April 22, 2016

Photo courtesy of Maura Appleberry.

Maura Appleberry was a sophomore in high school when her life changed.

As she drove through the northern fields of Indiana with her dad, she looked out the window and saw a landscape peppered with wind turbines.

“I was getting really excited talking to my dad about solar energy,” she says. “Typical car talk.”

But it wasn’t until Appleberry’s dad pointed out that there was no great way to store all of that energy that things clicked. She became obsessed with battery technology, and spent that summer learning as much as she could.

And she quickly discovered that researchers at the University of Louisville — right in her hometown — were working on that very topic.

“So I contacted them, I read what they were doing, and I just wouldn’t go away.”

Eventually, the scientists gave her a position in a lab, and together, they worked on developing better batteries.

A couple of years later, Appleberry was ready to take her work to the state science fair.

The judges were especially interested in her project, and she presented to them, separately, about five times. But even after the presentations, the judges continued to seek her out, quizzing her about the research she had done, and asking extremely specific questions about the processes of each reaction.

Appleberry was confused by their attention, but not bothered. She knew how to answer them. “I had done the reactions.”

After a particularly intense set of questioning, one of the judges told her: “There’s no way a girl like you did this research.”

“I was numb. I didn’t know how to answer,” Appleberry says. “I felt like all the work I had put in — not just that day but for two years — had gone completely unvalidated because a man didn’t justify what I had done. I felt like if I were a male student, this wouldn’t have happened to me.”

Her project, which was full of original research, didn’t garner an award.

For weeks afterward, she second-guessed herself. If she had only dressed differently, or spoken differently, she might have done better.

Now, she says, “I hyper-analyze every comment made about me as a student and a researcher…. but at the same time it makes me work harder because I feel like I need to prove myself…. I think about those words every day.”

Appleberry does believe, though, that, little by little, we’re making progress.

“I think that within my generation, there’s much more acceptance that [sexism in STEM] is a problem. And that’s the first step to changing. The only way we can change is if we think, individually, about how we contribute to this problem.”

This story came to us through our segment with Eileen Pollack, which aired a month ago. At the end of the segment, we asked listeners with stories about being women in STEM to write us. One of the emails we received was from Maura Appleberry, a college sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering.

STEM, Maura Appleberry, Sci and Tech

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