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Virginia Tech Educators Honored With Roanoke Women in STEM Awards

Two Virginia Tech educators were recently honored for their efforts to make science accessible for people of all ages around the region, paving the way for a bright future in the world of science.

For most of her career, Carrie Kroehler has focused on translating scientific findings to the public. As a biologist, writer, editor, graduate school instructor, and associate director of the Center for Communicating Science, Kroehler has equipped researchers in a variety of disciplines with the skills needed to effectively communicate their findings to those outside of their specialties.

This month, Kroehler’s impact and dedication to communicating science was recognized with the American Heart Association’s first Roanoke STEM Goes Red, Women in STEM Award, alongside Ashley Sloan, lead instructor of the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab at the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center, at the association’s executive breakfast.

“The American Heart Association is proud to honor women in STEM who are making a difference in their respective fields. Carrie, Ashley, and our other honorees represent a group of women dedicated to community impact, furthering research, and commitment to education,” said Christie Steele-Garcia, development director of the Roanoke American Heart Association.

The award celebrates women working in STEM in and around the Roanoke Valley whose contributions have made significant strides in their respective fields.

“We wanted to acknowledge the mentors and the women that promote how to be involved in STEM, making it accessible for people, particularly girls and women,” said Veronica van Montfrans, STEM Goes Red co-chair and associate director of Virginia Tech’s Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program.

“When you can make science accessible, as Ashley and Carrie both do in their own unique ways, they create pathways into STEM that might not have seemed possible, especially for girls and young women.”

At the Roanoke Center, Sloan is bridging the gaps with local industry and university partners to increase access to STEM disciplines in hopes that more members of underserved communities will see themselves working in related fields. The programming she writes and delivers spans pre-K through adult professional development.

The Thinkabit Lab combines the expertise of Qualcomm, the San Diego-based chip maker, with Virginia Tech’s rich resources to create an inclusive STEM environment. The program is recognized as a model for exposing young students to STEM concepts and careers while developing the critical skills necessary for a strong workforce. Participation is funded by Qualcomm and other generous corporate sponsors of the Roanoke Center, part of Outreach and International Affairs.

“We have drastically increased our STEM offerings for Southwest Virginia — from the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab to now the inclusion of more hands-on programming,” Sloan said. “The goal is to influence and inspire young minds, as well as those who guide them. Our success has been because of our engagement with students, local schools, industries, governments, and local communities.”

For Kroehler, the award served as a personal milestone in the larger progress she’s witnessed STEM fields make during her career.

“It is great that they are recognizing women in STEM,” Kroehler said. “It is especially meaningful to me because when I was in college, there was only one female faculty member in the science department. It has been wonderful to live through a change and see more women in STEM.”

When Kroehler and Patty Raun, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Theatre Arts, started the Center for Communicating Science in 2016, they had already been teaching a graduate-level Communicating Science course for several years. Along with instruction, the course provides opportunities each semester for students to help bridge the gap between scientists and others by sharing their research in public schools and the community.

“We have a lot of problems globally and locally. And I think that science holds some answers, but only if people in science can communicate what they are learning and how the whole process of science works,” Kroehler said. “Scientists also need to know that they need others to help them, because people who are not scientists are going to be the ones to implement their findings and make use of them.”

As the center continues to expand locally and beyond, Kroehler will continue to make science accessible to all ages through workshops, courses, and events, such as the Nutshell Games. Her work at the center includes other outreach programs, notably Science on Tap New River Valley and Girls Launch!, a project that provides female scientist role models to kindergarten students.

“Science is beautiful, I love the process,” Kroehler said. “I think most people who do science, really love that process of discovery, too — and to be able to share that with the world is a really important part of it.”

By Becca Halm

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