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ASU student named finalist for Red Hat’s 'Women in Open Source' award

February 7, 2018

Doctoral candidate Nikki Stevens is vying to be 2018 winner — voting is open now

When a teenaged Nikki Stevens built her first website, she did not foresee the barriers she would encounter in pursuit of her newfound passion. Now a doctoral candidate with Arizona State University's School for the Future of Innovation in Society, she has founded two organizations, works a lucrative career as a technical architect and freelance software engineer and has been selected as a finalist for Red Hat’s “Women in Open Source Award.”

Cast your vote for Nikki here. (Voting closes on Feb. 21 at 3 p.m.)

Stevens’ accomplishments speak to a tenacious grit that has buoyed her talent and a resolute determination to succeed as a woman in the primarily male-dominated tech space. She grew to realize that extra time, effort and creative techniques were required to get work beyond those demanded of male counterparts.

“I created my own website when I was 15,” she said. “But I had to pretend to be older, and I had to pretend to be male most of the time online because I realized pretty fast that if I was going to be paid to do work, I had to kind of suck it up.”

Stevens’ experience is not far off from accounts of other women, non-binary and genderqueer people who struggle to prove themselves amongst their predominantly white male peers.

“I can say I’ve spent time working longer hours, doing more work and doing better work than my peers, in order to get roughly the same treatment,” Stevens said. “And I’m not sure that my time doing that is over, in academia as well as in tech.”

Enter the Women in Open Source award, which was created in response to the low percentage of women in the open source"Open source" refers to computer software for which the copyright-holder allows anyone to modify, distribute, use or study the source code for any purpose. community — only 11 percent of contributors to be exact, according to Red Hat’s website. The award seeks to recognize exceptional women in tech with the hope that it can show young women and girls who have an interest in the field they don’t have to be intimidated and they can achieve success despite the prevailing impression that open source is a man’s world.

“Representation matters. We want to elevate women," Stevens said. "Queer women, women of color, nonbinary and genderqueer people too, we want to elevate everyone who is doing good work. We want those who want to enter the field to look and see people who look like them.”

Stevens also strives to make the open-source community more inclusive. She was inspired to take action after attending tech conventions and realizing that she was consistently staring out into crowds of white male faces. She decided to do a small presentation titled “Calling All White Men.”

She was not expecting what came next.

“It was a little too 'nail on the head' for some people. I got a really aggressive reaction, and that was really powerful,” she said. "I got a ton of harassment for it. So then I was like, 'Okay, we really need to talk about this if just suggesting that we have a problem is creating such a strong backlash.'”

Following Drupal Con in New Orleans (a destination event for website programmers), she formed the Drupal Diversity and Inclusion Group (DD&I) to help combat negative sentiments and increase the programming community’s diversity. The group will come under new leadership this year, and Stevens said she is excited to see the group grow.

Stevens is also involved with the Open Demographics Initiative, which is focused on improving language used in surveying people about gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other information.

“They ask these questions in ways that are really exclusionary," she said. "So I was like, 'Well, why isn’t there a W3C for these questions? And why aren’t the people who are being questioned involved in the questioning?'" 

She came up with a recommended set of questions that anyone can use to ask community members about their demographics while minimizing potentially offensive outcomes. She is currently seeking more contributors to make the project as collaborative as possible.

Stevens’ advice for other women and minorities trying to break into the field is grounded in a social dimension as opposed to technical training.

“I think the first thing is to find other people and find a support community," she said. "I had a lot of really powerful female mentors, and the value of those types of mentors cannot be overstated. I had so many powerful women, both guiding me with advice and providing material support whether it be buying me lunches or work clothes when I couldn’t afford them, introducing me to people, taking me to conferences with them. It’s so important.”

Top photo: Nikki Stevens, doctoral student with the School for the Future of Innovation in Society is a finalist for this year’s Red Hat’s “Women in Open Source Award.” 

Written by Madelyn Nelson

ASU, Red Mountain High School partner to teach students about psychology, neuroscience

February 7, 2018

Screams of excitement and nervous laughter echo across a high school food court. A flock of students at Red Mountain High School in Mesa gathers around a pop-up tent and a chorus of “ewws” breaks out. The reason for this ruckus? Brains, brought to campus by scientists from Arizona State University’s Department of Psychology.

