#SheBelieves: I won an NSF CAREER award!​

Believe it or not, I will forever link my NSF CAREER award to the USWNT and their 2019 Women’s World Cup Championship​

by Helen J. Huang (opinions my own) | 2020-march-12

Watching the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) win their SheBelieves Cup game in Orlando on March 5, 2020 was the perfect way to celebrate getting the official recommended status of my National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER awardI wasn’t going to miss a chance to watch the USWNT play. Being an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida (UCF), I rescheduled my office hours so I could attend the SheBelieves Cup that day to help support the USWNT and also women’s soccer. 

Like millions of people around the world, I watched the USWNT win the Women’s World Cup in June and July of 2019, but unlike most people, I was also trying to write my first NSF CAREER proposal. An NSF CAREER award is a prestigious award given to assistant professors early in their academic career to provide funding for them to establish a research, educational, and outreach program that will help them transform their fields of research and make an impact on the world outside of the lab. For most NSF programs, < 10 awards are made each year. 

Even though I had started working on the 1-page project summary in March 2019, I was stuck in a cycle of believing and doubting that I could do what I proposed for my NSF CAREER. I had pitched the broad idea to a group of faculty and 2 of them immediately told me they thought I would get it. But even still, I didn’t fully believe I could. I kept wavering. When it was mid-June, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and the proposal was due mid-July. 

I was stuck in a cycle of believing and doubting that I could do what I proposed for my NSF CAREER.

What I didn’t waver on was whether I would watch every USWNT World Cup game. No matter how stressed I was, I was going to watch the World Cup games. I have always been a USWNT fan, and I was going to support them however I could. The USWNT was trying to repeat as World Cup champs, a tournament that only occurs every 4 years. They were the #1 team and being #1 is no guarantee for finishing #1. Being #1 only guarantees taking everyone’s best shot. 

As I watched the USWNT confidently win and handle the pressure in stride, I started to gain more confidence and belief in myself.

With each win, the pressure on the USWNT mounted as they advanced and got closer to winning the championship. The pressure was also mounting on me as the deadline was approaching, and the proposal was still a work in progress. As I watched the USWNT confidently win and handle the pressure in stride, I started to gain more confidence and belief in myself and began to make better progress writing the proposal. Each time the USWNT won, I got an injection of belief and joy – it’s a bit easier to write when you’re happy. Then the final whistle blew, and the USWNT had won the World Cup!! By this time, I full of confidence and writing well. For me, watching other women succeeding and kicking a$ is empowering.

ESPN Sportcenter showed a short montage of images from the USWNT winning the World Cup that was set to the song “Proud” by Marshmello. I played “Proud” on repeat to sort of “freeze time” and to continue to ride the high of watching the USWNT win the World Cup until I submitted my proposal. I was able to write a solid proposal and submit it in time. 

It takes months to hear back on whether a proposal will be funded, and the wait is agonizing. Fast forward to January 2020… I found out that my program was recommending my proposal for funding, which 99.9% of the time means it will be officially awarded. 

On the same day as the start of the SheBelieves Cup in Orlando, 03/05/2020, NSF officially recommended my proposal. When the USWNT won the SheBelieves Cup, 03/11/2020, NSF officially made the award!! 

fighting for change

The 2019 World Cup USWNT did a lot more than just play and win soccer games. They were shouldering other things much bigger than soccer, such as fighting for equal pay for women. A few months before the start of the World Cup, on International Women’s Day, the team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation about inequality of pay. More recently, their employers (U.S. Soccer Federation) pretty much said that women are inferior physically and mentally, which is the basis for why women are paid less – this is infuriating but not unfamiliar for women in STEM.  

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is still mostly a boy’s club.

As a woman assistant professor in engineering, I look around and wonder why aren’t there more of women in STEM? That’s because Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is still mostly a boy’s club. 

I’ve heard men say that they “just don’t get it,” when talking about sexism in STEM. I’ve heard comments that imply that women have some advantage that men don’t have because agencies or programs or academic institutions or academic societies have some target quota of women, as if we just got the position or award because of our gender. I’ve heard comments that imply that the accomplishments of women are not as impressive because women don’t need to meet the same standard as men. I have had men say to me, “Congrats!… but [insert latest reason why women get an advantage just for being a woman].” 

When women leave academia, it isn’t because they are not a good enough researcher or instructor or citizen in their department or field of research. When women leave academia, it’s often for the extra sh#t women have to deal with working in a boy’s club. I know women who have left and are currently trying to recover and make sense of it all. 

Throughout my career, the few men who are aware often do not speak up to the group. Instead, they prefer to let me know quietly that they are aware. Certainly, there are men who are aware and do what they can – thank you! Unfortunately, there are far too few men who have a clue about their boy’s club and the effects it has on women in STEM.

Change only happens if we do something. 

