Finding Ways to Change the World

Hutchison alumnae are doing innovative work and seeing more opportunities for women.
The woman walked into Clínica Médicos in Chattanooga crying. Her 14-year-old son was behind her, and she said, “My son burned himself, and I only have $20. Can you help?” Dr. Kelly Rodney Arnold ’96 saw a timid boy standing behind the woman with grease burns from the knees down. He was fighting back tears. Arnold answered quickly and directly, in Spanish: “No se preocupe, lo vamos a cuidar.” (“Don’t worry, we will take care of him.”)

­­The cases that present themselves at Clínica Médicos aren’t always as severe, but they present themselves seven days a week and Arnold is compelled to help. “It didn’t matter whether that family had $20 or $20 million,” she said. “I knew that the family came to us out of trust and for them to go to the ER uninsured would amount to thousands of dollars in bills they could not pay. We took care of his burns nearly every day for two weeks until he was healed.”

Arnold opened Clínica Médicos in March 2015, primarily to serve the burgeoning and underserved Latino community of Chattanooga. Every employee in the clinic is bilingual and many have Latin American backgrounds. The goal is not only to provide much-needed healthcare, but to be culturally sensitive, make costs transparent and affordable, educate patients about the complexities of insurance, and provide continuity of care.

Arnold, who studied at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is one of many Hutchison alumnae who are making strides in science, technology, engineering, and math professions, colloquially known as STEM. She grew up learning Spanish, and her father, William M. Rodney, M.D., opened Medicos Para La Familia in Memphis in 1999, which also serves the Latino population. With those genes, it wasn’t enough for Arnold to be a doctor. She intrinsically knew that she would combine her love of language and science and find a way to help people.

The Myth of Girls and STEM

In the past, the narrative was that girls didn’t gravitate toward sciences, engineering, technology, or math. The myth was that they weren’t interested, or erroneously, weren’t as skilled as boys. But ask a Hutchison science teacher or an alumna, and those notions couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I think it’s ridiculous to say girls don’t like science, because they do,” said Mary Lee Wesberry, an upper school science teacher in her 14th year at Hutchison. “You just have to find out where they’re interested and go in that direction.”

Wesberry oversees Hutchison’s Science Research Fellows program. The idea is to challenge girls in grades 9–12 who have a strong interest in science to go beyond their classroom and find a subject they are passionate about, conduct independent research, and present and defend their findings. Recent research topics read like Ph.D. dissertation titles: “Epigenetics of Organ Transplantation” or “Signal Induction of Neuroproliferation and Aberrant Postnatal Behavior,” to name just two.
It’s clear that Hutchison has long nurtured this interest. Ellie Key ’01 discovered her love for science and math at Hutchison. “I loved to read as a kid, and Pat Newberry was great as an English teacher, but math and science were what interested me,” she said. She graduated from the Colorado School of Mines and now works as a permit manager and facility engineer for the Washington State Department of Ecology, regulating 25 waste water treatment plants that discharge to surface water.

“I was in AP Environmental Science as a senior and went to my first waste water treatment plant with that class,” Key said. “I think I was probably the only one who didn’t get grossed out by it. I thought it was pretty interesting.” Key credits two other Hutchison teachers—Vicky Fisher, math, and Karen Irving, chemistry—for planting the seed about a possible career in math or science.

In addition to her prowess in those subjects, Key made sure her work involved protecting the environment, as well. “I think access to clean water and sanitation is a fundamental human right. I work with mayors and city councils a lot and try to educate them on the importance of water quality.” One of the cities she works with is Spokane, which discharges about 35 million gallons a day into the Spokane River, she said. Key makes sure the treatment plant’s discharge does not exceed the river’s pollutant capacity, protecting both human health and aquatic life through implementation of the Clean Water Act.

Dr. Tracy Kramer Richmond ’90, a pediatrician and researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, treats a variety of issues, but spends about three-quarters of her time on social epidemiology research. “I’m trying to understand the social determinants of health, so race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic background, and how those things impact kids’ health,” Richmond said.

