Welcome to our blog!

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Introduction to the Chicago Women in STEM Initiative's Blog!

Are you looking to meet fellow supportive women in STEM fields within the Chicago area? If so, you are in the right place. Welcome to the Chicago Women in STEM Initiative! Here you will find information about our mission, our future goals, and ongoing events.

But who are “we”? “We” is me and you, all the women (and men) that share the goal of equal opportunity in our society, and especially in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (if you wondered what STEM stands for). Although “we” share the same values, “we” are all very different, “we” are the collective of all our members. The purpose of this blog is to highlight and celebrate the amazing people who make up the Chicago Women in STEM Initiative by sharing their stories and achievements.

We hope our stories will serve as a motivation for women and girls considering STEM fields as a career, but also as a reminder to the women out there, that you are not alone. We hope to emphasize the importance of following one’s dreams no matter the gender barrier. As a collective group we can help pave the road for generations of women to come so that one day there will be equal representation of men and women in STEM.

written by Claudia B. Späni, PhD, Social Media Coordinator


Saki Amagai

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Hi everyone! I currently work as a Research Study Coordinator for Dr. Richard Gershon’s team in the Medical Social Science Department of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. I’m on the Mobile Toolbox project with a fun group of scientists, trying to develop a mobile app to assess cognitive function. I graduated from Carleton College in 2018 as a Chemistry major (aka completely unrelated to what I’m doing now)!

Working on the Mobile Toolbox project made me interested in learning how to understand the data we get from the assessments. I am now taking classes with Northwestern’s Data Science boot camp program, and I’m hoping to apply to health and bioinformatics graduate programs this coming fall.

I also like to think about science outside of work/school (especially when I’m cooking)! I’ve started a food blog during this pandemic that delves into some food science as well as other historical/cultural aspects of the dish. Please check out https://www.curious-chefs.com if you have the time. Always recruiting more recipes to share!

Anugraha Rajagopalan, PhD

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I am Anugraha Rajagopalan, a postdoctoral scientist at Rush University specializing in Cancer Immunology. At work, I spend my time understanding the immune responses to cancer and developing novel therapeutics and diagnostics to combat the disease. My current research on a novel therapeutic is currently in preliminary stages of clinical trials. I was passionate about biology from a very young age. It was this passion coupled with hard work and destiny that translated to pursuing a Ph.D. in Immunology from Miller School of Medicine, Miami. There, I researched RNA therapeutics to elicit an immune response against cancer. My career goal is to develop novel therapeutics to evoke long-term immune responses against cancer.

The Chicago Women in STEM symposium is a wonderful platform for us women to interact, educate, and learn. 2020 was the first year that I attended the symposium and I am very confident I will be returning year after year. In particular, this year, I loved learning about the concept of “sponsor”. I have been fortunate to have amazing sponsors in the form of mentors throughout my Ph.D. and postdoctoral training. By associating with the Chicago Women in STEM, I hope to be a sponsor to my fellow women and bring awareness in our society to the significant role women play in science.

Kelly Jarvis, PhD

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Hello, I’m a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Radiology at Northwestern University in the lab of Dr. Michael Markl. My research focuses on blood flow imaging using MRI for application in patients with cardiovascular disease. The technique is called 4D flow MRI and measures blood flow velocities in the heart and large vessels. Specifically, I work to develop imaging tools using quantitative methods such as reverse flow mapping and pulse wave velocity estimation. The goal is to improve the evaluation of blood flow in patients with aortic dissection and cryptogenic stroke.

I first became interested in MRI as a research assistant in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati. There, I contributed to multiple imaging projects and published my first study evaluating brain morphometry in bipolar disorder. During that time, I decided to pursue my PhD almost ten years after I had completed my undergraduate degree. And, I’m very glad I made that choice. My work as a PhD student and postdoc has been incredibly rewarding. I have also become involved in science outreach through Northwestern Science in Society. They are dedicated to science education and public engagement and I have participated in events such as their image contest and science talks. Recently, I was selected by the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine as a finalist for their Young Investigators’ Award. This is a huge honor and I’m excited about presenting my work in their upcoming conference. The corresponding paper, “Parametric Hemodynamic 4D flow MRI maps for the Characterization of Chronic Thoracic Descending Aortic Dissection,” was published last year in the Journal of Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Through Chicago Women in STEM, I hope to extend my scientific network and learn from others through the sharing of experiences and career insights. I would also like to contribute to the community of women interested in STEM.

