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FSU Alumni and Affiliates in STEM

Diverse Voices: Vanessa Figgers

Here at Diverse Voice in STEM, we’re continuing to share stories about the degrees and careers of FSU affiliates. As the Circulation Supervisor at Dirac Science Library, I have the access and opportunity to discover some great academic finds. I was pulling book materials for the Women’s History Month Display and came across one of the garnet color-bound dissertations in our collection. Something made me open it and upon reading the title, I literally gasped aloud. “Influences Encouraging African American Women’s Choice of Mathematics as a Career: A Generational Account” was simply typed yet so impactful then as well as now. I knew I had to not only display this work but follow up and find the author, Vanessa C. Figgers, Ph.D. Thankfully, I did find her and she was gracious enough to do an interview. Please enjoy.

Could you give a brief overview of your background including where you’re from and how you began your academic journey?

I was born and raised in DeLand (Volusia County), Florida.  I initially wanted to be a medicinal chemist or pharmacist.  When I was in elementary school, I saw a chemist on tv who was making “concoctions” which ran through tubes and flasks.  I thought that was cool.  I took the traditional college track courses in high school (including chemistry).  When it was time to go to college, my choice changed, and I decided to major in mathematics.    I entered Florida A&M University (FAMU) in the late 70s (after my 11th grade year) and majored in mathematics.  I had great instructors and mostly African American.  That was new to me.  I had few African American teachers – and no African American math or science teachers prior to attending college.

The most notable thing is that in the department at FAMU, there were African American women mathematics professors. My first college mathematics class was with one of these women, the way she taught made topics that students normally struggle with, even Calculus – so simple.  At that time, we were on the quarter system and not semesters, and I took her classes every quarter for the first two years.  She was my mathematics advisor and became my mentor throughout my college career and even into my professional career.  Years later, I was offered her position when she moved into an administrative role.

Your dissertation is about the influences that encourage Black womens’ choice of mathematics as a career. What influenced you to persue a career in STEM? Also were there factors that made you choose education over a non-teaching career?

I chose mathematics because I thought that the major would serve me well once I graduated.   To be honest, my mother suggested it.  She was a retired teacher and thought that math could be applicable in several professions.  In addition to mathematics, I took several computer programming courses as well. I loved programming.

The acronym STEM was not on the radar as it is nowScientific calculators for students, microcomputers, cell phones did not even come out until after I graduated from college and began working.  We had to use charts in the appendices of the textbooks to do certain math problems.  For the programming classes, we worked on mini-computers.  As a matter of fact, for registration of classes, we used punch cards. 

The factor, (if it is called that) that made me choose teaching was that the summer after I graduated, I was approached by someone who asked if I would be interested in teaching.  I took up the offer.  However, this also meant that I needed to go back and get training in teacher education – which is important.  My first three years I taught mathematics and computer programming in high school as well as part-time on the community college level. 

It is important to note that when I went to graduate school, I took the required teacher education courses but also more (graduate) mathematics courses. This allowed me the opportunity to be able to teach both in a mathematics department and/or teacher education department.  Also in graduate school, I was a computer programmer for an engineering department for a while.  As a project for one of my graduate courses, I designed a computer program that could be used by math teachers in the classroom.

What was the hardest part about your doctoral work?

The hardest part about my doctoral work was family/work/study coordination.  I was teaching full-time – and had been teaching for several years before I began my doctorate.  In addition, this was also the time when my children were very small – and even in the making (smile).   It was a mathematically logistical challenge that my husband and I would work out as he was also teaching school.  The last year of my doctoral program, I was afforded some release/sabbatical time from work and that really helped. We made it.

In the 25 years since you completed this work, what would be your assessment of Black women in mathematics?

I think that African American women have made great strides in mathematics.  Since the year of my degree (1997) there are many who have not also earned the degrees but are making marked differences in many areas of industry (medical, financial, technological, etc). There are now mathematics job titles that were unheard of when I was in school.  I did not know of any women in mathematics (or did not know that’s what they were doing) when I was growing up.  The issue is that there were African American women succeeding in mathematics many decades earlier than 1997, but they were either not publicized, recognized, or that their work was not deemed anything to mention. They were not in the history books, nor in the encyclopedias.

With the rise of the internet, it helped.  By the time I completed my doctorate, there were websites that highlighted women such as Hypatia, Etta Falconer, Marjorie Browne, etc. It is sobering that Katherine Johnson (Hidden Figures) was almost a century old before most ever heard of her; and that was because another woman, Margot Shetterly, did the research.  

