Women in STEM: Be a Verb

11/08/2013 02:58 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

My career has been profoundly influenced by a variety of mentors who have pushed me to develop new skills, while also supporting the discovery of my own passions. As president of an astronomy and space science museum, I am often asked how I orchestrated my career path to score this (awesome!) role. Orchestrated? Not so much. My personal journey feels less orchestrated and more like the random orchestra I created for a computer programming assignment in college. But upon deeper reflection, I realize that I am where I am because my mentors, perhaps unconsciously, taught me to pay attention to the verbs and that has made all the difference.

My first mentors were my parents. Growing up in a military family with three brothers, we lived by the verbs. We explored sand dunes, castles and gypsy markets when we lived in Turkey as small children; we engineered a travel box for our pet parakeet to make the month-long road trip when we moved from Boston to Anchorage; and we embraced the wild of Alaska and the adventures that came with canoeing, hiking and living (with moose) in the last frontier.

In college my mentors were several faculty in the physics department at Montana State University, who after watching me change majors three times helped me understand that value did not come from my chosen major, but in what I could do with the skills I acquired. Armed with wonder, an addiction to creative problem solving, and a passion for communicating science, after graduating I landed incredible jobs with interesting groups at Caltech, Penn State and Utah State University. In each case convincing leaders, who later became mentors, that they needed me on their team not because of any credentialed nouns present on my resume, but for the verbs I would exercise every day.

My first project at the Adler Planetarium was production of our original sky show Cosmic Wonder, which is intentionally not cosmic wonders (the nouns), but the verb to wonder. I know we got it right when I sit in the show among school children who reach up to try and touch the awe-inspiring images we are immersed in. My own daughter watches the show on her feet so she can pivot and explore every gem that fills the sky. This effort sparked our institutional mantra, Wonder, Observe, Discover. Our focus is on encouraging children and reminding adults how to let their curiosity reign, how to question, how to explore their surroundings, their world, their Universe.

This fall at the Adler we are marrying verbs with the importance of mentoring in Girls Do Hack! At this all-day event, female high school students and STEM professionals will work in student/mentor teams to search for exoplanets, create virtual solar systems, and program mobile phone apps as they discover and build skills in observation, creativity, analysis, listening, leadership and more.

Why are women underrepresented in the STEM disciplines? It is a complex question, and one I've wrestled with since the day I looked up and found myself the only girl in my high school physics class. I navigated a sea of dry, non- motivational nouns, until I found the equally-valid reasons to pursue this profession; collaborating in teams, impacting people's lives, pushing the frontier of human understanding. Through the magic of doing and mentoring, Girls Do Hack is designed to empower young women to consider STEM careers.

In general, the Adler Planetarium is about providing experiences that spark a sense of wonder and invite young and old alike to dream and discover -- together. Whether as a career or a curiosity, join us in exploring space. Wonder, Observe, Discover. Be a verb, an active one.

Join the conversation online with #GDH2013. Follow Michelle Larson on Twitter @AdlerPrez.