In today’s workforce, the STEM industry is comprised of just 28% women, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. Compared to data from the 1970s—a time when women made up a mere 8% of the STEM workforce—the gender gap is shrinking, but it could take decades, or much longer for certain disciplines, for the gap to close.
Tricia Berry and Ana Dison are working to change these statistics by bringing more girls and women into the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines through Women in STEM (WiSTEM). Offering campus events, immersive summer camps, mentoring programs and many other activities, WiSTEM aims to empower undergraduates and K-12 students across Texas to become the next generation of women STEM leaders.
The two UT Austin alums recently joined the DDCE by way of the Cockrell School of Engineering, where they led the award-winning Women in Engineering Program. We caught up with the two founding directors to learn more about their career journeys, their passion for STEM education and how they are taking their outreach and mentoring efforts to the next level.
Tricia Berry, WiSTEM Executive Director
While growing up in a small farming town south of Springfield, Illinois, Tricia Berry always looked forward to experimenting with various academic disciplines during her summer break.
“My parents were very focused on education and wanted to expose my sister and I to a lot of different things, so they sent us to camps with varied themes such as photography, Spanish, sports and engineering.”
The latter proved to be Berry’s favorite subject, especially by the time she reached high school when she discovered her knack for problem-solving.
” I was always strong in math and science, and I could see myself becoming an engineer,” Berry says. “The high school camp experience helped me understand what engineering is, and what areas within the field I liked and didn’t like.”
As the founding director of Women in STEM (WiSTEM), a program that involves outreach initiatives with students from underserved communities, she knows that many young girls don’t have the opportunity to explore their academic strengths at summer camp—and some may not even believe college is a possibility. Her goal is to show them that they, too, can have a bright future ahead—whether it be in STEM or any other field of their choosing.
“Young girls are not often exposed to STEM role models and career possibilities,” Berry says. “I want to give them opportunities to explore in ways, even beyond what I was able to.”The STEM fields are so stereotyped, making it hard for students to understand the college and career possibilities and to see themselves in STEM roles.”
Berry hopes to see many of her outreach students back on the Forty Acres as Longhorns. Looking back at her freshman year in 1988, recalls fond memories of living and studying on campus among a supportive community of fellow women engineering students.
“At UT, I felt like I belonged,” Berry says. “The chemical engineering department had a higher percentage of women – about 30 percent – so there were enough of us to make me feel like I wasn’t the only one. Also, I lived on an engineering floor in Jester surrounded by other engineering majors and joined student organizations right away.”
After earning her degree in chemical engineering in 1993, Berry was welcomed into the fold by another community of engineers at Dow Chemical. Early into her career, she hit the ground running as the project engineering team lead for a big chemical plant design project. A big takeaway from this experience, she notes, is that teamwork truly does make the dream work.
“I went into project meetings with other team leads and found myself being the only woman and the youngest in the room,” Berry says. “I had that imposter feeling that made me question my ability to do the job. My teammates were so supportive, and they guided me through the whole process. We trusted each other to do our part so we could all be successful.”
While reflecting on her time at Dow Chemical, Berry is especially proud of earning two patents for an experimental process using a biodegradable polymer to make packaging peanuts. Although the project’s outcome didn’t shape out as expected, it did lead to another promising discovery—a thrilling aspect of the engineering design process that always keeps her on her toes.
“It was exciting traveling to other manufacturing plants to learn about their processes and machinery,” says Berry. “It turned out our polymer was terrible for making biodegradable packaging peanuts, so I learned about failure. But our other team learned it was a great layer for insulating soda bottles.”
After her MBA from the University of Houston-Clear Lake in 1999, Berry was ready to make a career move. She soon found herself at a crossroads when an opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. She was offered an undergraduate recruitment director position within the Cockrell School of Engineering—a role that would allow her to turn her volunteer work and passion projects into a full-time job.
“My friend told me, ‘This is the Tricia Job—you have to take this!’” Berry says. “She helped me realize that this job would allow me to do all of things I love to do in my spare time and actually get paid for it. With this in mind, it was an easy decision to say yes.”
Now—20-plus years into her career at UT Austin—Berry knows without a doubt she chose the right path. She hopes her students will also feel this sense of joy and fulfillment in their future careers.
“I always enjoy telling my own story and sharing examples of things my peers and I have done with our STEM careers to excite my students,” Berry says. “I love breaking down the stereotypes, showing how you can be creative and love music and play sports and also be a STEM person who designs and creates things that make our world a better place.”
While at K-12 outreach events, Berry can see herself in her students while they’re completely immersed in their hands-on design challenges and exploring STEM possibilities. She hopes they, too, can start envisioning a bright STEM future ahead.
