Kelly McSweeney

Sep 6th 2020

Women in STEM Fields: Advice From the Lab


August 26 marked Women’s Equality Day, which commemorates both the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote and the nationwide demonstration for women’s rights in 1970, according to the National Women’s History Project.

While women represent nearly half of the workforce, they hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs, as reported by the US Economics & Statistics Administration. However, women in STEM fields are gaining momentum.

Meet Kerry Nguyen, Chemist

Kerry Nguyen, a chemist at Northrop Grumman, hopes to see more women in STEM fields in the future. When Nguyen was in the sixth grade, her mother was diagnosed with cancer, so she decided to study science to better understand how cancer was diagnosed, prevented and treated.

“My parents kept the news from me initially because they believed I was too young to understand the issue at the time, and they were correct,” Nguyen said. She had only taken basic environmental science classes in school, but she took her curiosity about her mom’s cancer diagnosis into her own hands. Her interest in science grew from there. “I wanted to learn as much as I could possibly understand about my mom’s situation so I was better able to help her when needed,” Nguyen added.

As a first-generation American, Nguyen said her parents are her biggest inspiration. They came to the United States from Vietnam with minimal resources to start, but they always made sure she and her sisters had everything they needed to thrive.

Nguyen’s biggest mentor is another woman in STEM — her oldest sister, the first member of her family to attend college and a chemist who is pursuing her Ph.D. in organic chemistry. “Mary is the oldest, which meant that she made mistakes that I learned from. I continue to look up to my sister for guidance for many things, including chemistry,” she said.

Turning Curiosity Into a Career

When it came time for college, Nguyen was already familiar with the STEM programs offered at California State University, Long Beach, near her hometown. As a student, she applied to an internship at Northrop Grumman after hearing about the position through an email from her school’s career center. She was familiar with the company but had no idea that they had a chemistry lab. She was offered a position and started in the summer of 2015.

“I applied to my internship position to freshen up my resume and with the mindset that I have nothing to lose but time, and I do not regret my decision one bit. I love the work I do and the support I provide for NG,” said Nguyen.

Nguyen graduated in May 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and she continues to work in Northrop Grumman’s lab, now as a full-time chemist. As a technical scientist, her job varies daily, and she spends most of her time analyzing chemical samples for all programs across the company. She explained: “Chemists are like the CSI of aerospace. We can determine what a material is made of or how much of a certain component is in a given material. We can test many different chemical properties using analytical and instrumental techniques.”

Nguyen plans to continue her work at Northrop Grumman and will earn either a master’s degree in a STEM field or an MBA sometime in the future, building her technical, leadership and management skills to eventually pursue a management position.

Advice to Women in STEM Fields

Nguyen suggested that young people focus on networking and meeting new people to expand their opportunities. Most importantly, she urges other women who are interested in STEM to seize any opportunities without hesitation.

“Do not undermine what you are capable of doing for yourself, and do not make yourself worth less than what you really are,” Nguyen said. In the spirit of Women’s Equality Day, she added: “Be proud to be a young woman in the STEM fields because it is rare, but we need to make it a norm. If you are curious, put your foot in the door and test out the water. You will never know unless you try, and it is never too late to be curious.”