International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Written By Aronya Waller

On Friday, February 11, 2022, the United Nations will meet for The 7th International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly, or IDWGIS, to celebrate the role of women and girls in science. This global consortium brings together women in science who are experts, government officials, representatives from international organizations, and even the private sector. Topics of discussion include primarily economic prosperity, social justice, and environmental integrity as well as water sustainability via sustainable development. The United Nations General Assembly declared the first International Day of Women and Girls in Science in 2015. The purpose of this annual event is to advance gender equity for women, girls, and femmes in all levels of science—academic, research, policy, and implementation. The United Nations (UN) has made equality one of its primary issues. “Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls will make a crucial contribution not only to the economic development of the world but to progress across all the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as well.”

The theme for 2022 is “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Water Unites Us”. According to the UN, by 2030 billions of people around the globe will not have access to safe drinking water, sanitation, or even hygienic services. Climate change, improper water conservation, and increased demand require an innovative approach that will be sustainable. The UN views women and girls in science as agents of change and has hope that they will be the scientists who help accelerate our progress to clean and safe water worldwide.

In honor of IDWGIS, Veggie Mijas is proud to be profiling a few amazing trailblazers in their respective areas of science. We are featuring Wildlife Biologist Gaby Tolley, Inventory Health Manager Marissa Martinez, and Neurobiology and Behavior Doctoral Student Rachel Frazer. 

Gaby Tolley is a wildlife biologist who works for the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency. Tolley primarily works in the field surveying wildlife and botany. She searches for rare plants and even endangered wildlife such as desert tortoises. She also helps install wildlife cameras in project areas to observe nocturnal wildlife. In addition to all this, Tolley works to ensure the protection of endangered species. “If a campground [or] other development is being proposed to be built somewhere, I will go out and make sure no endangered species are present in that area.” When she is not in the field, Tolley is in the office writing biological reports and creating maps for project areas.

Rachel Frazer is a doctoral student in the Neurobiology and Behavior program at Columbia University. The field of neurobiology investigates the biological mechanisms of why animals, including humans, behave the way they do. Neuroscience combines information from biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology to create a more holistic perspective of understanding the mind and behavior. 

Marissa Martinez is a manager of inventory health for KeHe Distributors, one of the largest food distributors in the United States. As a manager of inventory health, Martinez leads a team of analysts who focus on process-improvement opportunities for inventory management using advanced analytics to solve real-world problems. KeHe distributes food to grocery stores across the nation. It warehouses more than half a billion dollars of inventory at any given time. Her team is focused on reducing food waste through optimizing liquidation, salvage, and donation partnerships. The team’s overall measure of success is getting as much food as possible to the people who need it the most.

Martinez has found meaning through her work at KeHe and as a data project specialist for Veggie Mijas. She provides a great piece of advice for not only women and girls interested in science, but to all:  Stop looking for a job title and start looking for meaning, especially if you feel stuck in your career path. She explains that finding meaningful work will inspire you, and a job title will come through that passion. “If you feel an inner calling to do something but you don’t take the first step towards it because it scares you—do it anyway and start it fast because those are the best and most rewarding challenges to overcome,” Martinez explains. “I truly believe our passions and interests are not on accident.”

Frazer is the perfect example of Martinez’s belief about passions and interests. “My passion for music and the way it impacts our emotions and physical sensations inspired me to pursue a career in neuroscience to understand the mechanisms behind how music can heal the brain and body,” Frazer explained. In high school, she worked hard to get good grades and conducted an independent research project on music therapy. Frazer applied to Wellesley College where she graduated with a BA in Jazz and World Music. After graduating, she immediately began her doctoral program at Columbia. Frazer plans to become a professor in the future “to inspire and mentor more young women of color to pursue degrees in science while continuing to hold onto their artistic abilities and passions.” 

Tolley is also another notable example of turning passion into purpose. She has been passionate about animals and the environment since her childhood. Biology was her favorite subject in high school, and she pursued a bachelor’s degree in animal science from Cal Poly Pomona. After graduating, she spent a few years working at animal hospitals but quickly realized that was not her passion. She decided to intern at farm sanctuaries to learn more about animal care, and this is where she learned about the vegan lifestyle and farm animal advocacy. She later obtained an internship at a national park as a park ranger, where she gained valuable fieldwork experience and was able to assist on wildlife projects. “This is when I knew I wanted to go back to my STEM roots and pursue environmental biology,” Tolley explained. Since then, she worked in biological- and agricultural-science technician positions before her current position as a wildlife biologist.

