Honoring Women in STEM: Heather Preisendanz

What is your area of expertise and what is your research focus?

My background is in civil and environmental engineering, and my research focuses on the fate, transport, and impacts of contaminants of emerging concern. Most of my research revolves around fieldwork to understand how contaminants move in the environment and develop ways that we can better mitigate their impacts on ecological and human health.

How did you end up in STEM?

As a kid, I loved hiking and being in the water. In elementary school, I was in a Kids Against Pollution club, and one of our activities was collecting water samples and testing them with pH strips. I also grew up on well water, and we had a septic tank in our yard. I remember the machine that would come when it was time to get the tank pumped, and I remember my dad changing the water filter in the basement to make sure our well water was safe to drink. At an early age, I knew it was important to protect water, and as I grew up, I became more interested in the connections between human activities and water quality. The main reason I got into engineering was that I loved wildlife, especially aquatic wildlife. My brother and I would explore the woods with nets catching frogs, salamanders, newts, and anything else we could find. I wanted to do something to protect the water quality in these vulnerable ecosystems. I don’t think it came as a surprise to anyone who knew me that I would have a career in water!

What hurdles or challenges (big or small) did you find as you pursued your career in STEM? What challenges do you face today?

My first STEM challenge came in high school when my Algebra 2 teacher told me I didn’t belong in the class. When I got into college, I had a physics professor ask me how I was going to get through lab without my lab partner. When I was in graduate school, I had a professor tell me the work I was trying to do for my MS degree wasn’t possible. And finally, I had an advisor tell me that I couldn’t graduate the semester I had intended to graduate. In each case, I demonstrated that I belonged, that I could handle whatever challenges they decided to throw my way, and that they were wrong in underestimating me. These challenges shaped my mentoring philosophy today, which is to provide my students with a supportive environment that keeps the challenges they run into the “right” challenges. Research is hard enough. But it should be hard for the “right” reasons – such as challenges refining an experimental procedure, or processing data. It should not be hard because someone decides to wield their power negatively towards you.

What or who was an inspiration or support for you?

The most important sources of inspiration and support in my life were my grandfather and my father. My grandfather was a mechanical engineer at Dupont. He would tell me stories of times he stood up for women on his team at a time when there were even fewer women in STEM than there are today. I was fortunate that he lived long enough for me to complete my Ph.D. and begin my career at Penn State. I can still hear his voice saying, “Hello, Professor!” when I would call him. I am so grateful to have those memories. My father, his son, was an editor for CBS radio network in New York City. His job was to edit the stories that would be broadcast. There wasn’t a single English or history assignment I wrote in high school that he didn’t tear apart with his red editor’s pen. I didn’t know it at the time, but his role in shaping me as a writer was probably the single most important source of support that I needed to be successful in my future career. Devastatingly, I lost my father when I was 19, but I can feel his editor’s blood running through me. Communicating the science that my research group does helps me to feel closer to him. If you come visit my office, you will find a photo of my father when he was starting his editor career on my bookshelf, and you will see my diploma in a frame that my grandfather made for me when I graduated. Not a day goes by as I enter my office that I am not grateful for the inspiration and support they gave me.

Why is it important for women to be in STEM and specifically your field?

To solve the multifaceted problems we face in the world today, diverse voices are needed at the table. As half of the population, it is critically important for those voices to include women. We need the unique perspectives, insights, experience, solutions, visions, and values that women can bring to the table and contribute to making the world a better place for all of us. In many cultures, women are responsible for providing water to their communities and promoting hygiene and safe, healthy meals. All of this requires water. Decisions made about water directly affect women’s lives, and so their voices need to be part of the decision-making process. Specifically in engineering, I would refer you to my answers to the previous question regarding challenges I’ve faced in pursuing my STEM career. In every single one of those cases, it was a man in a position of power who was trying to prevent or slow down my path. Although I cannot say that every woman I’ve encountered in STEM has been supportive or been a good mentor, I can say that I have never had another woman in STEM tell me that there was something I couldn’t do.

What can be done to recruit more women into STEM?

At the heart of STEM fields is the goal of making the world a better place. That can be achieved in many ways, including through the discovery of new medicines, the design of life-changing tools, or the development of a new process to remove contaminants from water. There is nothing inherently masculine about anything at the heart of STEM. However, declaring a STEM major can feel intimidating, and the environment women enter can make them feel like they don’t belong or can’t be successful. Women need to believe that they can be successful in a STEM career without losing their heart and soul to the grueling, competitive environment they find themselves in. If we can change the system to be more welcoming and accepting of diverse voices, more women will realize they can find personal satisfaction in a STEM career. In short, we need to demonstrate that women can be themselves and still be successful in a STEM field. They don’t need to change who they are to “fit in”; they are needed for who they already are.

What advice would you give to girls and young women going into STEM?

The best advice I would give is to remember why you want to go into STEM. I am borrowing this from fitness programs, but I wholeheartedly believe it is essential. You will inevitably hit barriers along the way and may even find yourself questioning whether or not to stay in a STEM field even after you’re already there. I have to deliberately remind myself why I love what I do to pick myself up from low points and get through the next challenge. I would also say to girls and young women that they inspire me. I find mentoring my female graduate students – and raising my 9-year-old daughter – to be my biggest sources of inspiration and strength. I need my female students as mentees just as much and probably more than they need me to be a mentor or role model. They continually inspire me and – just by being there – push me to be the very best version of myself that I can be every day.

Is there anything else you would like to add on the subject of women in STEM?

My final thought is that we need to expand “women in STEM” to include a broader and more inclusive definition that fully embraces women of color and women in the LGBTQ+ community. We are missing the point if non-binary people cannot find a place at the table. We are missing the point if the women at the table do not include Black, Native American, and Hispanic voices. We are not successful until the voices at the table represent the full diversity of people.