Wintersteen discusses being a woman in STEM


Grant Tetmeyer/Iowa State Daily

President Wendy Wintersteen talks about her fortunes of “Right place, right time” moments in her professional life to a crowd in the Sun Room of the Memorial Union on Mar. 4. President Wintersteen also discussed her journey as a women in STEM(Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) and the hardships she faced as a women in a STEM field. “You can’t over estimate the importance of having good luck,” Wintersteen said.

Kaitlyn Hood

In a room of majority women, President Wendy Wintersteen began Iowa State’s celebration of International Women’s Day with a story about her journey as a woman in STEM.

Wintersteen began her journey in STEM at a very young age and as an entomologist, her story starts with her love of insects. When she was five-years-old, Wintersteen’s mother helped her build her first insect zoo.

“We got a cardboard box, we painted a diorama of plants on this cardboard box on the inside and then I went and captured lots of insects to put in there. [My mother] got some netting out of her sewing kit to form the cover so they couldn’t escape and that was my first insect zoo,” Wintersteen said. “That’s also when I learned that some insects like to eat meat and that other insects like to eat plants. I lost a lot of insects in my zoo that way.”

Wintersteen said she was very grateful to have a mother who was so supportive of her interests. Both of her parents worked on farms in their early lives. And although she herself did not grow up on a farm, she said she always enjoyed their visits to the country. That is where she found her love of nature. 

Her love of nature and insects as a child are what set the stage for her future work on agricultural issues and to work with insects. Wintersteen pursued this passion and went to Kansas State University where she graduated with a degree in crop protection.

“I had a set of wonderful experiences there … [in college] you get to have the opportunity to get a set of mentors that help guide you along the way,” Wintersteen said. “Those mentors invariably become lifelong friends to you. You rely on them for years after you graduate with your undergraduate degree.” 

Wintersteen said at Kansas State, she was oftentimes one of, if not the only, woman in her agriculture classes. She said she vividly remembers a professor teaching a lesson on rangeland management. He drew out topographical structures and started comparing it to a woman’s anatomy.

“When you’re new in a field, when you’re the only woman in a classroom you start to have a different series of experiences then if you happen to be in the majority,” Wintersteen said.

That did not stop her from finishing her degree.

Wintersteen applied to two jobs after graduating from Kansas State. One was down at New Mexico State University to work on the management of the rangeland caterpillar, which was a large federal project. The second was to work at Iowa State to be an integrated pest management extension associate working out in the state with farmers.

She got the job at Iowa State and started working for the university in 1979. Wintersteen said it was a good thing too because the rangeland caterpillar project ended up going under investigation by the federal government because of misappropriation of funds.

“It’s always important to remember that by working hard you create your own luck, but sometimes you just get to have good luck. And you can’t overestimate the importance of having good luck,” Wintersteen said.

She also said that it is because of some of her mentors that she was able to be successful in her career and why she enjoys her work so much.

“Mentors come in lots of different forms,” Wintersteen said. “Sometimes you’re that undergraduate adviser, sometimes it’s the individuals you have the opportunity to work with at your first job.”

Wintersteen also knows that it is the hard work she put in at the beginning of her career that mas made her successful. She even took Memorial Day off in the beginning of her career and it led to a big impact as she was sharing her findings with people who were enjoying their holiday. They wrote letters to her boss telling him what she had been up to and how helpful it had been.

Yet she has not always had such good things thought about her on a first meeting. The most prominent was a time when Wintersteen went to go look at a problem a farmer was having in his field. She went with the county extension director to help the farmer, but when she stepped out of the car Wintersteen said, “the farmer said, I don’t want no woman looking at my alfalfa.”

On the way back to the field Wintersteen said, “all the way back there I’m praying, please let me know what’s going on. Let me understand what the problem is. Help me be successful in this conversation.”

When she got to the field, she knew exactly what the issue was and told the farmer what had occurred in the field.

“After that, every time I saw the farmer, he was very happy to talk to me,” Wintersteen said.

“It is kind of shocking when somebody looks at you, a young woman working in agriculture, and says I don’t want her looking at my alfalfa,” Wintersteen said. “It’s something that hardly ever happened to me that was verbalized, but i could mainly address the issue again by working hard, learning, demonstrating my competency and engaging in conversations.”

Wintersteen went on to earn a doctorate from Iowa State in entomology, the scientific study of insects. After, she has worked as an interim appointment, a committee chair, the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and now currently at the first woman president of Iowa State.

“What I say to all of our students, but especially to the women, is that when somebody asks you to take on a special opportunity that you should say yes,” Wintersteen said. “Because if you don’t say yes, if you doubt yourself so much that you won’t say yes, then you don’t have the opportunity to develop a new set of skills, a new set of experiences. But by saying yes, then you learn, you get to network, you get to meet another set of individuals that will teach you many things.”