Sandy Marshall of Project Scientist: “Be curious and humble”

Be curious and humble. Remaining curious will allow you to pause, reflect, gain your composure and empathy toward a situation. As a woman in STEM, I’ve encountered many problems that could have escalated quickly. Remaining curious, asking questions, and understanding why someone acted in the way they did is always helpful. As a part of my […]

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Be curious and humble. Remaining curious will allow you to pause, reflect, gain your composure and empathy toward a situation. As a woman in STEM, I’ve encountered many problems that could have escalated quickly. Remaining curious, asking questions, and understanding why someone acted in the way they did is always helpful.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sandy Marshall.

Sandy Marshall is the founder, CEO, and visionary of Project Scientist, a national nonprofit that turns girls ages 4 to 18 onto science, technology, engineering and math. She’s passionate about igniting girls’ confidence that a STEM career is obtainable for any girl.

Project Scientist offers a virtual after-school STEM Club with hands-on experiments for girls nationwide and virtual summer STEAM camps. Marshall led her team to develop online programming when Covid-19 hit and in-person camps and activities were no longer possible.

Project Scientist has served more than 10,000 girls since its founding, with 65% on scholarship. Studies from Harvard Medical School, UNC Charlotte, and SheLeads have all praised Project Scientist’s impact. Sandy Marshall is a national speaker and advocate for diversity in STEM.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Fourteen years ago, I was founder and executive director at the NASCAR Foundation and pregnant with my oldest daughter. I remember intently watching the news and becoming aware of many critical issues happening at once — environmental problems, climate change, hunger. It might have been the pregnancy hormones, but I remember telling my husband, “We have 18 years to fix this world before she becomes an adult!”

In my research, I found most of these global challenges should be solved with science, technology, engineering, and math. And I wondered if I had a degree in science, wouldn’t I be using my knowledge to solve these challenges to create a better future for my daughter?

Girls are excited about the possibilities. One study involving hundreds of girls delved into their attitudes towards STEM. Eighty eight percent agreed they want to make a difference globally, and 90% said they want to help people

But when I looked at the leadership in science and engineering, it was mainly white males. When the cohort is all the same, you don’t have the diversity of thought. How could we get more women into the field to start paying attention to these challenges?

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your nonprofit?

Through my research I found that we have to start inspiring girls about STEM when they’re young, in preschool and elementary school, because stereotyping around girls and boys in math and science begins as young as four years old.

So as a mother of a four year old, I started Project Scientist in my backyard with just a handful of girls. We had the same basic model as today, including hands-on experiments led by credentialed teachers and female STEM professionals talking virtually with the girls about their careers.

When NASA agreed to have some of their female leaders Skype with our girls, I realized we had the makings of something special. Project Scientist could go nationwide.

The call with NASA astronauts was magical. The girls asked the fun questions you might expect, like how the astronauts use the restroom in their spacesuits. But they also asked profound technical questions. It opened my eyes to the capabilities of girls as young as four and five.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early on, we were very grassroots, very dependent on college interns, and led by volunteers. We had a supply room at a university, but nobody was in charge of cleaning it out.

That summer, our experiments included using crawfish, chicken bones, and moldy bread, and by mistake (or because nobody wanted to deal with the items), they all returned to the storage room. I checked the room one day and — well, you can imagine.

The chicken bones assignment was also pretty funny as we needed 100 bones for girls to learn about the skeletal system and bone strength. I remember all of the staff having chicken wing parties the weekend before and all of us bringing in our wings for the girls to use.

What do you think makes your nonprofit stand out? Can you share a story?

A variety of national programs expose girls to coding. But there isn’t a lot that is science-focused. Project Scientist covers all STEM subjects, with science as a backbone for everything we do. We also emphasize teaching younger girls, ages 4 to 12, and under-represented groups. About 65% of our girls are on scholarship.

When a girl is awarded financial aid from Project Scientist, it’s typically the first time she has ever received a monetary award based on her academic achievements. That success gives her and her parents so much confidence to go after even more significant opportunities.

We have many success stories. One of our girls received a full scholarship to a prestigious private girls K-12 school in California due to her experiences at Project Scientist. She heard about the school from one of our interns who attended the school and encouraged her to apply. Our teenage and college interns become mentors for the younger girls and inspire them to try their best and take risks.

The other stand-out element of Project Scientist is the friendships our girls make outside of their school and community. Often, girls who excel in math or science may feel like an outcast, but at Project Scientist, they’re meeting girls just like them and developing friendships outside of their usual networks. It’s thrilling for them to meet friends in different cities who love STEM just as much as they do.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’re developing a new program for teens ages 13 to 15 and planning to launch this summer. It will include virtual programs on STEM-related subjects, from communicating science discoveries to college readiness to creating their STEM innovations.

Each girl will meet female STEM professionals who will serve as mentors, working in various STEM settings. Girls will then refine their STEM interests and continue to develop their talents.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I’ll be honest. Progress is slow. I recently watched the film “Picture A Scientist” virtually with the GWIS (Graduate Women in Science) Los Angeles chapter. The film reveals challenges that women professionals can face in STEM, including discrimination and harassment. It was tough to hear from the women in grad school and early in their careers that the film was spot on even in today’s university and STEM career settings.

I do see more men advocating for women in STEM, which is a powerful force for good. We need a shift in the culture, and it won’t happen until even more men are allies and advocates for women. While we build girls’ confidence in their STEM abilities, we also need to showcase their interests and aptitudes to the public to change the stereotype that still exists around girls in STEM.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Girls in high school and young women in college often feel an imposter syndrome in STEM. They think they “missed the script” about how to act in the lab and acceptable behavior for a science professional. It’s a cultural taboo in many labs to show your emotions, which makes for a challenging work environment for anyone.

