04/24/2014 12:49 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2014

Why STEM Matters

When I was 4 years old, it was my mom who first introduced me to the world of science and technology. Her outstretched right hand held mine as I learned how to use a mouse for the first time. If it weren't for her, how would I have ever have kept up with my friends in grade school? It was the computer, AIM (Aol Instant Messaging) in fact, which was the messaging platform of choice for the cool kids to keep in touch... after the bell.

To my father, however, AIM was purely a feature. He was enthralled with what truly was at the core of what powered the instant messaging app and just about everything else on a computer. My father's hobby was actually assembling computers. I can't remember the first time I saw him combine standalone parts into working entities but CPUs, hard-drives, and monitors had always filled our garage, which also doubled as a geeky man-cave of IT machinery and handyman tools. He accumulated them slowly through listings on Craigslist, often haggling and traveling out of town to secure the best pieces so he could donate them to local schools cheaply.

My dad was my hero.

To me, nothing was cooler than seeing him give life to machines. It deeply inspired me. I was not only fascinated by the end result, but more importantly the process. It was like art, and a craft which I couldn't wait to learn. So, when my dad offered to take me to my first computer show at age 8, I thought I'd be in heaven. I thought I'd find other girls and women with whom I could be friends and create a circle of learning. But to my surprise, very few women attended.

As a young girl interested in STEM, I was on my own.

Without any women outside of my family to inspire me in computer science, it was my parents that kept me on track and continued to encourage me to follow my heart and passion for computers even though friends couldn't relate. That is until...I discovered the field of computers required extensive mathematical ability. They didn't tell me when I started on this path towards STEM, that it wasn't just enough to love computers, but I would also have to enjoy math.

Not me.

I was terrible at math.

Remember the laws of mental math? Honestly, I would've preferred memorizing a vocabulary list from a Shakespearean play. Perhaps it was the 10,000 hours I spent reading books that had caused my language arts skills to dwarf my math skills. Perhaps because my Tiger Mom assigned math worksheets for me to complete over Spring break, I associated mental math and multiplication tables with tedious work.

So, I lost interest in STEM.


I couldn't be bothered. I lost confidence that I could conquer the prerequisites. Why shoot for the moon if I'd never be able to penetrate the atmospheric layer of calculus anyway?

I hardly found the famous scientists and discoverers we read about in stories in school to be relatable anyway.

For every Florence Nightingale or Marie Curie there seemed to be ten Edisons, Aldrins and Einsteins.

Fortunately that way of thinking didn't last long.

It simply couldn't because my parents urged me I step up and give STEM a shot as a freshman at Stanford. And on day one, the reality hit. I discovered that students who lacked a strong foundation in the STEM fields were at a great disadvantage in college. At least I had some background in the STEM fields. But I needed to quickly shore up my skills.

Yes, even in math.

But what was different this time around was, for the first time, I understood the grander implications of STEM work.

I felt empowered.

I felt expansive.

I felt excited.

I felt inspired.

I discovered human biology to be fascinating because of its impact on health, medicine, and everything we care about. It was no longer just an endless trek through chemical bonds and theories, but a body of learning that leads to helping people live healthier, happier, and longer lives. My classes helped me frame scientists as sleuths for mankind, peeling back the curtain to understand processes that have been happening for millions of years. And it is only through understanding our past and how the world works that we are able to prepare for the future. And scientists are a critical piece of that.

Despite my parents' constant support and opportunities for basic training in STEM, I never learned the implications of STEM until college. Back then, a little non-parental encouragement would have gone a long way. If I knew that nail polish was developed by chemists, for instance, I would have worked a little bit harder because I had a concrete idea of where STEM could lead. Being a curious kid, I questioned everything, but I didn't know to ask for a role model when I didn't know that I needed one.

It may have been Stanford's approach to teaching or it was simply that I was old enough to finally see it on my own. But in either case, that awakening led me to major in a STEM field at Stanford.

It's our responsibility to our nation to continue to groom the next generation of scientists. But if they are scared off before the journey even begins, other countries are going to outpace the U.S. in scientific and technological advances. We are already on that path. Not every child is going to have the awakening I did at Stanford.

That's why I have committed much of my time inspiring young people to explore the STEM fields, and encouraging them to persevere. I am Miss California. I want to be the role model I wish I had. Thanks to the Miss America Scholarship Program, I have the platform to reach young people not only across the State of California, but also the nation, and the world.

What's different about our program versus the Miss USA program, aside from the talent competition and the fact that it is the largest scholarship organization in the world for young women, is that every contestant must have a platform. A platform is a community service project important to her. Mine is STEM. As Miss California, I have one year to use the crown to promote my platform, and so far I've spent the last eight months of my reign visiting schools, holding workshops, and tutoring girls in the STEM fields. I teach them why STEM truly matters and how it can be the key to a bigger career, a better life, and a brighter future not just for them, but also for the world. It's why I'm so excited to get the word out about science and technology to kids at the USA Science and Engineering Festival on April 27th.

Our emerging generations will one day carry the torch for American innovation. So it's important to create opportunities for each child to have the inspiration and preparation for what lies ahead. It's important that our next generation of girls will have adequate role models across all professions and fields of study. It's important that children across the country will remember that they too can excel in anything to which they put their minds. It's important to remember that the child we inspire today will be the scientist of tomorrow.