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A bright future for women in STEM

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, I can’t help but think back to the event I attended last semester sponsored by the college’s Women Leaders in STEM organization. The event topic: Imposter Syndrome – Finding One’s Fit. We also recently sponsored a Picture a Scientist documentary screening. Both discussed experiences and challenges female scientists face in the academic research environment. As part of our commitment to advancing access, justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (AJEDI), this blog highlights the STEM journey and point of view from an interview with our own, Dr. Maria Emelianenko, Chair, Department of Mathematical Sciences.


I grew up in Russia, in a small scientific town called Dubna in the Moscow region where at least one of the parents in a typical family was a scientist or a teacher. Unlike many other places in Russia at the time, there were always international visitors in Dubna. There were kids from Bulgaria, Korea, and Czechoslovakia in my classes. We grew up appreciating foreign cultures and the power of science that crosses political and geographical boundaries. I was fortunate to travel throughout Europe as a teenager, both as part of school cultural exchange programs as well as for choir competitions. These trips were amazing opportunities to see the world in its diversity, grandeur, and splendor that lives side by side with poverty and pain. 


Maria Emelianenko
Dr. Maria Emelianenko, Mathematical Sciences Department Chair at George Mason University.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had a passion for mathematics inspired by my father and a desire to contribute to solving technological and scientific challenges, but I also liked humanities and languages. I took the advice of one of my teachers who said I could never go wrong with applied mathematics, a discipline that unifies and connects all STEAM fields. Every theory, including the theory of languages, has mathematical logic and structure to it. It made me feel like I would have a set of powerful tools to tackle whichever problem or area I wanted to focus on and solve. 

After studying at Moscow State University, Emelianenko came to the US to pursue a PhD degree in Math at Penn State University, followed by a postdoctoral appointment at Carnegie Mellon. Then she joined Mason.

I have been blessed with excellent teachers and advisors throughout my career, but I faced many early struggles-- some having to do with being 20 years old when starting a PhD program in another country, along with overt or hidden gender biases I encountered along the way. 

When I made mistakes in my homework assignments, I received harsh comments from male professors or acquaintances referring to my wrong choice of a career path not befitting a woman. Sometimes, when I expressed an opinion, my ideas were dismissed and then accredited to a male colleague. Occasionally, these commentors even went as far as to tell me there were no worthy female mathematicians, which was a blatant disrespect towards some of their own colleagues whom I had and always will think of as my role models. It made for some challenging years of self-doubt and bouts of an impostor syndrome, but in the end, only strengthened my determination to persevere. 

Why Choose Mason?
I chose Mason over several higher ranked schools in part because I felt at home from the first time I interviewed here. I liked the “family”-like atmosphere of the department, and I appreciated the fact there were several excellent female mathematicians who were respected and appreciated by their peers. I did not get the same impression from other high-profile schools when I interviewed, which raised a few red flags. 

Having been at Mason for 15 years now, I continually strive to promote this culture of mutual respect and support which I feel truly defines us. That feeling of working together on accomplishing the goals we set for ourselves, the team spirit, an active mentality of “walking the walk and not just talking the talk” are collectively what make me love what I do and give me the motivation to continue even when the task feels impossibly hard.

We have an incredible leadership team in our department. Stretched thin by pandemic-related challenges or by other factors, people stood up to help each other, taking initiative to organize working groups and discussions to keep control of things. There were times when I was ready to give up, yet someone was there to push me to keep going. In the last two years alone, we managed to accomplish a lot together and brought forward tons of future initiatives to pursue. This culture of integrity, trust, and open mindedness is worth more to me than brand names and titles. 

I love Mason’s interdisciplinary and collaborative spirit. I continue to make new connections, embarking on new projects almost every few months. I have worked with biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, and data scientists over the years, and the only regret I have is not having enough hours in a day to pursue all the exciting opportunities out there. Pulling long hours while writing joint proposals, brainstorming ideas, and thinking of ways to make Mason’s training and research programs more impactful makes for some of my best Mason memories.

