Women leading the way in STEM

March 18, 2021 · 6 min read · By ASU Online

Women are fueling change across science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) industries that are typically dominated by men. We’re highlighting two women who have relentlessly pursued their dreams and amplified their voices and actions to inspire the next generation of women in STEM.


Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton is an award-winning planetary scientist and vice president and co-chair of Arizona State University’s Interplanetary Initiative. She works to prepare humanity for the future of space and currently serves as principal investigator of the groundbreaking Psyche mission — NASA’s first to explore a metal-rich asteroid. Dr. Elkins-Tanton teaches ASU’s technological leadership program both online and on campus.

Mara Aspinall is a professor of practice for Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions, and teaches biomedical diagnostics both in person and online. She is a health care industry leader and pioneer committed to active civic involvement. Aspinall is the managing director and co-founder of BlueStone Venture Partners, a venture fund investing in life sciences technology companies. She is also managing director of the Health Catalysts Group, a consulting firm dedicated to the growth of health information technology and diagnostics firms, publishing the popular Health Catalysts Diagnostics Year in Review.

Mara Aspinall, professor of practice for Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions.

Mara Aspinall, professor of practice for Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions.

A future without limits: STEM leads to all different paths

Women make up only 28% of the STEM workforce and men vastly outnumber women majoring in most STEM fields in college, according to the American Association of University Women.

When women gain a fundamental understanding of science, technology, engineering and math they can open the door to a variety of career paths and help close gender gaps.

“A STEM education is the most important foundational learning that anyone can attain, even if you aren’t in a STEM field,” Aspinall said. “It teaches you to learn logically and think critically. It’s a fundamental foundation for understanding how to review and process information, which is a tremendous advantage in any industry.”

The problem-solving skills you develop while studying STEM courses can prepare you for deeper thinking and strategizing. Having the ability to make decisions based on logic and data is vital to your success.


Rising from humble beginnings and overcoming challenges


Many of the women advocating for change and striving to impact the future are those who have faced major challenges along the way. They use their personal anecdotes to help empower other women to never stop believing in their ability to make a difference.

“I describe my childhood in two ways,” Dr. Elkins-Tanton said. “On one hand, I was super privileged. My parents had enough money and we lived in a nice part of town. On the other hand, it was a tough childhood that caused me huge problems later in my life. It gave me a lot of work to do in my 20s.”

Several pivotal moments helped shape Dr. Elkins-Tanton's belief in taking action when something isn’t right, and to try to make a change where she sees things are wrong. Her past continues to impact her role as a leader and person of influence.

Aspinall also faced hurdles starting at a young age.

“As a young woman, I always wanted to be a doctor — desperately. However, in high school my guidance counselor told me that wasn’t an option because I was a girl,” Aspinall said. “I grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, where only about 50% of the students graduated high school. Becoming a doctor was tough for a boy in this neighborhood, but for a girl — impossible.”

Aspinall nearly gave up on her dreams because of her high school guidance counselor’s advice.

“I felt deflated, and immediately dropped all of my math and science courses. I had no motivation to pursue a path that I was told wasn’t within reach,” Aspinall said. “But the world has a funny way of bringing your passions back to you.”


Discovering a love for science

“I came into the space business kind of sideways. It’s not that I didn’t love it — it felt too distant from what I thought was accessible for me. I didn’t see a path — I didn’t even look for a path until the work I was doing was suddenly pertinent to the planets,” Dr. Elkins-Tanton said. “It was so intellectually exciting, but it was way more than that. It’s what astronomy does for you — it makes you feel like you come out of yourself. It becomes a philosophy. It’s spiritually fascinating to think about things that are not of our Earth.”

For Aspinall, her passion for science returned when she wanted to be a more effective leader and genuinely make a difference.

“Years later I accepted a new job, and my first assignments were in the health care field. Realizing how much it still meant to me, I decided to volunteer at the American Cancer Society and rose through the ranks from volunteer to chairman,” Aspinall said. “To be the most effective chairman, I needed to know the science. I was inspired to go back to school and learn the fundamentals so I could properly allocate resources and grants and make an impact with my position.”

Aspinall wants to let women know it’s never too late to start something new.

“School and work were a balancing act, but I was learning to help others in more impactful ways, all because I took my career into my own hands,” Aspinall said. “Many people say, ‘it’s never too late,’ and I can tell you it’s true. There is no ‘sell-by’ date. Could I have achieved what I have without a deeper science background? Maybe. But I wanted to make an impact on a broader range of people.”


Advancing the role of women working in STEM

“It can be difficult for women and people of color to find their path in a field that may not feel open to them, but it is open to you and you are wanted,” Aspinall said. “Everyone needs to be in an environment where they are respected and valued for their work.”

Being aware of the potential challenges, but knowing there is acceptance is key. Your merits can help you advance, regardless of gender.

“There is work to be done in this area, but I am hopeful about the future for a more diverse and equitable STEM workforce,” Dr. Elkins-Tanton said.

“The key is to make the most of every opportunity on your path and stay true to what you want out of your career, be it STEM or anything you’re passionate about,” Aspinall said.

These female leaders stress the importance of not letting someone else shape your path for you. Creating a more equitable world for women and girls who are passionate about pursuing careers in STEM starts with bringing awareness to their worth and value.


The ASU Online experience

Empowering students to think critically and solve real-world problems is essential within the ASU Online experience.

“Often students know to find answers in the back of a textbook, but we need to proactively teach students they have the agency and ability to solve problems on their own,” Dr. Elkins-Tanton said. “After all, most things are not known, and most problems are not solved.”

You can learn more about our STEM programs and see what ASU has to offer by joining the #ASUOnline conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Dr. Elkins-Tanton, planetary scientist and VP of the ASU Interplanetary Initiative, in a meteorite vault.

Dr. Elkins-Tanton, planetary scientist and VP of the ASU Interplanetary Initiative, in a meteorite vault.

The most important leadership lesson I’ve learned is that culture is everything. Leaders need to create a culture where every voice can be heard, where people can rise on their merits and where people feel comfortable bringing problems forward early.

Dr. Elkins-Tanton

Planetary scientist and VP of the ASU Interplanetary Initiative


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