Stanford doctoral student named IF/THEN ambassador

PhD student Dorothy Tovar is among 125 women innovators selected to mentor and encourage young girls in STEM fields.

Stanford doctoral student Dorothy Tovar has been selected to serve as an IF/THEN ambassador for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The role comes with financial support for her work providing mentorship and encouragement to girls interested in STEM fields.

Dorothy Tovar, PhD student in microbiology and immunology, has been selected to be an IF/THEN Ambassador. (Image credit: Courtesy Dorothy Tovar)

“I’m honored to be that example for girls who aren’t sure they can do it and show them what is possible,” Tovar said. “The innovations coming out of research and tech are shaping the world we live in. To me, having the people behind these advancements reflect the diversity of the people affected by them is a matter of justice.”

Tovar, who is studying microbiology and immunology, is one of 125 women innovators – selected from a pool of 700 applicants nationwide – to serve as ambassadors. For the next 18 months, she will interface with girls in STEM fields through various platforms and events. She recently attended the Teen Vogue Summit in Los Angeles to discuss her pursuit of a PhD with children interested in science. She also recently attended the IF/THEN Summit in Dallas, Texas, where she participated in a full-body scan that produced life-sized 3D-printed statues of the ambassadors – the largest collection of statues of women.

Ambassadors will also work with Bay Area Girl Scout troops, appear on the network television series Mission Unstoppable about women working on cutting-edge STEM projects and participate in media campaigns.

“We’re doing a lot on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, like posting selfies of us in the lab to change perceptions around what a scientist looks like,” Tovar said.

Growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Tovar became interested in science at a young age. She frequently read science books and encyclopedias and watched countless hours of the Discovery Channel. She also spent some of her childhood in Haiti, where she became fascinated by the way microscopic organisms could cause diseases that devastate entire countries.

“I decided to pursue a PhD because I wanted to contribute to the body of knowledge helping us combat disease in the developing world,” she said.

Tovar earned a BS degree in microbiology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she was awarded the university’s 21st Century Leader Award. She has also received academic fellowship awards from the National Science Foundation and the American Society for Microbiology. She joined Stanford Medicine in 2015.

“My current research investigates immune responses in bats to understand why they are able to host viruses that are deadly to humans, like Ebola, without getting sick themselves,” Tovar said. “I use cells harvested from bats and grown in the lab to understand how genetic differences between bat species impact how they interact with their viruses.”

The IF/THEN initiative is based on the idea that if women in STEM fields are supported, then they can change the world. The program is supported by a $25 million commitment from Dallas-based Lyda Hill Philanthropies. It is also a partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which works to advance science, engineering and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people.