Inspired to pursue STEM fields, these women at POET find mentors help them build careers

July 18, 2019

This paid piece is sponsored by POET.

When Rachel Kloos was growing up in Southern California, she and her family often spent time cleaning the shores of California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea.

“My parents used to hang out there a lot, but by the time I was in high school, it was an environmental mess, so I learned a lot about the ecosystem and water conservation,” Kloos said.

That strong family commitment to the environment shaped her identity and drove her down a historically male-dominated career path. Kloos studied chemistry and environmental engineering at Creighton University in Nebraska. She went on to work at POET’s Sioux Falls headquarters before becoming the plant manager at POET Biorefining – Chancellor seven years ago.

Across POET’s footprint, Kloos and other women have led a change in how we think about science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, careers. More women today are entering the workforce in these critical areas. Of STEM professionals, nearly 15 percent of them are women, and that’s thanks to the example set by predecessors who have followed their passions rather than being intimidated by antiquated gender roles.

More than 30 percent of science and technical positions at POET Research are filled by women, according to Dave Bushong, POET’s senior vice president of research. The area of expertise that female scientists and engineers bring to POET includes analytical chemistry, enzymology, microbiology and engineering.

“First and foremost, POET offers great science and technical positions. Our scientists and engineers have the opportunity to develop innovative technology in renewable fuels that have a global impact, and the women in research contribute every day to the success of POET’s technical innovation,” Bushong said.

Dani Hanson, who has always been passionate about alternative energy, said she is proud to be part of an effort that no other company in the world is doing. Hanson is a process engineer for POET Design & Construction, and she would like to see even more women working as engineers.

Dani Hanson, process engineer for POET Design & Construction. Photo by Greg Latza

“We’re going to change the world of biofuels and the world as a whole,” she said, “but we could benefit from having more female engineers because we are both wired differently.”

Hanson, like many others, gained interest in STEM fields at a young age. In eighth grade, she participated in a girls engineering day in Rapid City, where chemical engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology “caught my eye,” she said.

Camille Nelson, a research scientist at POET, grew up on an acreage in Minnesota, where she was always curious about agriculture.

“I was interested in how many people agriculture impacted and remember spending time looking at and studying crops surrounding our acreage,” Nelson said.

At Iowa State University, she received her undergraduate degree in agricultural engineering and her master’s degree in ag and biosystems engineering.

Camille Nelson, research scientist at POET. Photo by Brian Koch

“The major had a really influential culture I was drawn to, and I always felt included,” she said.

She has been a research scientist for POET since 2015.

“I have a lot of female role models I look up to here,” she said.

Mentorship is an important element of continuing to grow and advance in the workplace.

Women need to feel empowered “to contribute to these things that are advancing our society,” Nelson added.

POET offers a supportive work environment that along with mentoring includes career-growth coaching, skills training, schedule flexibility and a genuine desire to make people successful, Bushong said.

Mentorship and encouragement happen outside of the workplace too, as was the case for Gwen Biersbach, who today is a senior research scientist at POET.

She was a quality plant manager at POET for 13 years before she felt compelled to go back to school to receive her master’s degree in research. She reached out to a faculty member at South Dakota State University who was a former fellow student there, and he encouraged her to apply.

“He was so welcoming and understanding,” Biersbach said. “And it was so rewarding to see all the things that had happened in biotech since I was an undergraduate.”

Encouragement in STEM

Antje Skiff, a mechanical engineering manager at POET, said problem-solvers are needed now more than ever — women and men who can continue to “help the world innovate” — and Biersbach agrees.

“In the biotech world, there is so much going on, and it is always changing,” Biersbach said. “We have new tools to deal with problems that weren’t even surmountable a few years ago. But because we have so much information to get our arms around, we’ve got to almost change our approach to how we deal with problems.”

She suggests group-oriented tasks and sharing of ideas. Skiff encourages young women not to be discouraged.

“Do not be afraid, and don’t let anyone stop you,” she said. “We can make the world a much better place through STEM innovation.”

And the work that women in STEM do is rewarding and making a difference for the next generation, they said.

Gwen Biersbach, senior research scientist at POET. Photo by Brian Koch

“Our work can seem mundane, but there is always a new problem to solve, and if you talk to us, we’re pumped, excited and passionate about what we do,” Biersbach said. “We are changing the world to make things better for the next generation. We have a positive environmental impact, and we have a positive impact on the economy and agriculture. That makes me so excited about my workday.”

There is constant learning, Nelson added.

“It feels like the more we know, the less we know! But I have learned so much that I would have never known had I not taken this job, and that is very motivating to me.”

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Inspired to pursue STEM fields, these women at POET find mentors help them build careers

They took different paths to get to POET but these women all agree: Their STEM careers are helping them change the world in more ways than one.

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