FIU students showcase work at STEM Research Symposium

Psychology major Marcela Ramos may have found a way to encourage more women to work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and it could lead to more effective training techniques for women and men.

Previous studies showed that 3D rotation tests are useful in determining a person’s success in STEM fields. Men routinely outperform women on these tests, but Ramos’ study showed that by adding color to the tests, men and women scored identically.

Marcela Ramos

Marcela Ramos stands next to her poster presentation for the 2014 STEM Symposium

Ramos was one of more than 70 student researchers from 10 South Florida colleges and universities who presented their findings at the 2014 Life Sciences South Florida STEM Undergraduate Research Symposium recently. Topics ranged from restoring coral reef ecosystems and finding more effective HIV treatments to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and autism.

The symposium’s main goal was to encourage more students to join STEM fields by allowing them to display their research to their peers and learn from mentors like FIU professor and Medal of Freedom recipient Dr. Pedro Jose “Joe” Greer, Jr., who asked students to find their big question in life.

“It was definitely inspiring hearing [Dr. Greer] tell us to find our big question,” Ramos said. “And I think so far my big question is how women can be more represented in the STEM disciplines.”

Dr. Greer was adamant about bringing greater diversity to STEM careers regardless of gender, race or socioeconomic class.

“It is a privilege to be educated and it is something that everyone should have the opportunity to do in our state, in our country and in the world,” he said. “You have an obligation to make sure that what you do is an answer to a question that is pending in society.”

Another goal: to increase the success rate of minorities who do not typically enter STEM disciplines.

“Minority students are woefully underrepresented in STEM fields,” said Vice President for Engagement Irma Becerra-Fernandez, who oversees LSSF at FIU and is the first woman to receive a doctorate from FIU’s engineering program.

She said FIU is tackling this “topic of national concern” by answering two questions: “How do we make STEM more interesting?” and “How do we get students to persist in their studies?”

“What we are striving for is a balance,” she said. “We want more male nurses as much as we want more female engineers.”

Dr. Greer speaks with a judge at the 2014 STEM Symposium

Dr. Greer speaks with a judge at the 2014 STEM Symposium

Biological Sciences major Leidy Gonzales is proof of that balance. She took third place and won an iPad mini for her poster presentation. She hopes her research into the symbiotic relationship between bacteria and the reef-building coral species they live within will lead to a restoration of coral reef systems throughout the world.

“The whole symposium was very impressive,” she said. “It is always rewarding to see other students, faculty, and scientists interested in the research that I have put so much effort into, and now I see that all that work paid off.”

Psychology major Daniela Salazar studied the relationship between spatial and numeracy skills in pre-kindergarten-aged children and how different teaching methods might encourage them to enter STEM fields. Her hope is that changing the way teachers instruct will improve the chances of children entering STEM fields.

”We’ve worked so hard on this project,” she said, elated to display her research. “So it’s nice to see it finally come to life.”

Even though female presenters outnumbered males at the symposium, gender disparity is still present in many of the STEM fields; according to the US Department of Commerce women held only 24 percent of STEM positions in 2009.

“I think that from the moment a girl enters the education system, she should be given awareness about making a career in any of the STEM subjects,” Gonzales said.  “In my opinion we need to put more emphasis on how exciting the world of scientific research can be for both boys and girls, but women in particular.”

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