UA Little Rock Celebrates International Day of Women and Girls in Science

International Day of Women and Girls in Science is Feb. 11.

In celebration of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, UA Little Rock is highlighting some of the women in science at UA Little Rock, their amazing research, and their journeys to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

Dr. René A. Shroat-Lewis, Associate Professor of Earth Science

Tell us about yourself?

I’m from San Diego, California, but spent my childhood in West Palm Beach, Florida. I did not start college until I was 35 years old, having served in the United States Navy as a weapons specialist and a variety of other jobs including elementary school secretary, deckhand on a fishing boat, and as a housing officer for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. I earned my associate degree from Cape Fear Community College, my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and my Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee.

I started my career as a marine biology student, but took a geology class and was immediately hooked (thank you, Dr. Garwood). My specialty is invertebrate paleontology with a focus in echinoderm paleoecology and geoscience education. One of the highlights of my work at UA Little Rock is that every two years I get to take students to San Salvador Island in the Bahamas to share my love for both the geology and the marine environment. I am incredibly lucky!

I have two adult sons, William and Richard, who support my love for science every day. In my spare time, I enjoy gardening, watching chick-flicks, riding roller coasters, and spoiling my 14-year-old dog, Honor Pookie.

What is your role as a woman in science at UA Little Rock?

I am an associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences. I’ve been at UA Little Rock since 2012. I teach a wide variety of topics from undergraduate introductory courses to upper level and graduate courses, such as Physical Geology, Paleobiology, Oceanography, Natural Disasters, and Geology and Ecology of the Bahamas. I also teach Science & Society I and II for the Donaghey Scholars Honors Program. I currently have two graduate students involved in research – one is studying landslide activity near Round Mountain in northern Arkansas, and the other is studying how to make introductory labs more relevant to the everyday lives of our students.

Earth Science professor Rene Shroat-Lewis.
Dr. René A. Shroat-Lewis

What inspired you to pursue a degree in the sciences?

I knew by the age of five that I wanted to be a scientist. My grandfather, who really inspired my love for all things marine, used to take me fishing on the weekends. When the fish weren’t biting, we would take a stroll through the tidepools, and he would share everything he knew about the critters with me. I also used to get both of my grandparents outside in the middle of the night to watch meteor showers and look at the stars. My grandmother found more bugs, worms, shells, and rocks in my pockets on laundry day than should ever be allowed.

My favorite classes in school were always the science classes. I used to beg the teachers to let me do extra experiments and labs. As a parent, my favorite part of the year was when my sons had to do either invention days or science fairs. It was only natural that when I decided to go to college at the age of 35 that I would pursue a science career. Marine biology was my first love, but my work in geology allows me to use modern extant organisms to better understand how ancient extinct organisms fit into their ecosystems.

Why do you think diversity is important, especially in the science fields?

Dr. René A. Shroat-Lewis,
Dr. René A. Shroat-Lewis during a research trip to the Bahamas.

We are a product of our upbringing, each with different experiences and perceptions that impacts our decision-making skills. It is this diversity that creates a well-rounded group of critical thinkers. I am especially interested in engaging more women of color in geosciences as their voices are underrepresented in this discipline. Currently, women represent about 28% of all geoscientists, and women of color represent less than 5%.

We must increase these numbers if we want to remain at the forefront of discovery and innovation critical to understanding Earth and its interactions with human societies. To that end, I serve as the South Central Delegate for the Association for Women Geoscientists. Our mission is to enhance the quality and level of women in the geosciences and to introduce girls and young women to geoscience careers.

What advice would you give to girls and women who want to pursue a career in the sciences?

Don’t be afraid to ask to meet with other women in the sciences. We want to engage you in our research! We get so excited when someone wants to know more about what we do. There are so many different types of careers available to scientists including those in academia, industry, environmental remediation, medicine, museums, NASA, and other government positions. A degree in the sciences means you will be in demand for your critical thinking skills and knowledge.

Ronia Kattoum, Advanced Instructor of Chemistry and Ph.D. Student 

Tell us about yourself.

