experiment that found evidence of ripples in space-time about a century after Albert Einstein predicted their existence.

McLaughlin said he is using a different approach to find more proof. Where other researchers used lasers in long tubes to measure distortions caused by gravity waves, she is looking for distortions in radio waves emitted by large celestial objects known as pulsars.

McLaughlin said she got her start in science while she was an undergraduate at Penn State. She was taking a variety of courses to determine what she wanted to do. She had an opportunity to work one summer at a large radio telescope in Puerto Rico. There she helped search for pulsars, and she was hooked.

She and her husband worked at a radio telescope in his native United Kingdom for a few years before they moved back to the United States. She applied for and received a job at WVU in 2006, and she hasn’t regretted it.

At WVU, she can work with the radio telescope at Green Bank in her research,.

“It’s really the best telescope in the entire world for studying what we want to study,” she said.

She said she wasn’t a “megageek” in high school.

“All it really takes is a passion for science and being willing to put the time in,” she said.

Anne Fischer, Defense Science Office program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, gave the keynote address at lunch. She reviewed the history of the agency, which she said had a hand in creating the internet, GPS systems, advanced prosthetics and self-driving cars.

DARPA is a risk-taking, high-impact agency, and managers work there only three to five years to ensure a continuing stream of fresh ideas, she said.

The Defense Science Office concentrates on chemical systems, Fischer said. It deals with physical systems, human-machine systems, social systems and math, modeling and design, she said.

Fischer is a graduate of Charleston’s George Washington High School. It was there that she learned to like molecules.

“Molecules made sense to me,” she said. “They made sense to me not just because of my brain but because of my teachers and mentors” at George Washington, she said.

In a question-and-answer session following her speech, Fischer said women must expect to have a seat at the table where decisions are made.

“When you go into a meeting, everyone deserves a seat at the table, which is traditionally where the leadership is and the decisions are made,” she said. “Every person in that room deserves a seat at that table, and as a woman you might go in and see a table full of men and you might not feel comfortable if you might feel like you’re not qualified to sit at that table. I encourage everyone to take their spot at the table.”

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