I think things could be better for women (faculty, staff, and students) and that the mindset that “this is just the way it is” needs to change. I won’t accept that this is just the way it is. Change only happens if we do something and then follow through. If we try something and it fails, we learn from it so we can try again to find a better more effective way. 

Typically, when you make history, you get people’s attention. I am the first person ever at UCF to get a National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 and an NSF CAREER award (my R01 and CAREER). These are the two major grants from NIH and NSF that universities want to see their faculty obtain, and I have both. 

At a university, getting major grants usually provides some leverage to perhaps ask for a raise, more lab space, a better office, etc. I didn’t ask for anything when I got the R01 so I figure I shouldn’t miss this chance. I haven’t decided what I want to ask for, but I do know I want to leverage whatever influence or platform I currently have to do something to improve the climate for women in STEM. I won’t go too crazy stirring the pot for several reasons, but this is the time for me to speak up, be heard, and perhaps, be loud. 

I am the first person ever at UCF to get an NIH R01 and NSF CAREER award.
Getting major grants usually provides some leverage… so this is the time for me to speak up, be heard, and perhaps, be loud.
I'm not loud so my team once gave me a megaphone. Perhaps this article will also be megaphone.

Women supporting women

I am dedicated more than ever to go to watch USWNT games when they are nearby, to support the Orlando Pride and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), and to support the players and their individual pursuits. Even though I’ve been to several Pride games, I’ve got season tickets this year (assuming we can get covid-19 under control – social distancing now so we can be social and healthy later). I’ve also been to Ali Krieger’s Football Camps (AKFC) for adults, which is absolutely adulting at its finest! 

While I was chatting with Ali at the February 2020 AKFC camp, I mentioned that watching her and the USWNT win the World Cup helped empower me while I was writing a major research proposal and that I had recently found out that my proposal was going to be funded. And if I wasn’t so shy, I would have also told Ali that when it was clear that the World Cup would end with the ball at her feet, I thought it was the storybook ending, an ultimate believe in yourself story. For those who don’t know, Ali had been off of the USWNT for a couple of years but kept training and fought to comeback and earn her spot on the 2019 World Cup team. She always believed in herself and that she could help the USWNT win another World Cup (read her believe-in-yourself story here)

After hearing my story, Ali congratulated me and thanked me for sharing that with her. Hearing Ali thank me for sharing my story with her made me realize that perhaps I should share this story with others – the story of how watching the USWNT win the 2019 Women’s World Cup helped a woman engineering assistant professor win an NSF CAREER award. And really, what is the liklihood that NSF officially updates my statuses to recommended and awarded on the days the SheBelieves Cup started and ended?! 

I hope that sharing this story can help inspire and empower other women in STEM to believe in themselves and realize that they, we, can find inspiration from all of the women succeeding at whatever they do and are fighting for change.

Building and strengthening an infrastructure of advocates for girls and women in STEM

I wasn’t going to include this initially, but after reading my proposal reviews, it was clear my proposed outreach program, which is an important component of an NSF CAREER award, was very well received. 

My team and I will be developing a program, neuromechanics^girls (neuromechanics raised to the power of girls) that would not only teach girls about neuromechanics (i.e. studying the brain, muscles, and mechanics of human movement) but would also help build and strengthen an infrastructure of advocates to encourage and support girls and women to succeed in STEM. 

The core idea is to have the girls and members of their support network – parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches, community leaders, neighbors, family friends, classmates, university students, etc. – share STEM experiences together. If members of the girls’ support network could see and experience the girls’ enthusaism for STEM, then perhaps they would become more active advocates to foster the success of girls and women in STEM. 

Being an active advocate means more than just personally encouraging and supporting individual girls to do STEM. Being an active advocate means using our positions and platforms (big or small) to do what we can to change the climate and culture. Being an active advocate means being aware of sexism and microaggressions. If we are having a conversation, are in a meeting, at work, or teaching in an environment where women are being mansplained or are having their ideas dismissed or are being objectified (just to name a few), let’s speak up! Being an active advocate means making suggestions for and supporting activities, programs, or initatives that promote diversity and inclusion. Being an active advocate means if we are in a position of power and influence, review and ensure that our policies are not biased against any group – ex. if women are being underpaid, pay them! especially when they are the top performers.   

Advocacy isn’t easy, which is why advocates need to support one another so we can be better active advocates for girls and women in STEM. Imagine if we, all of their advocates, teamed up and supported one another to help make changes in the climate and culture now in our schools, workplaces, industries, communities, etc., then girls who will pursue STEM won’t have to deal with it as much in the future. 

For those in Central Florida, perhaps we could all meet up (after covid-19 is under control – flatten the curve all, social distancing now), share stories, and brainstorm ideas of how we can support one another to be better advocates for girls and women in STEM. Maybe we could also all watch an Orlando Pride soccer game together. I, for one, plan to be at the games as much as possible to support women’s soccer and the players who have inspired and empowered me to believe in myself more, excel at my job, and fight for change.