My family moved to the Chicago area from Palestine when I was a child. After overcoming the language barrier, I began to prosper in all subject areas, but I was particularly drawn to the sciences because they were the most challenging. I was accepted in a selective STEM Program in high school which set the stage for my undergraduate college career at Loyola University Chicago, where I earned a B.S in Chemistry: Biochemistry.

Faculty Excellence nominee Ronia Kattoum. Photo by Ben Krain.
Ronia Kattoum

Having been married at a younger age, I took a break from my studies to take care of my growing family after we relocated to Little Rock, Arkansas. Shortly after settling down in Arkansas, I set out on my journey into graduate school and earned two master’s degrees in chemistry and higher education, which helped me land a job as an instructor of chemistry at UA Little Rock.

After eight years of teaching full-time, I am currently on the path to earn my Ph.D. in Applied Science: Chemistry. Although I miss Chicago and visit often, I enjoy exploring the many beautiful national parks in Arkansas with my four children. I also enjoy baking, cooking, painting, and playing sports with my kids.

What is your role as a woman in science at UA Little Rock?

I am currently a full-time advanced instructor of chemistry and on track to earn my Ph.D. in Applied Science: Chemistry. I teach General, Fundamentals, and Organic Chemistry and their respective labs. As the Freshman Program Coordinator in my department, I mentor and train graduate teaching assistants in evidence-based pedagogical practices to strengthen their teaching and prepare them for a career in academia.

I have also helped launch the Learning Assistant Program in the Chemistry Department to help train more advanced undergraduate learning assistants to assist in facilitating group work alongside the instructor or in their own workshop sessions. The focus of my research is exploring the effect of evidence-based teaching practices and teaching reform on students’ sense of belonging and performance in high attrition courses from a lens of a diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoint.

What inspired you to pursue a career in the sciences?

As far as I can remember, I have always been curious and drawn to solving difficult problems. If I saw a puzzle, I wouldn’t rest until I figured out how to put it together. No matter how much I learned, I was always excited to learn more and explore further. I found everything fascinating in school, but I gravitated toward studying the sciences because I loved challenges and competitions. My high school chemistry teacher really inspired me to study chemistry in college. The further I studied the subject, the more fascinated I became by it. It helped explain so many things that I observed in my everyday world. I still discover something new every day!

Why do you think diversity is important, especially in science fields?

If you were to have asked me 15 years ago if I saw myself as a scientist, I would have seen it as highly unlikely. As a first-generation college student and woman of Middle Eastern descent, I didn’t see myself fitting in that role because I didn’t see many scientists that looked like me. I thought it was reserved for those who were much more capable and creative than I was.

But my professors saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself and encouraged me to find my calling. I realized how important those role models were in helping me shape my path and realizing my full potential. Now, I have the privilege of being that figure that will inspire others to pursue their dreams. By encouraging students from all backgrounds to pursue science, we bring fresh voices and unique ideas that will help us solve problems, catapulting discovery and innovation to the next level. We also lay down the groundwork for inspiring the next generation of scientists.

What advice would you give to girls and women who want to pursue a career in the sciences?

First, realize your own potential and capabilities and don’t underestimate what you can accomplish. There is no cookie-cutter version of what you should be. It is your unique traits that will set you apart from the rest and help you reach milestones that previously seemed unattainable to women. What you may have perceived as a barriers will end up being your biggest strength.

Second, don’t be afraid to reach out to your teachers/mentors and build connections with them. They are your biggest champions and will help you reach those milestones that you have your heart and mind set on.

Lastly, be proactive and seek equity and justice for all human beings. Just because something has been done a certain way for a long time doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the right way. We have made so many strides as women, but it is up to you to carry that torch and take it to the next level so future generations of women in science do not face the same barriers you have experienced.

Dr. Stefanie Leacock, Instructor and Coordinator of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Biology

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in South Carolina and studied biology at Florida State University before attending Yale University for a Ph.D. in Genetics. I did post-doctoral research at UT-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, then transitioned into teaching at University of Texas-Austin for five years.

