Emerald Coast Science Center to embrace STEM careers with 5th Women in Science Conference

Savannah Evanoff
Northwest Florida Daily News

NICEVILLE — Emerald Coast Science Center has a passion for women in science — likely because its staff is composed of exactly that.

That is one of the many reasons the center launched the Women in Science Conference, museum Director Diane Fraser said.

“This is our little sweet spot,” Fraser said. “It is something that means a lot to us, and it absolutely speaks to our mission, what we do at the Science Center. And, nobody else was doing it. We thought, ‘This is great. This is something that we can create and that we can own. And it's worked out really, really well for us. All the feedback we've gotten has been very positive.”

The fifth annual Women in Science Conference will begin at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 9 in the Student Services Center at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville. It also will be held via Zoom. Tickets for either version are free for students and $10 for adults at http://bit.ly/womeninscience2021.

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This year’s speakers include Katrina Benzrihem, a chemist at Plasmine Technology; Caroline Stewart, the chief nursing officer at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center; Jerri Coomes, a service adviser at Emerald Coast Harley-Davidson; Jennifer Galloway, the director of Sensor and Electronic Solutions at BAE Systems; and Camryn Kruger, an Emergency Operations Center intern and student at the University of Vermont.

Fraser is particularly excited about having Coomes speak.

“We've been looking for a speaker like this for years,” Fraser said. “We have a female mechanic, which I think is just incredible because I think a lot of girls don't think about that as a career field — automobile service advisers, mechanics, people that work on boats, and they make really good money. And the great thing about a career field like that is that everybody needs them, so it doesn't matter if you live here, or if you move and relocate someplace else, there are always going to be those job openings.”

Every annual conference features a student, Fraser said.

“Because that gives a perspective of like, ‘Hey, I'm currently trying to do a STEM career field. I'm studying in STEM, and this is what it looks like right now in college, or right now in grad school to be working inside of that area,’” she said. “And we've always thought that was like really relevant to the students that are in the audience to see someone that is actually in the pathway right now.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic, Fraser also suspects Stewart will be a popular speaker.

“She's the chief nursing officer for Fort Walton Beach Medical Center so I know people are gonna have a lot of questions for her, whether it's related to her career or related to how things are going right now,” she said.

Fraser said she thinks the pandemic makes this year's conference extra pertinent, because women have been affected in the workplace.

“There was a couple of studies that came out that talked about the effects the pandemic has had on women in the workplace, and what we've seen is disproportionately women have taken on more of the domestic roles,” Fraser said. “They're in charge of child care. They're in charge of caring for the elderly parents, and what's happened is a lot of women have left the workforce to stay home as the kids are not in school, or they can't get adequate day care or affordable day care.”

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That directly affects women in STEM careers, she said.

“So there's some concerns about all the strides that we had been making in the past couple of years to sort of go toward more gender equality and diversity in STEM careers,” Fraser said. “The pandemic has probably been a little roadblock.”

She hopes the conference will show men and women students there are science careers available in the area.

“Some of it happens on the base, and so people don't understand and realize what a STEM-related career field we have here,” Fraser said. “We don't want to lose the talent that we've invested in our school district and in our school system to raise these kids up, and then they leave. We'd like them to come back here and find a good career here.”

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The other reason is, of course, to inspire women.

“Then number two, underneath that, is so that young men will see, ‘I can anticipate having a woman engineer as my boss one day; that's not going to be weird,’ ” Fraser said. “That shouldn't even be a thing. It should just be completely, ‘Yes, I anticipate having women engineers or I anticipate women pilots or women making auto mechanics and service advisers.' That should be as normal. It should be equitable across every single career field there is. We're not there yet, but I think we need to keep putting it out there and keep exposing everybody to these options and ideas.”