Middle Tennessee State University professor Dr. Judith Iriarte-Gross has made it part of her life’s mission to encourage girls and women who are interested in pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
As a mother of a young son at the time, Iriarte-Gross was a non-traditional student when she decided to continue her education. And thanks to mentors along the way who encouraged her to chase her dreams, she has excelled in her decades-long career as a chemist and has bestowed her wisdom and knowledge to thousands of students along the way.
“I was able to succeed because I found a good mentor that didn’t mind me asking questions,” Iriarte-Gross said. “Women need to know they can succeed in science or mathematics.”
Thinking she was going to be a medical doctor, Iriarte-Gross brushed off a faculty member telling her she was a chemist.
“She kept telling me, ‘You’re a chemist,’ Iriarte-Gross recalled. “She sent me to a three-week summer program at the University of Maryland College Park for women and underrepresented students in the sciences to see if I wanted to be a medical doctor. We did all the things that medical students did at that time. I came back to her and I told her, ‘Thank you. You’re right. I’m a chemist.’”
Iriarte-Gross went on to work as a chemist for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and a chemistry lab manager in the plastics industry before joining MTSU’s Department of Chemistry in 1996. Soon after her arrival on the university’s campus, Iriarte-Gross brought the Girls in STEM conference, formerly known as Expanding Your Horizons, to campus. The annual hands-on STEM conference serves students in Rutherford and surrounding counties.
“The sky’s the limit for career opportunities for girls in STEM. Ask the questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Iriarte-Gross said. “We’re hearing now that COVID is going to be around like the flu. It would be cool if one of these girls attending our conference will find a cure for it.”
Quoting Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut to go to space in the 1980s, Iriarte-Gross said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Iriarte-Gross also serves as the director of the WISTEM Center on MTSU’s campus, which received the 2021 Inspiring Programs in STEM Award from Insight into Diversity magazine. She has also received multiple awards and honors, including being named Woman of Achievement-Tennessee by the Women in Higher Education-Tennessee state-wide organization.