Psychology grad uses NASA platform to encourage girls, women in STEM fields

leedjia svec ames

Svec with fellow Naval officer and NASCAR driver Jesse Iwuji, who spoke at Ames Research Center on diversity.

 

Leedjia Svec ’01 was named one of Silicon Valley’s top 100 women of influence by the Silicon Valley Business Journal last spring. Svec is a Navy commander and director of Military Programs at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

The Business Journal said each woman on its list has “an inspirational story, an interesting professional path and a treasure trove of guidance.”

Svec works to encourage girls and women to consider a STEM career — even those who might be a little afraid to consider it.

“I think people should know that’s available to them, and it’s out there, and you can have a fun and successful career,” Svec said.

Leedjia Svec

Lt. Commander Leedjia Svec

 

Svec attended Pacific in the late 1990s and majored in psychology and computer technology. She said she loved the scientific method even as a child but hadn’t considered herself a scientist because she wasn’t drawn to biology or chemistry.

“At Pacific I took Intro to Psychology and learned there was a whole other world where we can use this method to study things of interest and people that are very fascinating,” she said.

Svec credits professors with mentoring her but says one of the best lessons she learned at Pacific was how to teach herself. Psychology professor Chris Clay taught her how to cope with her math dyslexia by taking an alternate approach to solving problems. She realized she wasn’t less capable but that she had to do things differently.

She shares that message on her blog, Stylish STEM. Her inspiration came several years ago when she mentored a group of girls who said they hated math.

“I said, ‘Alright. That’s fine. Let’s talk about shoes,’ because they love shoes,” she remembered. “’So then, eventually I’d steer the conversation to, ‘Well, you know, there’s actual physics behind the perfect shoe.’”

Svec found that tying science and technology to fashion was a way to spark interest and to get girls to start thinking of the STEM disciplines as something that was open to them.

She said girls have historically had to hear that math and science aren’t for them, and it’s difficult not to internalize that message.

“I’ve literally been told, ‘You know, you have less testosterone so you can’t do math as well,’” she said.

Svec recommends a report on the issue called “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics” by the American Association of University Women, which takes a hard look at the problem and offers solutions.

“Comments have a big impact but then so does support,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons I say, ‘Hey, you look like a scientist. You look like an engineer for the future. You can build things. You can grow these things.’ You can have an impact positively.”

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