If there is one word that you could use to describe Maria Alvim-Gaston, it’s passionate. She has passion for her work as a pharmaceutical chemist, but even more for the work she does to help young women get into a STEM field. Right now, Alvim-Gaston is in her second year as the Networking Director for Women & Hi Tech, but her journey to this position started when she was a child.
Raised in Brazil, she knew that she wanted to be a pharmacist, but that had different connotations where she grew up. “In the culture that I am from, as a woman, my father and my family had some ideas of what they wanted me to be. They thought a pharmacist was just someone that worked behind the counter at a drugstore. I had to break a lot of barriers to educate my parents because they weren't educated, they didn't go to college.” Alvim-Gaston’s parents worked at a manufacturing plant and strove to give each of their children a better life through college education. “But there was still this stigma growing up in Latin communities that there are jobs for girls and there are jobs for boys.”
This perspective didn’t stop her though. In fact, it motivated her to help change the landscape for women who wanted to pursue careers in the STEM field. “I wanted to make sure that the new generations to come don't go through that. There is no such thing as a ‘girl’ job and a ‘boy’ job–there are just jobs. Whatever you're passionate about and you have a talent for it, you should do it independent of your gender, ethnicity, or background.”
Alvim-Gaston had a drive to succeed as a woman in the STEM field that followed her throughout her education at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, where she received a BS in Pharmacy and a degree in Industrial Pharmacy and eventually a Masters in Organic Chemistry. She continued to University of Mississippi where she was part of the Medicinal Chemistry PhD program. The completion of that program brought her to Eli Lilly in Indianapolis where she has worked in Computational Chemistry and Operations Discovery. She is now the Principal Research Scientist in the External Innovation group, where she lends her scientific expertise to expand access of scientific discoveries to scientists working outside of the pharmaceutical industry.
It was during her time in Discovery Operations at Eli Lilly that she met Joyce Gustafson, co-founder of Women & Hi Tech. Joyce introduced her to Women & Hi Tech, so that she was able to really focus her passion for gender equality in the STEM field. “Joyce was part of my group. We were colleagues and Joyce invited me to some of the Women & Hi Tech events. I liked the STEM field and I liked to volunteer to give back to the community–especially to help minorities. I wanted to see more Latino women get involved and see that it's okay to be in STEM. That is my main passion and motivates me to give back.” Before becoming a board member, Alvim-Gaston spent five years volunteering for the organization, where she spent a lot of time mentoring young women.
Through that time as a volunteer, she noticed the dedication of those who volunteered beside her. “I realized that organizations like Women & Hi Tech do important work because devoted full-time employees, full-time mothers, and full-time academics find time to make other generations understand the importance of STEM. Groups like Women & Hi Tech help young women reach the same levels of success as the women they meet at our events and see as role models. This is done through scholarships, through mentorships, through leading by example in order to give back to younger generations.”
After seeing how much the organization impacted the lives of others, she took on the role of networking director. As the networking director, Alvin-Gaston realized something very quickly, “For an organization to be powerful, have members, and make an impact, you need to make sure that the members are engaged. As networking director, I am able to bring in others and create opportunities for women to interact with other women in STEM. Sometimes, if you are an engineer, you are with engineers. If you are a scientist, you are with other scientists. So, networking gives people the opportunity to bring different parts of STEM together. Once you create those opportunities you can then bring in young talent to be part of it. We don't want an organization full of one generation.”
Age isn’t the only thing she is concerned with, as diversity within the organization is also important to her. “We bring in a diverse group of people. We try to reach out to Latinos, African-Americans, Asian Americans, etc.… in order to expand opportunities in STEM to these communities. As networking director, I wanted to use my background to focus on creating more diversity and make the organization reflect the community that we live in.”
Alvim-Gaston remains optimistic and looks forward to continuing to work with Women & Hi Tech as the organization sets its sights on even newer generations and older ones as well. “We are trying to reach kids from kindergarten through STEM days at Connor Prairie. We provide scholarships for women to go back to school in order to create career opportunities , not just for young people, but also for women who are already in science but need a certification to further their careers. We mentor these people to help them navigate the STEM field, because we have already been through that.”
Through her vast experience in STEM and passion to invoke change, Alvim-Gaston knows the importance of continuing to see more women succeed in STEM while making strides towards more diversity within the Indianapolis community. “The goal of our organization is to empower women to reach the highest positions within the STEM field. We are, through our work at Women & Hi Tech, changing the landscape of Indiana one woman at a time.”