New Pioneers in STEM

  • By:  Jamie McAllister

When she was in grade school Noel Baker starred in educational videos to teach other kids about science. Today she is a postdoctoral program fellow at NASA, researching the long-term effects of climate change.

Swarnali Banerjee grew up in India, listening to her father, a high school math teacher, answer students’ questions during study sessions. In the evening she taught her dolls what she had learned in school and dreamed of the day she would become a teacher.

Elaine Horn-Ranney fell in love with math and science at an early age. Quiet and shy, she wanted to work behind the scenes and use science to improve people’s lives.

Historically women have been underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. But the tide is turning. Data from the National Girls Collaborative Project found that women earned 50.4 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in science and engineering in 2011. The survey also revealed that girls are taking high-level mathematics and science courses in school at about the same rate as boys.

According to a White House study, women with STEM jobs make 33 percent more money than women who pursue careers in non-STEM industries. Research also shows that the wage gap between the genders is not as large as it is in other fields.

Locally, women are finding their calling in STEM professions. Let’s meet three who have embraced their passion and pursued the careers of their dreams.

Noel Baker, a Yorktown resident, grew up in southern California. She combined her interest in acting with her passion for science by working with her dad, a high school math and science teacher, to create educational videos shown in schools around the country through a program called Cable in the Classroom. Even at a young age, Noel wanted to serve as a role model for other kids who might be interested in STEM subjects.

“I invited my dad to my own classroom to give presentations,” Noel said. “Some of the other female students didn’t think they liked science, but after seeing him create clouds in a bottle, they decided it was actually pretty cool.”

Noel pursued an education in mechanical engineering, ultimately earning her PhD from Arizona State University. In grad school she was the only female in a class of 200 students, and not one of her professors was a woman.

“It was a little disappointing to be the only woman in the class,” Noel said. “I would have liked to have had a female professor as a role model.”

Noel began her education with a more hands-on focus, intent on building things people would use in their everyday lives, like bridges. As she worked on her PhD, she became passionate about the application aspect, and her interest in climate science grew. Today she is a postdoctoral fellow at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, where she studies the long-term impact of climate changes, including the planet’s surface temperature and precipitation levels.

“By studying climate change, we can communicate the threat of extreme weather to vulnerable communities and possibly save lives and homes,” Noel explained.

Although Noel, 29, has never felt discriminated against because of her gender, she recognizes that women face obstacles in their careers different from those that male colleagues face. Because men have historically dominated STEM industries, many companies struggle with the issue of maternity leave for female employees. Women who choose to start a family sometimes have to cobble together leave time or go without pay to give birth and spend time with their baby. And while they are away from work, they worry the time they spend with their child will harm their prospects for the future.

“This is a problem all across the board and is not unique to any one company or industry,” Noel noted. “The good news is that people in the science fields are starting to give more thought to these issues. It’s so difficult because there isn’t a lot of precedent for young mothers in STEM careers, but I hope the conversations continue and that more progress is made.”

Noel sees many opportunities for the next generation of girls and young women interested in STEM subjects. She has two younger sisters and encourages them to do their best in school and to challenge themselves.

“There is so much you can do with a strong math and science background,” she said. “It isn’t easy, but if you work at it you can do so many amazing things. The key is to find what you love and go for it.”

Swarnali Banerjee always knew she wanted to be a teacher. Her father taught high school math and several of her uncles were also involved in mathematics and academia, so she was immersed in the world of numbers throughout her childhood. 

“Math was such an important part of my family’s life,” she said. “Even before I learned to talk, I was hearing about calculus.”

In high school Swarnali developed a love for statistics. While many of her classmates were eyeing careers as doctors or engineers, she had a different vision for her future.

“I was the only one in my class who wanted to study statistics,” she said. “Although it was my father’s dream that I become a doctor, he is proud I chose the same profession he did. Both of my parents are very supportive of the choices I have made in my life.”

Swarnali said she was never treated differently because she was a girl who was good at math.

