"There is space for

YOU

IN STEM FIELDS

just as you are."

Sierra Sandison wearing white lab coat, blue gloves, and safety goggles in front of laboratory fume hood working on micropump's made from Nickel Manganese Gallium in Boise State's Magnetic Materials Lab

In the spring of 2021, I will graduate Boise State University with my degree in Mechanical Engineering and a minor in Biomedical Engineering. Throughout my education, I have had several classes in which I was the only woman in the room. When there are other women in my classes, there are only a few (shout out to the ME queens in my cohort though---I would not have made it this far without you). 

Overall throughout my experience at Boise State, I believe the men in leadership that I have interacted with genuinely want to make STEM spaces more welcoming to women. However, being the only (or one of very few) girls in a classroom can be intimidating. My first couple years of school, every time I would walk into a classroom, I felt so different. I was constantly battling imposter syndrome. Did I belong here? If I did, why are there so few people who look like me in this field? When I answered questions wrong in class, was disappointing my entire gender by making the boys in my class think that all girls were as dumb as I felt? In an effort to avoid any risk of looking stupid, I spent the first couple years of school silently sitting in class--not speaking up when I didn't understand something. I would dress down in jeans and old t-shirts to avoid looking like the retired beauty queen I was. I wanted to fit in as much as possible. 

 

Eventually, I came to a realization that not asking questions in class was beginning to be detrimental to my education. As I got into the upper division mechanical engineering curriculum, I couldn't get by any longer without asking for help. I made a decision to 1) speak up in class every single time I was confused, and 2) stop trying to hide my girly-girl side out of fear of not being taken seriously. Those two decisions drastically improved both my happiness and my grades.

Whether you are a very stereotypical engineering student rocking flannels and jeans, or wear heels everyday and turn in all your homework on pink paper Elle Woods style, or (most likely) fall somewhere in between: there is a place for you in STEM just as you are. Take up space. Remember you belong. STEM concepts are difficult. It's normal to struggle. Speak up when you don't understand---I promise other people in the classroom are silently confused about the same concepts you are. Making mistakes is part of the learning process. Don't be afraid of them. ​And finally, don't change who you are. Innovation in STEM is strengthened so much by diversity, which means the world needs you and your unique perspective. Don't erase the things that make you, you. 

Sierra Sandison in front of a white board in grey sweater and black leggings working on a Fluid Mechanics math problem

STORY COLLIDER: BOISE STATE 2020

As a huge fan of The Moth storytelling podcast, I was thrilled to be chosen for Boise State's Story Collider event in the spring of 2020. Unfortunately, it was moved to an online format due to COVID-19, but that means it is forever captured on YouTube. The event was put on by Dr. Krishna Pakala from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, so our stories were themed accordingly. 

I chose to speak about a time in my college education when I overcame my constant struggle with imposter syndrome by taking home first place at the Invent for the Planet competition. In telling this story, I wanted to be vulnerable about the self-doubt we all feel about ourselves---no matter our gender or career choice---with the hope that the audience would be better equipped to quiet those feelings inside themselves by reminding themselves that we all feel that way at some point, but usually, it simply isn't true. My story begins at the 39:05 mark, but all the story tellers are incredible students in my cohort that I am proud to know and so inspired by!

[accessibility alt text: Ian, Sierra, Trent, Nick, and Julian holding prize money check in front of Boise State photo backdrop after Invent for the Planet competition]

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[accessibility alt text: Sierra and Julian conducting ferrofluidic filtering demonstration, using Wooly Willies to supply iron filings]

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[accessibility alt text: Nick, Sierra, Julian, Trent, and Ian in front of Invent for the Planet display and holding prize money check]

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[accessibility alt text: Ian, Sierra, Trent, Nick, and Julian holding prize money check in front of Boise State photo backdrop after Invent for the Planet competition]

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INVENT FOR THE PLANET

The Invent for the Planet competition is held in February at universities across the globe. I like to describe it as science fair meets Shark Tank--under a crazy time crunch! Students spend 48 hours creating solutions to various prompts which each team is assigned upon arrival. My team's prompt was to invent a solution that would remove microplastics from the ocean. 

My team (left to right in the first photo: Ian V., me, Trent W., Nick W., and Julian H.) designed a static model of an automated ferrofluidic filtering process. In normal people English, that means we basically made a plastic magnet! We were victorious, and took home first place!

