Dr. Maria Makarova is the Founder and President of Mentoralia, a nonprofit organization in Mexico that teaches girls how to code and design mobile apps. She also runs a local chapter of Technovation Girls, an international program for young girls to apply computer science to solving social issues.
STEM to the Sky
Dec 8, 2021
For me, it was the most natural career path because both of my parents are scientists. I grew up in Siberia in a town called Akademgorodok which means “Academic town”. It has a university with a number of scientific research institutes in the forest. It was very natural to be there and see both men and women doing work in science. I always liked the exactness of math and sciences, which I later learned is not always true. When you start doing engineering, there isn’t always one correct answer like there is on the math test.
Maria Makarova during undergraduate (Credit: Maria Makarova)
I started undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign doing a physics major. After going to a career fair, I found out that everybody wanted engineers. My roommate was an electrical engineer, and I had other friends who were electrical engineers, so I switched to electrical engineering. I also worked a little bit in the lab with a professor looking at atomic force microscopes, where you could see atoms on a very clean silicon surface.
For graduate school, I went to Stanford University and did my PhD in the quantum nanophotonics group. We worked on photonic crystals, which are periodic structures made in semiconductor material or oxides and nitrides. They are used to confine light to bounce in a very small confined space and have interesting properties.
The interesting thing about studying electrical engineering, at least in the United States, is that you can do almost anything as an electrical engineer. There are people doing optics, biology, and developing tools. There’s just unlimited possibilities for what you can do with this science, and it seems like in the US, the departments do a lot of interesting work with electrical engineering in different areas.
With my programs, I honestly don’t use that many of the engineering skills I learned in school. Now, the work revolves around organizing, motivating students, and doing coding workshops.
One of the things you learn, especially in graduate school, is how to manage your own time and how to plan for things you want to get done independently. It helps you develop those skills and also teaches you how to reach out to other people to help you with what you’re doing. It definitely provided me with the motivation to found my own programs. During my undergraduate and graduate years, I really didn’t seem to care much about being one of the few girls in my classes, but there was a brief period when I taught in high school here, and I realized girls don’t even see these careers as options for them because it is just culturally portrayed as a career for men.
I already knew about the Technovation program, and I decided to start a chapter in Mexico to give girls an opportunity to explore and pursue careers in STEM.
Technovation Girls event (Credit: Maria Makarova)
The most rewarding aspects are seeing how participants develop confidence in themselves as both programmers and leaders and also designing pretty awesome solutions for solving problems. I love seeing the impact the program has on the lives of our participants and even mentors. It’s a program that starts with brainstorming problems, and at the end, they have a working prototype of an application that solves a community problem. As girls develop confidence through the program, they are more likely to pursue their interests!
These days, it’s a lot of planning, figuring out strategy, and fundraising. The mornings are spent planning what workshops we’re going to do. We often get volunteers to do workshops for girls, so we have to contact and invite them as well as explain the program to them. Then, we work on advertising or promoting our workshop. In the evenings, for example, I would attend the workshops. It’s a lot of administrative stuff these days.
(Credit: Maria Makarova)
It’s definitely important to be able to communicate and encourage people to get them interested and willing to participate. It’s also important to thank people for all the volunteer work that they do. Another skill is just being organized and on-schedule.
Something that I learned is that sometimes when you send an email, you don’t get a reply. You start thinking that they don’t like you and don’t want to talk to you. But in reality, it probably just slipped through hundreds of other emails in their inbox. It is totally okay to send another one and give them an option of being able to say no. Following up and reaching out without being too worried about whether or not what the other person thought about you is important. If they didn’t tell you anything, it’s better to assume the best.
Try to see what’s really out there and talk to people, especially those working in specific fields you might be interested in. Don’t be afraid to reach out to somebody through your personal network, teachers, or the internet.
STEM is always very applicable to almost anything. It helps you develop a mindset and thinking framework that can be applied to anything you end up doing. I think plenty of people study one thing and do something else. There are also some people, for example, who studied to be something else but then ended up working in a tech company. They start out studying one thing and then specialize in something else. Don’t stress out too much about your exact career right now and just keep an open mind.
“[STEM] helps you develop a mindset and thinking framework that can be applied to anything you end up doing.”
Dr. Maria Makarova
I definitely recommend Technovation Girls, which is actually an international program started by a nonprofit based in Los Angeles, California. It’s open to all girls anywhere in the world, from ages 8 to 18. We partner with all kinds of organizations. This year, for example, participants can use data collected from satellites in space to solve problems on Earth.
It also is a great program because it provides connection to many mentors who are already working in these different fields. These mentors can help guide you and give you a different perspective. You can find all of the information online (see below), and there might be a chapter in your city!
It’s important for a number of reasons. It could be something very personal such as being a woman yourself and seeing little female representation in your field of interest. I want to change that so that it is not a barrier.
People always say diversity makes better solutions for any problem. It’s very important for women, minorities, and people from different backgrounds to be present in STEM because they might be thinking in different ways from the men who currently dominate the STEM fields in many places. They’ll provide different perspectives, apply STEM to different problems, and solve them.
There are also economic reasons, especially in Mexico, since it’s very common for girls to marry and just be supported by their husband. But if it’s not a good relationship, it’s good to have choices. I think in STEM, you can have a good career that pays the bills and allows you to support your family without being dependent on anybody.
Mentoralia team (Credit: Maria Makarova)
We are trying to start reaching girls more from disadvantaged communities who maybe don’t have access to technology at home. More specifically, we are going to work with the community center and marginalized neighborhoods in the Guadalajara area. The idea is to scale and make it available to anybody who wants to participate!
It’s always challenging. I’ve been doing this for seven years, and every year has been different.
One year, we did a big national event where we invited girls to come to Guadalajara, Mexico for a weekend to visit different companies. The logistics were complicated, but it was a great event.
Last year, we had to adapt to doing everything online. We were actually surprised how well it worked, so even if we come back to in-person events and workshops, we still want to keep part of it online for those who don’t live close by or can’t easily travel from place to place. It’s always challenging because there’s always more opportunities to learn and improve and reach out to more people.
I really learned to appreciate diversity and different skill sets. Growing up in a family of scientists, I was really exposed to the idea that scientists are the coolest and the best. But really, the world needs all sorts of people. I used to have bad opinions of all the advertising partly because I don’t like to see ads all of the time. But then I realized, wait a minute, if you don’t have advertising, nobody will know about my program. It’s great to have people with different skill sets, interests, and abilities working on our Technovation program in Mexico. The nonprofit really opened my eyes to this wealth of diversity. That is something that is really important to appreciate and value.