May 5, 2015

Mom: A Child's Front Line Support System in STEM

image by gabriel77 (gabriel), via
This Mother's Day, I would like to talk a bit about my own mother. A mathematician, physicist, environmental scientist, and, at the end of her career, a chemist, my mom was a STEM pro.

Visits to her lab were what I did on my days off, before there was ever a "Take Your Daughter to Work" day. And cooking was a reminder of chemistry concepts from high school: "Put water in there," she would say as I burned my peppers and onion in the wok. "Don't you remember that the temperature stays constant at 100C when the water changes from water to steam?"

I told her once that it wasn't fair that she knew so much chemistry. Other mothers, I explained, tell their children "old wives tales" which their children would realize later were inaccurate or wrong. It would be a moment of maturity, when you realized your parents were just people, not all-knowing beings. But what about me, I told her? She tells me that this vitamin is important for this disease, and I'd find out later, she was right. When was my time to realize that my mother was fallible? She just chuckled and said to eat the favorite meal she had cooked for me.

STEM was not the only thing I learned from my mom. She also taught me grammar (using her Brighter Grammar books from Hong Kong) and had me read great literature so I could write better: Dickens was a great favorite of hers. She responded to ideas that I had with an action plan: for example, when I mused that there were a lot of kids in 12th grade who would be more than willing to tutor kids in other grades, she had me write a proposal and present it to the principal, birthing the volunteer tutoring program at our high school.

She also showed me the ways that one could be a mother, a student, and a professional. I appreciated the opportunities her "absence" due to work or class gave me to take care of myself, to do the laundry, to cook dinner, and to watch my sister when she had a long commute. My father helped when he could, and it made me realize that housework was something a family did, not just the women in the family.

Her life wasn't without issues. Our school didn't have a cafeteria because all the kids were to go home and eat a home-cooked meal. She told me each morning which friend I was to go home with for lunch. I thought they did it because they were my friend. I was extremely appreciative for the sandwich one made or the trip to Wendy's another provided. I found out only recently that she actually paid the parents to feed me, enough to take me out every day with their kid.

She told me once that she thought she would have made a good engineer. "You sure could have, Mom," I told her. She had the practical mind and the fortitude of spirit. "But, I couldn't," she said, "women weren't accepted into the engineering school. The girl who won firsts in math, physics, chemistry, and biology wasn't accepted into the engineering school. It was a clear message that women didn't do engineering." But I think she's happy that her daughter was able to, both due to her efforts and our changing society.

Thanks, Mom!

~ until next time, Yvonne