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Influencing the Future in STEM

By Margie Monin Dombrowski

­The world of STEM is vast and rapidly changing, and career opportunities are on the rise. In 2012, the STEM workforce was numbered at 7.4 million and is expected to grow to 8.65 million in 2018, according to a report by My College Options and STEMConnector. While STEM generally refers to careers in science, technology, engineering and math, it’s much more diverse than that.

There are a great many specialties and niches to explore in STEM, and there are many ways to make your STEM career your own. While you don’t necessarily have to follow someone else’s footsteps, the unique stories of how these Latinas are shaping the future through their influential roles in STEM show us what’s possible.

Influencing the Future

Esther Tristani, Ph.D Scientist for the Burt’s Bees brand at Clorox Durham, N.C.

A career in chemistry, for Esther Tristani, Ph.D., began when she was in high school. Back then, a chemistry teacher shook up her perception of a chemistry teacher. “She was very young and modern, and the opposite of what you think of when you think of a chemistry teacher,” Dr. Tristani says. “I thought that maybe I could be like that someday.”

In her chemistry Ph.D. program at Duke University, she explored the idea of becoming a professor. “I wanted [people] to get over that stereotype of the nerdy chemist, and show that science isn’t scary and that anybody can do this,” says Dr. Tristani.

After presenting her research at a conference in Washington, D.C., she was invited to interview with The Clorox Company in Pleasanton, Calif. Although working in the industry wasn’t what she had initially planned, it piqued her curiosity. Once she learned about the science behind the consumer products, she fell in love with the idea. “It all goes with this person I wanted to be: the person who presents science as easy and fun,” she says.

Joining Clorox in 2010, she worked on product development for brands such as Pine-Sol and 409 before switching to Burt’s Bees in 2013, where she develops cosmetics and over-the-counter drug formulations. “It’s been a really big challenge as a chemist coming from the cleaning industry where you’re not bound by [as many] regulations to come into a completely natural space where you’re limited,” says Dr. Tristani. “It makes it exciting at the same time to figure out what you can use to make the formulas better and consumer acceptable.”

At Clorox, she was active in the Latinos for Excellence, Advancement and Development (LEAD) program. No employee resource group like this existed at Burt’s Bees, so she started the Multicultural Network, a universal group offering support to a diverse mix of employees.

While other female scientists may take a more serious approach to earning respect, Dr. Tristani lets her enthusiasm shine when talking about the products she develops. “We have great science and research, but the way to get people to open up is to show the excitement I have for the work I do,” she says. “I feel that people really respond to that.”

No matter your STEM career focus, you can do it your own way, like Dr. Tristani has. “Be passionate about what you do,” she shares. “Don’t think that if you don’t fit the stereotype of the typical scientist that you can’t be one because you can.”

Rosa Catala Steidle

Rosa Catala Steidle

Rosa Catala-Steidle Director of STEM Innovation Liberty Science Center, Jersey City, N.J.

Rosa Catala-Steidle is a lifelong learner, which makes it no wonder that she started her career as an early childhood educator. After earning a degree in early childhood education with an environmental studies concentration, she found herself teaching Spanish to students as young as Pre-K in New York City, but she never forgot her interest in science.

However, after three years of teaching and becoming bored with the routine that comes with it, Catala-Steidle was ready to tackle something new. Wanting to combine her love for teaching and science, she was hired in 2001 at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., where she’s currently the Director of STEM Innovation. “I needed to transition out of formal teaching and jump into informal teaching,” Catala-Steidle says. “It’s the informal side that’s kept my interest and continued to challenge me. I haven’t left my first love, which is education; I’ve just crafted [my career] in a different way.”

Catala-Steidle currently oversees the video conferencing program, which delivers scientific content to students all over the world. Through the Live From program, she’s able to bring students right into an operating room to watch a live surgery, and learn about how the human body works or to consider their career options in the health sciences. “The Live From surgery program is so demanding of your knowledge base,” she says of the program that enables students to talk to surgeons as they perform surgery in real time. “What helped me to overcome that challenge was to have a solid rapport with the doctors in asking them what could be considered a silly question but would help us to understand this ever-changing world. I see them as educators too,” as they assist her in the teaching process.

Liberty Science Center

Liberty Science Center

One thing she loves about her job: the diversity. Liberty Science Center is a unique place to work because it’s very inclusive,” she says, which includes employees with Ph.Ds and backgrounds in neuroscience to finance. “If I need to overcome something in a particular area, I could ask anyone on staff—you get various perspectives.”

Now thriving in an exciting career that constantly challenges her, Catala-Steidle, who is also a mother to a 14-month-old daughter, makes sure she devotes enough time to both family and career to keep a healthy balance. “I’m slowly adjusting and learning,” she says. “Every day is a new beginning, but I live and breathe for those challenges.”

According to Catala-Steidle, “success is capturing the thing you want to do and loving it because if you don’t love it, it’s not a success.”

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