A league of STEM superheroes at the University of Arizona could give the Avengers a run for their money.
For the last month, the UA's home page has showcased six university women — both professors and students — as superheroes, drawing inspiration for their super powers from their individual areas of expertise.
Mechanical engineering student and track-and-field star Hannah Whetzel is a super speedster.
Stacy Tollefson, a professor of practice of biosystems engineering with a passion for hydroponics, is lobbing tomatoes.
And astronomy and physics undergraduate Emily Walla is star-bound, telescope trained to the skies.
The home page was designed to inspire current and potential UA students.
"If there's an underlying theme in their stories, it's mentorship," says Adrienne Barela, a copywriter and content manager in marketing and brand management at the UA. "You are not alone, and there are opportunities if you're open to them through the people you meet here."
The UA launched the page at the beginning of February to celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science on Feb. 11. The page will stay up until Monday, March 11.
Each woman offered illustrator Jeff West from the Phoenix area several super power options, Barela says.
"It was Emily (Walla) who said, 'I hope I'm inspiring young girls, because I was always looking for someone like me and couldn't find it,' and that says a lot about superheroes," Barela says. "They feel alone in the beginning, and through mentorship and building confidence, they are able to go out and really change the world."
You can read their stories at arizona.edu/inspiring-women-stem.
In the meantime, we asked each of these superheroes to describe their super powers. And WOW! are they amazing.
Editor's note: These responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Kayenat Aryeh, 21
Majors: Molecular and cellular biology and philosophy
What is your super power? "My super power is being able to scan through all of a person's genes and fix any mutations or diseases a gene can cause."
How does it relate to your STEM mission? "This would complement the cancer research I am doing in the Paek Lab, where I focus on understanding how non-genetic mechanisms dictate whether cancer cells live or die after cancer treatment."
Kim Ogden, 54
Position at the UA: Interim vice president for research and professor of chemical and environmental engineering
What is your super power? "Harnessing energy from the sun to make biofuels and bioproducts."
How does it relate to your STEM mission? "I previously led a program funded by the Bioenergy Technologies Office of the Department of Energy to understand how to cultivate or grow algae all seasons, all year with the ultimate goal of producing biofuel. I currently have funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, part of the United States Department of Agriculture, to grow the bioeconomy in the SW United States by growing guayule, which contains natural rubber in part of the plant, and guar, which contains a polysaccharide used as a food additive. In addition to these bioproducts, the remainder of the plant known as the bagasse, will be converted to jet fuel."
Adriana Stohn, 22
Major: Optical sciences and engineering
What is your super power? "In the UA cartoon depiction of me as a superhero, I'm drawn with what looks like glowing orbs. These glowing orbs are actually an artist's rendering of the Poincaré sphere. For the past three years, I have worked as an undergraduate research assistant in Dr. Russell Chipman's Polarization Lab. Light is said to be polarized when the electric field has a specific orientation in space. My work in the lab has almost exclusively been concerned with polarization imaging — helping to build new instruments to measure the polarization (or orientation) of light and investigating the polarizing properties of different materials. The Poincaré sphere is a tool scientists in polarimetry use to help them track and make sense of different polarization states."
How does it relate to your STEM mission? "Polarization imaging is unique in that it allows more information to be gathered from light than typical wavelength or color information. When you take a color image with your camera at home, the camera collects color information from every object within the frame of view of your camera. If I take a color image of the desert landscape in Tucson, and in my image the cactus on the ridge over there is brown, I know that the cactus surely must be dead even though I did not go over there and inspect it myself. In doing so, I gathered information from the light that was reflected off of the cactus, and it told me information about that cactus that I would not have known without walking over to it and inspecting it in person.
"In contrast, polarization imaging allows us to gather information from the orientation of the electric field of light instead of its wavelength. This opens up a whole new wealth of information we can detect from light that was previously inaccessible to us, because humans ourselves largely cannot see the polarization of light. ...
"I have (also) been involved with UA's chapter of Girls Who Code for about two and a half years, with this latest year seeing me as the program coordinator and lead facilitator for the club. ... For the 2018-2019 club year, our team of volunteer facilitators have taught 22 Tucson-area middle and high schoolers the core coding concepts of variables, loops, functions, and conditionals.
"Apart from being able to share my knowledge of coding with a younger generation in the hopes the broadening their horizons, my involvement with the organization has convinced me that I should take the promotion of women in STEM as a core tenet of my impending professional career. ..."
Stacy Tollefson, 47
Position at the UA: Assistant professor of practice in biosystems engineering
What is your super power? "Teaching others how to grow tomatoes sustainably using hydroponics; in the cartoon I throw tomatoes rather than fire balls!"
How does it relate to your STEM mission? "I teach students and potential growers how to grow vegetables sustainably using hydroponics and controlled environments (greenhouses and indoor with lights). It takes not only many different sciences (plants science, chemistry, entomology, etc.) but engineering as well (applying that knowledge to design the systems that work with the science) in order to optimize production and reduce the use of natural resources in the production of food for the increasing population on this earth and beyond (Moon/Mars colony)? My mission is to teach students scientific principles, but also give them the tools to use and develop new technologies for growing crops using controlled environments."
Emily Walla, 21
Majors: Astronomy and physics
What is your super power? "I like to think that my super power is my optimism! I always try to make the best out of any situation, and I've found that positivity is very powerful."
How does it relate to your STEM mission? "I think a lot of research is hope-based, and hope and optimism are sort of synonyms. In astronomy, we'll hope we'll see the chemical signals in cosmic objects — like molecular clouds or stars — that we are looking for. And we'll hope that conditions will be good for our observing runs, as telescope time can sometimes be hard to come by. And we'll hope that our computer code for our data analysis will work. Even if we don't find certain chemical signals, the weather is lousy when we try to observe with the telescopes or our code has more bugs than a swamp in summertime, optimism will help us find other science and ways around bad weather and staying positive will give us the boost we need to sort out all the bugs. Staying positive also lends itself to staying excited, and both optimism and excitement are contagious, which is great for me, because I'm very interested in getting everyone excited about science! It's hard to get others excited when you yourself are not excited, so I have to tap into the power of positivity to keep myself pumped up, sometimes, when the stresses of school and work wear me down."
Hannah Whetzel, 22
Major: Mechanical engineering
What is your super power? "Theoretically, if I could choose my super power, it would be the ability to manipulate odds because obviously you could do things like change the probability of you being able to fly to 100 percent, but you could also change change other, small things, like the probability that you’ll have a great day (or, you know, win the lottery). Within my field, I would say my super power is my work ethic because I am a very hard worker, and sometimes my problem isn’t that I don’t do enough but that I do too much."
How does it relate to your STEM mission? "This relates to my STEM field because my work ethic is the reason I have been so successful, and the reason I know I can continue to be successful in whatever I choose to do. I’ve learned that if I can keep trying and working hard, I can accomplish much more than I thought."