What is your greatest achievement in your field thus far?
Some of the work I have done over the years with the concepts of centroidal Voronoi tessellations and multiscale modeling has become quite useful for the scientific community. There are tons of open questions remaining, but the groundwork that has been laid out provides ample opportunities for myself and others to contribute new ideas and improve upon existing numerical and analytical results. 

None of these results would have been achievable without my students and collaborators. I am particularly proud to have served as a mentor to many bright undergraduate, graduate students and postdocs who have had remarkable career journeys upon leaving Mason. Some of them are in the US, while some went on to pursue academic careers in Europe and Latin America. It is an incredible feeling to witness successes and achievements of your students!  

How can we best support science exploration at Mason?
We need to provide opportunities for people to meet each other and talk about their work. Some of the most groundbreaking ideas are simple, but hard to discover if you stay inside your crab shell. Having a habit of talking to others can often save you time by breaking a vicious thought cycle or providing an unexpected new research direction. Now that we are back to in person interactions, these opportunities will be essential for fostering disciplinary and interdisciplinary collaborations.   

Sources of Inspiration
I am inspired by my colleagues and friends, many of whom work long hours to support our students and sustain our programs, putting their hearts and souls into their work. These are the dedicated people who carry the most weight on their shoulders, often performing a difficult career-family balancing act. My biggest reward in my job as chair is getting an opportunity to help and support them.

Advice for Women in STEM at Mason
Being a woman in a STEM field is often a challenge, but it is also an incredible journey. My advice is to develop inner strength and create a support system of people who have your best interests at heart.  Too often I witness women being dissuaded from taking the science career path by people who barely know them, who have been socialized into the inequality by their parents or had their own insecurities affecting their judgement.

We have come a long way, but we are still too far from closing the gender gap in STEM, nor are we able to escape the chauvinism, tokenism, and gender profiling. Some examples:

  • My son’s second grade teacher told the girls to not attempt a math problem since it was ``too hard for them.’’
  • A peer panelist openly accused a female PI of getting the grant solely due to her gender.
  • A random guy, an economics professor, sitting next to me on a plane, was convinced women should only pursue STEM careers if their husbands allow it. He insisted his wife had to quit hers… This list goes on and on.

There are still plenty of stereotypes when it comes to working women and parenthood, and women experience a bigger impact on their careers when they become parents. Even as the society opens to the idea of providing shared parenting responsibilities and benefits, I suggest women are still being judged harsher than men, and are still heavily impacted by the challenges associated with maternity. Young women in STEM careers need to be prepared to face this reality. And people in leadership roles could put their collective efforts into making our scientific workplace more supportive of women at those stages of their lives and careers. Having reasonable family-work balance policies can have a tremendous positive impact in terms of attracting more women into the STEM workforce. 

I believe we are shaping a brighter future for women in STEM. I see it every time I teach a class with bright female students asking me inquisitive questions. And every time I see my students go on to pursue their passion and use their talent to become role models for their own children and students. 

Moving forward with Mason Science AJEDI initiatives
Access, justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are the principles that should be at the heart of any healthy educational community. Having some painful misogynistic experiences in the past, I have always strived to support others in their journeys and to help drive positive cultural changes to the scientific community. I have served as a mentor for the Association for Women in Math chapter, brought middle and high school girls to Mason for outreach events and lately have been putting a lot of effort into creating strong recruitment and retention pipelines for under-represented students and faculty.

Clearly, due to the sheer scope and magnitude of the outstanding challenges, it is only by joining forces and working as a team that we can make a sizeable impact in this space. Only by supporting and championing existing initiatives and learning from prior successes and failures we will be able to move forward to break the barriers and achieve our goals. I have a lot of trust in our college’s ability to reach significant success in AJEDI initiatives in the next few years. 


Yes, Maria, as a father of two daughters pursuing careers in STEM and education, I share your vision of a bright future both for Mason Science and for Women in STEM.  We have the opportunity to foster a growth mindset and create inclusive and diverse Mason Science workplaces celebrating that we are all together different where the term imposter syndrome shouldn’t be repeatedly felt again

Visit the dean's blog for more insights from Dean Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm.