Dr. Aprille Ericsson speaks about the joys and challenges of her career as an aerospace engineer for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Courtesy photos

Dr. Aprille Ericsson speaks about the joys and challenges of her career as an aerospace engineer for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Courtesy photos

By Christina Leslie | Correspondent

Standing before an audience of nearly 1,000 girls in the Princeton auditorium, aerospace engineer Dr. Aprille Ericsson led a booming chant.

“I will persist until I succeed! I will persist until I succeed!” Ericsson of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center proclaimed before turning around her camera to snap a selfie with the excited group. “I want a shot of these future leaders,” she said over the sound of cheers.

Ericsson was one of the scores of female speakers, mentors and businesswomen showcased at the third annual “#LEADLIKEAGIRL: A Conference for Risk-Takers and Changemakers” held April 5-6 in Princeton’s Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart. Designed to promote girls’ critical thinking, social awareness, responsible citizenship and community development, the conference drew more than 1,800 girls from grades kindergarten through 12 to sessions where their voices were not only heard, but celebrated.

Along with Stuart, other Catholic schools in the Diocese of Trenton that had representation at the conference included Villa Victoria, Ewing; Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton; Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, and St. Paul, Princeton.

Ericsson offered an upbeat, informative, energetic description of how a self-described “little brown girl from Brooklyn” was inspired to join NASA as a first-grader watching the moon landing on a black-and-white television. She earned a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical/astronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then became the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Howard University and the first female African-American to receive a doctorate in engineering from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. 

Daily reading and being well-rounded is important, she stressed, no matter what field a young woman might pursue. Females should continue to focus on math and science to enrich their future, she said.

“Make sure you take the higher-level math and science courses so you can make choices,” the engineer advised. “If you don’t, you automatically cut out 30 percent of the careers out there.”

Explaining the monetary benefits of taking math beyond the ninth grade, she said, “Whatever profession you go into, math teaches you logical thinking so you can be a manager or businesswoman or a great teacher.”

In addition to Ericsson, keynote speaker Reshma Saujani, author of  “Brave, Not Perfect” and founder of the national nonprofit Girls Who Code, encouraged the young women to close the gender gap in technology and change the image of what a programmer looks like and does. Other business leaders and women entrepreneurs shared their routes to success during numerous panel discussions, and girls took the opportunity to enjoy lunch with an expert from differing fields.

Students from various schools competed in STEM talks and a business fair designed to stretch their minds and exercise their problem-solving skills. Entrants illustrated forward-thinking strategies to solve modern-day problems and were eager to share their creations with fair visitors.

Stuart sophomore Mingming (Holly) Zhuang designed a safety ensuring alert that would sense when sick or elderly patients left their beds at night and needed help. Using an app, an alert would sound on the phone of a nurse or attendant.

A pair of fifth-graders, Anna Burke and Seraina Wickart, showed their concern about ocean pollution in their “No Blue, No Green” project. Wearing complimentary T-shirts emblazoned with their product’s name, the two regaled passers-by with grim statistics about the biodegradability of common plastic shopping bags.

“There are eight million tons of plastic waste in our oceans,” Burke said. “NOAA thinks once the plastic decomposes, it will stay there forever.”

“We have plastic in us, too,” warned Wickart. “We eat the plastic in the fish, and it’s in all of our blood and tissues.”