Earlier this month, in recognition of International Day of Women and Girls in Science (Feb. 11), female Mary Bird Perkins team members with careers in science met with local students to discuss careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and highlight the significant contributions being made across in those fields across the Cancer Center’s 10 locations.
Women in STEM by the Numbers
According to the United Nations:
- Women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues and, while they represent 33.3% of all researchers, only 12% of members of national science academies are women.
- In cutting-edge fields such as artificial intelligence, only one in five professionals (22%) is a woman.
- Despite a shortage of skills in most of the technological fields driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution, women still account for only 28% of engineering graduates and 40% of graduates in computer science and informatics.
- Female researchers tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers. Their work is underrepresented in high-profile journals and they are often passed over for promotion.
Elevating Women in STEM at the Cancer Center
From social workers to physicians, medical physicists and Mary Bird Perkins leadership, women play a huge role in making the Cancer Center the leading cancer care organization across the Gulf South. While additional opportunities to advance careers in STEM are forthcoming, Meredith Bechac, registered dietician, Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center in Covington, and Jennifer Voss, medical physicist, Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center in Natchez, share how they found their way to a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) career and how the plan to help the next generation improve female representation in the fight against cancer.
Explain your role at Mary Bird Perkins
Meredith Bechac: I have various roles as a registered dietitian, but my main job includes assessing and monitoring the nutrition status of patients undergoing active cancer treatment. Along with monitoring nutrition status, I educate our patients on what to expect before treatment begins as well as offer quality nutrition recommendations once treatment has ended. I am also responsible for managing our Therapeutic Food Pantry. This involves curating and procuring quality inventory, communicating with our community partners regarding food needs, evaluating patients facing food insecurity, distributing goods, and documenting dispersal. I also seek to educate the community through various presentations, videos, food demos, and sharing healthy eating materials!
How were you first exposed to careers in the STEM field?
MB: I was first exposed to careers in STEM while in high school and that continued further into my collegiate experience. While researching various career paths, I ultimately wanted to choose a profession where I could use my skills of educating, counseling, nurturing, and healing with my love for science and research.
Jennifer Voss: I was always interested in science as a kid and first wanted to be a veterinarian. There were no vet schools in Kentucky where I grew up and went to college. But, I discovered medical physics when I was an undergrad through the College of Allied Health at the University of Kentucky.
What sparked your interest in a STEM career?
MB: Entering college, my first-degree path was business. While I enjoyed my classes in accounting and management, I found myself with a heightened interest in the healthcare field. Although originally selected as an elective, taking an entry course in nutrition opened my eyes to my passion for the field. I quickly became invested in the material I was learning, I changed my major that same semester and was immersed in the College of Health.
JV: My love of science and my dad telling me I could be anything I wanted to be. Nobody was going to tell me I couldn’t do something. Being a girl was not going to stop me from a science career. I loved biology in high school, and even dissecting animals in the lab! Any lab class was like recess to me.
What STEM-related teachings do you utilize in your position?
MB: In my position, it is important to me that my patients not only adopt my recommendations, but also understand why I’m suggesting certain foods, dietary practices and regimens. I enjoy educating and providing patients with insight into how food choices are impactful. I utilize technology every day through our medical record systems as well as digital research platforms to provide up-to-date peer-reviewed findings. I am also looking to expand my impact with the use of new technology through a body composition analyzer to gather further data from patients to provide a more personalized nutrition experience.
What do you want young girls and women to know about a career in STEM?
MB: The opportunities are endless. For young women and girls who are interested in STEM careers, I encourage them to experience and pursue every area of interest. Start by researching what piques your curiosity, reach out to a professional in your community, and ask to job shadow to investigate your respective field. Find after-school activities, clubs, or organization that fosters those interests, and last but not least, be confident in choosing a rewarding career path in STEM that feeds both your passion and skill!
JV: Don’t be labeled as a girl and told you can’t do whatever you want to do! Find what works for you and your gifts and use them to create a life where you are self-sufficient and happy, and enrich the lives of those around you. STEM careers are super interesting, usually are well compensated, and lead to a life of continued learning as technology changes. Shoot high and don’t limit yourself based on the idea of what society expects of you. Study hard and do great things!