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Women in Science Wednesday highlights UNC's women in STEM

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Sweta Karlekar, a sophomore studying computer science, was featured in Endeavors, a UNC research publication, as an exemplary female researcher in its series “Women in Science Wednesday.” Photo courtesy of Karlekar.

Endeavors, a UNC research publication, features an exemplary women researcher each week in its series “Women in Science Wednesday.”

The series highlights accomplishments of women scientists and humanizes the profession through telling the individual stories of people and their accomplishments. 

Women in STEM today still face underrepresentation. 

Catherine Chen, a second-year Ph.D. student researches toad mating habits to better understand evolutionary biodiversity. She said that her mentors helped her and reviewed her writing during her undergraduate career. In addition to her studies, she has produced research communications with the goal of interesting more people in science. 

Now, at UNC, she’s continued to find a supportive network.

“Biology is a great department to be in,” Chen said. “It’s a very collaborative environment.”

But she said that she noticed most Ph.D. students in her department are women, while most of her professors are men. 

Katrina Morgan, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in mathematics, was also featured in the series. She said she enjoys her research, which focuses on using equations to describe the behaviors of light waves. However, since joining the department, she has had to adjust to new social dynamics and deal with feelings of isolation.

“The reality has been that I’ve been the only woman in my graduate classes,” Morgan said. “I love what I do. If I leave, there will be one less woman around.”

Sweta Karlekar, a sophomore studying computer science, writes computer programs that use artificial intelligence to detect early signs of Alzheimer's disease. She hopes to have her first paper reviewed and published soon.

Yet, like Morgan, she said she's often the only woman in her college classes.

"College was the first time being in a classroom that was mostly male, and it was hard to find female friends in the classes," Karlekar said. "Guys in class don't want to be in a group with girls."

Being a Chancellor's Science Scholar does provide her with a network of peers and mentors who also come from minority backgrounds. 

“They're ready to help, and I love that,” Karlekar said. “I knew that I wanted to apply my computer science skills to something that could benefit people.”

Karlekar’s own passion for STEM led her to create a non-profit group called Club Luminous. High school students pass on what they’ve learned about STEM to middle school students in the club, which has now expanded to 11 chapters in three states.

“It’s really hard for a kid to learn this stuff," Karlekar said. “You need to educate people in what’s happening. “ 

Morgan promotes her own field of study through Girls Talk Math, a summer camp she founded several years ago. The camp, which UNC hosts, exposes high school girls to more difficult math problems that they otherwise might not see until college. Morgan also assigns the campers a significant female mathematician to learn about, and said it gives them a chance to see that women have been doing math forever. 

"Draw a scientist — everyone drew a nerdy white male," she said. "But it's a diverse group of people. There are different personalities. It shows them that there is not one mold."


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