The synagogue at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck was made over into a party space last Thursday, with disco balls, loud music, glow lights, and dancing.
All this was the setting for the school’s STEAM talks — short presentations from women working in the fields of science, technology, engineering, the arts, or mathematics.
Then a talk.
Then a video from one of the school’s alumnae.
It wasn’t rocket science — until Estelle Anselmo took the stage.
Ms. Anselmo is chief engineer at Arde Inc. in Carlstadt, which builds pressure vessels for space craft. “A pressure vessel is a container that holds high pressure gas that provides fuel for a rocket,” she explained.
She pointed to a picture of a rocket projected on the screen behind her. “That part sitting up in the top of that spacecraft is something I touched, something I built, and now it is sitting on Mars,” she said. “It was designed six miles from here.”
Her message — and the message of her fellow speakers — was simple: The young women of Ma’ayanot should dare to dream of exciting, creative careers.
“I wish something like this existed for me when I was in high school,” she said. “I had no idea what I was going to do. I didn’t even know what an engineer is.
“I happened to like math and science. Somebody said I should be an engineer so I said, all right, I’ll major in engineering. Somehow I just kept doing it. Every time I was faced with something I didn’t know how to do, I went out and read about it.
“There are five companies within 25 miles from here that support the space industry and national defense. Every day the people working there enjoy that moment where they can solve a problem and go from a piece of paper to a piece of hardware.”
The engineers she manages at Arde “take piles of requirements, sift through them, figure out how they can make our little product — anywhere from four inches to four feet in diameter — to meet all the requirements, very lightly, so it can get into space. We sit there redesigning until the product works.
“We can say we are rocket scientists,” she said.
Ma’ayanot’s principal, Rivka Kahan, opened the talks by citing a teaching of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the Yeshiva University Talmudist known as the Rav.
“In the eyes of the Rav, our task in this world as ovdot Hashem” — servants of God — “is to create,” she said.
“There are so many ways you can innovate and create and improve our world,” she told her students. “This program will widen your mind to the ways you can create in this world.”
That message was echoed by all the speakers.
“No matter where you start, including here in Teaneck, you can do and be anything you want,” Michelle Sohn said. Ms. Sohn grew up in Teaneck and studied at the Yavneh Academy and the Frisch School before going to Boston University and then earning a masters in manufacturing engineering from Columbia.
She is vice president of product development at OXO, which makes kitchen tools and other household goods. “I collaborate with designers and engineers to come up with ideas for kitchen gadgets,” she said. “At the same time I manage the kitchen gadget business to make sure it’s profitable.”
To illustrate the impact product design can have, she displayed a slide with a picture of two door handles. One was a regular doorknob. The other was a door lever — “which is much easier to open. If you’re holding all your books, you can get it with your elbow.”
Ms. Sohn said her path to engineering began “when I was little. I was one of those Lego kids. I was very fascinated with the book ‘The Way Things Work.’ Physics was my favorite class in high school. In college my favorite class was called visual thinking. I’m excellent in knowing which Tupperware to pull out to fit the leftovers.”
Her advice to the students: “Do what you love. We think about being wives, about being Mommy, but we need to be people as well, so choose something that’s going to make you happy.”
Elianna Kaplowitz graduated Ma’ayanot in 2009 and went to Barnard. She is a clinical research coordinator at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan.
“I love my job,” she said in a video presentation. “I coordinate all aspects of research in my particular department,” which studies hip and knee replacements. “I started loving science when I was at Ma’ayanot. My job combines my love for research and for improving the health of individuals.”
Dr. Chavi Eve Karkowsky spoke about her role as a maternal-fetal medical specialist, or high-risk obstetrician.
“It’s the best job ever,” she said.
She went to a yeshiva high school in Maryland, and then to Yale for college. “Coming from the modern Orthodox world, a lot of people told me not to go there,” she said. “I was very happy I did.”
After college, she didn’t know what she wanted to do. She considered becoming a rabbi, and studied in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University and the Hartman Institute. But “I found out I’m no good at having unstructured time, so I went to the Mount Sinai School of Medicine,” she said.
Being an obstetrician has a bit of the rabbinate to it. “I am with people at their happiest and saddest moments. I can fix problems. I’m always learning, always thinking, always teaching,” she said.
Jordie Gilbert-Honick graduated Ma’ayanot in 2008 and is a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University. “My specialty is making skeletal muscle constructs,” she said.
“When people think about science, very often they think about what they learned in school and view it as static and not changing,” she said. “In my job I feel the fluid and dynamic nature of science. We will develop the science that will be studied in school in the next generation.”
Her Ma’ayanot education helped her.
“My first computer coding class was a foreign language, and solving the problems was challenging,” she said. “My first instinct was to give up. Then I realized I had faced similar challenges in high school. I had learned Gemara, which repeatedly challenged me to think creatively in a foreign language.
“Remember you can do this,” she told the students. “My best advice is to be resilient. There will be bumps along the road. Many times I questioned whether I was up to the challenge. Don’t give up.”
Dr. Natalie Macon is a biomedical engineer with her own consultancy.
“The more I studied about human physiology, chemistry, and physics, the more I realized I regarded the human body as a great work of art. I wanted to be someone to help restore it and care for it over a lifetime.
“I realized I didn’t want to be a physician. I wanted to create the new technologies and tools for healthcare.”
She got an undergraduate degree from Brown in biomechanical engineering, and then a doctorate in the field at the University of Alabama. “I love what I do,” she said. “You can do all kinds of different things to make a big difference in a patient’s life.”
She has worked on devices to prevent heart attacks and strokes. “If you want to make a difference, this is a career path I can recommend,” she said. “It’s a huge reward; something no money can buy.”
She concluded by urging the students to “Think like a GIRL: Game changer. Innovator. Rule breaker. Leader. I encourage you to think like that for any profession you choose.”