Written by Taylor Blackburn, Cisco Intern 2013, Bates College
Fresh off a Robotics Competition win, 18 year-old twin sisters Jessica and Melanie Miller dove into a summer internship at Cisco’s office in Ontario, Canada . A series of impressive achievements already under their belts, Jessica and Melanie both plan to study materials engineering at the University of Toronto this fall. Excited by their story as a fellow intern, I caught up with them via TelePresence to discuss women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), their passions, and what the future holds.
The Business of Robots
We often hear about the challenges women face in tech related fields, but Jessica and Melanie had to grapple with these problems firsthand when they joined their high school robotics team. Membership was low; just four girls in all. They became captains of the business side and got to work crafting a business plan and recruiting members to compete in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competitions.
“We actually managed to grow the team from four members in the first year to fifteen by the time we left,” Melanie remembers. Not an easy task at their small, all-girls school. “It was a challenge to try to get them involved… you have to come up with creative methods to draw them in.” Jessica chimes in. “Free food!” They laugh, but results show they were doing something right.
“Our business plan specifically won four times in a row,” Jessica explains with a hint of pride. They also won the Chairman’s Award, given to the team with best overall performance.
Their achievements are especially impressive in light of how few girls participate at all. “In most of the teams it was all boys, and even in teams where there were a few girls…when it was time to actually drive the robot… it would never be the girls in the team,” explains Jessica as Melanie nods in agreement.
Cisco CTO Padmasree Warrior recently spoke about women in STEM fields, pointing out that women can often leverage the gender imbalance to their advantage—it’s easy to stand out when you’re the only woman in the room. I ask Jessica and Melanie if they agree with the sentiment. “It can definitely be an advantage,” Melanie offers cautiously, “but at the same time I think it’s better to have more women because they’re kind of an untapped resource. It’s like using only half the population.” True enough—but how do you inspire change?
Women in STEM
“I think girls need more role models in STEM, “ says Jesscia.
“Girls aren’t really aware of the opportunities that are in it for them,” Melanie points out. “They don’t really know that technology can actually help the world, in many ways.” Jessica points to organizations like Engineers Without Borders. “If more girls knew about that… that [aspect] would excite them.”
It’s clear they are both excited about such issues themselves. When asked about their interest in technology, both point to ways it can change the world for the better. Jessica expresses excitement at the prospect of connecting third world countries to education programs and materials, similar to the work she’s seen Cisco do with the Connected North project in Canada. “That would make the world flat, and give lots of people access to these resources.” Melanie points to improving energy efficiency and knowledge about our resources to create a more sustainable future.
Upon completing their time at Cisco, Melanie and Jessica will head to the University of Toronto to pursue degrees in Materials Engineering. Their successes in high school made them prime picks for a new Cisco sponsored engineering scholarship. They hope to start an umbrella organization on campus for women in STEM, and continued work with Cisco means they may bring in experts and role models to engage with the next generation of engineers.
College will present its inevitable changes and challenges to both young women, but they are prepared to face them together. “Ever since grade one they’ve tried to separate us, but we’ve been very insistent about keeping us together… And we’ve been very successful,” Melanie laughs. “We face everything as a team.” With the mutual support, drive and maturity they already display as 18 year-old students, it seems like a team full of immense possibility.