Our teen program will help girls gain confidence in any STEM setting, not only in academic knowledge but also from a social and emotional standpoint. The diversity of thought and the experience they will bring to STEM companies and universities should be celebrated and valued as that diversity drives innovation.

The second big issue is the rate at which women STEM professionals leave STEM careers, particularly when they become mothers. As currently practiced, many STEM paths don’t give you enough time for family life, even in the evenings and weekends. So you have brilliant women who leave because they want kids and don’t see how that would fit into the traditional model.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech? Can you explain what you mean?

The myth that mothers can’t be great scientists or STEM professionals is a terrible waste of talent and hurts us as a nation. Most people have a shift in consciousness when they become parents. They begin to think more about the community, their peers, and the future of our world. This shift is such an asset in the STEM space because it’s all about inventing products that people will use, products that have longevity and stand out.

Employees with children are typically not looking for individual short-term gain. They’re looking to build something meaningful, something that their children can benefit from now or down the road. I’m not saying those that don’t have kids could not have this perspective, but it does touch home when you see that your work may affect your children’s future.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Be self-aware and prioritize personal development. Hire people to fill the skills that you lack. (period!)

2. Be curious and humble. Remaining curious will allow you to pause, reflect, gain your composure and empathy toward a situation. As a woman in STEM, I’ve encountered many problems that could have escalated quickly. Remaining curious, asking questions, and understanding why someone acted in the way they did is always helpful.

3. Be willing to put the time into coaching others. This is an area I’m working on currently. In a start-up you are running so fast, it’s difficult to spend time to mentor and train folks. This year one of our goals is to spend more time on creating clear roadmaps for our leaders to make decisions independently of me, the founder.

4. Be future-focused yet action-oriented. Gather information on the challenge at hand, discuss with your team, ponder the options, and be bold and make a decision.

5. Make decisions based on genuine concern for the organization and community overall. You must let go of your ego and get your attention off of the competition. Focus on how you can best serve your customers, employees, and community and you’ll be successful.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Make sure you have the right people on the team who are passionate about the mission. Put the mission front and center in your organization. Establish clear goals for achieving it and ensure that everyone has a role to play in this mission.

You also have to take care of your people. There’s a balance between driving the best work from everyone and making sure they’re taking care of themselves and their families so they can bring their best to work.

Value team members’ opinions while having confidence in your own. Early on, we had a small team creating the Project Scientist model together. A few times, I made decisions based on what a team member said rather than what my gut was telling me, and unfortunately, those were not the right decisions.

I’ve learned to listen to people’s opinions but have the confidence to go in my direction if needed. You use other viewpoints to inform your decision, but ultimately, it’s your call as CEO, so have the confidence to use your instinct when needed. You are the one living and breathing this organization.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

As a leader, you set the tone and the values for your organization or company, so everyone must be very clear of the organizational goals.

And then you depend upon your executive team to lead the other employees because you can’t possibly touch everybody. You’ve got to let go of some control.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Project Scientist may not have made it through 2020 and Covid-19 without our former board chair, Jennie Ibrahim, a software engineer at Google. She’s been a leader for the organization and a confidante for me, especially as we went through Covid-19.

As a social entrepreneur and CEO, you often feel alone in your worries and stresses. You don’t want to turn to your team and get them caught up in some of the drama in your head. I would call Jennie to brainstorm about how to make this significant change from in person to virtual programming. She was so helpful in saying, “We’re going to figure out how to do this.” It was great to have her in my corner and know she can help me rally others to support us.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m proud that 65% of the girls we serve come from under-resourced households. Research tells us that the “low hanging fruit” in STEM talent is in girls and minority children. There are talented STEM innovators in all neighborhoods, but unfortunately, they are not identified or given the programs to meet their talents’ breadth.

Project Scientist works with schools and organizations to identify girls who would benefit from a high-quality STEM program, and we intend to hold their hand to college or for as long as they need our support. Future innovators in all communities need to be identified and given the quality programs they deserve. This investment will help all of us thrive as a society.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Can I say my organization? With our pivot to a virtual, hands-on program, we’ve been able to serve girls all over the country and even internationally. We’ve changed from an in-person program on seven university campuses in four states to serving girls all over the country, including rural areas. And we’re doing all this at half the cost of our in-person programming.

We are a valuable place for individuals, companies, and foundations to invest in the future. We’d love to see Project Scientist expand in the U.S. and internationally, inspiring girls to pursue STEM in areas where they may not get the opportunity.

Covid-19 has created an even more significant disparity in education. Project Scientist is the answer to encourage and support girls’ interest and aptitude in STEM subjects, no matter where they live or their background. We really saw this when we switched to virtual programming because of the pandemic and began attracting girls in other countries. There’s no question that broader international outreach is a possibility for us.

I believe we are inspiring girls to create worldwide movements of their own. We show Project Scientist girls how to have a growth mindset and develop resilience to get through challenges. They already imagine creative ways to change the work environment for the future, and we believe STEM girls can change the world.

Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote and how it’s been relevant to you in your life?

“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” — Albert Einstein

This quote aligns with my work experience and with one of our values at Project Scientist. For every decision, we ask ourselves, “What is best for the girls we serve? How will this help or hinder girls’ and women’s success in STEM?” Sometimes it causes us to pick the more challenging task, but we know it will produce the results of creating scientists in the long-term.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Madeleine Albright. She’s a master at building relationships and worked incredibly hard to rise to the U.S. Secretary of State position. Her career has been fascinating, and I’d love to hear about her experiences, especially her negotiating skills internationally in a male-dominated environment.

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