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By Eryka Forquer

Three San Clemente sisters who launched a nonprofit organization amidst the pandemic look to give back to their community through a donation of lab kits to the children of Laura’s House on June 1.

WiSTEM+, or women in STEM plus, founded by Sophia, Emersen and Kingsley Panigrahi, started off as a student-run club at Stanford Online High School to keep the sisters engaged in and practicing science while attending school virtually. 

“A lot of people started reaching out to us,” said Sophia. “People who went to our school part-time, people who didn’t go to our school and even people who we just knew from the community started asking for ways that they could get involved. We didn’t really know how to make that possible if it was just a club at our own school, so it kind of expanded from there.” 

With the help of family and friends, the Panigrahi sisters were able to transform WiSTEM+ into an organization dedicated to supporting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

The sisters, who noticed that their classmates in higher-level science classes were predominantly male, are encouraging young women to pursue a career in STEM.  

“We were really lucky to grow up in a supportive environment and our parents were always encouraging us,” said Emersen. “We started to recognize that a lot of women were interested in STEM fields, but they didn’t necessarily have the role models or communities to support them. We wanted to help support them by providing a community where they could feel safe.”   

(From left to right) San Clemente sisters Emersen, Kingsley and Sophia Panigrahi assemble lab kits that they plan to donate to children at Laura’s House on June 1 through their nonprofit WiSTEM+. Photo: Courtesy of WiSTEM+

WiSTEM+ stresses the importance of female empowerment and hosts webinars led by female STEM figures, assists women in publishing research papers and creates learning opportunities. The organization provides members the opportunity to become an “ambassador” and take on the responsibility of creating new ideas, or form a WiSTEM+ club at their school and become a “chapter leader.” 

In its effort to support young women in STEM, the organization also produces a monthly podcast that highlights a WiSTEM+ member who speaks on their experience as a woman in the field.    

Sophia, Emersen and Kingsley grew up with two parents who worked in the medical field and developed an interest in STEM after seeing the work that their parents did. Their parents helped foster their enthusiasm for the field by conducting labs with them, sharing stories and providing insight into their careers.  

“Our parents encouraged us to be interested in anything that we wanted to be interested in, but I think that it was sort of the luck of the draw that it ended up being STEM and kind of the same thing that they are passionate about,” said Sophia.   

Women empowerment, a core tenet of WiSTEM+, sparked the Panigrahis’ interest in working with Laura’s House, a nonprofit organization that provides services to victims of domestic abuse.    

“Laura’s House is basically a culmination of so many empowered women and children that found the strength to fight for themselves and their own safety,” said Sophia. “They have been empowered in their lives and having the chance to do something different and have experience in science is something that they might not have gotten otherwise. This is something that we would really love to provide them and their children with.”  

Annie Pfost, the development and communications administrator at Laura’s House, said the lab kits provided by WiSTEM+ will be donated to its shelters and child care specialists. 

Laura’s House has therapists and child care specialists who work in the shelters and counseling resource center to provide services such as art and play therapy while also maintaining a safe environment and keeping the children busy.

The children, she said, will be able to keep their lab kits, whether they are receiving them at Laura’s House or taking them home through outpatient care.  

“A big thing that we like to emphasize with our children and when we are working with them in our care is that we want them to feel ownership of their items,” said Pfost. “So, we have had groups that have donated entire art kits or backpacks that kids can keep with them and take with them as they move on and feel safe and secure.”  

The lab kits include oil, food coloring, Alka-Seltzer, pipettes and a container to produce a replica of a lava lamp. The chemistry experiment demonstrates scientific concepts in a colorful and visual way for children. 

“Younger kids, especially, really like to see colors and things that make science exciting; especially when you are younger and you can’t picture, for example, atoms or subatomic particles,” Sophia said. “It’s easier to see things that are tangible and that you can see, touch and feel.”

To fundraise for the donation of the lab kits, WiSTEM+ created a GoFundMe account and partnered with the UNICEF club at San Clemente High School. Through its fundraising efforts, the organization raised sufficient money to provide the packaging and materials for 50 lab kits. 

In addition to the donation of lab kits on June 1, the WiSTEM+ team plans to organize a lab event at the Ronald McDonald House, where children will get the opportunity to perform two or three science experiments.   

“There is something so special about being able to do something hands-on in terms of labs with kids,” said Emersen. “It’s always really exciting when you see how excited the kids are. It’s more exciting than doing the experiment yourself.”  

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