AWIS Chapter Spotlight – Chicago

September 1, 2023


The Association for Women in Science – Chicago Area Chapter (AWIS-CAC) is celebrating yet another successful Summer Mentoring Circles season!

AWIS-CAC Summer Mentoring Circles were established in 2015 and have continued to grow throughout the years. Beginning with only four mentors and 12 mentees, the program has continued to expand. Since 2021, the program has doubled participation, growing from 40 participants to over 80 participants in 2023 from universities and companies throughout the Chicagoland area and beyond. Last year, the mentoring program welcomed participants from as far away as Colorado.

In 2022, AWIS-CAC was awarded the AWIS Shooting Star Award for Mentoring. Last year, the program added “Speed Circle” networking to the Summer Mentoring Circles program to help participants meet more mentors and mentees, which has continued through the 2023 program.

“By far the biggest benefit to participating in Mentoring Circles is the personal connections we form with others. The Circles are an opportunity to expand our personal networks far beyond school and work.” said Laura Passe, who has headed AWIS-CAC Summer Mentoring Circles for the last three years.

Open to all women, persons identifying as women, and allies within any STEM and STEM-adjacent sectors, AWIS-CAC Summer Mentoring Circles follow a small group format composed of one to two mentors and four to eight mentees. The nature of the circles allows for intimate peer-to-peer and mentor-mentee relationships to form through the summer. While the circles have a designated mentor, the organizational structure promotes dynamic ideas and advice shared by all participants in the group.

From June to September, mentoring circles help provide opportunities for networking in local STEM circles and are formed based on mutual career or topical interests. Although mentoring circles began as a fully virtual program during the pandemic, groups now have the option to meet up with their circles in person for networking events.

Fatou Dioum (left), Mushaine Shih (middle), Irma Avdic (right) at a recent in-person mentoring circle meet-up
Fatou Dioum (left), Mushaine Shih (middle), Irma Avdic (right) at a recent in-person mentoring circle meet-up

While the mentoring circles provide a variety of different benefits for young women in STEM, there are two primary objectives of the program. First and foremost, the program aims to support the personal and professional development of early career women in science. Additionally, AWIS-CAC hopes to provide experienced women in science with the opportunity to contribute to and guide the growth of Chicagoland area women in science.

Mentoring Circles also help to connect young women in STEM with a professional network that can aid in career development. “Very rarely do career paths and employment opportunities fall into our laps. Most of our career movement is aided by the people we know: our networks,” said Laura. “It is our networks that tell us about opportunities, write our reference letters, coach us through new experiences, recommend babysitters, and remind us to slow down when we are overwhelmed.”

Current AWIS-CAC president Dr. Zahmeeth Sakkaff emphasized this point. “In STEM, where interdisciplinary projects are common, networking enables experts from various domains to pool their expertise for innovative solutions.” She said, “For women in STEM, who might face gender disparities and limited representation, networking provides a supportive community, mentorship, and role models, helping them overcome barriers and excel in their careers”.

In 2021, AWIS-CAC began offering scholarships to mentoring circle participants, graciously funded by a one-time Parker Hannifin grant. In 2022, AWIS-CAC was able to continue providing scholarships to participating students through self-funding. This year, AWIS-CAC plans on continuing this tradition through scholarships in the form of AWIS membership.

Visit the AWIS-CAC website to learn more!