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Watch out, boys: Girls got game in STEM.
ASU center fosters girls' pursuit of STEM fields.
January 8, 2016

New ASU center aims to change the game for women in STEM

Courtney Besaw is a natural when it comes to numbers and experimentation. She’s also a girl. And as such, she took notice of a certain nuance in her elementary and high school math and science courses:

“There were always more boys.”

Though that fact in itself did nothing to detract Besaw from her personal ambitions, she found it was often difficult to ignore the implicit bias.

“People were always impressed when I was good at math or science, like they were not expecting such excellence from a girl. I would hear adults say, ‘You are good at math for a girl,’ or ‘Usually boys are better at math,’ ” Besaw said.

That’s not uncommon, said Kimberly A. Scott, associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Social TransformationThe School of Social Transformation is an academic unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.. The founder of the nationally recognized CompuGirls, which introduces young girls from under-resourced school districts to technology, Scott has seen her share of educational injustice.

“I can recall going back to my time teaching in high-needs districts back East where I witnessed differential treatment by teachers and administrators in the schools,” she said. “They thought that these kids didn’t know enough or would never have the capacity to know enough because of their race, or gender, or socioeconomic status. So for me, not only as an African American woman, but as a social justice activist, this is something that we all must take seriously if we are really interested in addressing inequity.”

Keeping good on her word, Scott followed up on the success of CompuGirls with the formation of the Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology (CGEST), which will host its official launch Monday, Jan. 11, on ASU’s Tempe campus.

“I am not good at these things ‘for a girl.’ I am good at these things because they interest me regardless of gender or the background that I come from.”
— Courtney Besaw, ASU Barrett Honors senior and CompuGirls peer mentor

The center will serve as a central hub — the first and only one of its kind — for the facilitation of research, building of programs and advocacy specific to African American, Latina, Asian American and Native American women in their pursuits in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

The goal, said Scott, is to “make a systemic impact on issues of disparity that are affecting our society as a whole.”

The launch of the center comes on the heels of the White House’s announcement in September 2015 that ASU will lead the National STEM Collaborative, a consortium of 19 institutions of higher education and nonprofit partners committed to supporting minority girls and women in STEM fields.

Scott, who was instrumental in the creation of the collaborative, said it arose from the realization that something “actionable” and “impactful” needed to come out of all the conversations and meetings being had on the topic.

In relation to CGEST, the National STEM Collaborative is one of the signature programs within its advocacy arm. There are two other arms of the center: knowledge-building and capacity-building.

The advocacy arm, explained Scott, focuses on communicating the research and information from the other two arms to leaders and policymakers. The knowledge-building arm is dedicated to synthesizing and presenting research, making it accessible to a large audience in order to make sustained and scalable efforts through informed empirical data. The capacity-building arm houses programs such as CompuGirls, that reach out to adolescent minority girls and provide them with multimedia courses that cover subjects from digital storytelling to robotics programming.

Besaw, now an ASU Barrett, the Honors College senior double majoring in anthropology and psychology, participated in the very first cohort of CompuGirls as a high school student in 2009, along with her friend and fellow Barrett Honors senior Mitzi Vilchis, a secondary education major.

Both girls stayed involved with the program through college, serving as peer mentors or interns after graduating from it, and even co-authoring a chapter in the book “#youthaction: Becoming Political in the Digital Age,” with Scott, in which they detail their experiences in the program.

“I know from when I was in the program that CompuGirls can have a great positive impact on the girls involved,” said Besaw.

And not just in terms of learning STEM; participants in the program also learn about social injustice and how to address the various forms of it.

Vilchis’ topic was domestic violence, which her group chose to address by creating a video documentary. She served as the group leader for the project, which involved the use of technology she said she had never even considered attempting to master.

Now she’s a pro.

“My peers all know that when they're having a technical difficulty, I'm the person to go to,” said Vilchis.

group photo at convention

ASU honors seniors Courtney Besaw (far right) and Mitzi Vilchis (front, middle) pose with science guru Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York City. Also pictured are ASU professor and director of the Center for Equity in Science and Technology Kimberly A. Scott (back row, left) and fellow ASU student and CompuGirl research assistant Felina Rodriguez (front left). Top photo: Vilchis and Besaw in New York City. Photos courtesy Courtney Besaw

 


In the fall of 2015, both students accompanied Scott to New York City to attend the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting on behalf of CompuGirls. When they weren’t demonstrating their robotics projects or singing the program’s praises, they ran into a few familiar faces: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Madeleine Albright, among others.

Besaw called the experience “the most exciting opportunity that I was given through CompuGirls,” and both she and Vilchis intend to remain involved with the program after graduating from ASU this May.

They will also both be the first in their families to graduate from college, and they intend to teach in the future; a good thing, considering there is still much work to be done in advocating for girls and women in STEM, as well as changing society’s perception of what they are capable of. 

“Just this last semester my professor was having issues with the computer and asked, ‘All right, who's our tech guy?’” said Vilchis, “and my classmates in unison said, ‘Mitzi!’ I found it funny that she was expecting a guy to fix the technology problem and had a girl come to her rescue.”

Besaw sums it up thusly: “I am not good at these things ‘for a girl.’ I am good at these things because they interest me regardless of gender or the background that I come from.”

 

Watch the full interview with Kimberly A. Scott, ASU associate professor and founder of CompuGirls:

 
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Giving a face to a cold-case victim is a long but rewarding process.
Hands-on lab experience at ASU is essential for forensics students.
January 11, 2016

New ASU professor, his wife and a forensics student work to help identify one of the nation's missing and unidentified persons

Every couple has a “how we met” story. Sometimes it takes place at a party, sometimes it’s online, sometimes it’s at school.

