Debbie Berebichez is chief data scientist at Metisand co-host of the Discovery Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science. You can follow her on Twitter @debbiebere.
In this exclusive interview, Berbichez shares her thoughts on shaping the STEM conversation to make it more inclusive for women.
TNW: Describe the trajectory of your career. How did you get where you are today?
I grew up in Mexico City, and I was part of a conservative community that discouraged women from studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. I was told that I should probably study something easier and more feminine than physics. My mom told me not to tell boys that I liked math, because I’d have a hard time meeting someone.
When it came time to go to college, I applied to schools to study philosophy, which was a field where I could ask questions that seemed more appropriate for girls. I realized, though, that the more I tried to hide my love of physics and math, the more it threatened to come out. I wanted to know about the universe and how things worked.
In the middle of my studying for my B.A. in philosophy, I decided to apply to schools in the United States, and I was fortunate to receive a scholarship to go to Brandeis. I flew there in the middle of the winter as a transfer student, and I had two more years to go.
I took a generic class in physics — Introduction to Astronomy. In that class, I met a teaching assistant, a student from India, and I would go to him and ask questions about homework problems. He said I wasn’t a typical student, since I didn’t just want an A. I had an infinite curiosity about how the world and the universe worked, and he said I could do physics.
He connected me with his Ph.D. advisor, the head of the physics department at Brandeis — he told me to come and talk to him. He gave me a book on vector calculus and told me to study it over the next two months. If I passed a test on it, he’d let me skip the first two years of physics classes.
The teaching assistant became my mentor, and he spent every day that summer tutoring me. This is how my mission in life began, when he passed the torch to me to help other minorities and women to study science.
Then I went back to Mexico to do a master’s in physics. I went to be close to my family again. Everyone was telling me that I already did what I wanted to do, and it was time to settle down. I was still very curious, though, and I wanted to do more research. I wanted to be able to do research something and find out about the world and nurture my curiosity.
While I was doing my master’s in Mexico, I realized that the kind of research I wanted to do, I couldn’t do in Mexico, so I applied to Stanford. Six years later I became the first Mexican woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford.
I realized after completing my Ph.D. that with privilege comes responsibility. I wanted to mentor other women and pay it back. I first went to Wall Street, where I worked as a “quant,” and I pursued my media career on the side.
That’s when I started doing TV, finding places where I could describe science in fun and creative ways. I also veered toward data science, which is how I found my dream job at Metis, where I’m in charge of building curricula. This is where I found my calling, since I can help women and minorities succeed within science, and I’m also teaching.
TNW: What is Metis, and what do you do there?
Metis is a data science training company. It has four verticals, and all of them have to do with data science training.
Data science is a combination of math and statistics with computer science and communication, and those things come together to explain the insights that one can gain about a company or a problem. At Metis, we train people and companies in various aspects of data science.
TNW: What is it like being a TV host? What do you enjoy about it?
Outrageous Acts of Science takes scientists who come from different areas. We watch YouTube videos of people doing crazy or fascinating stuff, and we explain the science behind them.
I love the ability to reach many people and explain things in lay terms, and I love doing that on camera, because it reaches a lot of fans.
TNW: What challenges have you faced as a woman in tech, and how have you overcome them?
On Wall Street, when I’d work with clients, I’d arrive with my male salesperson, and people would assume he was the quant — the one in charge of research and models, and that I was his assistant.
This was a continuous bias that I had to face.
At Metis, I’ve helped shape the conversation. It’s empowered me to mentor young women and also to shape policy. At Metis, we offer a scholarship to women and minorities, so we do things actively to bring women in.
I also try to recruit and hire women. Even though it’s a tech company, over 60 percent of the employees at Metis are women, and they also occupy a lot of leadership roles. I always try to do things that change the conversation.
TNW: What advice would you give to girls and young women who want to go into science?
My first piece of advice is to never let anyone tell you that you cannot do it. It’s as simple as that. Don’t let an authority figure or the media tell you that your dreams cannot come true.
The second piece of advice is that being a woman in STEM can open up an immense number of opportunities. I have so many female friends in STEM who’ve gone on to do fascinating things. You can go into all kinds of companies and solve problems around the world.
If women are part of the conversation, we can help shape the world. The more women we have in STEM fields, the more we’re going to live in a world that’s fair and just.
I really enjoyed the article on Debbie Berebichez. Her story is very fascinating and it took me back to High School where girls wasn’t suppose to like math and science. Myself and a few other young ladies in my math and science classes found it very fun. We would always have the young men on their toes because we were on top of our game. We showed them that we knew the material in class and we would often help them understand the material. I always told myself that I could do great in math and science, even though I was told boys are smarter than girls in math and science. Based on my experience I always told my daughter that she’s smart in math and science. Now she’s in college for Biology. I’m going to share this article with her so she can be motivated and confident in science and math.