Six different brains were displayed across a table staffed by enthusiastic ASU undergraduate and graduate students who work in the lab of Heather Bimonte-Nelson, professor of psychology. The high school students were encouraged to put on protective gloves and explore what a sheep brain felt like, taking their first steps into the field of psychology and neuroscience. Isabel Strouse, ASU Department of Psychology student assists Red Mountain High School Students Isabel Strouse, a junior in ASU's Department of Psychology, assists Red Mountain High School students at the annual Red Mountain High School STEM Day. Photo by: Robert Ewing Download Full Image

This is the second year that the ASU Department of Psychology has participated in STEM Day at Red Mountain High School. Bimonte-Nelson’s students partner with the high school to bring behavioral neuroscience to high school students before they head off to college.

“It is very important to involve young minds in hands-on research in high school so they can gain experience and explore their interests early on,” said Stephanie Koebele, a graduate student with Bimonte-Nelson.

Koebele added that high school students can get a taste of what it is like to work in a real laboratory, which could jump-start their preparation for future careers in a STEM field.

“Often high school and early college students do not have a specific mentor to answer big questions,” Koebele said. “Involving high school students, especially young women and under-represented minorities, can make a huge impact on their career trajectories by providing the opportunity for one-on-one mentoring with the undergraduates, graduate students and PIs of laboratories at ASU.”

The STEM Day is not all Red Mountain High School does to expose students to STEM fields. The psychology department at ASU and Red Mountain High School have partnered to create the “RISE (Research Intensive Scientific Experience) in Psychology at ASU” initiative. Together, Bimonte-Nelson and Katy Gazda, the program director of the Biotechnology program at Red Mountain High School, have created the RISE program to work with high school students to identify their interests, match them with a professor and laboratory in the psychology department, and allow students to perform research. Students complete a senior capstone project, including a presentation of their data, while getting hands-on laboratory experience before starting college.

In the Bimonte-Nelson lab, the RISE student researchers have many tasks, but the most important ones are to score, process, and analyze behavioral data. These student researchers also learn about the scientific method, about experimental design, and how to use computer programs that support research. In addition, they assist the undergraduate and graduate student researchers with many “wet laboratory” tasks, like mixing liquids and preparing solutions used for biochemistry-involved behavioral experiments.

As part of the RISE program, Red Mountain High School senior Abby Mann conducts research in the Bimonte-Nelson lab.

“I’m really interested in the learning aspect of psychology — I come from a family of teachers — so it’s really cool to watch how things affect learning and memory,” said Abby Mann, who will attend Barrett, The Honor’s College at ASU next year.

Like Mann, fellow high school senior Maria Valenzuela Sanchez also works as a researcher in the Bimonte-Nelson lab.

“We tested whether a certain hormone affected memory in surgical menopause,” said Valenzuela, who will also attend ASU next year. “It was very exciting to see the results.”

Both Mann and Valenzuela Sanchez won gold prizes at the school science fair and will compete at the district level in the Mesa Public Schools Science and Engineering Fair.

Red Mountain High School is not the only place where the public can interact with the psychology department’s and Bimonte-Nelson lab’s outreach activities. Along with many other ASU research groups, the Bimonte-Nelson lab will participate in ASU Open Door and Brain Fair for Children.

ASU Open Door 2018

1–6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24

This year marks the fifth consecutive year that Bimonte-Nelson’s lab will participate in ASU Open Door. The lab will host the “Brain Investigation Station,” where the public can experience neuroscience on a hands-on level. It will be fun for the whole family.

RSVP for free tickets here:

Brain Fair for Children

Tuesday, Feb. 27

Since 2007, the psychology department and the Bimonte-Nelson Team have hosted the ASU Brain Fair for Children. ASU invites children who attend Title 1 elementary schools to visit campus, where they learn about the brain and what it is like to go to college. The ASU Brain Fair for Children is the first field trip for many of the students, who often come from underprivileged backgrounds.

This year, the Department of Psychology will host 75 third graders from Creighton Elementary School at the ASU Brain Fair for Children. There will be crafts and activities, including making neuron models from pipe cleaners and brain lobes from play dough. Children will have the chance to look into microscopes and make observations about what they see.

Of course, the real sheep brains that caused the high school students to excitedly scream and giggle will also be at the Brain Fair for Children. The brains are always a big hit with the kids.

“The brain fair makes a big impact on these children,” Koebele said. “It is an honor to have the opportunity to interact with them, get them excited about science, and empower them to think about being a scientist as an accessible and attainable goal.”

Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology