What is STEM and Why Should Military Spouses Know About It?


I’m probably far from what one might imagine a military spouse to be. Despite being born a U.S. citizen, I was raised in Canada and ended up serving in the Canadian Army years after my parents divorced and re-settled on either side of the border. Having often served alongside U.S. military forces, when I eventually made my permanent home in the U.S. and was able to transition leadership experience and education to a promising career with the Department of Defense as a contractor.

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I thought I was rather well-equipped to handle the ups and downs of military life until I married a fire fighter in 2013, who also happened to be a member of the Army National Guard, and whose unit was a one-way 5-hour drive from our home in another state.

Within weeks of our wedding, we received news that my husband would be deploying, and in just two months, he was off to occupational and work-up training in two other states. This subsequently meant he was away most of the period leading up to the actual deployment. Despite an amazing husband and my two decades of working in a military environment, I would be the one to have to adapt to her partner’s erratic schedule, instead of the other way around. Having left the Washington, D.C. area to settle in my husband’s hometown, where no one knew my name, I knew there would be some challenges.

Nothing helped me navigate those challenges more than my other loves: science and entrepreneurship. I began writing and publishing articles online about the relationship between science, technology, and society while developing the concept for my business, when I received news that I was accepted into the Biomedical Engineering PhD program at a research university near our home.

stem-field-military-spousesHaving already graduated from programs in the social and military sciences, I was fortunate to have been able to complete a flexible Master of Science degree in Biotechnology at Johns Hopkins University while still working full-time and traveling back-and-forth to see my then-fiancé. Even as a budding scientist, I discovered I could serve as a bridge between scientists, engineers, policy makers, and operators.

While a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) may not be for everyone, it offers many benefits that serve to meet the unique demands of any military household.

First, from a pragmatic perspective, a STEM foundation offers highly portable job and career opportunities. The foundational knowledge and experience one acquires in any of these areas can be applied across many different economic sectors, from health care to industrial design and mechanics to teaching, regardless of where you live. Practically speaking, it teaches you how to approach problem-solving, and can even enable you to perform basic household repairs – for instance, minor electrical or mechanical problems – rather than take on the expense of hiring a professional.

Most importantly, STEM offers military spouses the potential for independence and personal satisfaction. The skills one acquires in STEM are always in demand, putting the military spouse in the driver’s seat when it comes to their careers. These key services and skills allow military spouses to develop flexible careers with schedules that suit his or her needs.

For me, since making the decision to undertake full-time STEM research (like my colleague, whose husband is in the Navy), I get up every day excited to get to the lab. Knowing I have the chance to directly tackle a global biomedical challenge from start to finish, and to work with such an intelligent and diverse group of people, is hugely rewarding. Now that my husband is an Army Flight Medic, along with the EMT knowledge and experience he has as a Rescue Technician, we have even more to keep us connected during the times we are apart, and that’s the icing on the cake.

Have you ever considered a career in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics? Share your story with us!

Posted by Hollie Ryan, M.S., M.A., military spouse and NMFA scholarship recipient

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