I found your dissertation quite by accident while pulling books for our Women’s History Month display. What are your thoughts on your work and career so far and what are your plans for the future?

Since I began,  I am now approaching 40 years.  I have been given some great opportunities.  I have worked at several universities (in two states) on the undergraduate and graduate levels in mathematics and in teacher education.  I have also served as Department Chair, Coordinator, Director, Co-PI on grants; and as Instructor, Assistant Professor, and Associate Professor. 

From all of this, I think that I will always want to teach a course or two.  I am also interested in students being exposed to mathematics in careers before high school- hands-on.  Another area of interest is the evidence of mathematics in the arts.  In reference to the acronym STEM, to be honest I like STEAM.  There are many gifted artists/designers who are excellent mathematicians who apply many simple and complex mathematical concepts with precision.  

These, in my opinion, are some prime candidates that intuitive and creative teachers can influence to go into mathematics.  A few years ago, with grant funding I collaborated with an art professor, and we created a summer workshop for girls incorporating math and art.  It was a success.  This is where I would like to put some of my time.

This post was written by Shaundra L. Lee, Circulation Supervisor at with Access Services & Delivery at Dirac Science Library.

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FSU Alumni and Affiliates in STEM Uncategorized

Diverse Voices: Tina Fischer

Hello to everyone reading this Diverse Voices blog post where we share stories about the degrees and careers of FSU affiliates. Today’s post is about a woman named Tina Fischer who graduated from FSU with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. In addition to that difficult major, she had math and dance minors when she finished FSU. Tina has such great advice about school and choosing a career that I cannot wait to share, so let’s get into it.

Tina was initially a dance major and later decided she wanted to do something STEM-related so she switched her major to mathematics. As she was thinking about possible career outcomes of a math major, she decided they didn’t fit her well. Reflecting on a high school physics class, she knew she liked working with electronics, so she settled on electrical engineering. Tina was lucky enough to not experience any prejudice in this program, but she did notice when she started her coursework that there were very few women in her classes. She met a few friends who were women, and they would do homework together and study before tests. Her courses were very challenging, and she knew there were students smarter than her who were really in the engineering mindset, but she had great study groups and made it through to graduation.

While Tina was in school, she was hired for a co-op position as an engineering student at Florida Power Corporation in St. Petersburg, Florida. For an entire semester, she worked a normal 40-hour work week, then returned to FSU the following semester to be a full-time student. Alternating semesters, she worked three co-op terms in all, earning full-time pay. In one department called Relay Design, Tina calculated transmission line currents to isolate faults and prevent the least service interruption. Next she worked in the Power Plant Design department which enabled her to visit fossil fuel and nuclear power plants. Tina worked alongside men who had been power plant technicians for multiple decades and they were probably thinking “who is this young FSU girl coming in to install an automatic transfer switch?” They were all very friendly, and she said it was similar to “take your daughter to work” day.

After two semesters, Tina’s co-op coordinator advised her to try something besides engineering to get the full workforce experience. For her third co-op semester, she worked in the Direct Mail Marketing department scheduling inserts that would accompany monthly power bills. During this semester, Tina was designated the marketing department “techie” by her colleagues. With their encouragement, she volunteered to assist a computer consulting company hired to redesign Florida Power’s computer system. As a co-op student, Tina collaborated with her teammates and designed the new graphical user interface (GUI), or computer screens, for the marketing department.

While Tina was finishing up her final classes, her co-op experience helped her realize she ultimately did not want to be an engineer. She told me a funny anecdote about how some older male engineers wore collared shirts with plastic pocket protector sleeves in their shirt pockets to hold their pens; when she wore her skirt suit with a satin shell blouse with no pockets, they asked her where she kept her pen and calculator. She just carried them…no pocket protector required.

Since she knew she did not want to be an engineer, she was very open to other job opportunities and went to an FSU job fair during her last semester. As luck would have it, representatives from the consulting firm she worked with at Florida Power was at the job fair sharing career opportunities. Tina stopped by their booth to chat and mentioned she designed a computer screen for one of their clients and would love to work with them as a computer consultant. She did not know how to code at the time, but she wanted to learn how to implement the backend programs of these GUI computer systems. They hired her to start immediately upon graduation. The consulting company sent her to a three-week full-time programming school in St. Charles, Illinois which was similar to college 2.0 to learn how to program. Her first job in her new career was back with Florida Power in St. Petersburg to program the backend computer system. She was there for a year and a half and was assigned later to programming projects at Florida Power & Light, Anheuser-Busch, and Fed Ex.  

