Fostering conversations | Dr Jayshree Seth

I have had the pleasure of interviewing an amazing woman in STEM, Dr Jayshree Seth, as part of my blog. It is great to hear from other inspirational women who also share my passion for encouraging girls into STEM careers and addressing issues of inequality in the industry. Dr Seth is a Corporate Scientist and Chief Science Advocate for 3M, and is keen on making science more accessible and fostering a new generation of science advocates.

In this interview, she shared with me her passion for science communication and engagement as well as sharing some of the research she has completed at 3M.

Take it away, Dr Seth.

Could you tell us about your background in STEM and your work at 3M?

I actually grew up in a town in India that had a premier engineering institute, so I was surrounded by engineers, and, STEM education was highly valued. Many of the local parents encouraged their daughters to get into the field of engineering (primarily so they would stay close to home), so almost all my friends and I ended up pursuing engineering. After my undergrad in Chemical Engineering, I came to the US to pursue graduate school, and I got my Masters and PhD here.

I started my career at 3M in 1993 in what used to be 3M’s Disposable Products Division (DPD). I worked on components for disposable soft goods, and some of my first patents were actually to help diapers stay put on wiggly babies! In 2006, I moved to the Industrial Adhesive and Tapes Division (IATD), where I am now a Corporate Scientist and lead technology development for sustainable products for our Industrial market. I work with other engineers and scientists to break down complex problems and find solutions that stick.

I was recently appointed to be the company’s first ever Chief Science Advocate, a role in which I will work with various audiences around the world to help them recognize, and, appreciate the impact of science in our daily lives.

Could you tell us about the study completed about the perception of science?

With the 3M State of Science Index, we set out to explore attitudes about science from all over the world because we wanted to get a pulse on how science is perceived by the general public.

On the surface, it appears that science is widely appreciated. In fact, we were excited to learn that 87% of people find science fascinating rather than boring, and that 90% of the population feels hopeful, rather than discouraged about science.

However, when we started to dig deeper, we began to realize that science is un-seen, underappreciated and ultimately, taken for granted. Nearly half (44%) of survey respondents globally were skeptical or indifferent about science, and two thirds (66%) of the world said they rarely or never stop to consider the impact science has on their lives.

When it comes to the future of science, the world has big expectations and the lines between science fiction and reality are blurry. As a scientist, I see the impact of science and science innovation everywhere and it is important to me that we help others realize the same.

Why do you think it’s important to engage students and young people with STEM subjects and what do you do to do this?

The State of Science Index found that 44% of U.S. adults say they felt more excited about science when they were kids. Studies show that our nation will need to produce an additional one million STEM workers between 2012 and 2022 to keep up with demand, meaning it is not only crucial to our country to keep students interested in STEM, but beneficial from a career standpoint, as well. It will be more important than ever to maintain student’s interest in STEM during middle school and high school and better educate them on the endless career paths they can pursue with a science background.

Additionally, the population of Earth is estimated to hit nine billion by 2050! Some of the most imminent challenges we’ll need to solve are linked to our basic needs, such as clean air, potable water and food security. Science will definitely play a crucial role in solving these challenges, but we’ll also need cross-functional collaboration and multi-disciplinary approaches to address certain problems.

In order to engage students and young people with STEM subjects, I’ll be participating in the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, and I’ll also be taking part in other events, roundtables and panel discussions across the country and globe.

What can a narrow idea about the breadth of STEM careers mean for young people? Why is it important to raise awareness for STEM careers?

A narrow idea about the breadth of STEM careers is the fundamental reason why young people tend to shy away from pursuing one. It’s important to raise awareness for STEM careers because young people don’t realize the number of opportunities and ways that they can have a career in science.

I’ve found that students might not feel that a traditional science topic, such as chemistry or biology, would produce a fulfilling career, or that they feel science careers are only available to “geniuses”. The 3M State of Science Index actually found that 36% of people believe that only geniuses can have a career in science, which is not true.

In fact, thanks to advancements in technology, there are actually more opportunities for crossover between science disciplines and other career paths. For example, my son is interested in both fashion and tech. One way that a career can be pursued while combining the two is to develop technology that allows computers to predict the future of fashion trends.

At 3M, we have created ThinsulateTM, a lightweight, thin and warm synthetic insulation found in many of the winter clothes we wear, and Scotchlite™ advanced reflective material used in all types of athletic gear and on safety vests around the world. Some of the teams working on these materials are actually meeting with top business decision makers from leading fashion houses to see how the material can be incorporated. The opportunities are truly endless!

What stereotypes can affect girls and cause them to not aspire to STEM careers? What can we do to help?

Cindy Moss, vice president of global STEM initiatives for curriculum developer Discovery Education said, “Kids often make up their minds by sixth grade whether they’re capable of doing science and math. We have definitive evidence that by age six, girls have already started to internalize negative stereotypes that science and math are not for girls.” Six years old is way too young to know that certain career paths are not for you, whether you’re a boy or a girl. Having little to no representation of women in STEM for young girls to look up to is usually a significant factor in the lack of interest.

Encouraging girls who show interest in science, increasing the representation of female scientists in the media and making sure students – both male and female – are aware of the doors that a STEM education can open can help.

It is my mission as 3M’s Chief Science Advocate to, not only foster conversations on the importance and benefits of science in everyday life, but to also make science more accessible for a new generation of science advocates.

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Author: Alice Gray

STEM-inist blogger hoping to raise awareness for the issues facing women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

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