Women in Stem Interview Series - Michelle Thompson



Michelle (aka Abraxas3d) is a long time friend and supporter of 96Boards, and we are very grateful for the opportunity to host this interview. Each answer, filled with challenges, inspiration and kind advice. We encourage you all to take a moment and reflect while diving into today’s #WomeninSTEM story!

May Interviews - #WomeninSTEM

The Interview - Michelle Thompson

  • Name: Michelle Thompson
  • Online Handle: @abraxas3d
  • STEM Field of Study (or profession): Information Theory

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

Things worth doing are rarely easy. Paraphrased from Theodore Roosevelt.

Personal Experience

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

Michelle: “Physics. My high school physics teacher made all the difference in my life. The entire universe snapped into focus. No, I would not be able to understand and control it all. But it was understandable, accessible, and and beautiful. This was achieved through physics tests that used Edger Allen Poe plots as setups and situations to be solved.”

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

Michelle: “I had an extremely challenging high school experience with homelessness and poverty. I had given up on college. Several teachers from high school and people involved in public assistance made it possible for me to apply. I then earned a scholarship and was able to stay in college. I started out wanting to be in astrophysics, but was horrified by how much school was involved, how tenuous the job prospects were, and how rigidly hierarchical things were at the time. I found engineering, and that became my vocation.”

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

Michelle: “I first heard the term STEM when I worked at Qualcomm in San Diego. I thought this term was both very positive and also very negative. The positives are undeniable, and I feel that many of us in this area are in broad agreement. The negatives are that STEM is susceptible to worksheetizing, and checklisting, and being tamed into something that does not involve risk, experiment, and interdisciplinary challenge. I don’t have solutions for this other than to let students explore without recipes, detailed lesson plans, or expectations other than be completely willing to learn from catastrophic failures.”

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

Michelle: “I’ve been involved in STEM as a fundraiser, girls scout STEM troop co-leader, traditional classroom assistant for computer programming requirements, merit badge counselor for boy scouts, curriculum advisor, STEM contest leader, FIRST Robotics coach, and Maker Faire volunteer.”

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

Michelle: “Engineering is my true vocation. It is as if engineering had always been what I was supposed to do. Once I found it, I had no doubts and never considered another field despite some serious cultural challenges. My motivations are to solve problems efficiently and well, and to advance understanding wherever possible. Making engineering endeavors accessible and fun is very important to me, and had only become more important over time.”

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

Michelle: “My high school physics teacher, all of my lab crew in undergraduate engineering at UALR, Qualcomm Globalstar team that mentored me so well, Qualcomm Handset Division that trusted me to solve real problems on a live factory line, everyone in the amazing GNU Radio community that I work with, people at DEFCON, Maker Faire, all the amateur radio operators and experimenters in the microwave and digital communities, the really devoted people in the local San Diego IEEE that succeed in bringing together industry and academia against all odds… the list is long because nothing amazing happens by yourself. The communities that we’re part of make all the difference.”

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

Michelle: “My dream job is pretty much what Robert Wolff does at 96Boards. He’s not just an evangelist, but also a listener and a connector.”

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?

Michelle: “I make artificially intelligent pipe organs. I show them at Burning Man and other events. The reason I started doing this is because I believe that musical aesthetics can be found in field theory, with hidden Markov Models, and because pipe organs are the best core sample of valve technology across human history. Making a mobile pipe organ, deployable in under 6 hours, with modern materials and manufacturing techniques, that shows not just the raw power of turbulence (which we still cannot properly model) but also that pipe organs are now fully independent of architecture, has been one of the best experiences.

You need a hobby. Burn out is a thing. We all are susceptible to overwork. Pick something weird. Embrace it, judge it, make it completely yours and under your control. A lot of the time, our jobs are really not under our control and there’s a lot of fear and anxiety because of just that. Having something that you call the shots on as a hobby can make all the difference and allow you to balance, be resilient, and draw strength. Interdisciplinary benefits are huge. The edges are where the network is most valuable and exciting. Pick something Completely Different and see what happens to how you look at the world.”

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?

Michelle: “Yes. There has been. Science is hard. Technology is hard. Engineering is hard. Math is hard. When you suffer other circumstances, that may not be fair, that you may not feel like you can fight back against, then taking time off and doing something different, not just as a hobby, but full time, is not failure. You are a scientist not only when you are paid to be one. You are an engineer not only when that is on your business card. You are what you are, and sometimes the circumstances will not support it, and you should not wreck yourself to prove that point.”

