Celebrated each year on February 11, International Day of Women and Girls in Science was created by the United Nations to recognize the critical role women and girls play in science and technology and to promote equal access and participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, also known as STEM.
A historically male-dominated field, California water has seen more women join its ranks in recent decades, including here at Yuba Water Agency. One of the ways the agency has helped build a more diverse workforce is through its summer internship program.
Among Yuba Water’s successful recruits are Power Settlements Analyst Andi Richmond and Associate Hydro Engineer Casey Peterson, both of whom landed full-time positions with the agency after completing internships in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
Richmond, who earned her degree in mathematics from California State University, Sacramento, had originally planned on teaching after college. That changed after Richmond met Yuba Water Director Brent Hastey who recognized her ability with math and numbers and encouraged her to apply for an internship with the agency’s power contracts manager, Mary Gabel. Richmond was hired full-time after completing her degree last May.
“Coming into Yuba Water, I knew nothing about energy,” Richmond said. “Now, I spend my days crunching numbers, analyzing data and settling revenue discrepancies from our hydropower energy sales. This month, I gave my first presentation as a full-time employee to the board of directors.”
Initially, Richmond said she never expected her internship to grow into a permanent career path.
“But after two weeks, I was in love,” she said. “I remember coming home and telling my family, ‘if I can stay, I want to make this my career.’”
For Peterson, her 2018 internship with Yuba Water’s engineering team was an opportunity to apply her engineering coursework to real-world projects that she could see from inception to completion. Initially an applied mathematics major, Peterson changed her major to environmental resource engineering at Humboldt State University so she could work in a field that was more hands-on. Peterson also credits growing up around her family’s excavating business as one of the reasons for the switch to engineering.
“In engineering specifically, being able to see the final product and knowing that you are the person to put the right people and resources together to get it done is crazy cool,” Peterson says of her work at Yuba Water.
Alongside every successful intern are mentors like Hydrographer Kaitlyn Chow. Since joining the agency in 2017, Chow has trained three summer interns, all women, on field methodology. This includes surface water sampling, water quality sampling, groundwater well monitoring and data collection and synthesis. While working with interns, she also emphasizes the importance of building communication skills, asking questions (especially the ones that seem easy or obvious) and learning how to adjust and adapt when something unexpected happens. These “softer” skills are what helps build a great scientist, Chow says.
“Being a part of the internship program is my way of giving back because I was mentored by brilliant professionals when I was in college and I want to reciprocate that,” she said. “It’s also really rewarding working with people who are passionate and driven, who you know will take what they learn here and do something amazing with it.”
Chow, Richmond and Peterson all acknowledge the value of female mentors for them and other women and early-career professionals. They also said having a supportive work environment where people are encouraged to ask questions, learn and share ideas and perspectives is also important for recruiting and retaining women in STEM careers.
“STEM industries still have a lot of work to do to be truly representative of the population, but I’m optimistic that we’ll get there,” Chow said. “In my lifetime, I think we’ll see inclusion across the spectrum. In the meantime, agencies like Yuba Water have already become more open and supportive of diverse perspectives and solutions, and it’s rewarding to be a part of that.”
Finally, when asked what advice they might offer their younger selves, Chow, Richmond and Peterson all shared similar sentiments around persistence, with Richmond also adding, “you’re here for a reason. Don’t be afraid to show that you’re the smartest person in the room.”