Interview with Author Laurie Wallmark about Overcoming Obstacles and Supporting Girls in STEM

 Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine has earned exceptional praise, four starred reviews, and many awards. And what better person to write a book about the world's first computer programmer than the talented Laurie Wallmark, who faced and overcame her own struggles pursuing a career in STEM and later as a children's book writer. Just like Ada, Laurie is an example of what we can do if we persevere and follow our passions.

What drew you to pursue a STEM career?
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved math, and by extension, science. On Saturdays, I would go to the library and take out books on math. The fact that sometimes the math in these books was way above my level, didn’t bother me a bit. I kept reading and rereading until I could understand it. I also enjoyed reading biographies about mathematicians, people like Euclid and Fibonacci, Pythagoras and Euler. But I never found a biography about a woman mathematician. In fact, if it weren’t for a biography of Marie Curie, you’d never know that woman mathematicians or scientists even existed.

Tell me about any challenges and barriers you faced during your childhood or young adult years as you pursued a career in STEM, and what tactics did you use to overcome these struggles?
The biggest challenge I experienced in my school career was the expectation that girls wouldn’t be interested in or be good at STEM-related subjects. When it came time to choose courses for high school, my mother asked the principal about the availability of higher-level math classes. He asked her if she had a son or a daughter. When he heard I was a girl, he told my mother she didn’t need to worry about that, since I wouldn’t take any of the harder math courses. When I applied to college, the counselor never suggested I consider engineering. This is in spite of the fact that I ended up at a university with an engineering school. I think the reason I never gave up on STEM was because I was lucky enough to have encouragement from my parents. They didn’t believe my gender should limit me in any way.

What inspired you to begin writing for children? 
I’ve always enjoyed reading children’s books, especially middle-grade novels and picture books. One day, out of the blue, I had an idea for a novel. My degrees were in biochemistry and information systems, not creative writing, but that didn’t stop me. I’d just have to learn to write. And learn I did. I read craft books, took workshops, studied hundreds of children’s books, and eventually went on to earn an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

What drew you to write about Ada? What trait do you admire most about her? 
Writing about Ada seemed a natural fit for me. I teach computer science and Ada was the world’s first computer programmer. In Ada, I found a woman who overcame many obstacles. She was bedridden for three years, had an absent father and distant mother, and wanted to enter a male-dominated field in Victorian England. Ada didn’t let any of these deter her. She followed her dreams and became a professional mathematician.

What barriers do girls face today in STEM fields and what can teachers do to attract and retain their interest?
I think girls and other underrepresented minorities face three barriers to considering a career in STEM. STEM-related books, both fiction and nonfiction, can help children overcome all of these obstacles. 

  • Inadequate access and exposure: Because of circumstances beyond their control, such as living in a poorer school districts children may have inadequate access and exposure to STEM. If a child’s school can’t provide hands-on STEM activities, at least we can help her experience STEM through books about these subjects.
  • Prejudicial expectations: Many children have preconceived notions of about what they think a scientist or mathematician is supposed to look like. Books, by acting as both mirrors for stories about people like themselves and windows to the stories of others, can help combat the stereotypes driving these prejudices.
  • Lack of interest: Many children are never exposed to the creative, enjoyable side of STEM. Books that include STEM-related content don’t need to be dry and pedantic. Rather, they can show children all the ways that they can make STEM a part of their lives. Through books, children can learn that STEM is fun!

Can you tell us about what you are working on now and what’s next? 
I have a picture book biography coming out next year about another strong, smart woman in STEM. Grace Hopper was the first person to talk to computers in English instead of using only “1”s and “0”s.

*See last week's post Getting Girls to Stick with STEM for 12 of my favorite STEM children's books!