Growing up, Sophie Tanaka remembers seeing her mother break down in tears at a bank, overwhelmed by simple math calculations.
A few years ago, her mom found enough confidence to return to community college to take a math class. Tanaka said seeing her mother struggle encouraged her to dispel the stereotype that women do not study science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
Tanaka, a fourth-year psychology transfer student, took a job at the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation to address the lack of diversity in leading technological companies and encourage executives to fairly promote women in workplaces.
Tanaka is one of five students awarded the annual True Bruin Distinguished Senior Award. The award grants up to $5,000 to students who demonstrate integrity, respect and service during their academic careers.
Tanaka has conducted research since she was in community college. When she arrived at UCLA, she decided to design a study that would evaluate psychological and social factors behind women’s absence in STEM fields.
Women account for over 50 percent of college students, but are still a minority group in STEM fields, Tanaka said.
“The two fields that are the most lucrative and have the most growth are the fields in which women are most underrepresented,” Tanaka said.
Last year, the Undergraduate Research Fellows Program funded Tanaka’s research. She later presented the conclusions from her study, which found some job applications were worded to discourage women from applying to jobs in STEM fields.
Rebecca Sadwick, program manager of the digital technologies initiative at the center for innovation, said she heard about Tanaka’s research and thought she’d be a good fit for her project, which aimed to analyze existing literature on women in STEM fields and compile strategies for industry leaders to increase diversity.
Sadwick said Tanaka, the only undergraduate student working on the project, demonstrated skills and maturity that exceeded what she expected of her graduate students.
“I was incredibly impressed by her intellect and passion,” Sadwick said. “She could jump from one complex issue to another.”
Tanaka now works in a lab at UCLA with Steven Reise, Tanaka’s thesis adviser and a UCLA psychology professor who specializes in quantitative data.
Reise said he thinks Tanaka is filling in a large gap in the research field by directing her honors thesis toward researching why individuals appear as outliers to the rest of a population and examining why inconsistencies occur in survey answers.
Tanaka said she thinks stereotypes about women’s roles still exist and students who see themselves as poor performers in mathematics are scared of pushing themselves in that area.
“I know my mom has this fear of math and wasn’t expected to be successful or good at it,” Tanaka said. “But I’ve watched her face her fear.”
She added she could not have accomplished what she has without her mom.
“(She) told me everything she wants to do, she’s had to struggle for,” Tanaka said. “For me, things come easier and I have to take advantage of that – I have to keep pushing myself and help those around me.”
Tanaka said working on a psychological research project created by Philip Zimbardo, a professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University who is known for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, at her community college inspired her to pursue a career in social psychology.
She added she set her sights on UCLA to get her bachelor’s degree in psychology before moving on to earn a doctorate degree. Tanaka said she hopes her experiences at UCLA prepare her for her dream of becoming a research professor.
“I’ve learned to embrace challenges,” Tanaka said. “I believe I can do anything I’m willing to work for.”