Honoring Women in STEM: Maurie Kelly

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

My area of focus is data -- data management, access, etc. I am the director of Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access (PASDA), which has been the geospatial data portal for the commonwealth of Pennsylvania for 27 years. I also manage the Penn State Data Commons which is an institutional repository for research data for the university. I have several other projects including managing the FEMA Flood Risk Assessment Tool for PA.

How did you end up in STEM?

That is a great question and I ask myself that all the time! How did I get here? I have a degree in history and wanted to teach history. I can tell you that I was not encouraged in that. I had a particular interest in WWII history and I remember being told "women don't teach that." So when I decided to go back to grad school for my master's degree I happened to be working at the Penn State library and thought that I might try for information science, which is what I did. I was in the right place at the right time as things were rapidly changing. This was in 1990 and what used to be called the World Wide Web was just emerging as part of the internet (even the internet wasn't really used except in universities, military, and research labs at that time). So suddenly knowing how information moved around, understanding programming like html, developing websites, etc, was all the rage. After I received my master's I was hired by the University of Illinois at Chicago to work on data, computing, and web development in the library. Then, after having lived in Chicago, I came back to Penn State and started working on PASDA.

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

I would say the challenges were really overwhelming at times. I was often the only woman in a meeting -- it didn't matter what the meeting was about. It could be data, GIS, software, web development, data management, etc. The worst part was, I was usually asked to "take the notes" for the meeting. Early in my career, we didn't have laptops or phones that we had with us at all times so the notes would be written. My response was always "My handwriting is terrible, we need someone who has good handwriting to take notes." It was pretty frustrating to be treated as if I was just there to observe. I had to fight my way through many meetings, conferences, internal and external, just to have my opinion heard and respected.   If you did try to be heard you were thought of as "aggressive" or "pushy." Most women around my age have been called that and we often have been punished for speaking our minds or sharing opinions. You definitely had to work a lot harder to get ahead and get that respect. Today things are a bit different but there still is some resistance to listening to the woman in the room who knows about data. Every once in a while someone will say in a surprised voice, "You seem to know a lot about this stuff." And I say, "I have been doing this for 30 years, of course I do."

What or who was an inspiration or support for you?

On a personal level, my mom, Judy Kelly, who has always been a strong woman, and my three daughters, who have all done wonderful things. I was lucky to have two women who were so inspirational in my early career. My first department head at UIC, Karen Graves. She was one of those bosses who was behind you 100%. If you had a good idea, she would say "Go with it." Complete, total support. What a fantastic person she was. The other was the dean of the library at UIC,  Sharon Hogan. The other deans at the university were all men and then there was one female dean, Sharon. She really had her hands full at times. She was also very encouraging -- if you had a good idea, go with it. I feel really lucky here at Penn State to know and work with so many amazing women as well. Jenni Evans, who is the director of ICDS, is really inspiring both as a scientist/researcher and as the head of ICDS. She researches hurricanes -- what could be more fascinating! I have a colleague, Dana Naughton, who is the head of the global health minor in the College of Health and Human Development. She travels all over the world with students helping them learn about health systems. Just amazing work!

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

I think it is important for women to do what they want to do and have the ability and freedom to do it whether it is a STEM field or international business. That is the key. We should all be able to do what makes us happy and drives us without barriers put in our way because of our gender. I am pretty excited to see more and more women in my field. It is totally different than it was when I was younger. I go to meetings and conferences now and, while it is not yet 50/50, there are so many more women there. I see a lot of female students now who are working in GIS, data, and programming. It is wonderful.

What can be done to recruit more women into STEM?

It starts when kids are little. I have a 6-year-old granddaughter and as soon as she was old enough, I went out and bought her a bunch of STEM-related toys. We had fun putting together various models of our galaxy and I taught her about the planets. We discuss insects and animals and we have lots of science related books. I even bought her a Science is for Girls T-shirt with the solar system on it.

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

Do it. If you love it, just do it. There are more open doors now so step through them. Find other women you admire and work with them.