The Caltech Y Celebrates the 50th Anniversary of Women First Being Admitted to Caltech


In honor of Caltech’s 50th anniversary of admitting women to campus, we checked in with our first all-female ExComm cabinet from 2010: Michelle Jiang (Mechanical Engineering, Business Economics & Management, 2011), Jennifer Ma (Applied & Computational Mathematics, 2012), Debbie Tseng (Biology, 2010), Christina Weng (Biology & English, 2011). It was great to catch up with each of them and hear about how their friendships have endured over the past 10 years.

Debbie Tseng

1. Where are you and what are you doing now?

After Caltech, I moved to NYC for graduate school at Cornell's Graduate School for the Medical Sciences. Then, I continued my journey eastward and live in Boston with my husband (also a Techer!). I currently work at a healthcare advertising agency, where I lead a team of writers and editors to develop marketing content for pharmaceutical and biotech companies that are commercializing novel therapies for specialty markets. It's been incredibly fulfilling to combine my scientific training with my passion for writing and communications; we recently helped launch a gene therapy for a rare pediatric disease, and the impact it's made in children's lives has been amazing to see.

2. Did you know you were part of the first Caltech Y all-female leadership team?

Not until now, but I love that!

3. What do you remember most about your time at the Caltech Y?

Two favorite memories from the Caltech Y stand out: First, helping to coordinate our science policy trip to Washington, D.C. was a great experience and a trip of a lifetime, which was generously sponsored by the Alumni Association and the Housner Fund.

Our group spent the week catching up with Caltech alumni in the area and visiting venerable institutions and organizations such as the AAAS, the NAS, the NIH, the Department of Energy, and the Pentagon to hear from leaders in the science policy industry. Of course, we also took the time to see the sights in D.C., which included exploring the monuments at night! Second, we volunteered at the beautiful LA Arboretum and Botanic Garden for Make-a-Difference Day, which coincided with their Easter event. We helped staff an Easter egg hunt, a face painting booth, and arts and crafts stations across the grounds that were full of laughter and joy all day.

4. Do you think it’s important for women at Caltech to have leadership opportunities? Why?

Unequivocally, yes. At Caltech, disparities in gender were not as present as in industry when it comes to leadership opportunities. Caltech truly fostered an environment where you could learn, support, and/or lead in any area that you were interested in or passionate about. It is particularly important for women in science to be encouraged to find their voice and to continually learn through the leadership opportunities that they take. Looking back on my experience at Caltech, I learned the importance of teamwork, to be accountable for my actions, and to keep striving to learn and grow. As a manager now, those values have helped me ensure that I keep the people, our process, and my purpose in mind in every decision that I make.

Christina Weng

1. Where are you and what are you doing now?

After Caltech, I went to medical school at Harvard, stayed there for a dermatology residency, and am now joining the faculty at Massachusetts General Hospital. In addition to seeing patients, I also work in a lab studying skin pigment biology. Recently, I launched a skincare company, Mymiel, with a co-resident I met in training, so it's been a really exciting time.

2. How did you get involved with the Caltech Y? I joined the Caltech Y as a freshman. Several of my friends were part of it and introduced me, and I also really enjoyed the events put on by the Y, such as Decompression and Explore LA.

3. What made you decide to join the leadership team and what do you remember most about your time at the Caltech Y? Over my time at Caltech, I benefited so much from the events organized by the Y.

Of course, there are the big events like Friends Dinners, the Washington, D.C. policy trip, and Alternative Spring Break trips, but what I'm most grateful for is the way the Y brought people together in ways that don’t always happen organically and in low-pressure settings. To have those opportunities is so valuable for anyone, but particularly for an undergraduate student like me. The Y gave me the chance to meet other undergrads and grad students, postdocs, faculty, staff, off-site affiliates like those at JPL, and people from the greater Pasadena and LA communities. From the very start, I was welcomed not just as an attendee, but as an active team member and friend. Over time, it was a natural decision to join the ExComm and take a greater leadership role in an organization that had given me so much.

Jennifer Ma

1. Where are you and what are you doing now?

After attending graduate school in the Bay Area at Stanford, I returned home to Los Angeles. I have been working in the finance industry, first as an investment professional and more recently, on the analytics team at a credit hedge fund in Century City.

2. What made you decide to join the leadership team?

The ExComm has been a long-standing and thriving group at Caltech for many years. I loved seeing that the leadership team really went above and beyond what was expected of them. It showed a commitment to innovation, longevity, and sustainability. The existing upperclass members constantly encouraged underclassmen to take the opportunity to broaden their leadership skills and make an impact on the community.