Dr. Stefanie Leacock, Instructor of Coordinator of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Biology
Dr. Stefanie Leacock

I moved to Little Rock in 2016 with my spouse and our three kids, the youngest was just two months old at the time! I was a consultant for biology higher education publishing for a couple of years before returning to teach and learn with undergraduate students at UA Little Rock in 2018.

What is your role as a woman in science at UA Little Rock?

I am a biology instructor and coordinator of undergraduate studies for our department. I teach a lot of our biology majors in introductory courses and then get to teach them again in upper division courses. Seeing their growth as students uplifts me! I love being a member of a community of faculty here who are interested in improving teaching and learning.

I have been a PALM Fellow (Promoting Active Learning and Mentoring), which is a national network devoted to learning as well as participated in developing a LibreText (open access textbook) for my genetics class to help students by reducing cost of courses and well as targeting the book to my teaching.

What inspired you to pursue a career in the sciences?

I was interested in biology starting in high school, but the idea of medical school wasn’t appealing to me. I started doing undergraduate research as a junior at FSU, and my research mentor there encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D. I didn’t even know where to apply – so she had to help me come up with a list of choices! Graduate school was difficult for me at first, but I credit my program at Yale with providing amazing support and guidance so that I could succeed.

Why do you think diversity is important, especially in science fields?

I love being an instructor here. Our diverse students have great experiences and ideas to bring to my understanding of biology and how to teach it. I recognize that one aspect of diversity is the privilege I had to focus on my schooling as an undergraduate. Broadening science has to include broadening when we can become scientists, allowing reaching, teaching, and learning for more than just full-time/first-time undergraduate students.

What advice would you give to girls and women who want to pursue a career in the sciences?

1. Don’t believe the myths about scientists. Scientists don’t have to be lonely or introverted. We love collaboration and community! Sure there are times we have to concentrate, but that is true of many professions.

2. Mentors, mentors, mentors. I had amazing mentors as 1 – undergraduate, 2 – graduate work, 3 – postdoctoral fellow, and even now as a faculty member I have other faculty that are terrific at listening, helping, and giving advice. Two of my three research advisors were women, but the third was not and he was an excellent role model for the importance of work/life/family balance, so don’t assume that all good mentors have to be female either.

3. Don’t lose the sense of awe and wonder! Discovery feels amazing!

Mayor Inna Gurung, Graduate Student, Software Developer, and Research Assistant at COSMOS

Tell us about yourself?

I am Mayor Inna Gurung from Nepal, a graduate student in the Department of Information Science at UA Little Rock. I completed my undergraduate degree in computing in 2020 from Leeds Beckett University, and I have been working as a software developer for about three years now and planning to do my Ph.D. in information science after my graduation. Besides work and studies, I am a travel enthusiast. I love exploring new places and cultures.

What is your role as a woman in science at UA Little Rock?

I am working as a graduate research assistant in COSMOS as a part of YoutubeTracker. It is a tool that can track, monitor, and identify influential YouTube groups and content.

What inspired you to pursue a career in the sciences?

Mayor Inna Gurung
Mayor Inna Gurung

Well, I don’t have a very specific reason. In part, it was a mere curiosity as a kid to understand how devices were working and how they made certain applications. But as I grew up, I understood there is way more to it. As a family with a business background, my parents were always hesitant for me to pursue a career in computer science.

Eventually, I was able to convince them and started my undergraduate in computing. Being able to inspire many women in my community where computer science is still a big dream for women is what motivates me to do better every day.

Why do you think diversity is important, especially in science fields?

One of the hardest challenges that I had to face while working as a developer back in my home country is that I was the only woman developer. Sure, they were helpful but I always felt like I would have been more comfortable if I had the opportunity to discuss my confusions and ideas with diverse colleagues. I believe a diverse work and research environment brings new approaches and ideas to every problem. A monochromatic approach never brings out the best in anything.

What advice would you give to girls and women who want to pursue a career in the sciences?

Please do not get discouraged by the lack of women leadership. We need you and your ideas. Try making your first application, or a coding challenge, join a hackathon, explore your interests, and always remember your dreams are valid. In your path, you are never denied, you are only redirected.

Jne Banner, Nursing Major

Tell us about yourself?

