A weekend of Growing Wiser & In Strength at GWIS National Meeting 2018

“United in Friendship through Science” – GWIS Slogan

I had the amazing opportunity to experience the above quoted slogan in person at the 97th Graduate Women in Science (GWIS) Annual National Conference hosted by the GWIS Iowa City Chapter at the Iowa Memorial Union (IMU), IA from June 15 to June 16, 2018.

In all honesty as a struggling graduate student, I started attending the Auburn chapter GWIS meetings for the scrumptious free food that Ms. Bonnie Wilson, WISE Institute and GWIS Auburn Chapter Coordinator, orders from the local restaurants. But after two or three Groundhog day socials (blame it on the food or Ms. Bonnie’s magic), I became more involved with our outreach events like Jr. Mad Scientist and Girl Scouts STEM Day, found friendship in fellow engineering and science graduate students at Auburn and now I am on track to also take up a leadership position at the chapter.

Having never been actively involved as a leader with a professional organization before, when Ms. Bonnie suggested that attending the National meeting would be a very good first step, I jumped up to take the opportunity. Well I might have been influenced by the fact that I was reading Paulo Coelho’s ‘Brita’ at that time. I quote him,

“How much I missed, simply because I was afraid of missing it.”

And I missed the flight that was supposed to take me from Atlanta, GA to Des Moines, IA. But since the universe still favors me a little bit, me and my travel partner succeeded in getting a ticket re-booking and had 9 hours to spare. So I met a friend and enjoyed things the airport offered. After a little bit more struggle with a broken plane and departure gate issues, we finally made it to Iowa in the middle of the night!

A flight missed, another airplane broken, two departure gates changed and a soul lost at the Atlanta airport.

On June 15, the conference began with the Annual business meeting of the National council. Members of the Executive Board and the Board of Directors were seated around the round-table with their laptops out and I got to take one of those seats with a coffee cup <insert proud smile>! After the meeting was called to order by then National President Dr. Michelle Booze and being appointed as the parliamentarian, their Financial Adviser from Merrill Lynch, Mr. Nathaniel Jones presented about GWIS’s asset management and accountability. After updates from the finance committee, the officers discussed about budget management depending on the budget from the last 6 years and proposed the budget for the fiscal year 2018-2019. Listening to their analysis of last year’s budget through listing the favorable outcomes and mistakes, modifying the new budget for best results provided me a crash course on managing an organization. Being an organization approaching its centennial, we had multiple women scientists seated in the table who have been a part of GWIS for more than 30 years. Listening to them reminisce about their fond memories and offering wisdom for the organization’s welfare was a welcome addition amidst the business conversations. I quote Dr. Helen Haller, Chemical Engineer from Cornell University and Archivist of GWIS Chapter-At-Large,  “We used to turn up for the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) conferences and luncheons in great looking dresses and hats” (Hats! Imagine that! Sounds fun~ I wore Khaki pants and a purple blouse which kinda sounds boring in comparison)

More presentations followed from various committees which made me realize that the achievements of GWIS is attributed to the combined effort of groups of people. After lunch, strategic planning was on the agenda. To accomplish that, the president encouraged the attendees to group ourselves under the four pillars of GWIS – Development, Empower, Connect and Lead. I was a part of the ‘Connect’ team with then-president-elect Dr. Amy Belfi, Ms. Amber Lively, Dr. Jane Sharer Maier and Dr. Rozzy Finn. Brainstorming ideas with them to improve the public relations was very lively. The day ended with matriculating all the ideas, voting on new proposals, making decisions and the adjournment of the meeting.

Dinner was a cozy affair at a Mexican-cuisine restaurant in downtown with Cello and Guitar duet music. Great food, amazing people and a super yummy Horchata! The night was still young and it got more amazing because we all went stargazing at the Van-Allen Observatory! The moon was young, the sky was cloudless and though the weather was on the warmer side for comfort, we got to view Jupiter and his (yes I think Jupiter is male, LOL!) four moons in all their glory and the Horsehead Nebula in the Orion belt, the Cigar Galaxy (M82) and the Dumbbell Nebula (M27) in the constellation Vulpecula. I went to sleep that night dreaming of the stars~ If you have a planetarium or an observatory near you make sure to visit it because I strongly believe that it is not in vain that the Fireside poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote,

“Silently one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,
Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels”

The next day began with the National Grand Chapter Meeting with presentations about the year overview and planning for the upcoming centennial celebration in 2021. Chapter reports followed and I made sure to take notes of the ideas for our Auburn Chapter from the reports of our fellow chapters. Also, I was all ears to the fellowship selection process! It sure was very helpful to understand the nuances that are associated with proposal writing and applications. Fellowship applications will be open again next year in the spring semester. The swearing-in ceremony of the National Council for 2018-2019 was filled with high-spirits and cheers. The President’s gavel and pin were passed on to our new National President Dr. Amy Belfi, who adjourned the Grand Chapter Meeting. All business affairs ended with lunch and next in agenda was the Diverse Science Conference. 

