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Redding student and teacher among women to be honored for STEM work

March 22, 2019

REDDING — Annika Morgan hopes to one day strip parts of a harmful virus and reconfigure it so it can be used for good, including treating cancer.

Morgan, a senior at Joel Barlow High School, is currently competing around the state and soon internationally with a project that looks at how to store vaccines for longer periods of time at higher temperatures. This would help the vaccines go to places that need them, such as Africa.

She and her mentor, Katherine Nuzzo, a chemistry teacher at Barlow, are among 50 women to be recognized Wednesday at the Women of Innovation Awards.

“I was unbelievably excited,” Morgan said. “This is an incredible group of women. I’m so honored to be with them.”

This is the 15th year the Connecticut Technology Council has hosted these awards as a way to recognize women in STEM fields, which women tend to be under-represented in. Winners are selected in 11 categories.

Taylor Van Antwerp, manager of talent and workforce programs with the council, said less than 30 percent of researchers globally are women and events like this bring awareness to this disparity.

But this is starting to change. More women are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“If you give it continued exposure, it will level the playing field,” she said.

Van Antwerp said she’s seeing a larger and more diverse nomination pool for this year’s recipients. This year there were 190 women nominated, including some from sectors that haven’t historically had women leaders — like the finalist who works for Bradley Airport.

There are also $1,000 grants that winners in four categories can give to support the research of a woman emerging in Connecticut’s STEM industry.

“It will continue to grow the STEM pipeline in Connecticut,” she said.

Nuzzo said when she started coaching the Sikorsky STEM Challenge at Barlow she had only male students. Now women make up half the participant pool.

“Over time I’ve been encouraging women to get into it,” she said. “Once you get one and they enjoy it, they bring their friends.”

She said the Barlow administration has been supportive and has paid for female students to attend the Women of Innovation dinner with Nuzzo for the past eight years. Nuzzo said it’s important for the students to see and make connections with the women there from various STEM industries and at businesses and schools of all sizes.

Morgan said it’s empowering to see more women her age and slightly older pursuing STEM degrees and careers. She’s also encountering more women placing at the science competitions, including her fellow finalists in the Youth Innovation and Leadership category.

But, she said STEM is still dominated by men. She is only one of two women out of 14 students in her Advanced Placement chemistry class.

“It makes me feel like I need to hold my own because I feel like I’m representing my gender,” Morgan said. “Having a female mentor makes it easier to see myself in the industry.”

She is attending Dartmouth College in the fall where she will be studying biomedical engineering. Though she has more than 2,500 hours as a Westport EMT, Morgan said she plans to focus on developing medical devices and medication.

Nuzzo is highlighted by the council for her encouragement for her female students to pursue STEM careers and higher degrees.

She does this in her classroom, as well as helping students competing in the Sikorsky STEM Challenge, a research competition and the Northeast Regional High School Science Bowl where she encourages all of her students to buzz in with answers to build confidence.

Nuzzo also shares her personal story with her students and how she didn’t get her doctorate in analytical chemistry at Texas A&M until she was 35.

She was only one of five women in the program alongside 21 men and only one of two to earn her doctorate. The others dropped down to a master’s degree. She said women, especially, are faced with time management and determining their priorities, especially because there is still the perception that women should be at home. Nuzzo already had two children when she began the doctoral program and had her third in the final year.

“The boundaries are changing, but they’re still there,” Nuzzo said.

She said all of the students she mentors in the extracurricular programs have gone on to some form of STEM and many are studying or working in engineering.

Tickets can be purchased for the dinner until Tuesday online at CT.org.