Introduction

For this interview we spoke with Anastasia Marchenkova, who has been a self starter since grade school. What began as a passion for studying electronics and doing CAD work quickly grew into the exploration of more STEM fields, such as robotics, programming and physics. Please join us in welcoming Anastasia to the Women in STEM Month of May interview series, and read on to hear her story!

May Interviews - #WomeninSTEM

The Interview - Anastasia Marchenkova

  • Name: Anastasia Marchenkova
  • Age group: 26-30
  • STEM Field of Study (or profession): Physics

Do you have a favorite quote? What is it and who is it from?

“What actually transpires beneath the veil of an event horizon? Decent people shouldn’t think too much about that.” -Academician Prokhor Zakharov from the video game Alpha Centauri


Personal Experience

Q: What was (or is) your favorite subject in school and why?

Anastasia: “Obviously, I was good at math and science courses in grade school and university, but one of the more fascinating and rare courses I took was Electronics. I went to a public, specialized math and science magnet school, and every student had to choose from a very hands on engineering course - Drafting (CAD work), Digital design, or Electronics. I chose Electronics. A lot of people took it as a joke, because it wasn’t that supervised, but the electronics course taught me to be a self starter. However, it started me on the path to robotics and programming because I was studying it on my own, and the electronics classroom was open to tinker and build. “

Q: What was your daily routine like (in school, work, or at home). How might this have impacted/influenced your participation in STEM?

Anastasia: “My routine very much focused on trying and spending time on my work. It wasn’t about getting my homework done as fast as possible, it was about understanding and trying. My father would often ask “And what did you learn from the topic you read” and I’d have to articulate a summary of the content. In physics, assignments were always interesting because sometimes, you might understand something immediately, but other times, you may have to mull on a problem for weeks before making any headway. Understanding how to study, and how to focus, and how to truly learn as well as how to draw connections between topics was critical to success. Even now, I focus a lot of my spare time on learning outside of official schooling or work. I’m constantly trying to learn a new technology, reading a book, or build a product, and then trying to teach what I know through blogging and mentorship.”

Q: Describe the first time you heard about STEM, why was this an appealing thing to be a part of?

Anastasia: “I grew up spending a lot of time with my father, who is a physicist. He often would take me to his labs at the university. The post-docs and graduate students would let me “help” by handing them tools even when I was just 4 years old, or the professors who were watching me would let me play on their computers and punch in numbers to make pretty graphs. I didn’t realize until I was 12 years old that most people did not have PhDs. But I grew up in the environment where I was allowed to be a little part of the science very early on, so I always felt like I could be a part of this community.”

Q: When was the first time you became actively involved in STEM? Do you recall a specific project or initiative?

Anastasia: “I was always part of the STEM world, so I don’t think I ever thought about moving away from the path. But the belief that STEM was really for me was when I joined the robotics team at my high school. There was something so magical about being able to build something with your hands and make it work. I was able to dabble in electronics, programming, and mechanical design, and was getting my hands dirty, and working with a team. I spent so much time with the robotics team, but I loved every second of it. “

Q: How have your beliefs, motivations and aspirations changed over time? When did a career in STEM become a priority or choice?

Anastasia: “While I always thought I would stay in academia and be in STEM in a very traditional sense, getting a taste of the startup world showed me that I can take the research into the real world and impact people through technology or education. I ended up leaving academia and working at or on startups and science. As aspiration is to get more into tech transfer, and helping scientists build companies to bring their technology out of the lab. “

Q: Who has served as an ‘influencer’ in your path to a STEM focused education and/or career?

Anastasia: “Definitely my father. I grew up around STEM, and he never told me I couldn’t do anything because I was a girl. When I was 12, I finished all the books in the house, so he brought me a 2nd year university Biochemistry textbook for me to read. My mom would take me to the library weekly as well, where I was always encouraged to explore and learn. “

Q: What is your dream job? Can you see any roadblocks or challenges which might be influenced by your gender?

Anastasia: “These days, I get to research quantum computing as well as help people to build technical courses to teach others, which is very close to my dream job. The only thing that could be improved is that I would like is a little more freedom to travel to tropical locations :) Additionally, my goal is to help more researchers commercialize their research and expand their outreach. I do still get pushback from some people, but as I build my career, I get it less and less since my successes now speak for themselves. I got a comment recently that was that I talk too fast and know everything about everything. This was meant as a negative, which was funny to me. The more I get these comments, the more I see that the people who are pushing back or making these comments are showing that they are insecure about their own skills or power. The competent people are the ones who look at your strengths and want to work with you, not against you. Best advice is to ignore those insecure people, because there are more people who want to collaborate and support you than those who will bring you down.”