The Cellist at El Bandito’s and the telescope at the Van Allen Observatory

The Conference began with Dr. Sherree Wilson, the Associate Dean for Cultural Affairs and Diversity Initiatives at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine delivering a talk with an interactive discussion on “Diversity in Science: Achieving Inclusive Excellence”. She encouraged everyone in the Ballroom to take the Implicit Association test (IAT) from Harvard to evaluate our automatic association of entities with memory because we ourselves are not aware that simple everyday decisions we make have adverse consequences on issues with inclusion and diversity. Her talk was followed by a panel discussion on “What are they looking for? Skills for Diverse Careers in Science” with panelists from various career fields – Dr. Olga Michels, Department Head of Chemistry at Luther College, Dr. Christine Blaumueller, Scientific Editor and Writing Consultant at University of Iowa, Dr. Sheila Baker, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Ophthalmology at University of Iowa and Ms. Heather Loftsgard, Director of Synthetic Biology at Integrated DNA Technologies. The panel discussion gave me a lot of points to take away such as,

  • Talent is inherent but skills are developed through experience and professional development books.
  • Seek out the right mentors and watch Ted Talks!
  • It is okay not to have a career plan, but it is important to do one’s best with any task at all points of life.
  • Personally, for someone like me looking for a non-traditional career after PhD, I got to know that there are many opportunities out there, we just have to simply look for it!

An inspiring talk on “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm” by Dr. Fatima Toor followed, whose title was adapted from Sir Winston Churchill and inspired by her own life journey. She encouraged all of us to live life like a marathon rather than a short race! Her testimonies on her multiple failures and eventual successes which led to holding an Assistant Professor position in three different departments in the University of Iowa was very motivating.

Then came the science poster session. I presented my research poster on “Towards Safer and More Stable Rocket Launches!” and <insert *drum-roll*> I won first place for my poster! Making our Advanced Propulsion Research Laboratory (APRL)  and my adviser Dr. Majdalani proud~

With my research poster~

The closing event of the conference was personally truly unforgettable for me. An exquisite buffet dinner was followed by a remarkable keynote address from Dr. Corrie Moreau, Director and Associate Curator at the Field Museum of Natural History (with cheesecake!) – a dedicated researcher and a very dynamic science communicator with a great sense of humor. She traveled the world researching about the most hard-working beings on our Earth – ants; enlightened us that there are no ants on ‘Ant’artica (got that?!); smuggled (unknowingly, LOL!) a very rare species tick into the U.S. through her nose; got to eat honey-filled candy ants (and advised us not to eat the black ones); has her life journey transcribed as a graphic novel at the Filed Museum named ‘The Romance of Ants,” What a cool woman! And guess what her favorite quote is?

“Being a science nerd is perfectly fine”

Dr. Moreau has great passion for science communication and her efforts include educational videos, outreach in history museums and science talks. Strong encouragement came from her,

To do science, share science and if one lacks skills to do what one envisions, to team up with people who possess the skill. Just to start humbly and grow from there. To be the drop of water that when dropped into the ocean creates a ripple and spreads far and wide. 

During a one-on-one conversation with her after her address, I asked her ‘How do I become like you, execute stuff like you do?’ She replied,

“Practice, Practice 20 times, Practice 30 times after that, because Practice makes everything you do Perfect”

And that is what I brought home and will be following religiously!

I went to sleep that night with a happy heart and soul with a smile on my face. Woke up the next morning and drove under clear skies through the picturesque corn fields of Iowa, waved goodbye to windmills and solitary farm houses along the interstate to reach the airport.

A solitary house amidst a farm along I-80 in Iowa

I am very thankful to Ms. Bonnie for this opportunity. Also special thanks to Dr. Helen Haller, Dr.  Michelle Booze, Ms. Rachel Golden Kroner, Ms. Amber Lively from GWIS for making me feel welcome and this event a very memorable one. And to Dr. Corrie Moreau, Dr. Christine Blaumueller, Dr. Cornelia Lang and Dr. Joseph Dobosy for their very encouraging words! Thanks to everyone at the conference and I look forward to our future interactions~

Thanks to the Iowa City Chapter for hosting and Dr. Rachel Cole for organizing this!

Signing off with GWIS’s mission statment — To further women’s interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, be a support and networking group. Cheers!

©All pictures except the GWIS logo are credited to me.




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