ASU alumna featured in short film series on the experiences of women in STEM

Geologist and volcanologist Kayla Iacovino's frustrations are shared by students

An ASU alumna was recently featured in a documentary project about women in science, and her experiences in the industry are echoed by current students. 

Kayla Iacovino, who earned an undergraduate degree in geology from ASU, appeared in a series developed by the radio talk show Science Friday in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Science Friday is a weekly talk show that broadcasts each Friday on public radio stations to cover science, technology, engineering and math. The new project, called "Breakthrough," is a short film anthology covering women working at the forefront of their STEM fields.

The episode "The Volcano Trekker" captures Iacovino's work as an experimental petrologist and volcanologist with the Johnson Space Center.

Iacovino studies how the Earth makes rocks and creates an atmosphere. She also studies how the Earth holds necessary molecules and creates a timeline within the solar system.

“It lets us peek into those rocks and we can say how much water, carbon, sulfur-fluorine, chlorine, phosphorus — all these things that are necessary for life, and are building planets in our atmosphere,” Iacovino said.

Iacovino started as an undeclared major and found her love for geology and outer space at ASU. 

Iacovino has become prominent in her field, but she felt frustrated that she seemed to need to choose between having children or advancing in her field. 

"I still look back on the last 10 years of my life and think that decision was taken from me," Iacovino said. "I see how hard you have to work to get ahead in academia and science and doing that at the same time as having kids just didn't seem possible."

The STEM fields are competitive and the sacrifices some women have to make to be successful are difficult, according to Iacovino.

“These things did shape my life in a way that's unfair because if I were a man, I wouldn't have had to make the choice at all. We have a choice between career and family,” Iacovino said.

Jen Vesper, a sophomore software engineering major, has some reservations about entering the male-dominated field.

“I get worried that it might affect me like with pay or even be able to get a job,” Vesper said.

Jasmine Ponty, a junior mechanical engineer major shares Vesper's feelings. 

“It even shows in all of my classes, all of the friends I've made at ASU so far are only guys," Ponty said. "I don't have that many girl friends, which is kind of sad.” 

According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report from 2019, only 18.7% of software developers, applications and systems software are women, 6.6% of mechanical engineers are women and 14.4% of chemical engineers are women.

Both Vesper and Ponty believe women in STEM need to be aggressive, and staying motivated is hard.

Vesper hopes to work with Apple or Google, and Ponty hopes to work for General Dynamics, an aerospace and defense company where she worked as an intern.

Shireen Dooling, a multimedia developer lead for ASU's Biodesign Institute, co-founded Defiant Science, which connects young women in STEM to mentors in their field.

Dooling started as a biochemistry major at ASU but left the degree because she didn’t feel she had enough resources or support, something Vesper and Ponty both said they lack currently.

“The fact that I didn't know what I could attain, what jobs were available. That was discouraging as well, and I didn't know where to or who to ask,” Dooling said.

Dooling earned a graphic design degree from ASU and is now a junior studying astrophysics. She hopes to use her skills as a graphic designer to better explain scientific findings and possibly venture into astrophysics.

“It's me just going along with the adventure," Dooling said. "I want to design for science. I feel it’s important, making sure the public knows what their tax dollars are being spent on. I want to be able to create those visual aids.”

Maren Frohlick, a senior chemical engineering major, said overcoming inequality for women in STEM fields is possible with time.

Frohlick researches nanotechnology development for microplastic identification. She received an award for integrating research and business tactics to solve community resource mismanagement.

“I think that (recognition) helps to establish in the minds of all of our students that seeing a woman engineer is a normal thing," Frohlick said. "I think the best mentor is someone who normalizes your presence being there and who will help you succeed."

Frohlick serves as chair with Women in Chemical Engineering, a group that promotes leadership for women in their field. She said the issues in the field shouldn't discourage future scientists and engineers from entering.

“You got this. You're just as capable as any other person. Take a chance on yourself,” Frohlick said.


Reach the reporter at Lizbet.Flores@asu.edu and follow @florelizbet on Twitter.

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