Stanford postdoc and students cited as example to girls interested in STEM fields

Dorothy Tovar, PhD student in microbiology and immunology, is among those selected to be an IF/THEN ambassador. (Courtesy Dorothy Tovar)

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. Each will provide support and mentorship to young girls interested in pursuing STEM fields.

Catie Cuan
Catie Cuan

Graduate students CATIE CUAN and DOROTHY TOVAR, postdoctoral scholar HELEN TRAN and undergraduate ERIN SMITH are among 125 women selected to serve as ambassadors.

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.

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

Helen Tran
Helen Tran

“This resulted in a self-imposed narrowing of what my future possibilities were,” she said.

Cuan earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and has had a career as a dancer and choreographer. After making performances and art installations with robots, she decided to pursue a graduate degree in mechanical engineering. Cuan is currently designing physical interactions between humans and robots, as well as haptic devices to tele-operate robots.

Helen Tran is the Intelligence Community postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Professor Zhenan Bao in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

A native of San Jose, California, science was not on Tran’s radar until college. She 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.

Dorothy Tovar is a PhD student studying microbiology and immunology.

Erin Smith
Erin Smith

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.

Tovar earned a BS in microbiology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she was awarded the university’s 21st Century Leader Award. She joined Stanford Medicine in 2015.

Erin Smith, a first-year student and native of Kansas, is the founder of FacePrint, an AI tool to detect and monitor Parkinson’s disease and commonly misidentified neurological disorders using video technology and early-stage facial expression indicators.

Smith’s research interest was spurred when she watched a video by the Michael J. Fox Foundation and noticed that Parkinson’s patients smiles and laughter often appeared emotionally distant years before diagnosis. She talked to clinicians and caretakers, who reported similar observations. As she read through past medical papers. she found that the often-overlooked parts of the brain that experience some of the earliest changes in Parkinson’s patients are the same parts involved in the formation of facial expressions. Smith became captivated by the idea of using facial expressions to monitor changes in the brain like Parkinson’s and objectively detect its onset.
“Mentors have had a pivotal impact on my life,” said Smith. “I am looking forward to the opportunity to engage with young students and help shape their futures.”

Read more in the Roundabout.