Sabrina Curtis is one of the bright young minds in her field of materials science and engineering: the design, discovery and implementation of metals and other materials for practical use. In addition to participating in the National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) selective Collegiate Inventors Competition® (CIC), she is a recipient of a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, whose past recipients have included Google co-founder Sergey Brin and many Nobel Prize winners. Along with pursuing a doctorate from Vanderbilt University, Curtis is in the process of developing a type of stretchable solar cell technology currently under consideration for a provisional patent.
These professional achievements are considerable for someone of any age. Yet, it was not that long ago when Curtis felt unsure she had chosen the right field. During these challenging times, she reached out to her female peers and role models for guidance and support. Their advice and mentorship helped Curtis become the scientist she is today, demonstrating the impact female role models can have on aspiring young women interested in similar career paths. This type of mentorship is particularly crucial in the STEM industry, which suffers from a lack of gender diversity.
The Importance of Female STEM Mentorship
Growing up, Curtis knew very little about engineering. Though she had always been interested in math and science, her high school provided little guidance when it came to completing college applications, exploring different areas of study or applying for scholarships. It was her mother who suggested she consider biological engineering because of the opportunities a career in that field could present. Her first math and science classes at the University of Maryland were difficult, but she soon found a group of young women also interested in STEM, and they all immediately became friends. It was this shared sense of belonging and comradery that helped Curtis persevere.
“One of the main reasons I stuck with [engineering] was because I happened to meet a good group of girlfriends,” Curtis said. “We felt empowered and decided that we were going to take all of these classes together and just struggle through it.”
In addition to finding these valuable friendships, at the end of her sophomore year, Curtis met a doctoral student named Gretchen Peters (who has since completed her degree). Peters agreed to take Curtis on as an undergraduate research assistant for her junior year and would soon become a friend and mentor. One of the first things she taught Curtis was that as a female scientist she had to stand up for herself in the face of bias and gender stereotyping. Her motivating influence gave Curtis the confidence, drive and perseverance to finish her combined bachelor’s and master’s program and then consider graduate school.
Like many other STEM careers, engineering is a field that has been historically dominated by men. Due to this lack of diversity, women have long reported that they sometimes do not feel comfortable in these workplaces due to a prevailing masculine culture. According to a study published in Psychological Bulletin, this atmosphere has greatly contributed to a lack of female representation in computer science, engineering and physics career fields. The gender gap is so wide that women earn less than 20 percent of all computer science, engineering and physics undergraduate degrees, and just 13 to 22 percent of engineering doctorate degrees.
One of the most effective ways to retain and increase the number of women entering the STEM workforce is to embrace the power of female mentorships. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that “female engineering undergraduates who are paired with a female mentor felt more motivated, more self-assured and less anxious than those who had either no mentor or a male one. They were less likely to drop out of their courses, and keener to look for engineering jobs after they graduated.”
Thanks to the support from her female STEM friends and from Peters, Curtis experienced similar benefits to the ones identified in the above study. Additional mentorship came from Professor Kelsey Hatzell, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University, who helped Curtis apply for a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and convinced her to pursue a doctorate in materials engineering.
With the support and encouragement from Hatzell and her other female STEM peers and mentors, Curtis decided to pursue the evolution of the wearable solar cell technology she had developed as a master’s student and research scientist at the Army Research Lab. After exhibiting the technology during CIC, she filed a provisional patent for “High Fill Factor Synclastic Bending Solar Cells” — a technology that allows energy-producing solar cells to gain pliable characteristics, making them suitable to wear. Curtis’ doctorate research under the supervision of Hatzell seeks to further advance this technology by studying the electrical and optical properties of the stretchable solar cells in order to increase their power efficiency.
One of Curtis’ career goals is to inspire young women interested in STEM. She often volunteers at women’s tech-a-thons, career fairs and engineering recruitment events for high schoolers. During these events, she encourages participants to not give up on what they’re passionate about and to find a female role model for support and guidance.
“My biggest piece of advice to girls that are looking to go into STEM is to find a role model,” Curtis said.
The same positive and lasting effects of female STEM mentorship that have benefitted Curtis have also been replicated in study after study. One of the more recent studies comes from a 2018 Microsoft report, which found that “girls who know a woman in a STEM profession are substantially more likely to feel empowered when they engage in STEM activities (61 percent) than those who don’t know a woman in a STEM profession (44 percent).”
“A huge goal of mine is to find some female undergraduates to help so I can be the Kelsey and Gretchen for them,” Curtis said. “I want to give as many girls as I possibly can the same opportunities provided to me to help jump-start their careers and help build the confidence in these girls to help them realize their true potential.”