Anthony and Catyana Falsetti met at a morgue in Broward County, Florida.

“She was working for the county sheriff’s office, I was a forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida, and I had been sent to the morgue to identify skeletons,” Anthony explained.

Today, things aren’t much different. Catyana is still working for the county, only now it’s the county of Maricopa, and Anthony is still working as a forensic anthropologistAnthony Falsetti serves as a Professor of Practice in ASU’s School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, an academic unit of the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences on the West campus. for a university, only now it’s Arizona State University.

He and CatyanaCatyana Falsetti works as a forensic artist for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. She is also a graduate student at Arizona State University and will be teaching the course “Documenting the Crime Scene” through ASU’s Criminology and Criminal Justice Program at the Downtown Phoenix campus for the fall 2016 semester. — a non-degree graduate student at ASU — are recent Valley transplants, having come to Arizona via the aforementioned “Sunshine State.” The fall 2015 semester was their first at ASU, but they’re already finding plenty to keep them busy.

Beginning with a request to help in the identification of the murder victim of a 1984 cold case from Wisconsin.

Two forensics experts look at a reconstructed skull.

Anthony and Catyana Falsetti — he an 

ASU professor, she a forensic artist who

will teach an ASU course this fall —
worked together on a skull (also shown
in the top photo) from a cold case.

Photos by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The sheriff’s department in Wisconsin looked to Anthony because of his work in assisting with the creation of NamUs.gov, a first-of-its-kind website launched in 2010 at the behest of the National Institute for Justice to more efficiently identify missing or unidentified persons.

Of which “there are about 50,000 that we know of in the U.S.,” Anthony said.

NamUs.gov uses a dual-sided system that allows for medical examiners, coroners and law enforcement officials to input information regarding missing or unidentified persons on one end, and the general public to input information regarding an individual on the other. Whatever information one side lacks, the other may be able to provide, increasing the chances of resolving cases.

Besides basic stats like age, sex and ethnicity, photos of an individual can also be uploaded to the site. However, in some cases — as with the 1984 Wisconsin homicide victim — because a person’s identity is unknown, so is what he or she looked like.

Thankfully, talented forensic artists like Catyana are able to create 3-D facial reconstructions using the victim’s skull as a basis for adding layers of muscle and skin. With nearly 80 facial reconstructions under her belt and a 10 percent identification success rate (the national average is about 1 percent), enlisting Catyana’s help was essential.

Before she could get started, it was Anthony’s job to prepare the skull, which was badly damaged due to the manner of death. With the help of ASU forensics junior Kori Dowell, Anthony began the first step: maceration, or removal of the remaining soft tissue, at their West campus lab.

Most skulls of individuals who have been deceased for 30-plus years do not have any remaining tissue because of the natural process of decay. However, in this case, the victim had been embalmed before burial, which preserved some of the soft tissue, though not enough to get an accurate idea of what she looked like. Thus, it had to be removed in order for Catyana to be able to build an accurate likeness, as extra tissue on the skull would provide inaccurate measurements of the bones.

The process of maceration consists of submersing the cranium in warm water for a number of days, then removing the tissue from the skull using the appropriate tools.

While the idea may cause some to squirm, Dowell was grateful for the opportunity to get real-life experience.

“I think it is extremely important for students to get hands-on experience so they can learn more about the field and the career in an up-close-and-personal setting,” she said. “Especially in science careers, there are a lot of things that can only be taught and practiced in labs and with experience.”

Removing the tissue also allowed for Anthony and Dowell to make observations about the underlying damage to the skull and evaluate the trauma, which becomes very important in the event a suspect is identified and the case goes to court.

“So [the trauma] noted in 1984, we can corroborate it with what we know now and just give a more clear picture of the level of injury,” Anthony explained, which could determine anything from the level and type of crime an individual is charged with to the length of his or her sentencing.

Anthony and Dowell’s observations of the skull upon removal of the soft tissue noted extensive trauma. So much so that large portions of it had to be superglued together in order for the reconstruction process to begin.

The first step in the reconstruction process was to photograph the skull and upload it to Photoshop. Then, Catyana used tissue depth-marker measurements to layer muscle and skin over the skull.

Tissue depth markers — which refer to the thickness of one’s skin at various points on the human face — vary depending on a person’s ancestry. So depending on the shape of the skull, which Anthony had evaluated and determined to be of European descent, Catyana layered more or less tissue.

The resulting image was the face of a woman in her mid-50s, a strong, thick nose dominating her square-ish face, offset by two downward-tilting eyes, deep smile lines and thin lips.

A woman's face is shown in a facial reconstruction from a skull.

The completed facial reconstruction of the victim, done by forensic artist Catyana Falsetti. The hairstyle was based on hair found at the scene, and the shirt used in the image was found at the scene as well, Falsetti said.

 

All that was left to do was to upload it to the unidentified victim’s NamUs profile in hopes that someone would recognize her.

“That’s why the NamUs system is so important, because people can sit on their computer online now and at least search what has been uploaded,” said Catyana.

“That’s what we’re hoping to do here at ASU,” Anthony said, “is to start [creating facial reconstructions] within our own state, then work regionally. We’ve reached out and we’ve got some cooperation from medical examiners. And we’re going to start digitizing actual skulls so that we can then produce 3-D reconstructions based on the new data.”

Using a 3-D laser scanner would not only make the facial reconstruction process more accurate, but would allow for the extraction of even more data “so that we can continue to learn more about the human face and variation,” Anthony said, “which is what all this gets back to, as an anthropologist, is studying human variability. And this is just the application of it.”