The Steminist Way
Savvy's Amazing Teen: Taryn Imamura is breaking down barriers and inspiring other young women in the sciences
By Dwain Hebda
Taryn Imamura of Conway, 18, never really thought of herself as an anomaly. She just knew that she loved science. “Some of my earliest memories were of my grandpa and my uncle sitting me on their knee when I was 4 and telling me how if you take a teaspoon of matter from a black hole it would be so dense it would fall through the center of the earth,” she said. “I don’t see how I could’ve grown up wanting to be anything other than a scientist.”
So when a male delegate to a prestigious science camp made a disparaging comment about women in the science fields, it was the first time she had encountered such academic sexism. The shock of it opened her eyes and lent a new facet to her future plans: Becoming a world class scientist was suddenly more than what she would do for herself, it was something by which she would inspire other young women.
A self-proclaimed “STEMinist,” Imamura is looking forward to this new challenge as much to pave the way for others even as she completes her own education in the sciences. She hopes to one day create a scholarship program to help promising scientists pursue their dreams; for now she’ll just have to settle for being an inspiration, even if it meant hearing something hurtful to bring it out.
“On the one hand, I had received a negative reaction from that one male peer,” she said. “But other women in the program who were my same age came up to me, a couple of the other girls who hadn’t had prior experience in robotics, and told me that I was an inspiration for speaking up for myself. That’s something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”
Imamura credits mentors of her own in helping her understand the difficulties of being a woman in the male-dominated sciences, particularly during the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES), an intensive six-week summer academic enrichment program at MIT.
“When I went to the MITES program, one of my design teaching assistants there was studying to be a mechanical engineer,” Imamura said. “She understood where I was coming from because it’s a predominantly male field of study. Sometimes I would go to her dorm room and we’d hang out and talk about stuff and she would show me different stuff she was doing for class.
“One night I remember I was really discouraged and she was like, ‘Taryn, you know that you know what you’re talking about. You need to have confidence in what you say.’ She really helped me.”
Imamura’s crowning achievement of her time at Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in Hot Springs was her win at the state science fair where she demonstrated how to ferment rice hulls with genetically engineered bacteria to create surfactant, an element that when added to a liquid, decreases that liquid’s surface tension, thereby increasing its spreading and wetting properties. Surfactant is used in the manufacture of a wide range of products as well as the pharmaceutical, mining and petroleum industries.
Her specific molecules hold two important distinctions. Rice hulls are an agricultural byproduct and so creating something so useful from them represents an ingenious and eco-friendly advancement. Second, she subsequently discovered that her surfactant could be converted into bio-diesel, something a Massachusetts company is currently looking to bring to scale.
Not surprisingly, Imamura’s scientific chops have landed her on some pretty impressive watch lists—she was invited to attend the International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix in May, and next fall she’ll report to Stanford where she’ll pursue a degree in either mechanical, aerospace or macro-molecular engineering.
Such fields continue a family tradition: Her parents are in medical careers, her grandfather held an associate’s degree in chemistry and her uncle holds a Ph.D. in microbiology and genetics and owns his own genetics company. They laid the groundwork for her interest in the sciences.
“I can probably attribute my love of space and astrophysics to my grandfather,” Imamura said. “My uncle has supported and mentored me in my research, and encourages me to do what I love in science and engineering.”