Medical Student Fills the Gender Gap Throughout the World of STEM

Daily Point of Light # 7278 Apr 26, 2022

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Pooja Chandrashekar, who was a 2021 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Awardee. Each year L’Oréal Paris and Points of Light recognize and celebrate Women of Worth who make a beautiful difference in their communities. Ten honorees each receive a $20,000 grant to support their most cherished cause, and an online vote determines one honoree who will receive an additional $25,000 grant. Nominations for 2022 are now open! If you know a woman who works to create lasting and significant change in her community, nominate her to be one of the 2022 Women of Worth.

Pooja Chandrashekar remembers walking into her computer science class on her first day of high school in 2013 and noticing that she was the only girl in a sea of 30 students. When she was just a sophomore, Pooja began her nonprofit career at the age of 15 to fill the technology gender gap.  

Her ProjectCSGIRLS organization gives girls a community of like-minded peers, role models and mentors in addition to the skills and knowledge needed to step confidently into a male-dominated field. Pooja continues to debunk the negative stereotypes of the STEM field and its lack of female role models and has impacted the lives of more than 15,000 girls worldwide. 

“I was encouraged because I grew up with a female role model in my mom, who was a software engineer, and I built a community of peers who were interested in computer science, too,” Pooja said. “But it was sad to see incredibly talented people leave the field who were turned off by the gender gap and didn’t have support in place.”  

Pooja pitched her initial idea of ProjectCSGIRLS to a computer science professor at George Mason University who helped her refine her idea into something that became a reality. The professor became Pooja’s faculty advisor, and they were able to start serving girls in the Virginia and Maryland areas.  

Pooja’s first project with ProjectCSGIRLS invited girls to submit and present computer science projects that addressed a social problem in their community. They received more than 100 submissions during the first year.  

“It was clear that there was a need for groups dedicated to supporting girls in STEM and to intentionally teach girls how to harness technology for social change,” Pooja said.  

Pooja, who is now a medical student, said that research shows that girls gravitate toward careers and projects where they can make a difference, so she intends to show them how to use that passion to tackle real and tangible problems that affect them and their communities.  

Large group of girls and women posing.
Each year, Pooja Chandrashekar, first row sixth from right, hosts the ProjectCSGIRLS annual gala to honor and celebrate its National Competition finalists, staff and community members./Courtesy Pooja Chandrashekar

ProjectCSGIRLS continued to grow. Pooja built a national team for the organization and harnessed her network at the National Center for Women and Information Technology. 

The first project quickly became the organization’s flagship competition. Now, the National ProjectCSGIRLS Competition brings in 600 to 700 girls annually, and Pooja anticipates that more than 1,000 submissions will be entered this year.  

In addition to the annual competition, the organization hosts workshops and mentorship programs led by high school and college women to foster youth leadership and STEM collaboration. Previously, participants learned how to develop their own mobile apps aimed at women’s health and how to use data science to track COVID-19 trends. Now, ProjectCSGIRLS has 95 active chapters across 12 countries.  

It even caught the attention of former President Obama, who featured ProjectCSGIRLS in his administration’s Computer Science For All initiative.

Pooja understands the value that her team brought to the organization and how, together, they’ve been able to grow from a local organization to reaching girls and teens around the globe. She is excited about 2022 and her organization’s national gala this summer.

“It’s my favorite day of the year,” she said.  

The finalists who participated in the international competitions are invited to attend the gala, in addition to other guests of their community, to celebrate the organization’s accomplishments and growth.  

“What continues to inspire me today is the impact that we’ve been able to have and the stories that have blossomed as a result of these girls who participate in ProjectCSGIRLS as girls,” Pooja said. 

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Pooja? Find local volunteer opportunities. 

Madi Donham