Women of Whiting symposium focuses on self-advocacy at work and in life

The two-day symposium, which takes place Thursday and Friday, is open to all and features a lineup of powerful women in engineering fields

A masked woman works in a laboratory in the Whiting School

Credit: Will Kirk / Johns Hopkins University

Exposure to science and engineering was part of the lives of both Kristin Gunnarsdottir and Golnoosh Kamali from childhood. A native of Iceland, Gunnarsdottir remembers lessons about things like avalanche defense mechanisms, geothermal power plants, and dams being part of family vacations. And Kamali, who grew up in Pennsylvania, often spent elementary school recess with her fifth grade teacher, getting extra lessons and learning concepts not covered in class.

Today, Gunnarsdottir is a doctoral student studying biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University and Kamali defended her dissertation in electrical engineering here last fall. The two also serve as co-presidents of Women of Whiting, a group that cultivates community among women in STEM fields at Johns Hopkins.

"From the time we were kids, Golnoosh and I both had a community around us that was supportive of our interests in STEM, and we hope that Women of Whiting serves the same purpose: to encourage women to be successful engineers by providing not only community building, but also opportunities for networking, mentorship, and professional development opportunities," said Gunnarsdottir.

"By creating a community where we empower, uplift, and showcase other females, we are helping to increase the number of females who will not only pursue a degree in STEM, but will also want to work in STEM."
Golnoosh Kamali
Co-president, Women of Whiting

This week, the group holds its annual Women in STEM Symposium, set for Thursday, April 8 and Friday, April 9, in a virtual format. Though last year's symposium was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the planning committee has been working hard to create a virtual event for 2021 that will be inspiring and worthwhile. This year's theme focuses on self-advocacy in professional and personal settings, a topic the organizers say is more relevant than ever. (Registration for the free event is now open; all are welcome.)

"We know that advocating for yourself can be hard at times, especially as a female in male-dominated fields like STEM," said Kamali. "We also believe that this year, with the pandemic requiring most things to be virtual, boundaries that may have been in place before have become even more blurred, with people, particularly females, taking on more roles and responsibilities."

With backgrounds in academia, industry, and government, speakers and panelists will share their stories and lessons learned, and will offer advice to participants through a series of keynote talks and panel sessions. This year's keynote speakers are Brittany Young, founder and CEO of B-360, which uses dirt bike culture to end the cycle of poverty, disrupt the prison pipeline, and build bridges in communities; and Jody Davis, a systems engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Panelists include Melanie Shimano, JHU alumna and founder of the Food Computer Program, a STEM-based initiative that teaches Baltimore City high school students to build and code tabletop "food computers;" and Paola Jaramillo, an assistant professor in the Department of Weapons and System Engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy.

One of this year's highlights is Thursday's address by Swati Mohan, the lead guidance, navigation, and controls systems engineer for the NASA Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover.

"I am really looking forward to speaking at the Women in STEM symposium," Mohan said. "I hope that by sharing stories from my journey as a woman in STEM, it will inspire and motivate the future generation of women engineers. The more diverse backgrounds and viewpoints we can bring to STEM fields, the better equipped we will be as a society to solve the challenging problems of the world."

The event will conclude with a virtual networking and poster session on Gather, during which participants will be able to navigate a virtual conference-style setting to interact with other students, postdocs, and professionals.

"Our goal with the symposium is to create a community for women in STEM, and provide a platform where attendees have an opportunity to share their successes, experiences, and challenges they face in their personal and professional lives," said Gunnarsdottir.

In previous years, this event has drawn hundreds of participants from Johns Hopkins and other local universities. This year, in order to accommodate those in different time zones, sessions will be spread out over two days, with one in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

"By creating a community where we empower, uplift, and showcase other females, we are helping to increase the number of females who will not only pursue a degree in STEM, but will also want to work in STEM," said Kamali. "We are striving to live up to the idea that 'if she can see it, she can be it.'"