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Taking Measure

Just a Standard Blog

Women in STEM: Igniting Young Minds, Illuminating the Future

Hae-Jeong Lee speaks into a microphone as a student stands beside her

Me stressing the importance of effective communication in conducting scientific research with female students majoring in STEM fields at the annual regional (Jeollabuk-do Province) Korea Center for Women In Science, Engineering and Technology (WISET) Day.

Credit: WISET

I am a research chemist and lab officer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). From November 2019 to February 2020, I worked as an Embassy Science Fellow in the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea. The U.S. Department of State’s Office of Science and Technology Cooperation manages this program. Since 2001, it has successfully placed nearly 550 American scientists and engineers in U.S. embassies and consulates around the world to advance U.S. interests by supporting American science, technology, environment, health and innovation priorities. Currently, 18 federal agencies, including NIST, actively participate in the program. The proposal that I volunteered for was “Women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)” to promote women’s economic empowerment.

The U.S. and South Korean governments agreed to work together to promote women’s economic empowerment when President Donald Trump and President Moon Jae-in met in November 2017 in South Korea. The number of South Korean women in STEM fields has risen in recent decades, but the data shows South Korea still has a long way to go. The United States is well positioned to work with South Korean stakeholders to inspire more girls to pursue careers in STEM fields and advance gender equality. I participated in the program to bolster linkages between the two countries, building durable relationships between educational, scientific and professional communities in order to increase STEM education opportunities for future female scientists and engineers, which could have a significant impact on social and economic conditions in both countries.

My long-running passion has been to help foster STEM education opportunities for underprivileged students both for their sake and for the betterment of society. To do this, my family and I founded a faith-based STEM education initiative in 2013 to inspire young students from underprivileged backgrounds to pursue careers in STEM fields by providing exposure to professional researchers. I work as the executive director, coordinating and programming annual STEM events with other professionals, and have thus far reached over 1,000 young students globally. We have partnered with multiple organizations and nonprofits from nations all over the world, including Mongolia, the Philippines and South Korea.

I have learned a few lessons during these past seven years with my nonprofit. First, exposing students to science through hands-on experience is crucial to sparking interest in science and having them discover their latent ability and talents. Professional volunteers can share not only scientific knowledge, but more importantly their passion, becoming role models for the students. Second, coordination between industry, the professional scientific community, and educational and governmental institutions is essential to operate such a program successfully. Third, educating teachers via example and helping them develop lesson plans are very effective ways to provide a long-lasting resource for students after the professional volunteers have left.

While I worked as an Embassy Science Fellow, I focused on building stronger and more effective relationships between all the stakeholders to help promote U.S. national interests globally. I helped develop practical, modern and interdisciplinary scientific programs to improve teacher training for the advancement of future scientists and engineers using my 30 years of experience as a woman in science, as well as an executive director of a STEM nonprofit. With these experiences, I focused on developing and supporting three projects: education, mentoring and internships.

The first project to develop was the Embassy Science Day, which is a one-day outreach event for elementary to high school students. The goal of this event is to inspire young students, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, and promote their interests in STEM by allowing them to experience hands-on science. We had great success recruiting over 30 STEM professional volunteers from various organizations, including universities, national labs, research centers and private corporations, to officially form the Embassy STEM volunteers. Originally two Embassy Science Day events were organized with the Embassy STEM volunteers, one for female high school students who plan to study STEM fields and one for elementary and middle school students from multicultural families, which were supposed to be held in February 2020. Unfortunately, the events had to be rescheduled to sometime this summer due to the coronavirus, but I remain confident that these two events will have great impact.

Group of Korean students in a small meeting room giving the "thumbs up" sign
Professors and students who attended WISET Day.
Credit: WISET

The second project was the Global Mentoring Program. The purpose of this program is to provide female undergraduate and graduate students majoring STEM fields with networking and mentoring opportunities with STEM professionals working for global companies. This was a preexisting program, and I recruited more international companies from both the U.S. and South Korea to join. It was a great pleasure to meet and share this vision with equally passionate business leaders interested in promoting these societal investments.

The final project that I worked on was the Global Internship Program. The goal of this is to provide female undergraduate and graduate students majoring in STEM fields opportunities to work in advanced research institutes in the U.S., supporting women’s economic empowerment by developing their vision for their future, finding role models and building strong professional networks. This project is intended to foster greater collaboration among the U.S. and South Korean governments and the private sector.

In addition to the design and implementation of new programs, I had a chance to give several talks on STEM, leadership and communication and had mentoring sessions for both high school North Korean defector students and female STEM undergraduate and graduate students. During the talks, I spoke about my experience as a research chemist and lab officer working for the semiconductor industry and NIST, incorporating into the presentation simple scientific demonstrations and communication activities. I emphasized the value of STEM education and stressed the importance of effective communication in conducting scientific research. I discussed what the students needed to develop in order to be STEM professionals as well. I provided informal career advice mentoring sessions to students in STEM fields. Students were especially interested in learning how to find opportunities working and studying in other advanced countries. They were anxious about their future, especially about finding work in the STEM fields, but they were encouraged by learning what skills and experiences were essential to becoming future STEM professionals.

Paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr., we emphasized the advice that we all have responsibilities to our society and world. We stressed that there are three things to keep in mind in order to accomplish that.

  1. Try to find what you really want to do and what your talents are.
  2. Enjoy challenging yourself when you find your talents and interests.
  3. Be a leader to change your family, your society, your nation and the whole world.

The advice was well received and provided a good opportunity for students to think about their future. It was a great privilege and honor to assist the State Department’s international mission, and I thank God for giving me an opportunity to reach out to the future generation of the country I was born in, South Korea. I believe, as it says in the Bible, that “in their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps,” and so I am grateful for this opportunity.

About the author

Hae-Jeong Lee

Hae-Jeong Lee is the lab officer for the Materials Science and Engineering Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). She enjoys assisting the division to operate effectively, efficiently and safely. She has worked for NIST and the semiconductor industry as a research chemist and a process engineer since 1994 after graduating from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) with a Ph.D. in Chemistry. She has received her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Ewha Womans University. She also actively works on developing STEM education for young students from underprivileged backgrounds through a science education initiative.    

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I am so impressed.........this is a wonderful opportunity!
Thank you so much for doing amazing things!!

Thanks for your comment! It is always amazing and rewarding to talk to future scientists.

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