A Conversation with the founders of Gxrls in STEM magazine

By Julianne Vega

Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Avani Ahuja and Layla Dawit, two young women that started Gxrls in STEM, a magazine written for and by female and non-binary high school students I read about their impressive magazine back in May 2020 and decided to reach out to express my appreciation and desire to help in any way possible. In the conversation that follows you will see the incredible work that Avani and Layla have put into building an inclusive community that is focused on representation and STEM.

Julie: It is nice to see both of you again. To start off would you like to introduce yourselves and talk about how you met?

Layla: My name is Layla Dawit and I am a junior at Sidwell Friends School (SFS).

Avani: I am Avani Ahuja and I am also a junior at Georgetown Day School (GDS).

L: Avani and I met in 7th grade during the MATHCOUNTS competition. That year, Avani and I were part of the first all-girls team representing D.C. at the national level. We became friends during that time and also went to nationals together in 8th grade.

J: As part of your introduction would you also like to talk a little about what sort of math and science topics you are interested in?

A: Sure. I really like math. I have gone to a lot of math competitions and taken advanced math courses at my school. Last year, as I was taking AP physics I realized that I was much more interested in the applications of math, rather than the technicalities, which is why I’m thinking about completing a degree in engineering. In particular, I’m thinking about pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering or a field related to robotics. I especially like the way that engineering combines a lot of different fields. As a mechanical engineer you learn math, physics, computer science, and biology (if you want to apply it to medicine.) I like the interdisciplinary nature of the field.

L: I also love math. Like Avani, I have taken a lot of advanced math courses and gone to competitions throughout middle and high school. I am also really interested in medicine. I have been exploring biology throughout high school. I have even presented research that I have conducted at biology conferences through organizations such as Society for Developmental Biology and the joint meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biologists Organization. So, I have been doing a lot of that. I am interested in finding ways to combine math and biology in everything I do.

J: You said you were presenting research you conducted. Can you tell me more?

L: I did some research on the effects of temperature on zebrafish tail fin regeneration. It was a fun experiment! We started by measuring the area of zebrafish tail fins with a program called ImageJ. We then carefully amputated their tail fins. We put them in tanks with 3 different temperatures and measured the regeneration speeds over time.

J: Very interesting, I would love to know the results. How did you get involved in that research?

L: At Sidwell my biology teacher has a zebrafish system that we are able to do experiments with if we would like. We can also present at conferences. It was optional, but something I was interested in. We had hypothesized that higher temperatures would speed up enzyme reactions in the FGF signaling pathway which causes tissue regrowth. Our results supported this. The fish in higher temperature tanks experienced faster regrowth.

J: That is a great opportunity there. It is nice that you are able to do that. Switching gears a bit, can you tell us about the magazine you created? [Note: When Avani and Layla use the term gxrls (womxn) to refer to girls (women) and non-binary individuals.]

A: The magazine is a publication that comes out about 3 times a year and features written articles, original illustrations, crosswords, meme pages, and interviews with womxn in STEM. The magazine was specifically created to target issues of isolation and exclusion among high school gxrls interested in STEM. A lot of gxrls feel isolated in their interest in STEM, especially in the D.C. area where the private schools are very humanities based, so we wanted to create a place for gxrls to come together and collaborate. This project would give them a community that they can rely on, which is especially useful if they are one of the few gxrls in an advanced math class. Building community is one way that our magazine is trying to solve the feeling of isolation. To address exclusion and lack of representation, we focus on interviewing a diverse group of womxn in STEM because when you don’t see yourself represented in a field, you are less likely to go into it. Showing gxrls interested in STEM that there are womxn that are in the field who are pursuing successful careers shows it is possible to accomplish all these things starting where they are at right now. To us, this is a pretty critical part of the magazine.

J: This next question ties in with what you are saying. How did you choose the title “Gxrls in STEM”? 

L: It is definitely on the same theme of isolation and exclusion. We wanted to make the magazine as inclusive as possible, so we included gxrls so that students that are non-binary also feel welcome.

A: Layla at one point suggested “The Lioness,” which I liked. I thought that could have been a good title. Then we went to “non-men in STEM” but that didn’t sound right. It sounded like we were excluding males which was not the intention. We really wanted to include non-binary individuals. When I was looking for a term that included girls and non-binary individuals I found “gxrls.” I also feel like gxrls is being used more frequently now than just a few years ago.

J: What does it actually take to start a magazine? How did you get everything moving and where did the support come from?

