From the campus of MIT, to Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill, to Silicon Valley, the GAINS (Girls Advancing in STEM) Conference had been held in some lofty locales before finally landing a bit closer to home in New York City. And despite the overwhelming success of prior conferences, nothing beats the Big Apple—the fourth annual conference gave the girls access to area universities, global corporations, and professionals who are leaders in their fields.
On opening night, 110 high school girls from 18 schools and 8 states found themselves in the sleek Times Square offices of Oath, the umbrella company of Verizon's digital content subdivisions, including AOL and Yahoo! Upon arrival the girls grabbed their IDs and some snacks, and headed to a reception area that had been converted into an interactive exhibit space. There they tried their hands at math and engineering challenges developed by MoMath, National Museum of Mathematics, and experienced a state-of-the art virtual reality simulation from immersive media company RYOT.
The GAINS Network was established by Greenwich Academy in 2011 to connect girls with a passion for STEM with each other and with women working and studying in STEM fields to support, encourage, teach, and inspire one another. While the virtual network has been the ideal mechanism for bridging the gap between mentors and students spread across the country, there was a need to extend that experience to include a face-to-face component. And the benefit of that face-to-face interaction was clear from the moment the girls arrived at Oath.
The opening keynote was delivered by Maureen Sullivan, COO of Rent the Runway (RtR), who explained that everything they do is made possible by their engineering team. Ms. Sullivan talked about their business model, drawing parallels between RtR, Uber, AirBnB, and others "sharing economy" businesses. She also brought with her three women from the RtR engineering team who talked about their paths to becoming engineers. Who knew a pre-med econ major could end up coding at a tech start-up, or that a Coding for Dummies book received as a Christmas present could lead to a lifelong love of computer science? These multi-talented women also gave overviews of the parts of the web experience they were each responsible for and offered advice on how the girls can prepare today for a career in STEM. Group X student Bella, one of the 24 Greenwich Academy attendees said, "I loved the Rent the Runway keynote because I got to see women combine fashion with technology in ways I had never thought of before. Most people just see and hear about the fashion side of the company but this allowed us to see the incredible women behind all the technology, and more generally, how easily STEM can intertwine with other interests."
The energy of opening night spilled into the next two days of the conference. The girls' days were packed with career mixers, technical talks, STEM tours, and a panel discussion held at the BUILD Studio. Anyone who thought STEM was just about engineering and computer science was quickly disabused of this notion. Tech talks ventured into topics as diverse as astronomy, spore formation in microbes, app development, the "startup mentality," and electronic trading. STEM tours included NYU's makerspace, Mt. Sinai Medical School, computer aided drug design at Schrödinger, and a behind the scenes look at the Central Park Zoo, among others.
"What I found most influential about the GAINS conference was the fact that so many powerful women could come together and shared their experiences, both good and difficult," said Group XI student Jenna, "In a world where women are sometimes told they can't, it is refreshing to hear from women who believed they could and proved others wrong in the process. The discussions I had with various female professionals incited hope for a promising future."
GAINS Network and Conference organizer Dr. Ann Decker said of the three-days event: "It meant so much to watch these girls track down a speaker after a tech talk because they wanted to learn more about a topic. To overhear them discussing gene expression over lunch with a peer from another school. To show them that there is a network of peers and professionals who will lift them up and support them as they head in to college and career. That's what it's all about."
The GAINS Conference was made possible by the generous support of OATH, Tim & Nancy Armstrong, the Edward E. Ford Foundation, and Greenwich Academy.