One focus is on adolescent obesity. With food insecurity and a lack of nutritious food available to many of her patients, it is a difficult issue to tackle. She works in a multidisciplinary clinic, so while she monitors a patient’s physical health, there are also psychologists and social workers helping to solve behavioral and environmental issues.

Richmond, who did her undergraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and attended the University of Cincinnati for medical school, hopes to move beyond the clinic and get involved in more intervention work. “I’ve been focused on understanding how neighborhoods and schools impact different outcomes, and then the hope is that I’ll be able to provide good evidence for where to intervene,” Richmond said.

STEM Careers Need More Women!

One thing every alumna agrees on—there’s plenty of opportunity in STEM professions for women.

“We need IT people faster than the universities are producing them,” said Kate Christenbury ’07, who graduated from the University of Arkansas and works in information technology.

Christenbury is well aware of the opportunities in her field. She was a finance major until her sophomore year in college. When she saw the turmoil created by the financial crisis in 2008, she reconsidered her trajectory. Her research revealed that information systems graduates not only were paid more, but had the highest job placement percentages. She happened to be in an intro to IT class at the time and loved it. “I was actually making better grades in that class than I was in my finance class.”

After making the switch, Christenbury found a mentor to help her through some of the more challenging classes, which had more male students than females. She landed an internship during her junior year at a small energy company and learned about the oil and gas industry. By November of her senior year, she had secured a job at ConocoPhillips.

In addition to being a techie, Christenbury supports geologists, geophysicists, and reservoir engineers (GGRE for short), so she also has to be knowledgeable about those subjects to keep up. Many of the GGRE staff are men, but she finds they are more surprised at her age than her ability. She meets regularly with other professional women in the company for support and mentoring.

One important consideration: how do you maintain a demanding career and also build a family? Despite the demands of her clinic, Dr. Arnold, in Chattanooga, has three children. “The STEM professions are finding creative ways to allow women to have a career, to nurture a profession, and at the same time, nurture their own families,” she said. “And I think that’s going to be an important component to consider in the discussion of recruiting more women to enter these fields.”

Seeing the World Differently

In addition to the variety of opportunities available to women in STEM professions, several alumnae posited that women also have distinct advantages in these careers.

“Women bring a unique set of strengths,” said Holly Crump ’93. “We see the world differently and approach problems differently.”

Crump, who graduated from Washington and Lee University, is an electrical engineer designer for Liles Engineering in Memphis. It’s her job to plan how power is brought into and distributed throughout a new building. Among her many projects, Crump worked on Hutchison’s Abston Center, Labry Hall, and is currently working on the new Crain Center building under construction.

Engineer Ellie Key agrees that a unique perspective is vital. “What we need are people who can think outside of the box, who are innovative, and who haven’t been in the industry for 20 or 30 years. I think that’s what allows positive change to happen. Young people coming in are going to be on the cutting edge and able to push [the industry] forward.”

Getting the Word Out

“I think that at a grassroots level, more so than ever before, we have women of STEM professions encouraging younger generations to get involved,” said Dr. Kelly Rodney Arnold. She believes girls’ interests will be piqued if they meet with women working in different fields, learn about their professions, and ask questions. “It might be the first time one of those young women has ever sat down with a chemical engineer or even knows what that is­—or with a computer programmer.”

Richmond advocates that girls try diverse experiences. “I think encouraging creativity and risk taking are really important,” she said. She suggested traveling to a different country to broaden thinking or even something as simple as following a tech blog outside one’s usual interests to inspire new ideas. “Exposure to broad thinking, different kinds of thinking, different kinds of disciplines, is really important. Hutchison is the perfect incubator for that kind of thing.”

No one says the path is easy, though. “My father always told me that it’s a marathon,” Arnold said. “Set long-term goals and avoid expecting immediate professional gratification during the building years. Sustaining gratification will come through discovering what it is that you love. People have said to me, ‘Wow that must have taken a lot of work! You’ve been working so much.’ I respond, “I have, but it’s been a joy. I love what I do.”

Find out more about Clínica Médicos at clinicamedicos.org.
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