By Josh Grossberg

The message to the dozens of school-aged girls was simple—with hard work and diligence, they can achieve meaningful and successful careers in science, technology, engineering and math—the so-called STEM subjects.

And to prove the point, the message was delivered by some of the top female professionals in those fields during a recent symposium at The Saban Research Institute of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Among the presenters were several from Keck School of Medicine of USC who perform research at the institute.

The April 24 event, “Women in STEM: Designing, Discovering and Delivering Change,” was in part a response to First Lady Michelle Obama’s call last year to encourage more girls and women to study STEM subjects.

The statistics show why it is so important—while women make up 48 percent of the workforce, they hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs. And there is a growing need for skilled workers in STEM fields.

Speakers included Michele D. Kipke, professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at the Keck School; Roberta Diaz Brinton, USC School of Pharmacy professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences, biomedical engineering and neurology; Heather Volk, associate professor of research in the division of environmental health in the Department of Preventive Medicine and the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute; and Maja Mataric, professor of computer science and vice dean for research at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

There was also a panel discussion led by Cheryl Saban. She and her husband, Haim, gave a transformational gift a decade ago that resulted in The Saban Research Institute being named to honor them.

Diaz Brinton shared with the audience a personal story about her own challenging childhood environment. “I took on problems bigger than I was,” she said. “What I learned served me well as a scientist. I can’t give up. That’s not an option.”

Volk advised the audience to develop relationships with others—to become part of a team.

“That support, those groups really mean a lot to me in my research,” she said. “I couldn’t do it by myself.”

She said that she found support when she was working on someone else’s team. And now that she’s forming her own research team, she finds the same solace.

“The great part of this collaboration is the people I’m working with are my peers,” she said. “And I think for women in STEM fields, myself especially, working with girls has been really incredible for me.”

Mataric told the group that it was OK to make mistakes along the way.

“Nobody is perfect,” she said. “Women are just more open and worry more about it than men. Since you’re not perfect, embrace the imperfections you can live with.” She told the group that it’s normal to feel insecure, but to push ahead anyway.

Mataric left the audience with a question to ask oneself in challenging situations, “What would you do if you weren’t scared?”

The event ended with an energizing and inspiring panel discussion on topics such as subconscious biases, mentoring, letting go of perfection and embracing failure.