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Dr. Dionne Toombs portrait photo.

International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Nifa Authors
Dionne F. Toombs, Associate Director for Programs

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are a critical component of our national economy and the global economy as well. A significant gender gap persists in STEM disciplines all over the world. 

As we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I reflect on my own journey as a woman in the agricultural sciences. Growing up in a small town, I didn't see many female role models pursuing careers in science. But I was blessed to have mentors, especially women leaders in agricultural science, who nurtured my curiosity and encouraged me to dream big. 

My mentors and other women leaders in agricultural science showed me what was possible through their own journeys. They pushed me to strive for excellence and believe in myself. Thanks to their guidance, I built a career as a nutrition research scientist. Today, I serve as associate director for programs at NIFA, leading an agricultural research portfolio. I have the wonderful opportunity to pay it forward by supporting the next generation of women scientists.  

On this day, I want to highlight the critical importance of role models and mentors in shaping the careers of women in STEM. We need more mentors to nurture the curiosity of girls interested in science and shepherd them toward achieving their goals. Women at all levels of STEM fields are crucial because they demonstrate what is possible and provide support. For women already working in STEM fields, we need networks of support to help us continue advancing in our careers. 

I experienced this first-hand in my professional career. My own mentors made all the difference in helping me get to where I am today. That’s why I make it a priority to mentor young women interested in agricultural science, hoping I can have the same positive influence as my mentors had on me. When women support and uplift each other, we can achieve so much more. 

And to any young woman with a spark of interest in science – I encourage you to feed that curiosity and dream big. And know there are mentors out there, including myself, who want to see and help you succeed. The future of innovation depends on diverse perspectives. Your ideas and talents are needed. Together, we can work toward a more equal future where women have access to STEM education and careers. 

NIFA, as a national federal agency, is working diligently to address the gender gap in STEM. For instance, we have the Women and Minorities in STEM Fields grant program. It funds projects that increase the representation, participation and entrepreneurial skills and abilities of rural women and underrepresented minorities from rural areas in STEM careers.  

This program highlights and emphasizes the development of a competent and qualified workforce in the food and agricultural sciences. The target participants are students from kindergarten all the way through two years of postsecondary schooling, which is normally vocational-technical institutions or community or junior colleges. 

Additionally, NIFA has a several programs addressing the need for more trained STEM and agriculture professionals of all genders. 

  • The Hispanic-serving Institutions Education Grants Program strengthens the ability of our Hispanic-serving partners to carry out programs that attract, retain and graduate outstanding students who enhance the professional and scientific workforce in the food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences fields. 
  • The Scholarships for Students at 1890 Institutions program supports recruitment, retention, mentoring and training of undergraduate students at our 1890 Land-grant Universities, which have strong missions in the food and agricultural sciences.  
  • Through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative- Education and Workforce Development program, NIFA invests about $68 million in several ag workforce training programs — many of which involve industry participation — that cover the breadth of the education spectrum. These programs range from those focused on the K-12 classroom to those offering pre- and postdoctoral fellowships and workforce training at community, junior and technical colleges. 
  • NIFA’s From Learning to Leading: Cultivating the Next Generation of Diverse Food and Agriculture Professionals program was funded in FY2023 with a $262.5 million investment for 33 five-year projects led by minority-serving institutions to provide training and support to more than 20,000 future diverse food and agricultural leaders. 

Mentorship opened doors for me that I didn’t even know existed. We all have a responsibility to be mentors—to reach back and lift up those coming behind us. We must make sure girls today become the scientists, engineers and technologists who will build a better tomorrow. On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I encourage everyone to reflect on how you can support the women in STEM around you. Together, we can build empowering networks that open doors for the next generation of STEM leaders and professionals.  

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