VCU undergraduate Gwendolyn Verity champions gender equality in engineering through NASA’s Student Engineering Research Program

Chemical and life science engineering senior, Gwendolyn Verity, spent the summer researching with NASA. Now, as she prepares for her senior year, she reflects on the program's commitment to breaking down gender barriers in STEM.

Gwendolyn Verity
Gwendolyn Verity

Gender equality within Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) has undoubtedly come a long way; however, there is still a glaring lack of women pursuing careers in this field. Data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 2022 report shows only 29% of federal STEM workers are women. To many this is disheartening, but for students like Gwendolyn Verity, a chemical and life science engineering senior, these statistics are no deterrent. Verity’s passion for the environment and love of engineering propels her desire to make a difference through researching climate change solutions.

Verity is an outstanding example of a strong and influential role model that many women search for when pursuing a career in STEM.

This summer, Verity’s hard work led her to participate in NASA’s Student Airborne Research Program (SARP). Operating on the West Coast for the past 15 years, this prestigious research opportunity established a joint program on the East Coast this year with the help of VCU. SARP East utilizes VCU’s Rice Rivers Center, a collaborative academic research station located on the James River.

It was through Verity’s academic mentor, Stephen Fong, Ph.D., that she discovered SARP East.

“I immediately thought it sounded like the perfect summer,” said Verity.

With Fong’s support and Verity’s academic grit, she made it through the rigorous application  process and was on her way to SARP East.

During the eight-week long program, Verity got to experience intensive field research, visit renowned institutions, such as NASA’s Langley Research Center, and take flights on research aircraft to collect data.

Verity used the data collected from their flights to inform her independent research project, which focused on comparing anthropogenic (man-made) and natural methane emitters.

“It was very intense,” said Verity. “There was a lot of information and experience thrown at us in the span of a few weeks, so I came out of it feeling very enriched but very tired.”

For Verity, one of the highlights of the program was their trip to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“I had just learned about the James Webb telescope and we got to see the clean room where that was built,” said Verity. “That was a really awe-inspiring moment for me, this was such an incredible invention that was created right in front of me. It was really amazing.”

Among all of her research, hard-work and educational experiences with SARP East, her absolute favorite part of the program was conducting hands-on field research with her cohort. The program divided its 22 students into cohorts with specific responsibilities and research focuses – surf, turf, above the earth, and how it all fits together.

Verity was ecstatic to be placed in the turf cohort, feeling right at home among the wetlands surrounding Virginia’s James River.

“I’m a huge outdoorsy girl, so I loved being out in the field and really seeing that combination of science and playing in the dirt come together. It was everything I wanted out of the program.”

Another aspect of the program that stood out to Verity was its commitment to open conversations about gender bias in STEM. The great diversity in gender among students lead to many in-depth discussions about what it’s like to be a woman pursuing a career in STEM and the challenges they face.

Throughout the summer, there were minor gender discrepancies that Verity and her peers noted, which spurred many of these honest conversations. This gave students the opportunity to engage and educate each other about recognizing gender bias and its effect on the industry.

“We wanted to get our male peers involved in the conversation to say, ‘even though this is not something you have experienced, it’s important that you recognize the things we share are true, for you to understand them in some capacity and show us your support,’” said Verity. “I think this program is really great for people of all genders who are interested in the field of STEM, as VCU has done a great job working to break down those barriers.”

Students and faculty of all genders participated, with Verity stating the importance of including everyone in these conversations. For Verity, building a community of supportive peers is essential in navigating a career in STEM.

“If you're a woman in engineering, developing that community of people who support you is crucial. Inherently, that may be other women, but recruiting men that you trust as well. Educating them on gender discrepancies in STEM and having their support makes it a better place for all women in the industry.”

Verity emphasized how the collaboration between SARP East and VCU was integral in creating an inclusive research environment while fostering forthright conversations. In her own words, “the conversations we had felt like a huge step forward for the industry.”

As Verity begins her senior year at VCU she is excited for what lies ahead. SARP East gave her a glimpse of the different career paths and companies available post-college, and all the possibilities that come with them.

“I’ve always pushed myself really, really hard academically to be successful, and I've continued to do that all throughout college. I have set a bar for myself that has made me respected by others, which has put me in a pretty fortunate position,” said Verity.

During her time at VCU and with SARP East, Verity has multiple people she wishes to thank for their continued support.

“I want to thank VCU integrated life sciences Ph.D. student and SARP East graduate mentor, Mindy Priddy, VCU biology professor and SARP faculty mentor, Chris Gough, Ph.D., the director of VCU’s Rice Rivers center, Greg Garman, Ph.D., the director of the program Bob Swap, Ph.D. and chemical and life science engineering professor and mentor, Stephen Fong, Ph.D.

While the fight for gender equality in the field of STEM is ongoing, students like Verity continue to challenge the status quo and show the importance of gender diversity within engineering. Verity has a bright future ahead of her, and her accomplishments show that with passion, determination and grit, any person, regardless of gender, can break through the barriers and succeed in STEM.