Stanford affiliates named to the first class of IF/THEN ambassadors

Three Stanford students and one postdoctoral scholar are among 125 women innovators nationwide who are serving as mentors to young girls interested in STEM fields.

Three Stanford students and one postdoctoral scholar have been selected to the first class of IF/THEN ambassadors for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. For the next 18 months, each will provide support and mentorship to young girls interested in pursuing STEM fields.

Graduate students Catie Cuan and Dorothy Tovar, postdoctoral scholar Helen Tran and undergraduate Erin Smith are among 125 women – from a pool of 700 applicants nationwide – selected to serve as ambassadors. Each is an innovative leader in her field and, with financial support, will participate in events, programming and media campaigns to encourage young girls to pursue their interests in STEM.

The ambassadors recently attended the IF/THEN Summit in Dallas, Texas, where they 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.

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.

Stanford News spoke with Tovar last week, and has since caught up with Cuan and Tran (Smith did not respond to a request for comment) to learn about their work and what they’re looking forward to as ambassadors.

Catie Cuan

Catie Cuan is a PhD candidate in Stanford’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. Growing up in Berkeley, California, she loved math and science, but said she had few female role models in those fields.

Catie Cuan (Image credit: Courtesy Catie Cuan)

“This resulted in a self-imposed narrowing of what my future possibilities were,” she said. “I applied to be an ambassador because I think we need to broadly represent what a STEM career looks like, especially for women. To be selected means a joyful responsibility and an important honor!”

Cuan said that as an ambassador, she is especially looking forward to connecting with middle school girls in classrooms and conferences, and collaborating with other IF/THEN ambassadors.

Cuan earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and has had a career as a dancer and choreographer. She has performed with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, among other organizations. After making performances and art installations with robots, she decided to pursue a graduate degree in mechanical engineering. She soon realized that STEM is ubiquitous in daily life – from entertainment and sports, to city planning and medicine.

Cuan joined Stanford in 2018 and is currently designing physical interactions between humans and robots, as well as haptic devices to tele-operate robots. While she’s interested in creating robots for domestic use and possibly starting her own research lab at a university, she said she will continue to fuse her passions for science and dance.

“I will continue to make art installations and performances with humans and robots,” she said. “I will be dancing with robots indefinitely!”

Helen Tran

Helen Tran is the Intelligence Community postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Professor Zhenan Bao in the Department of Chemical Engineering. She pursued an ambassadorship because she wanted to influence the next generation of STEM leaders.

Helen Tran (Image credit: Courtesy Helen Tran)

“Being selected for the ambassadorship encourages me to continue my mentorship and outreach work because it recognizes its invaluable impact on society,” Tran said. “I truly believe our collective efforts in increasing the media representation of women in STEM will particularly affect the perceptions of young children and help build the next generation of diverse scientists critically needed to tackle our society’s grand challenges.”

A native of San Jose, California, Tran’s parents had limited educational opportunities and, as a result, science was not on her radar until college. Tran earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and a PhD in chemistry from Columbia University. She joined Stanford in 2016 and is currently researching biodegradable stretchable electronics.

Through the IF/THEN program, Tran has enjoyed learning about the quantitative studies on the importance of media representation of women in media. She will also have the opportunity to apply for funding to pursue a passion project, and she’s looking forward to brainstorming ideas with other ambassadors.

“I am very excited to contribute to an important community of leaders in science,” she said. “I look forward to building a network of like-minded STEM leaders and participating in future opportunities.”