Q: Are hobbies in STEM important? What about hobbies in general? Can you share some of your hobbies that may (or may not) have contributed to your STEM involvement?

Anastasia: “One hobby to keep you active, one hobby to be creative, one hobby to earn money. Physical and mental health is very important to overall well being, and sometimes, when your work isn’t going as well as you hope, the hobbies can give you a sense of achievement that may be lacking in your job or schoolwork, and provide you the energy to keep grinding through the frustration. My robotics team started out as a hobby but allowed me to explore many aspects of engineering. While I did love it, in the end, I decided that I didn’t want to just study computer science, I wanted to use computer science as a tool to study physical science.”

Q: Has there been any point when you (or someone close to you) wanted to give up STEM (work, hobby, both)? What made you stay?

Anastasia: “To be quite honest, physics itself and academia was a pretty good environment for me. It might have been that I grew up being around academics, so I knew how to interact with people in that setting. The doubts started when I founded my first company. For some reason, even though I had been coding in some way or another since I was 11 or 12, I felt like I always had to prove myself to peers, or just being told I was unwelcome in certain groups. Luckily, there were a lot of people (both men and women) in my life who were amazing allies, and provided support for me to rant a bit about a jerk or provide resources on dealing with, for example, negotiating compensation as a woman.”


Women in STEM Impact

Q: Can you recall any times when you questioned your involvement in STEM because of your gender?

Anastasia: “When I was hired as a researcher, but as the only woman, was given the desk for the secretary. I had a bad feeling about the job and it was a miserable experience, and I spent a lot of time after that thinking my career in science was ruined. It took some time to detox from that experience (I still sometimes have trouble receiving positive feedback, but I’m working on it.)”

Q: What are some of the personal experiences - or compelling arguments - that have influenced your thinking around gender and STEM, and have motivated you to get involved in being an advocate for change?

Anastasia: “I’ve been very lucky, but many people don’t have the strong supporters that I had growing up to support them through the STEM journey. I want to be that supporter to women who didn’t have that. Sometimes, all you need is a bit of encouragement.”

Q: Can you talk a bit about some of the specific ways you have advocated for change? If so, please tell us more about the successes and challenges you faced?

Anastasia: “I’ve learned that micro changes can provide a path for macro changes. Something as small as just saying “excuse me, I wasn’t done speaking” may give someone else some bravery to also speak up a little louder. I’ve seen women not take credit for their work, or hide their PhD because they think it’s intimidating. Taking credit for your work or negotiating your salary means that maybe, the next woman will find less resistance to that, or see that since you are able to do it, they can do it too.”

Q: Do you have a network of women in STEM around you to share knowledge and remind you you are not alone? If so, how did you go about creating that network?

Anastasia: “For women in computer science, our Facebook group Ladies Storm Hackathons was founded to connect women who attended college hackathons, but now as we’ve graduated, has grown into a community of mentors/mentees with new students coming in every day. It’s heartbreaking to read some of the stories about professors discouraging female students from staying in STEM, but by having an outlet for frustration and a place to seek advice makes the struggle seem less lonely.”

Q: Do you have a mentor or friend who inspires you? How/Why? (someone you know personally)

Anastasia: “I have a group of women who I met through hackathons that I keep in touch with. Even though we’re in different fields and live scattered all over the world, having a place to celebrate successes and seek advice is critical.”

Q: Are you involved/can you recommend any organization(s) that support Women in STEM (shoutouts)?

Anastasia: “Ladies Storm Hackathons, Women Who Code, Hackbright Academy”

Q: Top three changes which could make life easier for Women in STEM?

Anastasia: “Encouraging more women to speak up in class, in research presentations, or at work. If you are leading a meeting, taking the time to ask someone what they think allows them to build their confidence, and give them opportunities to grow. Women should also have access to mentorship from both men and women.”


Advice to the younger you and women considering a career in STEM

Q: Did you ever stay at a place where politics got in the way of curiosity, technical progress or personal growth? How did you realize, and at which point did you decide to move on?

Anastasia: “No. If I’m completely bored, it’s the end for me. If I’m being held back because of politics, there’s no reason to stay. There are so many interesting things to do that there’s no reason to stay somewhere where you aren’t learning or growing.”

Anastasia: “1) Explore. Try everything. In college, doing undergraduate research or going to lectures, trying extracurricular activities and clubs, will give you a taste of the field. 2 & 3) Reach out to a support group! I was the only woman in the physics department in my year. Having my women in tech online groups helped me get through the doubts.”

What’s Next?!

As a reminder, this week, we will be meeting with Ana aka @anaqueenmaker of @EpicQueens. To read more about this week’s interview, and to learn how to participate, be sure to checkout the 96Boards OpenHours website! Countdown and instructions on how to join can be found there!