Jenny M. Rodriguez

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I’m Jenny M. Rodriguez, a Director of Strategic Accounts helping drive growth in Chicago with enterprise level partnerships helping organizations attract, retain and manage their strategic workforce needs for technology, digital and creative talent. As a Hispanic female leader, I believe STEM and more specifically diversity and inclusion within STEM in urban and underserved communities is a vital component in advancing and enriching communities across the globe for future sustainability. As a mother of four science enthusiasts and being a lifelong enthusiast myself, STEM initiatives are a natural interest and close to home passion for me and my family. STEM fields are the foundation of both the current economy and the global economy that is expected to provide the great majority of jobs in the future. As such, I believe it’s imperative to prepare tomorrow’s workforce for the rapid increase in STEM career paths to meet the increasing demand by employers on a local and global scale. My goal with Chicago Women in STEM is to help lead and participate in STEM awareness events helping drive more career interest within our diverse communities and to help educate families on how to encourage their children to pursue an education and career in STEM. I recently helped lead diversity and inclusion conversations for parents of the LGBTQ+ community on this subject and am an avid volunteer for multiple charities in Chicago serving underserved families and youth, spreading the message about the importance of STEM wherever I can.

Rabail Aslam Rai, MD

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My name is Dr. Rabail Aslam Rai.  I attained my MD degree at one of the premier medical schools in Pakistan, and I can proudly say that I was the first female in my family to come independently to the USA, where I have established myself as a physician scientist. I am currently completing my postdoctoral fellowship training at RUSH University Medical Center. My team at RUSH has worked on innovating a new multiplex imaging technique which has the potential to revolutionize diagnostic medicine. Throughout my career I have taught, encouraged and mentored hundreds of students, consistently motivating them not to give up on their dreams. Dreams do come truemine definitely did, as I am starting residency training in pathology at my dream institute, Case Western Reserve University, this summer. Attending a Chicago Women in Science STEM symposium was very inspiring to me, as it was a great opportunity to learn from world renowned female STEM leaders, and understand how we as women can overcome hardships in career progression together. In addition, one of  my long term career goals is to branch into patent law, and through the STEM symposium, I had the honor of getting introduced to representatives of several prestigious law firms in Chicago. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this organization, as STEM will open doors to brand new collaborations and connections with not only fellow scientists but incredible mentors.

Bring your own table: Advice from local women leaders in STEM

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3rd Annual Chicago Women in STEM Symposium

“Who run the world?” Almost all of us know the answer to that question. Beyoncé’s unapologetic message promotes female empowerment. Yet, women everywhere struggle to be leaders in their own right. The Chicago Women in STEM initiative sought to provide leadership guidance to our ever-growing base of women professionals. ‘Advancing Tomorrow’s Women Leaders’ was about bringing together women at different stages of their careers showing us how they built themselves up from the ground and are paving the way for other women.

Monica Vajani and Dr. Preeti Chalsani, both hammered home the point that career paths are rarely linear and knowing how to adapt is what defines you as a leader. Leadership comes in different forms and not just with a title. Leading by example not only helps you but helps the people around you. Dr. Dominique Carter reminded us that we need to actively take up space. Often, women hesitate to actively take credit for their accomplishments, but we shouldn’t minimize ourselves for the convenience of others. Everyone deserves to be at the table and if you aren’t given a seat, bring your own table.

What about those who struggle to have a voice? This is where mentors and, more importantly, sponsors come into play. ‘Lift as you climb’ as Dominique put it. As a mentor you provide advice and passive support when asked. As a sponsor you actively speak for your protégé. Promoting protégés increases their visibility and strengths. This potentially will prevent women from being discouraged to take up careers in STEM and fix the “leaky” STEM pipeline responsible for seeing fewer women in leadership roles. Dr. Beth McNally highlighted the importance of having your allies and I can personally vouch for how important it is to have your circle of trust. These are the people who keep you honest and lift you up when the chips are down. Our keynote speaker, Jhaymee Tynan, did a fine job of not only reiterating the points made by the previous speakers but adding key management skills. My personal favorite skill – six hours of networking a week. This highlights the importance of being active when it comes to personal and professional development because your success will never be handed to you. You have to know your value and show your value. Aptly stated by Ban Ki-Moon, former UN Secretary-General, “The world will never realize 100% of its goals if 50% of its people cannot realize their full potential. When we unleash the power of women, we can secure the future for all.”

Written by Sumitra D. Mitra, Ph.D.

Celestia Fang

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Hello! I am an MSTP student at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and currently am well into my third year of the PhD phase of the program. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, I then swapped coasts to complete my undergrad at Cornell University where I majored in both economics and biology. I had a chance to dive into research during undergrad, and 2 more years of working as a research assistant in the Ivashkiv lab at the Hospital of Special Surgery convinced me of my passion for biomedical science and medicine. Here at Northwestern I am studying the relationship between chromatin topology and gene expression in T cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia in the Ntziachristos lab. At this moment I am wrapping up my first publication from my thesis lab and am excited to continue my work in a new project!

