Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois

WeSTEM conference motivates, inspires women in graduate school

Be inspired, stay motivated, and grow passionate is the message female graduate students are sending through the Women Empowered in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics or weSTEM conference

Sponsored by the Graduate Committee in the Society of Women Engineers (GradSWE) at the University of Illinois, the group promotes diversity in graduate education in engineering and science to enable innovative and creative solutions to the future technical challenges facing society. 

Attendees of the 2014 weSTEM conference with Chancellor Phyllis Wise
Attendees of the 2014 weSTEM conference with Chancellor Phyllis Wise

Several U of I Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering graduate and undergraduate students took part in this year’s conference and are active with GradSWE including Elizabeth Horstman, who is the GradSWE director for 2014-15 and served as the conference’s speaker coodinator this year.

Horstman, who is a member of Professor Paul J. A. Kenis’ research group, says one theme that was echoed during the conference was to “find something that you enjoy doing and figure out how to incorporate your passion into your career.”

She said offering a conference like this for women is important because many times pursuing an advanced degree can be isolating. “This conference gives younger women the opportunity to come together, hear from women who have faced similar challenges which inspires the younger generation to keep pursuing their goals even when times get rough.”

This was the second year for the weSTEM conference that took place in April at the I-Hotel Conference Center in Champaign, Illinois. The event brought together 120 graduate and undergraduate students from 25 disciplines and 11 universities from across the country.

Horstman, who helps to mentor graduate students and undergraduates, says through the conference as well as mentoring and networking opportunities, GradSWE is working to “increase interaction with undergraduate students since we have noticed that many of the undergraduates in SWE know little about graduate school.”

Attendees visit during this year's weSTEM conference.
Attendees visit during this year’s weSTEM conference.

After attending last year’s conference, Rebecca A. Hortensius, a member of Assistant Professor Brendan Harley’s research group, decided to join GradSWE to continue the support and inspiration she received from the conference. “The women who came to speak were so candid about their experiences as women in STEM fields and for one of the first times, I felt that I was not alone in my thoughts and struggles regarding graduate school and my desired career path.”

While the conference is geared toward graduate students, many undergraduates also attended and are encouraged to do so. Lauraleigh Heffner, who is a senior majoring in chemical engineering and atmospheric sciences, says she went to the conference because she is interested in attending graduate school.

“It is great to have the support of other women who are driven individuals,” she said. “It’s not necessarily about ‘girl power,’ but instead having conversations including how a tenure track may be challenging for starting a family depending on the institution or how to working with a spouse/significant other so that neither is a ‘trailing spouse’. This can both be important to think about while weighing career options.”

Graduate student Megan Witzke, who is a member of Assistant Professor Dave Flaherty’s research group, said she went to the conference as a kick-off to her involvement with GradSWE and as a way to become more involved with the graduate community.

Roundtable discussions were part of the conference that included graduate and undergraduate female students.
Roundtable discussions were part of the conference that included graduate and undergraduate female students.

“It’s easy to feel isolated in your own research through the struggles of grad school, so it is important to have a support system,” Witzke said. “Conferences like weSTEM are important because we can often be the only females in our research groups or work place and there are certain life aspects that only other women can relate to.”

Being inspired by women in industry, academia, politics, and other walks of life was a key reason for Thao Ngo, a graduate student in Professor Hong Yang’s research group, to attend weSTEM. She says the stories she heard and the women she met exceeded her expectations.

“I learned that there isn’t a singular path to a successful career—there are women who lost themselves halfway through their Ph.D. careers but came back on top,” Ngo said. “Attending this conference truly widened my perspective and inspired me to focus more on my career so that one day I can inspire others.”

Learning about women who have successfully balanced their work and personal lives, as well as the decisions they faced to do so, was an important aspect of the conference for graduate student Danielle Mai, who was a conference volunteer.

“I have met a diverse group of driven and passionate graduate women in science and engineering, with whom I continue to have valuable discussions about ongoing research, experiences in graduate school, and future careers,” said Mai, who is a member of Associate Professor Charles Schroeder’s research group.

Volunteers are ready to greet attendees.
Volunteers are ready to greet attendees.

She says conferences and organizations like weSTEM and GradSWE provide professional development, networking, and fun. “Conferences like weSTEM are important to diversify and balance the STEM workforce by supporting and advocating for women and minorities,” Mai said. “weSTEM highlights role models to inspire women in graduate STEM programs, which are frequently male-dominated.”

The weSTEM conference will become an annual multi-institutional event with the 2015 conference on February 7, 2015 at the University of Illinois I-Hotel. For more information about the conference visit To learn more about GradSWE, visit or to learn about the Society of Women Engineers visit