3. Did you know you were part of the first Caltech Y all-female leadership team?

It was absolutely empowering being on the Caltech Y's first all-female cabinet. I still have fond memories of how well we worked together and everyone's complementary skill sets. In fact, I am still lucky to call many of the women from that specific cabinet my close friends today! This inspired me to continue volunteer work in my spare time, and I have been involved in leadership roles with the female-led non-profit organization, Junior League of Los Angeles, for the past four years.

4. How did the Caltech Y help develop your leadership skills?

As an undergraduate student, I had the opportunity to work with many individuals across different years and majors on campus. Not only did we plan on- and off-campus events attended by a large portion of the student body, we were also able to work with the Caltech Y staff to lead weekly meetings with the student ExComm. It was also a great lesson in time management and delegation, as most Caltech students were involved with numerous other activities, like athletics and house leadership, and we tried to have a good work life balance!

5. What kind of impact did these leadership opportunities have on your overall experience at Caltech?

I will always be thankful to have joined the Caltech Y, as it added both breadth and depth to my otherwise academically rigorous schedule. There was a lot of flexibility and resources available for us to explore outside of the classroom. I think very few undergrads would have had the chance to coordinate campus-wide events, deliver pre-dinner addresses to a full house at the Athenaeum, which I was able to do during my year as ExComm president, or organize large-scale events for causes that were meaningful to us, such as the benefit concert I put together for the Rise Program.

Michelle Jiang

1. Where are you and what are you doing now?

I'm a Senior Product Manager with Pocket Gems, which is a mobile gaming company. Specifically, I'm part of the team behind an interactive storytelling platform called Episode, and I love what I do because I get to help build the tools that empower our creators to create really unique, visual stories. I'm based out of San Francisco for my work, and I recently moved up to the city after being in the greater Bay Area since 2013.

2. Did you know you were part of the first Caltech Y all-female leadership team?

I think I remember there being a mention of that after the election results were finalized, but honestly, I don't think we made a huge deal out of it either. In a way, I'm glad there wasn't a lot of fanfare because I think it helped us stay more focused on doing what we were elected to do and doing it well. From what I've seen in recent history, and also to some extent in my work, the added scrutiny that can come when a major milestone has been reached can create its own set of challenges once we start adding in the implications of it on our legacy. I'm glad I don't have memories of that being my experience at the time because it meant that while there was something remarkable in our collective achievement, the story continued to be about the Caltech Y, and that's the more important part in my mind.

3. What do you remember most about your time at the Caltech Y?

When I think back on it now, the memories I have all seem to have the theme of getting out of the Caltech bubble in common. Whether that's through programs that focused on providing accessibility to culture and the arts (trips to the Getty, the Pantages), or events aimed at making a difference in our community (MAD Day, the DC Policy Trip), these were experiences I took full advantage of during my time at Caltech. The Caltech Y gave me an outlet through which I could explore my curiosity for the world around me and continue to perform acts of community service -- it was something that I didn't know I needed, but am grateful to have had. There's something uplifting about how the staff, the students, and the programs come together, and the combination of all those memories has definitely left a positive impression on me throughout the years.

4. Do you think it’s important for women at Caltech to have leadership opportunities? Why?

Absolutely. My general belief is that we should do our best to lean into instances where we can give opportunities for members from underrepresented groups to rise to the occasion. Based on personal experience, while diversity of thought, background, and culture can sometimes be initially uncomfortable and create conflict, the collective group grows and develops for the better by working through those differences. I'm also lucky that at my current company, we're striving to embrace diversity and inclusion because we believe that it's through hearing different perspectives and voices that we can make decisions that are far more considerate and balanced in the end -- leading to a better team, better products, and, hopefully, better user experiences.

That said, having the confidence to voice your thoughts and feelings, especially when they differ from that of the majority, and then stand behind them, is no small task. I've definitely been on the receiving end of both support and scrutiny, and it took both years of building up my confidence and being persistent to be comfortable with my voice today. To get there, though, it took a lot of practice and learning from various experiences over the years -- and each of those experiences resulted from an opportunity, leadership or otherwise.

The worst we can do is to never give someone an opportunity to try, because then it's guaranteed that they'll never actually see success in that particular form. But, if we can think of each of these opportunities as a vehicle to create an environment in which women -- or any other underrepresented group, really -- can define success on their terms, and show that there's more than one way to think or act on the path towards it, then I also believe that that's how we can help build confidence in ourselves, and start to move towards embracing our differences in whatever roles we play.

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