Fostering pivotal opportunities for women in the sciences

Donor and Volunteer Tribute 2022–23: Our Place — Mendel
LaVerne Johnson Raab ’56

From the 2022–23 Donor and Volunteer Tribute summer edition of St. Catherine University Magazine.

LEAD & INFLUENCE: The Campaign for the Next Level of Excellence: Our Place

LaVerne Johnson Raab ’56 still remembers the sound of Professor Emil Berger’s voice. His booming math lectures, she says, were the first thing you heard when you entered Mendel, the St. Catherine University math and sciences building and setting for the majority of her classes.

But Berger’s more far-reaching effect on Raab was his ability to teach concepts. “He knew if you understood something or didn’t,” she says. “He’d approach the same thing from an entirely different perspective, and then I always understood. That was his gift.” With the foundation provided by Berger and other St. Kate’s faculty, Raab joined the first wave of women to work in computer sciences in the 1950s, an era in which the field was just starting to boom and computers took up entire rooms.

Now, Raab supports future women leaders in STEM by investing in Mendel through LEAD & INFLUENCE: The Campaign for the Next Level of Excellence, so current students can benefit from renovated science spaces and updated equipment, and launch their own careers in the sciences.

Upon graduating with bachelor’s degrees in both mathematics and psychology, Raab was hired as a software engineer by UNIVAC, where she was one of only five women to 30 men at her company. She worked at UNIVAC for 30 years in this role, a career she loved and found fulfilling. Over time, she says, “I realized how important my degree from St. Kate’s was. … It formed my whole life. All of the advantages that I got out of my job were things that I learned at St. Kate’s."

Pollen in Love With STEM St. Kate's summer camp leaders

Today's Katies are already role models in STEM

“Upgraded technology and access to resources empower students to overcome obstacles, pursue our scientific passions, and contribute meaningfully to our respective disciplines,” says Kadiatu Kaya ’24, a pre-med biology major. “By ensuring that these resources are accessible to all, regardless of their background, [donors] are investing in the future of scientific progress and promoting equity and inclusivity in these fields.”

Kaya is one of the student leaders of St. Kate’s week-long summer camp for middle school girls, which just concluded its second year. Funded by a 3M grant to Division of Math and Sciences Chair Taviare Hawkins, PhD, the camp is just one of many efforts underway at St. Kate’s to promote girls’ interest in STEM.

“Studies show that girls as young as 12 are already drifting away from math and science,” says associate professor of biology Tami McDonald, PhD, who led the camp with Hawkins. “Meeting and interacting with science role models like Kadiatu is one powerful experience that extends the window of interest in science.

Naturelle Vang ’25, another camp leader, is a Hmong first-generation college student who only discovered her interest in STEM at the end of high school. “By then it felt rushed for me,” Vang says. “I had to think deeply about whether to pursue my passion for STEM in college, instead of it blooming naturally through opportunities like these middle schoolers get with the summer camp. Knowing that I didn’t grow up with that, but I can be there for somebody else — that’s really meaningful.”

For Vang and Kaya, the summer camp is a way to practice skills they’ll use in their careers, and take steps toward fixing the “leaky pipeline” of girls and women in STEM. Supporters like Raab and 3M are integral partners in providing today’s Katies with renovated facilities, collaborative research opportunities, and access to faculty committed to supporting and encouraging women — particularly women of color — to follow their interests into careers in STEM.

“This support is essential,” says Kaya. “It fosters a more inclusive and representative scientific community that can tackle the complex challenges of the future and benefit from a full range of talents and perspectives."

Pollen in Love With STEM summer camp