“In school I had a great deal of independence to study what I enjoyed,” she said. “And after college when I started applying for open positions, I felt like I was treated the same as my male colleagues.”

While working on her master’s degree, Swarnali had the opportunity to teach undergrads and immediately fell in love with the work. She traveled to the U.S. to earn her PhD in statistics at the University of Connecticut-Storrs, and she just completed her first year at Old Dominion University as an assistant professor in the department of mathematics and statistics. She enjoys living and working in Norfolk and looks forward to a long career of teaching and research.

Recently Swarnali, 27, spoke at a Women in STEM workshop at ODU. She offered advice to female graduate students on how to create a resumé and how to prepare for job interviews. She wants to make sure the next generation of young women has the same access to opportunities she did, if not more.

“I encourage women who are interested and passionate about math and science to get involved in the programs available to them,” she said. “If you are passionate about math, now is truly an exciting time for students of statistics because it can be a part of just about any research project.”

Although STEM is a hot topic in schools across the country, Swarnali feels that society sometimes places too much emphasis on the curriculum. She feels that arts and humanities subjects are just as important and that girls shouldn’t feel pressured to pursue STEM careers if that is not where their passions lie.

“You should really enjoy what you do,” she said. “Like my dad told me, job satisfaction is so important. You want to be happy with the work you do every day, not just on the day when your check is deposited in the bank.”

When she was growing up, Elaine Horn-Ranney’s family moved around a lot because of her mom’s job in marketing, but despite the frequent moves she always excelled in school, especially in math. Her father had a PhD in entomology, the study of insects, and he instilled in her a love of science when she was very young.

“I always knew my dad had a PhD, but when I was in middle school, I realized that was the epitome of education,” Elaine explained. “Right then I decided I wanted to earn a PhD, too.”

After graduation Elaine moved from North Carolina to New Orleans to attend Tulane University, where she earned her PhD in biomedical engineering. Around 30 percent of the students in the department were female, and many of the professors were women.

“I think more women are drawn to biomedical engineering because of the healthcare aspect,” Elaine said.

Almost three years ago Elaine, now 29, began looking for her next project. She wanted to use gels to treat medical conditions, and when her husband Jesse, a pediatrician, mentioned that eardrum perforations are common among children with ear infections, Elaine got the idea to create an innovative gel patch to replace the surgical procedure currently used to correct the problem. Elaine then created a medical device company called Tympanogen. Right now she is working to further develop the product and get FDA approval.

Although she has celebrated many successes in her life, Elaine has also faced her share of frustrations as a female in a male-dominated industry. When she was in college, she recalls being told she was “too pretty to be an engineer.” Now that she runs her own company, she often has to deal with the misconception that her husband is the one in charge, not her.

“When I correct those people and tell them I am the CEO, they are astounded,” Elaine said. “One time at a business event after I gave a presentation someone in the audience wanted to know just who actually came up with the idea for the gel patch. When I said I did and that I have a PhD in biomedical engineering, the person looked like he didn’t quite believe me. It is frustrating when those types of moments occur, but I don’t let them discourage me.”

Elaine would like to see young women in high school and college get more involved with STEM programs, even if their ultimate goal is not a STEM career.

“Studying math and science promotes analytical thinking and problem solving,” she said. “I am amazed by how many times algebra comes up in my daily life. For instance, I find myself using it to decide which product is a better deal at the grocery store. Math is vital to money management, and it is at the heart of technology. In our technology-driven world, not being good at math can hold you back.”

Elaine thinks the outlook for young women pursuing STEM careers is good. Even though she feels it’s still harder for women to get as far as men in their careers, it is not impossible. She says by focusing on their studies, women can open themselves up to so many more opportunities.

“Confidence is everything,” she said. “Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do something. Don’t believe them. There is very little in this world that hard work won’t fix.”

For more information:

Jamie McAllister is a freelance writer in Virginia Beach. She writes for businesses, nonprofits, and publications. For more information, visit

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