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Moving Forward with STEM: A Conversation about the Future of Transportation, Mentors and More

November 05, 2021 09:00 AM

​Access to transportation is the keystone of Pennsylvania's economy and critical to our quality of life. We rely on a complex transportation network - a modern convenience often taken for granted - to ensure goods, services and people get to where they need to be.

Professionals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) provide the backbone of our transportation infrastructure. Drawing on some of the most basic math and engineering principals, combined with cutting-edge technology and innovations, STEM workers do everything from designing structurally sound roads and bridges, to determining the most effective way to transport goods and people. The COVID-19 pandemic turned all of that on its head, prompting us to rethink how we connect, work and travel.

Recently, I was joined by leaders at Slippery Rock University to launch PennDOT's "Moving Forward with STEM" event series to start the conversation about the future of transportation. Engaging with the next generation of STEM leaders is critical as we plan for a transportation future that is safer, more sustainable, and more equitable than the system we have today.

The series will bring together transportation leaders with college and high school students across Pennsylvania to discuss how to reimagine transportation, introduce safety innovations, and increase diversity and equity in transportation, government, and STEM fields. And I will share my own career story to encourage more women and people of color to pursue careers in STEM.

It was particularly prescient timing to host this event at Slippery Rock University ahead of two observances that define my own career journey in STEM and transportation - National Mentoring Day (October 27) and National Immigrants Day (October 28). You see, I immigrated to the United States from Iran as a young woman who dreamed of becoming an engineer. I found my way to the engineering school at the University of Michigan where I earned Bachelor's and Master's degrees in civil engineering.

I am grateful to every mentor along the way who helped to shape my career progression - including serving as the first female bridge engineer on the staff of an engineering firm in New Jersey, and later progressing to positions as a design engineer and in project management and business leadership in Pennsylvania. I am a huge proponent of mentorship, as well as supporting foreign-born workers who make up a growing share of the United States' STEM workforce. In fact, the National Science Foundation reports that as of 2019, foreign-born workers accounted for 19 percent of the STEM workforce and 45 percent of a subset of STEM workers (i.e., mathematical and computer scientists, physical scientists, life scientists, social scientists, and engineers) with doctoral degrees.

This all came full circle during the recent student session, as I was joined by an impressive group of leaders from PennDOT, Slippery Rock University, and the Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority - including Dr. Xinchao "Steven" Wei, SRU professor of physics and engineering and director of the School of Engineering, and a native of China - who are inspiring the next generation of STEM leaders to help devise solutions to our transportation challenges.

As Dr. Wei said, "Technology and innovation are key to the future of Pennsylvania." I am excited for the next stop in our "Moving Forward with STEM" tour and hope you will follow along with me on this journey. 

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