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May 2, 2017 11:32 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

'Hidden Figures' Screening, Panel Discussion Will Benefit I-Tri, Inspire Girls To Pursue STEM

May 2, 2017 11:36 AM

Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan should have been household names decades ago. Instead, they were buried in obscurity until the 2016 film “Hidden Figures” was released in theaters. The award-winning drama told the story of three African-American women who worked as mathematicians and scientists for NASA during the Space Race in the 1950s and ’60s, and whose contributions made it possible for the United States to make it to space. The film also shined a light on the discrimination they faced in the workplace—both because of their gender and skin color.

Many of those challenges are still present today for women and minorities working in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math. Awareness of the problem has led in recent years to efforts to help girls build confidence and become more exposed to those areas of study. Locally, the I-Tri program has joined that initiative, and on Saturday, May 6, will host a special screening of “Hidden Figures” at Guild Hall in East Hampton. The afternoon will also include a panel discussion with five women who work in STEM fields, moderated by Dr. Max Gomez, an Emmy-Award winning medical reporter for CBS.

Dr. Nancy Hollingsworth was invited to be part of the panel discussion, and she said that while she wasn’t familiar with I-Tri, she has long been enthusiastic about promoting diversity in her field. Dr. Hollingsworth has a Ph.D. in genetics and started her own research laboratory at Stony Brook University in 1994. On Sunday afternoon, she took a short break from conducting research in her lab to talk about working in the white male-dominated field of biology, and her commitment to supporting women and young girls with an interest in and passion for science.

“Girls start out being very good at math and science, and very interested in it, but somehow by the time they get to high school, some are diminished in that,” she said. “I could imagine that they aren’t getting the kind of support, perhaps at home, or exposure at home of having people in STEM fields. So I said I’d be happy to [be part of the panel.]”

Dr. Hollingsworth lamented the fact some of the girls who see her speak on Saturday may have to stretch a bit to see themselves in her, because she is white.

“It would be great if all the girls could have someone who looks like them,” she said, pointing out that in her department at Stony Brook, there are four women—all white—in a faculty of 22. “Every year we frequently interview female candidates, but there’s never anyone who’s Hispanic or African-American, male or female, so we really need to improve on that.”

When she speaks to audiences like the one she’ll see on Saturday, Dr. Hollingsworth said she tries to drive home a few points.

“[Working in STEM] isn’t for everyone, and doing research in particular,” she said. “But it is an incredibly fun and exciting thing to do if you like it. That’s why I’m here in the lab on a Sunday morning. But it’s not for everybody and we don’t want to try to buttonhole people. But if it’s something you think you might like, I would say don’t be intimidated from trying it.

“I also think it’s really important to be academically excellent,” she continued. “To put the time in to do well in school, because that makes a difference when you apply to colleges, then to a fellowship, and when you want to get a job. So it’s important to value that.”

Saturday’s screening and discussion promises to be valuable in many ways for both members of the public who choose to attend and, of course, the I-Tri girls. I-Tri founder Theresa Roden said she was motivated to create the event based on a discussion a few of the girls had a while back when she was driving them home from another event.

“I had heard about [“Hidden Figures”] and around the same time a few of the girls were talking, and one of them said she’d never been to a movie in a movie theater before,” Ms. Roden recalled. “So I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to offer this to our girls?’ Because it really does go with our mission. The whole message of empowerment in the movie is phenomenal.”

Ms. Roden said she is excited about the panel as well, which will include several other women who work in STEM fields, aside from Dr. Hollingsworth. Gitte Pedersen has a degree in chemical engineering, worked for Novo Nordisk, and has advised the Danish government and a number of biotech companies; Kim Barbour serves as marine program outreach manager for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, and holds a B.S. in environmental science and an M.P.S. in environmental management; Jennifer Gatz, Ph.D., has 17 years of coaching experience with multi-sport athletes, has a B.Sc. in fitness cardiac rehab/exercise science, an M.S. in exercise physiology, and an M.A.T. in biology with a teaching certificate, and is teaching A.P. Biology and A.P. Research for Patchogue-Medford School District; and Brook Phillips has an A.S. in physics, a B.S. in geology and is presently a Ph.D. student in the department of geosciences at Stony Brook University, where she focuses on the evolution of the Martian surface over time to determine the habitability of surface conditions.

I-Tri will screen “Hidden Figures” at Guild Hall in East Hampton on Saturday, May 6, at 12:30 p.m. followed by a panel discussion. The event is open to the public, and tickets are $10 in advance or $15 at the door. Visit itrigirls.org for more information.

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