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Life sciences lecturer bridges the gap for women in STEM

Honoring women in science: Meet Susan Holechek

Portrait of ASU Lecturer Susan Holechek.

Susan Holechek

March 10, 2022

March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate women’s tremendous contributions to the world. At Arizona State University, one faculty member is uplifting women and sharing what she does to provide support to female students to ensure success as they embark on a career in STEM. 

Susan Holechek, a lecturer and director of the School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research (SOLUR) program, teaches research labs, general genetics and cell biotechnology. Here she talks about her experience as a Latina in academia and the importance of female representation in STEM.

Question: Is there a woman in your life (past or present) who inspired you to pursue a career in science? 

Answer: I always reflect on my two female mentors who helped me become who I am today. My passion for biology and math was born during my early high school years. I recall my exceptional biology teacher, Ms. Bertha Caballero, and her inspiring hands-on lessons at school. She would go above and beyond to provide us with the materials needed to understand complex topics. She was always kind and patient. 

Another exemplary woman in my life was my math teacher, Ms. Rosa Vizarraga. While some students were not very excited about this topic, she would show us how math is very important for our everyday lives. She would provide many examples and give us adequate homework so we could improve our math skills and polish our critical thinking skills. 

Both wonderful women were a great support system inside and outside the classroom, and for that I am forever grateful.

Q: Why is it important to highlight women in science for Women’s History Month?  

A:  Highlighting the work of women at ASU helps them to become more visible to other students and faculty that may have the same interests, goals and ideas. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find a female peer in another unit and join forces? Imagine all the things we could accomplish if we support each other along the way. With the increase of female students at ASU, it is important for them to develop relationships with female faculty and students who can be role models; someone they can relate to and who can advocate for them. Mentoring each other and building those strong female relationships is imperative for success. 

I have been passionate about mentoring students since my days as a graduate student. I have always wanted my students to be successful and thrive in their future careers. Whether they are coming to campus, attending ASU Online, transferring from a community college or at risk of giving up, my goal is to encourage them to become more confident, knowledgeable and ready for their next big step in life. 

Q: Do you have any advice for women interested in pursuing a career in the field of science? 

A: My advice for women looking to enter the field of science is to never give up and never let words of discouragement bring your dreams down. Believe in yourself; you are strong, smart and beautiful! Also, find a good mentor. Do your best academically, and don’t be afraid to ask questions or reach out.

Q: What has your experience been as a Latina teaching, learning and working in a male-dominated industry?

A: My experience as a Latina working in a male-dominated industry has been interesting. During my years as a grad student at ASU, I never saw another Latina faculty member in my school. This made me realize how difficult it is for women, specifically underrepresented minorities, to achieve an established position in academia. Luckily, things have changed over the years with the help of great faculty mentors, both male and female, and programs dedicated to providing support for underrepresented students in STEM.

Programs such as WAESO (Western Alliance to Expand Student Opportunities) and MGE@MSA (Mountain States Alliance for Minority Graduate Education) have helped with uplifting and mentoring underrepresented women in science. I was fortunate enough to participate in one of these programs, and now, as a WAESO mentor, I empower my students to experience the fascinating world of research in the lab.

Q: Tell us about the importance of female representation in science and what classes you teach. 

A: I have been at ASU for more than 15 years and I have seen an increase in the number of female students in my classes. This is a reflection of their genuine interest and passion for science. I am glad to see more women in my online classes coming back to a university setting after halting their studies to take care of their families. I applaud their effort and thirst for knowledge and success. In their own words, it is time for them to shine.

The largest class I teach every semester is BIO 340 (General Genetics), both online and in person. This class averages 300–400 students in each session. I also teach BIO 451/551 (Cell Biotech), which introduces students to different techniques in cell culture and molecular biology. 

Additionally, I developed a few courses to address the needs of ASU students. The first class is BIO 495 (Undergraduate Research), which was in response to the increasing number of ASU Online students interested in research. Online students enrolled in BIO 495 meet weekly online and attend a one-week intensive research immersion program designed to teach them several techniques in cell biology and molecular biology in the context of real research projects.

The second class is BIO 194 (iSTEM SOLUR Prep Seminar) which introduces first-year or transfer students to relevant topics from core classes and prepares them to become better candidates for hands-on research internships. 

Q: Tell us about the SOLUR program. 

A: The School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research (SOLUR) program’s mission is to inspire and engage both in-person and online research students by providing them access to outstanding faculty mentors in the life sciences. SOLUR is more than a program; it is a supportive community of peers and faculty across disciplines. Students start their SOLUR journey as apprentices and continue on to become researchers, scholars and fellows. As they accumulate more research experience, they become better thinkers, innovators and problem solvers. Currently, more than 88% of SOLUR program graduates are working in STEM jobs or enrolled in graduate, medical and professional school programs.

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