Student organizations build community for female-identifying students in STEM

Kathryn Lazar (left), Sohenee Banerjee (middle) and Alexandra Scott (right) are pictured. Courtesy Lazar, Banerjee and Scott
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When facing the difficulties of college, it is often the communities found along the way that act as guideposts and anchors for students. One such community that forms these powerful anchors is the women in STEM community. By forming bonds based on shared, unique experience, female-identifying students who study a science, technology, engineering or math subject at Tufts can find ways to navigate college life together.  

Exemplifying these bonds and communities are four students who assist and support other female-identifying STEM majors on campus. Kathryn Lazar, president of Tufts’ chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, Grace Melcher, co-president of Women in Computer Science, Sohenee Banerjee, social chair of Girls in STEM and Alexandra Scott, vice president of Girls in STEM, have all benefited from the support of other women in their fields and aim to continue cultivating these supportive communities on Tufts’ campus. 

Lazar, a junior majoring in chemical engineering, was attracted to the subject because she wanted to combine her interests in chemistry and hands-on work. Now, she’s incredibly thankful to have chosen her field because her studies will provide her with many opportunities when she joins the workforce. 

“The thing I love about engineering and STEM is … you can literally work for any company,” Lazar said. “They’re always going to have some kind of department that requires some kind of engineering.”

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Melcher, a junior who is double majoring in computer science and engineering psychology, also chose her majors because they aligned with her passions.

“I’m a big puzzle-solver,” Melcher said. “ I really like crosswords, and for me, computer science feels like that same thing. You’re taking pieces and putting them together until you can get what you want to work.”

Banerjee chose to major in biology so she could pursue her longtime goal of attending medical school after college to combine her love of science with her love of helping people.

“Biology always really was something that I was drawn to just because I love people and … knowing how our bodies work,” Banerjee, a junior, said.

Scott is double majoring in applied mathematics and computer science, but was undecided about what she wanted to study before coming to Tufts. However, after taking more math courses, she fell in love with the subject and knew that she wanted to pursue the major. She then took her first computer science classes as a sophomore and decided to combine her two interests.

“I definitely love the problem-solving aspects of both math and computer science,” Scott, a junior, said. “I love the objectivity of it.”

As they pursued their studies, Lazar, Melcher, Banerjee and Scott found community by joining student groups for women in STEM on campus. 

Lazar originally got involved in Society of Women Engineers, a group that coordinates events and programs that support female engineers in their academics and career pursuits, in high school, where she started a chapter of the organization at the end of her senior year. When she arrived at Tufts, she knew she wanted to continue with the organization. She started as conference planner and worked her way up through the ranks to become vice president of the Tufts chapter and is now the president of the chapter. 

“It’s a great way to connect with other people in engineering,” Lazar said. “We host a lot of events that I look forward to.”

One such event was the National WE19 Conference in Anaheim, which Lazar helped to plan during her sophomore year. This event opened up internship options for Lazar, as well as professional development opportunities.

Melcher feels the same as Lazar does about the positive opportunities that have arisen from being a part of an organization centered around women in STEM. Though studying computer science is often difficult, Melcher is encouraged by her fellow club members, who reassure her when she feels overwhelmed.

“For me, Women in Computer Science was a community that really opened up to me … being supportive … and being encouraging,” Melcher said.  “I think it’s nice to have a supportive group.”

Girls in STEM, a group dedicated to mentoring middle school-aged girls in STEM subjects in the surrounding Medford and Somerville areas, allows STEM majors to work together to build confidence and a sense of empowerment among female students. Girls in STEM mentors introduce STEM topics by running fun activities and then working with the mentees on a final project that they later present at Tufts. Scott hopes that the mentors from Tufts can act as role models for the younger students.

“Our goal is to empower younger generations of women to feel confident in their abilities, both in STEM and just in general,” Scott said. “Being a woman in STEM is very difficult. There’s a lot of challenges, and having powerful female role models is really important, especially for young girls.”

Banerjee joined Girls in STEM as a sophomore and loves the impact she is able to have through this organization.

“[Girls in STEM] really is just a place where we can give back and be the mentor and the friend that we wish we had when we were growing up during that time,” Banerjee said.

As social chair of Girls in STEM, Banerjee is responsible for cultivating bonds between the mentors and helping them support each other. Banerjee said she is honored to be the social chair because she thinks it is important to have activities that foster community among female STEM majors. 

Though being a woman in challenging and often male-dominated STEM fields can be difficult, Lazar, Melcher, Scott and Banerjee have found that Tufts is generally a supportive environment that has encouraged their love of STEM. The prevalence of female students in STEM subjects, as well as female professors, increases the students’ sense of community and belonging.

“I’ve heard horror stories from friends who went to different colleges to do engineering, and I know it’s not uncommon to be the only woman in the room,” Lazar said. “I think I’ve kind of been shielded from that at Tufts.”

Scott praised the resources made available to students, including speakers brought in by groups like Tufts Society of Women Engineers or Tufts Women in Computer Science. However, she emphasized that many female students in STEM still feel as though they don’t belong in the field. 

“I think for me, it’s just been a matter of saying to myself, ‘No, you deserve to be here, clearly you accomplish all these things,’” Scott said. “‘You’re good enough.’” 

Lazar echoed these sentiments, saying that even though Tufts provides a more collaborative environment compared to other engineering schools, it can still be intimidating.

“We’re surrounded by really amazing, incredible people who are doing all these awesome things, and it’s hard to not kind of look at yourself, and think [about] where you fall along that,” Lazar said.

Banerjee also agrees that Tufts has provided an excellent environment to study STEM as a woman. 

“Coming to Tufts, and being a [biology] major was a really conscious decision because I wanted to be in a place where I had a community where it wasn’t competitive, it was more collaborative,” Banerjee said. “[Tufts] really [fosters] an environment of collaboration and supportive networks, and everyone wants each other to succeed.”

However, like Scott and Lazar, there have still been times when Banerjee felt discouraged in her studies. She recalled a specific experience when a male classmate told her she wouldn’t manage to get an A in a computer science course.

“It just made me feel kind of small,” she said. 

Banerjee spoke to the importance of community in overcoming these difficulties and feeling confident in her abilities. 

“The most important thing is making sure you find groups of people who are also going through similar things who can support each other,” Banerjee said. “When you have that, all the obstacles you experienced become strengths because you just work through them together, and you know that you’re not alone in those experiences.”

Melcher said she relies heavily on the community built within the computer science department, and acknowledges that it would be impossible to make it through all the difficult classes without being able to ask for help and rely on these support systems. 

“I’ve made so many friends in the department,” Melcher said. “[The] department allows for a lot of partner work in some of the classes, and that has been awesome to have a community for.”

Some other support systems include tutoring sessions through the STAAR Center, study groups and group chats for a particular course, all things that the four women rely on and have used in the past. Most students are very willing to admit when they need help, and will work together to solve problems. Lazar even has a standing Sunday study group with members of her classes.

“I don’t think you could get through being an engineer without finding a core group of people who you can bond with,” Lazar said. “I don’t think it’s possible to be an engineer without working with others … It’s never about what you can do as an individual; it’s about how well you work as a team.”

Banerjee agrees with Lazar in her belief that collaboration is key to creating a positive environment in STEM for women at Tufts.

“I genuinely think that Tufts, compared to a lot of other schools … [has] such a focus on just collaboration, and community values,” Banerjee said. “I think that really seeps into the lives of women, men, everyone, and I think they really do a great job with making sure people have an equal voice.”

Melcher also emphasized the importance of having friends she could rely on through difficult courses. 

“I think without the support of my friends, I would easily have dropped this major a million times,” Melcher said. “It’s intimidating, and it’s hard and stressful. But it’s also incredibly rewarding. And I feel like I’ve created such a good community in that difficulty and that struggle, and I think it’s definitely worth it.”

Professors and teaching assistants are another important source of support. 

“[Professors] really go out of their way to just support you and be there for you emotionally [and] mentally,” Banerjee said. “I never felt a need to elevate myself to a certain level just to impress someone or have a certain level of respect gained. I felt like I was valid. And every time I raised my hand, I felt like I had a certain level of respect that was given to me, just because I was a human being.” 

Having female professors has been particularly empowering for Scott.

“Just being able to see all these professors who are teaching and also doing some really incredible research that’s having impact on the world is very empowering and inspiring,” Scott said.

However, above all, having a peer network and peer role models to look up to has been most impactful.  

“A lot of my classmates serve as kind of role models for me,” Lazar said. “I think Tufts is full of such incredible, talented people. And for me, it’s more powerful to see people my age doing cool things because it reminds me that I still can too.”

Lazar, Melcher, Banerjee and Scott take pride in being women in STEM and feel empowered by this aspect of their identity.

“I think there’s something so empowering about being a woman in STEM,” Banerjee said. “I personally am really honored to be a woman and be identifying as a female because I also have that built in support system that I’m not sure that many people have otherwise.”

Scott said that her identity as a woman in a STEM field helped her to find community.

“For me, being able to distinguish [that] I am a woman in STEM … it’s easier to find resources and have conversations with other people who have similar experiences to you,” Scott said.

Melcher feels the same way. “In [Women in Computer Science], I love that we celebrate [that] we’re women in a hard STEM major and that it doesn’t faze us,” she said.

“It’s always been kind of a big part of my identity as … I’m not just an engineer, I’m a female engineer,” Lazar said. “I think with that, there comes an implied sense of pride. I choose to identify specifically that way, because it just means more to me than just saying I’m an engineer.”

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