Born in Wilmington, Delaware, I was raised by a single mother which created some challenges. However, I learned to be kind, selfless, and my dreams were never far reaching. My family and I relocated to Little Rock in 2002 to be closer to my family. At the time, I was also preparing for motherhood. My only child is now a 19-year-old freshman attending Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When we moved to Arkansas, I gained a love for animals, hiking, fitness, and traveling. I also have a circle of friends I love to hang out with.

What is your role as a woman in science at UA Little Rock?

Jne Banner
Jne Banner

Women are innovators. Representing UA Little Rock as a woman in science is an honor. My goal is to inspire others, young and seasoned, to consider opportunities science has to offer. I strive to be more than a role model that others look to from afar. Being one who will walk beside other women sharing my own experiences but also learning from others through their journeys as well is what I hope to achieve. Although nursing is my passion, STEM stretches far beyond nursing. So many opportunities are open and await other women to walk into.

What inspired you to pursue a career in the sciences?

A nurse’s care is pivotal in the healthcare industry. Nurses are typically the first healthcare professional you come into contact with. Also, the person you communicate with most often. Unfortunately, my experience when being cared for after having a newborn that passed away was subpar. Processing the grief of losing a child and being treated in that manner is what motivated me to become a nurse.

Relying on others to care for you requires vulnerability on some level. When caring for patients, my own experience is not lost to me. I do my best to ensure patients are comfortable and receive the highest quality of care. Continuing to educate and develop my skills beyond my current role as a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) to a Registered Nurse (RN) and beyond will afford me more opportunities to provide high-quality care and to teach others to do the same.

Jne Banner
Jne Banner

Why do you think diversity is important, especially in STEM fields?

The ongoing narrative today is that women of color are not receiving the same level of healthcare as our counterparts. Being in a position to share lived experiences in healthcare and other STEM fields requires open eyes to address inequalities. Our vision cannot be tunnel based on our own culture. We have to push the needles to think outside of the box, educate ourselves and learn from others from different walks of life.

What advice would you give to young girls who want to pursue a career in STEM?

Women are needed and wanted in STEM programs. If you have a passion, there is a place for you. The opportunities are endless and yours for the taking.

Lucca Garcia, Nursing and Spanish Major

Tell us about yourself.

I am a fourth year undergraduate Donaghey Scholar double majoring in Nursing and Spanish. I was born and raised in Arkansas, however, my family is from Chicago, Illinois. After I graduate with my bachelor’s degree and work to gain experience at the bedside as a nurse, I would like to commence travel nursing.

Lucca Garcia
Lucca Garcia

Having studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain, I would like to incorporate international health into my future plans in some form. I intend to continue my education with a master’s in business and/or by becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner. Some of my hobbies include yoga, hiking, and journaling.

What inspired you to pursue a career in the sciences?

My parents inspire me; they both have careers in science. My father has his bachelor’s degree in computer science and his master’s degree in computer science with an emphasis in network design and development. My mother has her bachelor’s in nursing, her master’s in nursing informatics, and over 26 years of experience as a nurse.

Growing up, I saw how hard they worked to provide for our family, and it demonstrated to me that if you work hard enough for something it will pay off. Nothing worth having comes easy, but the work that you put into obtaining a goal makes you feel even more appreciative when you earn it. I think that feeling of accomplishment and sense of added value motivates me every day.

Why do you think diversity is important, especially in science fields?

I think diversity is important because it creates an atmosphere of inclusivity. An environment where anyone can feel welcome is important because it encourages change and fosters growth. Diversity, specifically in STEM, inspires creativity, critical thinking, and innovation. Lastly, it demonstrates that STEM can be for anyone that dedicates the time and effort to it.

What advice would you give to girls and women who want to pursue a career in the sciences?

Take one class at a time, and see adversity as a challenge to do better and work harder. Do not tell yourself that you cannot do something before you even try. If you have a goal you would like to achieve, do your research, find someone who is in the position you want to be in, and ask them questions about how they got there. Chances are they had the same negative thoughts or were in a similar position as you are when they were first starting out.

If you want to read about more UA Little Rock women in the sciences, please visit our feature on International Day of Women and Girls in Science from 2021.

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