I thought it was really interesting she was hired for a programming job when she did not know much about coding. I asked her what that was like and why she thought she got hired over other people who knew more coding. She said she got hired because the consulting company uses a behavior-based interview model to seek graduates who are self-motivated, have shown the interest and capacity to learn, and have a collaborative spirit. All the consultants who worked with this firm were outgoing, team-oriented, and very dedicated to learning to program even though they did not initially know coding.

Tina now works as Manager of Collaborative Labs at St. Petersburg College, facilitating strategic planning engagements for private sector businesses, municipalities, nonprofit organizations, and their SPC college family. This past year, she facilitated numerous Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) community engagements with up to 1,000 people. She also works with companies to help them create strategic initiatives and action plans. She guides her clients in creating their own vision board by imagining- “if your company was on a magazine cover in five years, what would you have achieved?” From this future vision, they establish supportive goals and define strategies and actions to make it a reality. She says her job is very rewarding and loves the variety of clients and engagements and hearing all the good that is happening in the community. When Tina talks about her work you can see her eyes light up and you can tell she is truly passionate about her career.

I asked her for some final advice for current STEAM students and she had four major pieces of advice:

1) Investigate your career choices before deciding on a major. There are different types of workplaces to consider including size of the organization, company culture, uniform/attire, etc. It is great to know what kind of environment you like to work in before you get a degree so you can better prepare.

2) Do an internship to expose yourself to the workplace. Tina said this many times throughout the interview because she truly believes that internships are so important to gain experience, knowledge, and to find out if you truly love that career. (She also met her husband during her internship which is such a great story to tell.)

3) You will frequently start out at a lower position/salary level and then you will move up. Take time to learn and gain experience to keep growing. Your degree will help you and so will the experience so don’t be discouraged to start at or near the bottom.

4) Continue to learn, gain skills, and ask what is next for yourself. People don’t always stay with companies 30-40 years like they used to. More schooling is always an option.

Her last piece of advice was that universities should have more trainings and webinars on diversity, collaboration, anxiety/mental health, and other sensitive topics so that professors are equipped to support students and direct them to a good resource if needed. Some universities are great at this, and others could do better.

It was an absolute pleasure to meet and talk to Tina. She had such a great story and inspirational advice to share and I hope you learned something from her as well!

This post was written by Kirsten Caldwell, a graduate student of the FSU School of Information and graduate assistant of the FSU STEM libraries.

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FSU Alumni and Affiliates in STEM Uncategorized

Diverse Voices: Elena Bemelmans

Welcome to the first blog post of the Diverse Voices in STEM series where I talk to people about their STEM degrees and their career journeys. Today we are meeting Elena Bemelmans M.S. Elena graduated with her B.S. in Biological Sciences from Florida State in 2011 and went to Boston University School of Medicine for her M.S. in Biomedical Forensic Science where she graduated in 2015.

The first thing I asked her about was what it was like getting her degree at Florida State.

“The Biological Sciences degree was not as difficult as some other majors like chemistry or physics, but it was not without its challenging coursework. Some of the more challenging lectures also happened to be my favorite. Immunology, Molecular Biology, Evolution, Cell Structure and Function were a few of my favorite, the professors constantly pushed us with challenging work and taught us how to think critically. While these were difficult classes, they were coincidentally, the ones that have helped me the most in my professional career. They also taught me how to get up early without parental supervision… seemingly none of my lectures began after noon and I remember more than one 8 am lecture per semester.

Some of my favorite classes though were the labs- Microbiology, Organic Chemistry, Immunology and even the Biology 2 Animal Diversity lab. The hands-on aspect of the courses really helped reinforce what we were learning in the lectures and while many required long hours of concentration and focus, especially during the summer months, I was able to learn so much from being hands on.

I was active in several campus groups including as a Freshman Interest Group Leader, a Teaching Assistant within the Biology Department, a member of Phi Beta Kappa as well as a member and Vice President of the Women’s Club Volleyball team. Balancing work, sports, and school was not without its challenges, but I loved my time at FSU. There was always a resource available to help me succeed. If you want to achieve success, and need help, all you have to do is ask. Any science degree is going to be challenging, rigorous and require self-discipline, unless you are fortunate enough to understand things from simply listening to the lectures. With each successful course completion, I was reminded that even though things may be hard, in the long run it will be worth it.”

