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Girls in Science names Kristine Vanderwiel Scientist of the Year

Solon native recognized for her mentorship to girls
Kristine Vanderwiel volunteers with Girls in Science, giving presentations and doing activities that make science and learning fun for girls. (Photo by Rachel Ryan/Flint Hill Resources )

SOLON– Years ago, a teenage girl in Solon dreamed of engineering.
Kristine Vanderwiel, née Gleason, absorbed her experiences in 4-H and youth career conferences with excitement and hope.
Today, she passes that on as a youth mentor, inspiring and encouraging girls interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Vanderwiel was recognized for her mentorship in the Science Center of Iowa’s Girls in Science Awards ceremony this summer. She was named the state’s 2015 Scientist of the Year, a title bestowed on Girls in Science mentors who are leaders in their fields and who bring attention to STEM development efforts in Iowa, according to the center’s website.
Vanderwiel is a reliability engineer at the Flint Hills Resources’ ethanol production facility in Iowa Falls. She analyzes plant equipment and work processes to ensure biofuels production runs smoothly. Active as a Girls in Science volunteer, she attended the program’s annual awards ceremony this May with no idea that she would leave with an award.
“It was a great surprise for me,” Vanderwiel said. “I was extremely humbled by it.”
Vanderwiel, a 2011 Iowa State University graduate in agricultural engineering, has been working with Girls in Science since February 2014. The initiative was begun by the Science Center of Iowa to encourage girls to pursue STEM fields. Vanderwiel has participated in the program’s annual festival, and has given science presentations in Iowa elementary schools through the Science @ Your Site outreach program.
She is particularly fond of the Meals with Mentors events in which middle school- and high school-aged girls dine in small groups with STEM professionals. Each event includes a keynote speaker and girls are invited to participate in science-related activities.
“She relates to the girls so well,” said Molly Pins, the donor engagement and communications manager at the Science Center of Iowa. “She’s a favorite mentor of our girls and of ours.”
Since Vanderwiel is a young professional in her field, the girls see her as an adult role model but also feel able to connect with her, Pins said.
Vanderwiel may connect well with these girls in part because she remembers her experiences when she was a student in Solon schools. She had always gravitated toward math and science, and attended Taking the Road Less Traveled career conferences at Iowa State University. Along with this exposure to STEM careers, Vanderwiel developed an appreciation and understanding of agriculture from her involvement with 4-H. When she headed to Iowa State University in 2007, she was able to marry the two interests with an agricultural engineering major.
The major was a perfect fit for her; the small department had the tight-knit atmosphere of a family. Vanderwiel still remembers that her graduating class included only five or six women out of about 60 graduates.
In general, the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields has been well-documented. Iowa has joined nationwide efforts to encourage girls and women to pursue their STEM interests. Aside from bringing additional perspectives and ideas into these fields, which ultimately benefits all of society, studies show that STEM fields can be particularly lucrative for women. Job openings in STEM disciplines are increasingly available in Iowa.
One study from Georgetown University predicts the state’s STEM job opportunities will increase by 16 percent from 2008 to 2018. The wage gap between men and women for these jobs also tends to be less significant, according to the Iowa Women’s Leadership Project.
The Girls in Science program works to showcase STEM career opportunities and facilitate mentorship between female scientists and students.
Events like Meals with Mentors put STEM in a real-world context where girls learn about job possibilities they may not have considered before from female role models with whom they can relate.
Vanderwiel said the professionals who participate get plenty of benefit, as well.
“It’s pretty empowering and humbling,” she said. “At the same time, it makes you work harder because you want to make sure you’re setting a good example.”
In Vanderwiel’s school days, as she attended 4-H career workshops and school career conferences, she never imagined the awards ceremony that took place decade later, where she would arrive as an already-valued mentor and leave as the Scientist of the Year.
In those days, her mind was occupied with an intrigue of science, an admiration of agriculture, and an excitement for engineering and the thoughts of a bright, young student dreaming of a fulfilling and fun career that could make a difference.
Which is, in the end, the real award.