I was drawn to the Chicago Women in STEM initiative because of the wide variety of informative events that encompass career advice, outreach, scientific communication and beyond. In addition to my passion for biomedical research, I strongly believe in increasing access to STEM and education for young students striving for opportunities. Currently I am helping to run a student-led group teaching basics of medical science to high school students at the Boys and Girls Club of Chicago. Through Chicago Women in STEM, I am hopeful that I will find more opportunities to advance science education and communication, and many role models who are doing the same.

Julia Downing

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My journey in science has come full circle. In 5th grade, I won the county science fair with my project called “What’s in Your Water?” studying water quality of local bodies of fresh water with a friend. Fifteen years later, I am using advanced top-down manufacturing techniques to fabricate flexible sensors that will one day be able to detect lead and other heavy metal contaminants in drinking water. As a PhD student at Northwestern University, I am able to leverage knowledge of nanoscale materials like graphene and boron nitride in the design and creation of novel device systems (transistors, sensors, and batteries). I love my job!

I’m originally from Maryland, USA and got my B.S. in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park on a full scholarship that motivated me to work as hard as I possibly could beyond the classroom. I quickly fell in love with research by my sophomore year and participated in a research experience for undergraduates in Kyoto, Japan five years ago focused on nanotechnology. After NanoJapan, I knew I wanted to pursue a doctorate within this discipline and came to Northwestern to learn from some of the most ambitious thought leaders in the nano world. I am also the incoming president of the Graduate Society of Women Engineers (GradSWE) at Northwestern, and a GEM Industry Fellow (being half-Cuban, half-American). My experiences as a multi-ethnic woman in STEM have catalyzed a desire to make academia more accessible to women and people of color, while becoming the first member of my family to earn a PhD. However, it takes a village, and my PhD journey has been enriched by the community of women in STEM and having the opportunity to support one another. My long-term goals are industry-focused; I dream of leading a team of researchers in research & development, bridging the gap between advanced materials and consumer products. I can’t wait to see devices reimagined by nanotechnology improving lives of those around me! I would also love to teach someday, perhaps as an adjunct professor, but there’s no telling what the future holds. 🙂

Barbara Szynal

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Hi! My name is Barbara Szynal, and I am a current first year PhD student in UIC’s Graduate Education in Medical Sciences (GEMS) program. My training includes a B.S. in Biochemistry and a minor in Polish Studies from Loyola University Chicago, where I proudly led my own research project for 3 years. My research in Dr. Kenneth Olsen’s lab consisted of synthesizing novel photodynamic therapy agents and testing them in cell culture and zebrafish models. I was honored to be able to present my findings at 3 different symposia. In this position, I was both a mentor and mentee, and I continue to guide undergraduates in the lab as they push the project further. During my undergrad studies, I also participated in a summer internship at Vetter Pharma, a pharmaceutical contract manufacturing company. The following summer I was invited by Vetter to work as a quality control microbiologist until I began graduate school.

My proudest achievements in my career thus far include the pharma industry positions as well as my undergraduate research and mentorship. Through these experiences, I discovered that my professional goal is to lead the discovery of novel pharmaceuticals in industry. However, through my participation in the Chicago Women in STEM Initiative, I anticipate that I will be introduced to many other alternative careers that may expand my future goals. Being the first in my family to attend institutions of higher education in the US, I have had a unique insight into the hardships many students in my position, especially women, face. I hope that through my participation in the Chicago Women in STEM Initiative and my experience as a research mentor I will be able to encourage fellow girls and women in the sciences along their paths.

Kacey Suvada

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I am a Neuroscience PhD candidate at Northwestern University. At Northwestern, I work with Dr. Ana Maria Acosta and Dr. Julius Dewald researching human motor impairments after a hemiparetic stroke. Specifically, my thesis project focuses on bettering the understanding of postural control during reaching. In my program, I have completed almost all of the coursework as well as passed the qualifying exams. Most recently, I presented my thesis project and preliminary data at the Society for Neuroscience Conference in Chicago as well as successfully proposed my work for my dissertation to the committee. I also take part in various types of outreach including working with elementary school kids and teaching them basic scientific principles through Science in Society, educating high school teachers about the field of neuroscience and how they can teach their students about the brain through NU Brain Awareness, advocating for gender equality specifically in STEM fields through the NU Women in STEM Initiative, and speaking about mental health awareness in high schools around Chicago through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I hope to meet more strong and successful women through the Women in STEM Initiative and continue to increase awareness of the organization to the Northwestern Community. In the next year, I will continue to drive my thesis work forward while maintaining involvement in leadership for the Women in STEM Initiative and my other organizations.