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General Electric celebrates ASU alumna's achievements in STEM

Former student's image is being used to encourage young women to pursue careers in STEM

grand central station.jpg

"Seeing women of STEM in a place of importance will encourage a new generation of women." Illustration published on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.

Laurie Leshin, Ph.D, is one of ASU’s highest achieving alumna. She earned a bachelor's in chemistry at ASU and also earned a masters and Ph.D in geochemistry at the California Institute of Technology before returning to ASU to teach and later take on several leadership positions. 

Leshin was the deputy director for science and technology at NASA, where she was awarded medals for her leadership and even had an asteroid named after her. Now General Electric (GE) is projecting her image in New York’s Grand Central Station along with the image of other influential women in STEM fields as part of its Balance the Equation initiative

The company seeks to increase the number of women in its own workforce, as well as encourage young women to pursue careers in STEM fields. The animated images will be projected onto constellations adorning the station until 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 21.

“I’ve definitely had the experience many women have of being in a big meeting and being the only woman, or one of two women," Leshin said. "It's hard to have your voice heard when you're in the minority. This would happen a lot when I was at NASA.”

She said it was not something specific to NASA but a complex societal issue. 

“The issue involves subtle and unfortunately not so subtle messages that women get when they're in school or even at home about the kinds of careers that they should pursue,” Leshin said. 

She noted that it is important for companies like GE to be part of the solution to the issue, because it is not enough to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers in school if they aren’t getting hired.

She pointed out that while the populations of many universities like ASU are divided approximately evenly between men and women, women only make up one-third of the population of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, where she now works as president. 

She is the first woman to become president of the institute in its nearly 150-year history. She said contributing to a recent increase in the women enrolled at the institute is one the achievements she is most proud of. 

“Laurie has always been a source of great inspiration to me,” Meenakshi Wadhwa, director of ASU’s Center for Meteorite Studies, said. “She was the director of the Center for Meteorite Studies before I arrived at ASU in 2006. I’m proud to call her my friend.” 

Leshin and Wadhawa met in graduate school and later worked on a successful NASA mission proposal together to bring back dust samples from Mars, an experience she said she will never forget.

She said they developed a close friendship because they were the only two women presenting at conferences on several occasions. 

“There are more women than ever going into STEM fields, but we’re not yet at a point where there is a gender balance,” Wadhwa said.“I think it is essential for companies like GE that want to stay competitive in today’s market to hire the best and brightest." 

"To do that effectively they cannot ignore half of the population that contains that talent.”

GE is in in the process of incorporating more women into it workforce. 

“This is a strategy necessary to inject urgency into addressing ongoing gender imbalance in technical fields and ultimately fully transform into a digital industrial company for the future,” Vic Abate, GE’s chief technology officer, said in a press release announcing the Balance the Equation initiative. 

He also said that the world can accelerate innovation and transform industry by building a technical workforce that reflects the world’s population, which in this case would include more women. 

Gender inequality is one of society's oldest issues and the achievements of women like Leshin are prime examples of women's capabilities. 

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