A: A lot of support came from the school and from people involved in previous magazines. Our schools have a pretty good infrastructure for starting clubs. I met with a biology teacher and said, “hey I want to start this” which led to a meeting with the Dean of Students. Then, I followed a pretty typical club procedure:
1. Send an email to the whole school;
2. See who shows up to the first meeting;
3. Give presentation to the student body;
4. See how they respond and try to loop people in.
The first issue definitely had a lot of challenges, but once we got through that first issue things became smoother.

L: On the Sidwell side, everyone was really excited. My classmates were very enthusiastic about the magazine, and we received support and advice from our communications director, Ms. Hom-Diamond, as well as from our Dean of Students and Principal. We also received help from Noor Amin, a Sidwell alumni in the class of 2019. She was the head of an inter-school diversity magazine and used InDesign so she was able to give us instructions on how to do the layout. Overall, we had to learn a lot of different things to start the magazine. The whole printing process was new to us. Layout, publishing, budgeting were all things that we had to take into account. We also learned organizational skills like how to network, set and meet deadlines, and communicate with writers.

J: Avani, when you were talking you mentioned you sent out a first email about interest. I was curious, in that first round, how many people actually showed up? How many writers were there?

A: At the GDS club fair, I had a poster and a sign-up sheet and I basically attempted to have every person that I remotely knew stop by so I could try to convince them to join. If they weren’t interested in writing, I tried to see if they wanted to do layout, art, graphic design, type titles, or anything else. I also borrowed some cupcakes from GSA (Gender-Sexuality Alliance) to try and recruit more people that way. I got about 50 people just from the fair, but of course not all of them showed up to the follow up meetings. In the first meeting it was primarily just my friends, maybe 12 people. There were about 5-6 gxrls in the first meeting that knew what they wanted to write about and a lot of the people that showed up to the first meeting are also the ones that stuck with the magazine.

J: That says a lot. It means that they really enjoy the process.

A: Yes, and they have become more involved as editors and writers.

L: I have had a similar experience; except I didn’t steal anyone’s cupcakes. I think overall it has been nice to see the magazine growing. Avani and I started just by working with GDS and Sidwell, but now we have grown to 11 schools internationally.

J: You are international now! Congratulations! Where are your writers from?

A: The list of countries includes US, India, Ethiopia, UK, and Australia.

J: So you are all over the place. Are those all friends and acquaintances?

A: Some are friends that my friends contacted.

J: So you are now at the second level of networking. You reached out and now your contacts are reaching out. That’s wonderful.

A: Yes – because of our extensive network we have a very comprehensive issue on mental health.

L: We have a lot of perspectives from different backgrounds.

A: The magazine in a place like GDS and Sidwell is a very interesting niche in that it requires you to be interested in STEM, passionate about STEM, and also a good writer. This poses some challenges for people that were interested in STEM but didn’t want to write. I tend to give those students editing roles. There are also a lot of people who like to write and talk about politics, for example, but to find the people that were interested in both writing and STEM was a unique challenge at the start.

J: It definitely helps that there are so many ways to help with the magazine.

L: We don’t want to make STEM scary. We wanted to make the magazine welcoming. That is really what it is all about. That is why we have artwork and jokes and different ways to contribute. We want people to bring their talents to the magazine.

J: There is so much more to building a community than just math problems. I think that is a really strong part of this magazine. You have ways for people to bring in their different talents and connect those talents to STEM. So, how do the writers decide what to write about?

L: Writers can write about anything that they are interested in that is STEM related. Since STEM is related to so many other fields, the articles often overlap with other fields. We try to have a spotlight in each issue that most of the articles are about, but you are not bound by the spotlight. If you would like to write about something, we invite you to write about whatever interests you.

J: What do you see as important about this work?

A: It is really rewarding on a personal level, especially since we are passing down our passion to younger gxrls and onto our friends that possibly suffered in higher level math classes. Also, considering that other gxrls may have better experiences than I did because of this magazine is really powerful. It shows that high schoolers can conduct a lot of advocacy on their own. It is yet another example of one of the many youth initiatives that we have seen in the past years and it shows we can help ourselves and advocate for ourselves in our own community.

L: Community is really at the center of the magazine. The fact that both of us really love math and science and that we can build a community at the high school level has been great. The interviews that we do with womxn professionals are really important to provide role models and, within the magazine, it gives our writers the chance to meet professionals.

A: Just to add one more thing, I have always felt like I have a certain kind of privilege in the sense that I have parents that are both in STEM. I knew that no matter what the situation, I would always have support from my parents and from the all-girls MATHCOUNTS team. I had so much fun in 7th grade. I recognize that not all girls and non-binary students have that support system. In one way, we provide that support system to everyone involved in the magazine and that is really important to us.

