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WSSU’s GEMS: 10 years of empowering girls in STEM

Tanya Zubov '19 is one of more than 1,500 girls who have participated in GEMS since 2009. 

Tanya Zubov ‘19 was destined to be a Ram.

Zubov grew up on the campus of Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) after her mother, Dr. Lynn Zubov, associate professor in the Department of Education, was hired at the university in 2000.

In 2009, her mother enrolled her in Girls Empowered in Math and Science (GEMS), an academy that was starting up at WSSU for fourth- through seventh-grade girls.

“In middle school, GEMS had a big impact on my desire to study science,” Zubov says. “I remember doing different science experiments and speaking with different women in STEM fields. Speaking to these women made me want to be like them when I grew up.”

She says the fact that GEMS is on a university campus, like WSSU, exposes girls to the importance of college early on.

Impact of STEM

Dr. Denise Johnson, associate professor of education at WSSU, developed GEMS in 2009 to increase interest, accelerate academic achievement, and increase the number of females from Forsyth County who are choosing to enter the fields of science, mathematics, technology and education.

Over a decade, more than 1,500 girls have participated in the program, which includes a Saturday Academy that meets once per month during the school year, and a weeklong summer program. 

“Women, in general, are an underserved population in STEM careers, and women of color are even less represented in these careers.” Johnson says. “GEMS provides girls the academic foundation and the fortitude to be successful in any STEM environment – academic institutions and the workplace.”

GEMS alumni also include: Paige Woods, who earned a master’s degree from Oxford University; and Kayla Horton, a chemical engineering major at North Carolina A&T State University.

“What I’m most proud of is seeing all of the current participants develop future plans and goals and seeing all of the past participants achieve their career goals and aspirations, ” Johnson says. “It shows the trajectory of the impact of GEMS.”

GEMS is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month with a special two-week camp that started on July 15 and is funded through a $36,106 grant from the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The camp is focusing on increasing exposing girls to careers in transportation.

About 25 girls will participate, with hands-on activities, including boat building and learning how to fly drones. 

GEMS is open to all girls in Forsyth County and is supported by WSSU’s Department of Education.  Students within the Department of Education serve as program mentors.

GEMS received the 2018 Inspiring Programs in STEM Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, which honors colleges and universities that encourage and assist students from underrepresented groups to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Breaking the Stereotype 

As a student at WSSU, Zubov was first exposed to research as a NIGMS-RISE scholar. In her last two years, she was selected as a MARC U*STAR scholar, which, she says, strengthened her desire to attend graduate school. She also was chosen for summer research opportunities at Wake Forest University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Rutgers University, and worked in a variety of research labs.

In May, Zubov earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from WSSU. This fall, she will attend the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, pursuing a master’s in biology.

Programs such as GEMS show younger girls that they can do whatever they put their minds to, Zubov says.

“Girls often see in social media that we are the ‘dumb’ ones and are supposed to let men work the hard jobs in science,” Zubov says. “By teaching girls at a young age that they can do anything they want to do, it will break this stereotype in the future.”

About Winston-Salem State University
Winston-Salem State University fosters the creative thinking, analytical problem-solving, and depth of character needed to transform the world. Rooted in liberal education, WSSU’s curriculum prepares students to be thought leaders who have the skills and knowledge needed to develop innovative solutions to complex problems. Founded in 1892, WSSU is a historically Black constituent institution of the University of North Carolina with a rich tradition of contributing to the social, cultural, intellectual, and economic growth of North Carolina, the region and beyond. Guided by the motto, “Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve,” WSSU develops leaders who advance social justice by serving the world with compassion and commitment.

Isaiah Green, a senior sport management major from Spring Lake, is an intern for Integrated Marketing Communications.

During the Gravity Games, girls in WSSU's GEMS (Girls Empowered by Math and Science) program build and race a soap box derby car. (WSSU file photo)

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