Women in STEM Impact

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

Michelle: “No. Absolutely not. I can recall times where other people questioned my involvement or made assumptions about me being an engineer and a woman. That is their problem. Sometimes it became my problem, but these situations are incursions and invasions, from the exterior, and not internally generated.

It’s a burden. It can wreck things. No, it is not fair. Even when you fight back, nothing may get done about it. People may get away with it. You cannot let this determine your happiness. You must develop strategies to deal with it, and you must be prepared to reinvent your situation and surroundings to have supportive communities and teams and partnerships and environments.

It may be beyond your control or power. And that is ok. Find something else to do with your time and come back stronger.”

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?

Michelle: “I’m not the best activist. I generally turn down diversity roles and positions. I want to solve problems. Issues with gender and people of color feel like they are often unsolvable, that the diversity debts in some communities are too high. One must then participate as fully as possible and embrace being visible over being an activist.”

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?

Michelle: “I advocate for fair treatment, for codes of conduct (so that there is a way to document things that happen against the spirit of a code, not because CoCs are a magic bullet), for increased invitations to underrepresented people at events (to overcome the tendency to not put one’s self forward), for the reduction of silly slides (so easy your grandmother can do it) or language or communications or content (everyone just use AirBNB, what’s wrong with that?) that are inadvertently discriminatory. But over and above all of that, I do what I can to visibly contribute just like any other volunteer. I should be a normal ordinary participant, working with people that view me as a person, and not a token or outsider. In healthy communities this happens and is effective.”

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?

Michelle: “Not really, no. The communities I work in are almost all overwhelmingly male. The few women that are in them I’m friendly with, but are not the primary source of support.”

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

Michelle: “Yes, I do. I’m fortunate to have several that believe in me. “

Q: Can you name any women who have made a strong impact in the STEM community? How has their impact made an influenced your life?

Michelle: “Navrina Singh, now at Microsoft, has been a consistent positive example and very inspirational. Kathy Boyd in the amateur radio community has been a wonderful example to me as well.”

Q: Are there any (YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, etc…) influencers out there who inspire you regularly? How/Why?

Michelle: “The list is long!”

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

Michelle: “This is a great question, and I do not have a well formed answer. There’s work that needs to be done and it feels like not enough people doing it. The STEM environment can be unnecessarily hostile to women and people of color, but it’s often not easy to assign intent, and therefore responsibility, at the individual level. Individual responsibility may be the most effective way to resolve the hostility. Hence, a logjam. Corporate or group responsibility, even if accepted by a group, results in very muted changes in communities. These muted changes often don’t change the environment enough, on their own, for underrepresented people to feel welcome. It’s like trying to fight against a clique that many members are truly ignorant of being a member of in the first place, and even when they are told, they then still don’t know what they individually can do to change things. Understanding is a first step. We all have to then keep trying to come up with whatever revolutionary communal skill evolution will provide increased traction on this problem, so that we aren’t doing engineering with essentially one half of the population tied behind our backs.”

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

Q: Which achievement do you look at and think “I’d love to go back in time and tell younger me that this was possible”?

Michelle: “The list is really quite embarrassingly long. “

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?

Michelle: “Yeah. This has happened several times. I’m much better now at quitting, at calling it before I was completely exhausted, than I used to be.”

Q: If you could go back and change one thing in your STEM path, what would that be?

Michelle: “To not be homeless in high school. To not have to work full time in high school and college to support myself, so that I could study like I wanted to.”

Michelle: “Sweep the doubts off the table. Embrace, wallow, experiment, enjoy, play, take risks, and document everything. Find a problem and make it squirm under your attention. Just go do it. If you’re running into opposition and static, look around for evasive action and alternative paths. Put things on a shelf. Go read about totally different things. Talk to everyone. Ask questions. Make up silly things. Be completely unafraid to make everything you do in STEM artistic, fun, elegant, enjoyable, humorous, or stylish. Refuse to be cost cut into misery. Reject grumpiness! No, not everything is fun. But, death marches that only make other people rich should not be your permanent career experience. This is more than a job, it’s the central human endeavor. Respect the limited time you have and enjoy it.”

What’s Next?!

As a reminder… Today at 4:00p UTC! We will be meeting with Ana aka @anaqueenmaker Founder and CEO 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!

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