On encouraging girls in STEM

Hello! I’m Jean. I’m the founder, director, and lead software developer here at cuSTEMized. And I’m also a PhD student in bioinformatics at Harvard. I do a lot of coding in my research, for cuSTEMized, and for fun.


I was first introduced to the idea of code in 8th grade. I thought it was so cool to write some gooble gok language, and have a computer read it, understand it, and execute your wishes. And then you can even share what you’ve written with millions of people and have their computers do the same. It was just really powerful and cool.

So when I was a freshman in high school, I decided to take an introduction to Java programming class. It was my first time trying to learn programming. And I was awful! I had a really hard time understanding basic concepts like variables, objects, encapsulation. What are you talking about? This was also my first introduction to logical thinking and really framing thoughts into loops and if statements. Anyways, long story short: I did really poorly.

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I did so poorly, that at the end of the class, we got back our finals, and the teachers put a sticker on the final if they thought we should advance to the next course. I, as you probably guessed, didn’t get a sticker. And that was really demotivating. I thought: I’m trying my best. And you’re basically telling me, stop trying. Maybe this isn’t for you.

Well after some initial sadness, and some more contemplation, I got really angry. I thought: you know, you’re not going to tell me what I can and can not do. I’m not going to accept that this is not for me. So I took that next course. I still struggled, but a little less than before. Concepts became more familiar. And I just kept going. Over time, I got better. I’m still getting better.

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I think, as a society, as parents, as people within STEM, we have to be more encouraging in STEM fields particularly to those more junior who are just starting out, simply because these are really challenging fields! But encouraging doesn’t mean telling your daughter she’s so smart and so talented. Rather, it’s telling her that she can fail. She probably will fail. But she can try again.

“If you’re struggling, it’s not because you’re stupid. It’s because you’re doing something challenging and worthwhile.” – Andrew Salch (my differential equations professor after our class bombed the first exam)