Chasing Storms and a STEM Degree

Tornado

I went to Chicago recently to visit family and had some time to catch up with my niece Stephanie Gizzi. She is a senior at Northern Illinois University.  I interviewed her to see what it’s like for young women pursuing a STEM degree these days. Here is our conversation.

Stephanie, tell me about the degree program you are in.

I’m getting a Bachelor of Science in Meteorology – it’s an engineering-based science degree. I’m done with all of my calculus and physics, so I’m taking mostly meteorology courses now. 

I am getting my GIS (Geographic Information Systems) certificate to differentiate myself from other meteorologists.  I am using ArcMap to analyze geospatial data. I can compare all kinds of historic trends to today’s data and graph it. It’s really practical in business for analyzing growth zones for development, visualize population density trends and things like that. For example, Walgreen’s uses it to plan where to open retail stores. 

I’m also learning computer programming in Python. We choose a weather event like Hurricane Katrina and code maps to replicate and plot that event (using heights, winds and other atmospheric data). Then we graph it. My professor added computer programming to our curriculum because it’s so important.

Why did you choose this major? 

Severe weather has always fascinated me. I remember watching storms from the porch when I was little. I was afraid of funnel clouds for a long time, and then I started learning about them. I think the more you know about something, the less you fear it. I always think: Why does it happen and what can we do to warn people? Ultimately, it’s about saving lives to me. 

What interested you about meteorology?

The atmosphere is so interesting. Why wouldn’t you be interested in it?

Is it what you expected?

No, meteorology is a lot harder than I expected. I didn’t realize how much math and physics I needed. I skipped my last year in high school and missed senior math, so I didn’t have a solid math foundation going into it. It’s been tough – I’ve had to work super hard. I have learned that you can’t compare yourself to everyone else or you get discouraged. I always remind myself, I’ve come this far – I can’t stop now!

There has always been a “weed out” culture in university STEM programs. A lot of women drop out of STEM and declare another major half way through. What do you do when you think about bailing?

I thought about changing majors a lot during the first semester of my junior year. I saw lots of people dropping out and was worried I couldn’t handle it. I told myself to stop complaining, suck it up and just learn it. On assignments, I had to forget about the equations, and just take it one step at a time. I remind myself often that it will be worth it. I picture myself getting my degree and working in the field I love.

What’s your support network like? Do you have other women role models or peers to lean on?

I have a really good friend who is a year and a half older than me. She already had a tech certificate but couldn’t find a job so now she’s in meteorology. We are two of three women in the course. We stick together. I have a professor from China – she is always encouraging us.  She is the first female meteorology professor I’ve had and I just learn so much from her and her teaching style. I thank her all of the time.

How could your support system be better?

I think if people knew how hard the BS in Meteorology program is, they would encourage me more. What I am doing is really important – weather affects everyone, it’s such a big part of our lives.

Most people ask if I’m studying news journalism so I can be the weather girl. I say, “No, I’m a meteorologist, I’m a scientist.” No one would ask a guy that.

What do you want to do when you graduate? What’s your dream job?

Definitely storm chasing! I want to work in the field – I have to be researching. I love setting up the instrumentation, analyzing the data and making sure people know the latest. You have to be out there to really learn what’s going on, and then you can truly help people. 

I also love the challenge of being in the field. I come home some days and think, “Wow I’m a scientist.” So places like Fermilab, Argonne National Laboratory or the National Weather Service are all places I’d love to work.

Is there anything women my age can do to help women in STEM degree programs?

I think having more women speakers talking with us about what they do would help a lot. I think women are good communicators and would give us a more realistic picture of what it’s like. I want to know about the reality, what I’m getting myself into. The male speakers who come to our classes never hint that they had to struggle, so I can’t relate. I just don’t think they are being open, so it’s tough to identify with them. 

Would you do it again?

Yes, but ten times better! I have confidence now. Confidence is everything!

I walked away from my conversation with Stephanie feeling very proud of her for her hard work and her desire to help other people. I think her advice to women in technical fields is pretty simple. We can make a difference by leveraging our networks to get more female expert speakers at universities or by pulling some of these talented young women into networking circles to have real conversations.

What else could we do to improve the atmosphere for women chasing STEM degrees?

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