Clearly, Elena was extremely busy and involved on campus with academics, sports, work, and social activities and I knew that everything she had done would help lead her to a career. I followed up by asking her what her experience was like getting a job.

“After graduating from FSU, my plans for medical school had fallen through and I was in search of a different career path. I spent two semesters working as a lab instructor at FSU and the following summer I moved back home. I still had no real idea what I wanted to do, so I found a few odd jobs teaching and coaching. The field of Forensic Science sounded interesting and combined my interest in medicine and the law. I anticipated pursuing medical school again after getting my masters but ended up enjoying the field of DNA analysis. So, I applied to a few different labs to see where I could end up.

My graduate program really gave me a boost when it came to job hunting, however it was my undergraduate degree that gave me the qualifications for the job. The FBI Quality Assurance Standards for Forensic DNA Testing Laboratories requires that DNA analysts have coursework in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Genetics and training in Statistics. FSU offered these courses either as part of the biology major directly or encouraged the coursework as electives.

Forensic or crime laboratories are generally attached to law enforcement agencies, district attorneys’ offices or as part of the health department, however most of my graduate faculty had experience working in the private industry. When I was in my last semester, I took the advice of one faculty member who told me to be open to experiences as they come and not be so rigidly attached to a 5 year or 10 year plan. So, I took the first job offered and moved to Washington DC.

I spent a few years failing at what I was doing before I found a something that I not only enjoy and am good at but has provided me with some amazing opportunities to travel and see the world.”

Elena also mentioned that the field of forensic DNA analysis is predominantly female except upper management. She has been lucky enough to have great mentors and for the most part, has felt welcomed by the field and the people that work in her field. Her first job was at a private lab called Bode Technology where she did DNA testing for convicted offenders and arrestees and performed paternity testing in criminal matters. I asked her to talk more about what that job was like and what she learned from it.

“A lot of people want to make an impact with their work and for me I wanted to impact my community. Our work spanned federal, state and local agencies and included work for defense counsel as well as for the Innocence Network. I testified as an expert in DNA Analysis for property crimes, homicides and sexual assaults, but my favorite work was working alongside the Innocence Network agencies.

For these cases, we were testing decades old casework to identify any missing biometric information to help prove wrongful conviction and actual innocence of convicted offenders. As a part of that role, I was allowed to attend an Innocence Network conference where I met some of the men and women the organization has helped free from prison. Their stories of wrongful conviction, serving life sentences or being put on death row for crimes they didn’t commit, and seeing the positivity that shone through the darkness was one of the most awe-inspiring moments of my career.

I have since moved on to tackle a different area of the forensics community, but I think this job really depicts the power that the field of forensic science holds to make change within the community. Whether public or private, forensic labs work to find truth through science and that’s one of the most powerful tools available to make communities safer places to live.”

Finally, I asked if Elena had any advice for current STEAM students or students who are considering a STEAM field.

“I’ve received some great advice over the years from mentors and friends which has massively impacted the way I approach my work and my life.

  1. “Stay open to opportunities and be flexible”- A graduate advisor once told me that its great to have a 5 year or 10 year plan, but if they’re too rigid, you’ll miss opportunities that you never could have anticipated. That is how I ended up at Bode and with my current job. These are jobs I didn’t think were available and had stumbled upon the opportunity by accident.
  2. “Figure out your ‘Why’ and take opportunities that help you maintain a sense of why while pursuing your goals”- If you really examine the things that you love to do and the things that bring you joy, normally you’ll find a common theme. This is your “Why”. Simon Sinek does a much better job of explaining this than I do, so Ill simply suggest reading his book- Start With Why.
  3. “Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.” I was once told comfort is a slow death, prefer the pain of growth and I have tried to carry that through my career in a way that I’m pushed to do more than what I think I’m capable of.”

I think students, and even those who have careers, in all fields can benefit from following Elena’s advice. Getting to learn a little bit more about Elena was truly inspiring for me and hopefully for you as well. She worked hard in school and in life and it all worked out for her. She was flexible in her future opportunities, decided to try out a career that she didn’t necessarily plan for, and ended up loving it which is so encouraging. Thank you to Elena for sharing all of this with us, it was a pleasure.

This post was written by Kirsten Caldwell, a graduate student of the FSU School of Information and graduate assistant of the FSU STEM libraries.

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