To be passionate means that you really like something a lot. You could have passion for a pet hamster, a sport, a book or a movie. Or, if you’re like engineer Cori Lathan , you could have passion for science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
“It never occurred to me I couldn’t do STEM,” said Lathan from her office at AnthroTronix, the Silver Spring engineering company she helped start in 1999.
Lathan, 46, grew up at a time when most girls were not encouraged to think about STEM careers. “I had no idea women weren’t interested in STEM,” she said. “I didn’t focus on what I wanted to be, but I wanted to do cool things.”
Many STEM-based careers involve hands-on research that goes way beyond sitting at a desk. While earning degrees in STEM subjects, Lathan observed 100 fruit flies one summer, studied babies to see if they could recognize 3-D objects and even flew in a “reduced-gravity” plane — one that goes up and down to make people in it feel weightless, like astronauts in space.
“I love the fact that we’re doing different things all the time,” Lathan said of her team. “I love that we get to be creative and innovative.”
“Creative” might be a word that you normally use to describe painters or musicians. But engineers such as Lathan have to be creative, too. They have to think in new ways about how to make things that no one has made before.
For example, Lathan’s company has designed a glove that can communicate with a computer. Someone communicating through sign language could use the gloves to have his words translated into written words on a computer screen.
Lanthan said she is interested in “using technology that enables people to do something.” For example, AnthroTronix is working on a software application to help doctors figure out if an injured person’s brain is working correctly.
Teamwork is a big part of engineering. In a conference room at Lathan’s company, a whiteboard takes up a whole wall. On a recent afternoon, it was covered with numbers and ideas left over from a meeting.
“It’s creating the environment where all things are welcome,” Lathan said. “You need a diverse team [that is, a group of people with different backgrounds and talents] to be really creative.” The AnthroTronix office includes a lab that is littered with such things as drills, glue, wires and tape. Employees use the space to experiment with ideas.
Lathan grew up in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. The oldest of four kids, she played soccer, swam competitively, watched “Star Trek,” read science fiction books and wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up.
There was no after-school science club she could join or any Saturday engineering festivals she could attend, but her parents encouraged her passion.
“They made me think math was fun,” she said. “I was always good at math in school.”
She attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where her first year proved to be challenging. She failed physics and earned a D in biology. “My freshman year of college was a disaster,” she said.
But she didn’t give up her passion. She went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to earn a challenging and time-consuming degree called a doctorate in neuroscience, or the study of the nervous system. (She was one of only two women in her field of study there.)
Later, when she taught engineering at Catholic University, she was the only female professor in the school of engineering. That’s not surprising, because more men than women go into STEM careers.
“I was just pursing what I wanted to do,” Lathan said.
In 1992, Lathan started Keys to Empowering Youth, a program for middle-school girls designed to get them
thinking about STEM. (Today there’s a chapter of the program at the University of Maryland.)
This weekend, Lathan will be coaching an elementary school robotics team at an event in Westminster, Maryland. The team is made up of five girls, including Lathan’s daughter, Lindsey, 10, and one boy. Together they have designed and made robots that will be judged against other teams’ robots.
“No matter what you want to do,” Lathan said, “science and technology is so important. . . . You need to figure out your strengths and weaknesses.” But, she added, “We need to move beyond strengths and weaknesses and see where your passions are. What’s your dream?”
What: Watch Cori Lathan’s robotics team compete in the first Maryland VEX Robotics competition. (VEX are kits that contain parts that allow you to design and build robots.)
Where: Carroll County Agricultural Center, 706 Agricultural Center Drive, Westminster, Maryland.
When: Saturday, March 8, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
How much: Free.
More information: Have a parent go to www.maryland-vrc.org.
What: STEM event for middle school and high school girls, featuring hands-on activities and presentations from women in STEM careers.
Where: Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, 11100 Johns Hopkins Road, Laurel, Maryland.
When: Sunday, March 9, 2 to 5 p.m.
How much: Free.
For more information: Have a parent go to www.jjhuapl.edu/STEM/about/events.asp or call 443-778-7836.
What: Engineering for You (E4U) is a contest designed to get you thinking about engineering. Submit a one- to two-minute video about how engineering has helped or will help society.
Who: Open to individuals or teams of all ages. There are several categories, including one for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
How: Have an adult go to www.nae.edu/e4u for the rules and to enter.
Prizes: The top winner in each category will receive $5,000. Overall winner will win $25,000.
Deadline: March 31.
For more cool information on women engineers, including profiles and opportunities to ask them questions, go to www.engineergirl.org. (Always as a parent before going online)