“You see the expressions on the girls’ faces when they get frustrated when something’s not working,” Berry says. “They keep at it—with encouragement from wonderful STEM role models—and when they get it to work, their expressions of joy and wonder are priceless.”
Those “aha” moments, Berry says, make the long hours of work well worth the effort. In addition to event coordination, she spends much of her time cultivating community and corporate partnerships and fundraising for the initiative, which is largely externally funded by grants, donations and sponsorships. Although the work can be daunting, she takes satisfaction in knowing her efforts contribute to the greater good of our society.
“We don’t have enough diverse representation on design and testing teams within STEM spaces,” Berry says. “If we don’t bring more women into these industries, we are not going to have the best designs and solutions for the products that keep us safe, healthy and entertained. Even today, I continuously see products that we use every day that aren’t designed with all people in mind.”
Looking toward the future, Berry hopes to see many of her students join the ranks of world-renowned women scientists and engineers. Under the auspices of the DDCE, she believes that—just like in STEM—the windows of opportunity are wide open.
“It’s exciting to be at this level where we can connect with disciplines across the university,” Berry says. “Working within the DDCE, I believe our program will help prepare students for the workforce in a field that aligns with their interests and career goals. I’m excited about the impact we’ll have down the road.”
Ana Dison, WiSTEM Director of Student Programs
When Ana Dison graduated from high school, she couldn’t wait to leave her hometown of Friendswood, Texas, to explore what’s next.
“I’ve always had an adventurous spirit, so this was my chance to explore something different,” Dison says. “Most of my friends went to A&M, stayed home or left for private schools, but the idea of attending UT intrigued me.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology in 1992, she decided to stretch her comfort zones even further by attending graduate school at Oregon State University, where she earned a master’s degree in College Student Services Administration. She then traveled across the country to embark on her career in recreational sports at the University of Maryland. Before long, UT came calling to recruit her back.
“I was offered an assistant director job at UT’s Division of Rec Sports, which was too good to pass up,” Dison says. “Also, this is where I met my husband, so I’m really glad I made this career move.”
Next up was a career change into academic advising in the Department of Economics, a challenging yet rewarding role that further galvanized her passion for helping students.
“As an undergrad, I didn’t have advisors, so the idea of helping students navigate college really appealed to me,” Dison says. It was a big learning curve moving from student affairs into the academic side of the university, but this role allowed me to have direct student contact in ways that impacted their lives.”
During her time as an advisor, Dison knew she found her place in higher education, yet something felt missing. She soon found a way to fill that void when she moved to a role at the Cockrell School of Engineering. After serving six years in the Engineering Student Affairs Office, she took on an exciting new job as program coordinator for the Women in Engineering Program (WEP).
“When I joined the Women in Engineering Program, there was so much room for creativity, and I was able to shape out a lot of our programming,” says Dison, who later became the assistant director of the WEP, where she worked alongside Berry for 15 years. “Tricia and I have an amazing relationship and we make a great team.”
Unbeknownst to both Dison and Berry at the time of their early friendship, they have been teammates long before their time working together in Women in Engineering Program.
“Here’s a fun fact,” Dison says. “It wasn’t until we came across an old photo on the RecSports intramural champions wall of fame, when we realized that we played on the same volleyball team back when we were students. It was so cool to remember that we have this shared history.”
Together, they are teaching the value of teamwork to their students—showing how much they can accomplish when women support and uplift one another.
“We know the more they’re connected to each other, the more likely they’re going to persist,” Dison says. “When microaggressions happen, they can get support from one another, breaking down those feelings of isolation and finding a sense of belonging.”
Another important lesson, she says, is that failure is oftentimes inevitable—especially within the realm of STEM.
“We need students to talk about their own experiences with failure, so we can normalize it,” Dison says. “Science and engineering, in and of itself, is a process of failure and redesign. We talk about that a lot, and we talk about resilience, grit and a growth-mindset—it’s all tied together.”
In the years to come, Dison and Berry strive to position The University of Texas at Austin as a national model for women in STEM programming, thus helping their alma mater fulfill its mission statement: What Starts Here Changes the World.
“Our focus is to help the university become a national model for STEM gender equity programming,” Dison says. “In order to do that, it’s critical to take Women in STEM to the university level. Here in the DDCE, we’re surrounded by professionals who focus on diversity and believe in what we’re trying to accomplish.”
The work of diversifying STEM is hard and slow moving, Dison notes. However, she is already seeing an impact and plans to continue to keep up the momentum.
“Achieving culture change is at the heart of what we’re trying to do,” Dison says. “When you make a difference for one person, you don’t see that until they tell you years later. I keep a box full of thank you notes from students over the years. When I look through it, I say, ‘OK, I impacted all those lives—and that’s just a fraction of the thousands of students who I’ve worked with over my 26 years on campus. That’s what makes it all worth it.”