J: That really resonates with me. When I was younger, I was not that great at math and would never join a math or science competition, but I liked math. This type of organization I would have definitely joined. So, how do you plan to expand your efforts?

L: We plan on building a website to get the word out, and we are also continuing word of mouth outreach. Also, the presentation you gave at Joint Math Meetings and articles such as this one and the ones GDS and Sidwell wrote help get the word out.

J: From your perspective, how welcoming does the scientific community appear or feel?

A: To me, it feels welcoming. The level of education that is required to become a part of it can seem intimidating from a high schooler’s standpoint though. Going to grad school is something that you should do to do active research in science and engineering, but getting a Ph.D. degree is hard. I also think part of it is.…. Well, my mom works in academia and my dad in industry so I hear both sides of it and; particularly in academia, there is a little bit of a toxic work environment, especially in some places, and that seems to be a really hard part of the process. For example, you may have a bad advisor or mentor and get stuck working on your dissertation for a long time without any fault of your own. That process seems intimidating, but can also be really rewarding. I think I have to be mentally prepared to be one of the only girls in an engineering program, because engineering is particularly unbalanced in terms of gender. At the same time, this has forced me to be more aggressive and confident in different situations. I have to be extra confident to make my voice heard.

L: I agree that the womxn I have met seem really welcoming and it seems like it is really nice to be in STEM. It is just when I hear about the gender gap or the statistics, I think about being one of the only girls in the program. It seems daunting….It could also be exciting to push through that and not let that stop you. I guess there is a difference between my personal experience and the statistics that I hear.

A: One of my biggest concerns about undergraduate programs is that my teachers will not be providing the same support as I have now.

J: You can find support, but you have to look for it. I chose my schools, both undergrad and graduate, because I could tell that the students were community-based and I could tell when I talked to the professors they actually thought about how students learn. You can definitely find those schools and professors.

J: So, how can scientists and mathematicians help support and encourage young women and non-binary students to build a welcoming STEM community and to study STEM? What can we be doing on our end to help students like you?

A: I think what you are doing is a good example of what professors, teachers, and mentors could be doing. Sometimes it is hard to figure out who to reach out to as a high schooler. It’s like “where do I even start?” That is the reason why reaching out to high schoolers is really important. Also, there is a little bit of a gap in STEM between research being done, what is communicated to the public, and what is communicated to high schoolers. It is important for high schoolers to be exposed at an earlier age to what research looks like, which would draw an important bridge between research and what we are learning in school. Research to me is one of the most appealing parts of science. You get to explore new problems and figure out solutions. Specifically, in regard to female and non-binary students, connecting female and non-binary students in class can be helpful. Creating a connection outside of class between those individuals, if they feel isolated, could really help evoke a collective enthusiasm for STEM.

L: I agree. Avani pretty much covered it but just to highlight some of the things she said: Classroom environment and having mentors that you can look up to and that you communicate with are really important. It is especially difficult to connect with college professors or to reach out to other teachers you don’t know, so getting to know students and creating that welcoming environment is great.

J: Last question: What message would you like to send along to the math community about the next generation of mathematicians? What can we expect?

L: We are very motivated. People around my age really want to learn and are really interested in the topics that we are learning about. We come up with creative solutions to math problems, and this out-of-the-box thinking will help us in the future. Also, a lot of people get stressed over school work and get really anxious about conceptual things.

A: I would also point out another statistic. A lot more people are participating in competitions. The math community should expect that students are already being exposed to problem solving skills and expect them to be ready to be pushed to new heights. Push them and challenge them in various ways to put those problem-solving skills to use. That is going to be really valuable.

J: Wonderful, I look forward to meeting the next generation! I suppose that concludes our lovely conversation. As always it was a joy talking with both of you.

L: It was great talking with you as well.

Gxrls in STEM magazine was recently recognized as a Crown finalist (out of 841 publications) by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. This award is “the highest recognition given to student print or digital medium for overall excellence.” To see a copy of the first three issues click here.

Avani and Layla plan to have a virtual meet and greet between women and non-binary mathematicians and scientists and the Gxrls in STEM writers in April. If you are interested in being one of the women or non-binary scientists or know someone who is interested; or if you want to learn more about Gxrls in STEM please send me an email, jvega30@kennesaw.edu. Also, I would be happy to get you in touch with Avani and Layla.

Julianne Vega

Biography. Julianne Vega is an Assistant Professor at Kennesaw State University and an MAA Project Next (Brown ‘20) fellow. Her mission is to cultivate a community of compassion and empowerment, a place in which everyone is growing together.

Contact info: jvega30@kennesaw.edu

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