Read How 3 Women In STEM Are Encouraging the Next Generation of Scientists

As we celebrate women who have made history and break down barriers, we want to showcase women who are changing the face of STEM during Women’s History Month.

We spoke with three women featured in the Stories of Women in STEM at the Smithsonian ebook about their career path, and how they would encourage the next generation of scientists.

Dr. Carla Dove: Ornithologist, Natural History Museum

Hailing from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, Carla Dove describes playing in the woods and jumping into streams as her “happy place.” These childhood adventures shaped her interest in a career that would allow her to work with nature, but her vision of what that could be didn’t start to become clear until she attended community college.

“I’ve always been interested in the outdoors and nature,” Dove said. “But I didn’t know what kind of career it would be.”

Her transfer to the University of Montana would lead to her introduction to a professor who guided her toward the study of birds, or ornithology. This trajectory would eventually lead her to the Smithsonian, where she currently works as an ornithologist at the Museum of Natural History.

Dove credits her success to taking advantage of opportunities and working hard.

“The first time I set foot in the Smithsonian for the job, I was so happy, I could hardly contain myself,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I was behind the scenes in this big museum that I always loved and always wanted to work in.”

Her advice to the next generation:

“If you’re given the opportunity to do something that you love, take advantage of it,” she said. “You’re gaining experience that would help you go into your next job and experience[…]Whatever you think you’re interested in, do whatever you can to make sure that’s what you want.” Dove also recommends students to volunteer with someone who’s in their career of interest.

Dr. Brenda María Soler-Figueroa: Phyto-plankton Analyst, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Ever since she was a child, Brenda Maria Soler-Figeuroa recalled wanting to become a scientist. Raised in Puerto Rico, she loved spending time outdoors and was surrounded by “white sand beaches, amazing waterfalls, and majestic mountains.”

Her passion for biology conservation and environmental science began after a trip to El Yunque National Forest, but didn’t deepen until after her first snorkeling experience. That experience, according to Solar-Figueroa, was the catalyst for her pursuing marine biology.

“Working to protect the environment is very rewarding,” she said. “It’s something I really like because I’m doing my part to really make a better world for all of us.”

Solar-Figueroa notes that some of the most valuable lessons learned on her journey included being open to change, and that overcoming challenges were essential for her growth as a scientist.

“It’s ok to have a plan, but be open to other possibilities,” she said. “Sometimes when one door closes, other doors will open.”

This rang true for Solar-Figueroa after being rejected from a fellowship opportunity. “It made me feel very sad and frustrated because I didn’t have any other plans,” she said. A few months later, a colleague sent a job listing for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. where she currently works.

Her advice to the next generation:

Don’t let challenges stop you and use those challenges as growth opportunities. Your career path will rarely be a straight path—sometimes it looks like a zig-zag.

Find things that will motivate you to keep swimming, even if things are difficult. You are capable, and you don’t need to have special abilities because you can develop those on your journey.

You need to be disciplined and persistent, and to look for help when it’s needed. It doesn’t matter how many questions you have—ask them.

Amber Kerr: Paintings Conservator, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Growing up in a financially challenged family, Amber Kerr described education as her “way out.”

Psychology and art were her primary interests in high school, and she initially believed she wanted to pursue a career as an art therapist for children. Not having the financial means to go to college immediately after high school, she began working to save toward tuition.

Kerr juggled full-time work with taking classes at night. It wasn’t until she was laid off during a downsizing at her job, that she was the time to fully focus on college.

“I was 27-years-old and thought, ‘It’s either now or never,’ Kerr said. “I put myself into community college to finally pursue this dream of becoming an art therapist.”

One of Kerr’s professors noticed her skill set in color theory and reconstructions and made the recommendation to research art conservation. After their meeting, Kerr said she started seeing art conservation “everywhere.”

Kerr saw what art conservators did firsthand at an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. She was fascinated by the X-ray analysis of discovering paintings hidden under other paintings.

“I was sold,” she said. “If that’s what a conservator does, then that’s what I want to do.”

Her advice to the next generation:

“If you have something that interests you, meet the people who do the job—interview them and ask them questions. You’ll be amazed by how many people open up and talk about what they do. It’ll really help you understand if that’s a good fit for you, and that’s what I did. I also recommend that you go places and attend lectures to learn more about the field you’re interested in.”


To learn more about trailblazing women in STEM, download our Stories of Women in STEM at the Smithsonian ebook here: https://books.apple.com/us/book/id1540255000