Martinez came to her current line of work in a more roundabout way. She did not grow up wanting to work in data management, but after taking an interesting journey, she was so happy that she did. She sees the impact on the community and the environment. She initially wanted to be a pilot, but it was an expensive program of study. During her freshman year, although disappointed, she changed her major from flight administration to transportation administration. Looking back, she now realizes that it was one of the best decisions she could have made because she gained multiple knowledge areas—aviation, pipelines, trucking, maritime, and railroads. Martinez interned with a Fortune 500 company and then a leading transportation company. Before graduation, she received a job offer as a carrier manager in the intermodal transportation industry. She was promoted to a continuous improvement analyst and focused on Amazon and Walmart accounts. After a year of learning and growth, she earned an opportunity to work for KeHe Distributors as a supply chain analyst focused on at-risk inventory. “In the food industry, at-risk inventory means food that is close to expiring,” Martinez explains. “My job was to analyze data trends and provide business insights based on datasets aimed at reducing food waste.” She was then promoted to a senior analyst where her responsibilities expanded to inventory management. She believes that this opportunity increased her financial business acumen. Martinez went on to earn two promotions in approximately three years at KeHe. She eventually became the manager of inventory health and now oversees KeHe’s liquidation program, salvage recovery rates, donation distribution, and food waste.

Conquering Challenges

“…Never get discouraged when pursuing goals [and] passions even when you think you don’t fit in with everyone else in that field.”

--Gaby Tolley, Wildlife Biologist

It can be difficult when you may be the lone voice supposedly speaking for many perspectives in the room. Your peers look at you and may believe that you are speaking for your gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. Or people may undermine your voice and your experience because they believe you are only there because of affirmative action. Tolley refused to let something like this get to her. She knew she had to stay focused and not get discouraged when the competition got tough. “It is also important to not undermine your abilities and qualifications regardless of what others may think when they look at you,” Tolley explained. Martinez expands upon these types of issues. She works on projects where she is often the youngest person, the only woman, and many times the only Latina. This was a major challenge for her early in her career. She describes experiencing imposter syndrome and feeling out of place when looking at the people around her. She ultimately conquered this fear through baby steps by using her scientific mind. “I took a step back in meetings as a mini social experiment, and I learned the impact of my contributions were valued when my silence was noticed by my peers,” Martinez explains. “Now I contribute confidently knowing that my unique impact drives my company forward.” 

Frazer recounts her experience being a Latina from a low-income background and the various challenges she overcame since she was a child. She always worked hard, pursued her passions, and saw her academic challenges as opportunities for growth. “When difficulties show up in research, I apply the same tools that I did to get to where I am and I stay optimistic, motivated, and driven to find a solution,” Frazer explains. “At the same time, I prioritize my mental and physical health to make sure I can be more effective as a scientist and a person.” Frazer also decided to be uniquely herself instead of comparing herself to others.

Looking to the Future

“Mentorship would encourage women to know that others have already done the trailblazing work, so they don’t have to navigate alone. Promoting awareness and mentorship would demonstrate that we as women are all rooting for each other to succeed.”

--Marissa Martinez, Manager of Inventory Health

You may have noticed throughout the past ten years that there have been numerous programs focusing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for women and girls, as well as opportunities to conduct research early in their careers. Yet, there is still a significant gender gap in all areas of science. Frazer told me about the movie Picture a Scientist, which brings to light the unfortunate circumstances of women and girls in science. The movie discussed how many young girls were excited to pursue science careers, but the number of women significantly decreased as they pursued higher education. Women are often paid less or given less lab space than their male counterparts. They usually receive smaller research grants and are less published. There has been increased enrollment and research participation in higher education, but overall, women are still overwhelmingly underrepresented. For example, the UN states, “women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues and, while they represent 33.3% of all researchers, only 12% of members of national science academies are women.” 

