As a high school student, Ronda Hamm felt a bit scared when she learned she’d been assigned to work with insects in an entomology lab as part of an internship program.
But by the end of the eight-week program, she had found her calling.
“I fell in love with a science that I didn’t even know existed and was actually kind of terrified of to start with,” Hamm said.
Now, Hamm works as the global academic relations leader at Corteva Agriscience, an agricultural company on the northwest side of Indianapolis, visiting with students and teachers throughout the nation to engage them about how insects impact agriculture and thus the food supply and daily life. Hamm describes it as the “dream job I never knew would exist.”
In 2019, her educational platform grew when Lyda Hill Philanthropies selected her as one of 125 ambassadors nationwide for the IF/THEN initiative, which highlights women with careers in STEM and encourages young girls interested in the field to pursue it. The program culminated during Women’s History Month in March with #IfThenSheCan – The Exhibit, a collection of 3D-printed statues of the IF/THEN ambassadors on display in Smithsonian gardens and museums in Washington, D.C. The statues will be on display through March 27.
Hamm, a Carmel resident, was among 90 of the ambassadors who traveled to the nation’s capitol the first weekend in March for the official unveiling of the life-size statues and to meet with members of the public who came to view them. She described the experience as “amazing” and “completely overwhelming.”
“It was so supportive and so touching to see little girls looking up and staring at these statues in awe, then looking over and seeing the real-life scientist,” Hamm said.
That’s exactly the response organizers hoped to see.
Margaret Black, director of Dallas-based Lyda Hill Philanthropies, said there is a “leaky pipeline” for girls interested in a STEM career, as gender biases and other factors tend to steer some of away from jobs in those fields as early as sixth grade. The IF/THEN initiative is designed to highlight high-achieving women working in science and technology to inspire the next generation of girls to consider it as a career option.
“When a little girl sees a woman successfully pursuing a STEM career and what it is and how much fun it is, she’s more likely to imagine herself that way,” Black said.
Beyond the exhibit, which is the largest collection of statues featuring women ever assembled, the IF/THEN initiative includes the world’s largest free digital resource featuring women in STEM, which has been made available to museums and educators, as well as “Mission Unstoppable,” a television series hosted by Miranda Cosgrove that airs on CBS during the network’s Saturday morning educational programming.
In addition to Hamm, IF/THEN ambassadors include Jessica Esquivel, one of only 150 Black women with a doctorate in physics in the U.S., and Karina Popovich, a Cornell University student who produced more than 82,000 pieces of 3D-printed personal protective equipment for health care employees as the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep across the globe.
Hamm said she’s enjoyed getting to know the other ambassadors, who she describes as her “sisters in STEM,” but she said she’s been just as inspired by the young students she’s met along the way. She hopes they’ll remember her unexpected path to becoming an entomologist and the words of encouragement she’s been sharing for the last few years as an ambassador.
“Don’t take no for an answer if it’s something you want to do,” Hamm said. “Go after it. Keep an open mind, because you never know where life will take you and what kind of experience you can have that will change your path in life.”
Learn more about Hamm and the other ambassadors with the IF/THEN initiative at ifthenshecan.org.
A sneak peak
Carmel entomologist Ronda Hamm got a sneak peek at the statue of herself created as part of the IF/THEN initiative by taking a day trip a couple of hours north.
The statues were 3D printed in Fort Wayne at Group Delphi, which had to install a new printer to handle the life-size replications.
Hamm was able to observe several aspects of the 3D printing process and got to view her statue. She said it was “surreal” to see herself in that form.
“I’m still trying to get my head wrapped around it. It’s not something you dream of as a kid,” Hamm said. “The thing I’m most proud about is not the fact that it’s me, but the fact that I can represent my field of science, agriculture and entomology as well as inspire those little girls who are catching bugs.”