IDAHO SOCIETY OF PROFESSIONAL ENGINEERS: OUTSTANDING JUNIOR AWARD

Every year, the Idaho Society of Professional Engineers gives awards to the #1 and #2 students in each engineering department's junior class at Boise State. I was named the #1 Mechanical Engineering junior for 2020!

[accessibility alt text: Doctor Krishna Pakala and Sierra Sandison after the Idaho Society of Professional Engineers recognized Sierra as the Outstanding Mechanical Engineering student in Boise State's class of 2021]

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[accessibility alt text: Sierra in pink jumpsuit and white blazer holding certificate. Certificate text "Discover Engineers Week February 16-22 2020; 2020 Outstanding Boise State University Junior Mechanical Engineering Student: Sierra Sandison; February 18, 2020; Sponsored By Idaho Society of Professional Engineers, Southwest Chapter]

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[accessibility alt text: Doctor Krishna Pakala and Sierra Sandison after the Idaho Society of Professional Engineers recognized Sierra as the Outstanding Mechanical Engineering student in Boise State's class of 2021]

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FOUNDING VIP-CON AT BOISE STATE

If you are a fellow STEM student and have done any work in a research lab, you may share some of my feelings about presenting research as an undergraduate. You work super hard all school year and create the perfect poster to summarize your findings, and show up to the undergraduate research conference at the end of the semester only to stand awkwardly next to your poster and have very few people actually ask questions about the research you are so proud of. 

In spite of my complaints, I still enjoy presenting my research. Boise State holds two undergraduate conferences: one at the end of the spring semester, and another at the end of the summer for students participating in summer research experiences. However, there were no events in the fall for students to show off what they have been working on. I had a vision for an event which would solve all of these problems. I approached Boise State's College of Innovation & Design with my proposal for an event that would come to be called VIP-Con. 

VIP stands for Vertically Integrated Projects, which is a program at Boise State that allows students of all majors to receive credit for working alongside faculty on ambitious, multi-semester projects. The VIP team that I am a part of is called VARScent, and we have been developing a device that integrates the sense of smell into the virtual reality experience. I didn't want to wait an entire school year to show people our VARScent updates, and the culture at the undergraduate research conferences wasn't the high energy, laid back, innovative environment I thought would be ideal to demonstrate VARScent. 

I pitched the idea VIP-Con ("Con"..like ComicCon...like convention, get it?) in the summer of 2019: a small "convention" held every fall semester for VIP students specifically to show off their progress. Vertically Integrated Projects were exciting, and easier for people to understand than the complicated research students conduct in labs. I hoped that a smaller group setting and more easy-to-understand projects would make the culture of the event much more upbeat, conversational, and innovative than that of a traditional research conference. 

I helped organize the first annual VIP-Con, held in November 2019. It was a huge success! We had a great turn out, and the energy in the room was buzzing with conversation--exactly what I had envisioned. I gave a speech on the importance of getting out of one's comfort zone and learning how to work in cross-disciplinary teams. Most exciting of all, Dr. Marlene Tromp made an appearance and even tried out our VARScent device.

While COVID-19 may put VIP-Con 2020 on hold, it is the plan of the College of Innovation & Design to have it be an annual event going forward.

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RESEARCH

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know I just threw some shade at undergraduate research conferences., but I still am very proud of the research I have completed and presented at them--they just aren't quite as fun as VIP-Con ;)

I worked for Dr. Peter Mullner in the Magnetic Materials Lab on campus. I studied microfluidic pumps made from a magnetic shape memory alloy called Nickel Manganese Gallium, or NiMnGa. (Now can you see why people had difficulty asking questions when I told them what I did research on?) What you need to understand is this: a magnetic shape memory alloy changes shape when exposed to a magnetic field. These small shape changes make the piece of NiMnGa act like a a muscle, such as a trachea swallow. That pumping motion can be used to pump microscopic amounts of fluid, i.e. possibly someday insulin in an insulin pump for a biomedical application. 

The micropump research is what led me to join the VARScent team. We use the microfluidic magnetically actuated micropump to disperse scent to the user while the enjoy their enhanced virtual reality experience! I have presented research on the manufacturing methods of micropump production in our lab, as well as on the VARScent team's integration of the micropump into our scent dispersion device.