According to the UN, “A significant gender gap has persisted throughout the years at all levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines all over the world. Even though women have made tremendous progress towards increasing their participation in higher education, they are still under-represented in these fields.” Frazer emphasizes the need to focus not only on recruitment but also retention. To reduce this gender gap, higher education needs to reconsider its antiquated perspectives of scientists. We must not demand equal access, but instead equitable access. “While these are wonderful programs, unfortunately, what happens is at the level of applications for PhDs and beyond, many selection committees will prioritize candidates that graduate from renowned universities,” Frazer explained. “To make the application process more equitable, we have to extend that to all universities and change the culture around academia to be more inclusive of people from diverse backgrounds and genders.” If higher education does not become more inclusive with its STEM programs, the UN will not meet its climate goals.

Frazer wants to break the stereotypes held about science. “When you hear the phrase ‘picture a scientist,’ more likely than not you will imagine the stereotypical image of Einstein or Watson and Crick, or a quirky white male wearing a white lab coat,” she describes. “However, the reality is that anyone can be a scientist and that these stereotypes do not have to define the future of science.” 

In addition to mentoring, there are many ways to increase women’s and girls’ interest to break that stereotype. Tolley believes we should encourage women and girls to pursue STEM fields. She suggests that there are many opportunities for women and girls to learn about biological and agricultural science through outdoor activities such as hiking, taking nature walks, and visiting local national parks.

Agents of Change

“We can make a difference and no matter how small the numbers may be, we should be inspired to change the course of the future and allow our voices to be heard.”

--Rachel Frazer, Doctoral Student in Neurobiology and Behavior

As previously mentioned, the 2022 theme for IDWGIS is “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Water Unites Us”. It recognizes women and girls as agents of change as we seek innovative solutions to heal our environment. Our featured agents of change all use more eco-friendly methods in their areas of science. Tolley believes a plant-based or vegan lifestyle is beneficial to every field of science. “Particularly in the wildlife biology side of things, where my field focuses on preserving and protecting species,” Tolley expounds. “Veganism [and a] plant-based lifestyle goes hand-in-hand with this.” Tolley is an agent of change whose work will have a long-lasting impact on the environment and her community. She continues to work in the places that she grew up visiting while protecting and conserving sensitive species through outdoor research. Tolley is also an agent of change because she is “taking up space in a field” where she rarely sees people like her represented.

Frazer believes living a plant-based lifestyle would be a great decision for many others in her field because she has experienced the benefits firsthand. For example, she believes it would help her peers have healthier lifestyles and reduce brain fog to conduct experiments more effectively. Frazer wholeheartedly advocates for more research on the benefits of a plant-based diet on brain health. Frazer can be considered an agent of change in the past and as she looks to the future. “In everything I have done, I’ve striven to create a positive impact in the world, whether that’s living a plant-based lifestyle, volunteering for various clubs and organizations that promote science education for youth, or starting my own business with a health and wellness company that empowers people to live more sustainable healthier lives,” she explains. “I plan to create a foundation in the future that promotes research on holistic health measures using music and routine to treat trauma, especially in kids.” 

Martinez is also reducing her carbon footprint at home and work. She finds the best ways to salvage food to reduce KeHe’s food waste through food donations. For example, many people were displaced during the 2021 Colorado wildfires. Martinez’s team created a food and water donation in collaboration with one of their vendors. The vendor provided water, and Martinez’s team diverted ready-to-eat food that would have gone to a salvage dealer and sent it to the impacted communities in Boulder. Martinez believes more companies can focus on reducing food waste. “They can leverage the resources that are available and, for food waste specifically, the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] has a Food Recovery Hierarchy that shows the steps to reducing food waste from most preferred outlets to least preferred outlets," Martinez explains. “So, what companies can do is apply that model to their business practices.” Martinez is an agent of change in the corporate world and at Veggie Mijas as she confidently finds innovative and sustainable methods to protect our environment. 

There are small steps that we can all take to increase equity, inclusion, and diversity for women and girls in science and to decrease the challenges in STEM that they face. We do not have to rely on schools, the government, and non-profit organizations to assist girls in women and science. When we see that a girl or a woman has an interest in science—whether health, animals, mathematics, the environment, etc.—let us find ways for them to pursue that passion at home and in the neighborhood. In addition, speak life into their passions because they may face challenges throughout their journey. Early on, give them the confidence to know that their ideas, perspectives, and presence are needed.

 Gaby Tolley

 Marissa Martinez

Rachel Frazer


The International Day of Women and Girls in Science Official Website 

Food Recovery Hierarchy, Sustainable Management of Food 

Picture a Scientist 

The 7th International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly

United Nations, International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February

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