Women make up less than 30% of workers in neuroscience, according to the federal data about the STEM workforce. Helen Fita, a 2023 alumna of the University of Washington Bothell, wants to help increase that number.
“Looking back, I never imagined I would go into this field,” she said, noting that she did not realize that she was even capable of doing the work.
Indeed, searching for the right fit, Fita changed her major twice before gaining the confidence to pursue neuroscience after getting the opportunity to conduct research at Friday Harbor Labs her junior year.
Now, with her degree in Biology from the School of STEM — and her growing passion for the field — Fita envisions great possibilities for promoting equity as she reflects on her own educational journey.
“Experiencing the unwavering support and the faith my peers and mentors had in my abilities was just what I needed,” she said, “and it’s stirred within me the desire to create similar opportunities more readily available for others.”
Making equity a priority
Fita is, and always has been, more than capable. Not only is she pursuing her own dreams of becoming a neuroscientist, but she also helped dozens of other UW Bothell students do the same by serving as a peer coach even before setting on her own major.
“Helen Fita has consistently been working toward her success ever since she was introduced to the UW community,” said Andrzej Dawiec, a senior in Computer Science & Software Engineering and a fellow coach. “I have never met anyone as passionate, determined and dedicated to make a difference and leave a legacy on the UW Bothell community as much as Helen. She has become the very definition of what it takes to be a University of Washington Husky.”
In recognition of her impact on others, Fita was named one of the University of Washington’s Husky 100 honorees for 2023.
Each year the UW recognizes 100 undergraduate and graduate students from the Bothell, Seattle and Tacoma campuses who are making the most of their educational journey, actively connecting what happens inside and outside of the classroom and applying what they learn to make a difference on campus, in their communities and for the world.
In spring 2023, the eight UW Bothell Husky 100 honorees put equity and belonging among the top priorities for their coursework, campus engagement and community involvement.
Stepping into leadership
Before serving as a peer coach her sophomore year, Fita first took a leadership course to prepare. “Going in, I had a basic understanding of my identity but soon gained a richer one,” she said. “I discovered how multifaceted identities truly are and how they can intersect — as well as how these intersections give rise to unique and invaluable perspectives in our society.
“The course also gave me a chance to reflect on my own college experiences, and I became aware of challenges others may have that I did not, such as culture shock and imposter syndrome,” she said. “I came away with effective strategies to help incoming students better control and overcome these challenges so that they could make the most of their opportunity in getting a higher education.”
Fita recalls using these strategies in an interaction with a first-generation student from the Middle East who was worried about the high expectations and values placed on education by their culture and their parents. “This resonated with me and my own Ukrainian culture since a large value is placed on education, and my parents also emphasized the importance of being a good student.
“As soon as I shared my story and how it echoed theirs,” she said, “I noticed they felt more at ease and shared more with me. This allowed us to better work together in successfully helping them reach their academic and personal goals.
From this experience with Fita, the student gained confidence both personally and academically and ended up joining the Arab Student Association to help teach and better represent their culture to the community.
It was a pivotal moment for Fita as well. “I saw how creating a safe, inclusive space and finding connections within cultures unites and empowers people to embrace their unique perspectives, using it as a strength toward success. For me, the lessons I’ve learned from moments like these
I saw how creating a safe, inclusive space and finding connections within cultures unites and empowers people to embrace their unique perspectives, using it as a strength toward success.Helen Fita, Biology ’23
Coaching students, Fita began piecing together what she learned in the course and questioning how she could continue to engage others to make a difference on campus and in their own communities.
“Working closely with each student, I saw their identities and interests intersected with my own of being an immigrant and a woman pursuing a STEM career, among many others,” she said. “They wanted to get involved but either lacked the opportunity or the support to do so.”
So Fita partnered with five other former peer coaches and the Womxn in STEM New Student Network to create events where students from these backgrounds would feel comfortable to show up as they are, network and have fun exploring all the resources available to them.
Looking for more ways to build and foster community, Fita and four close friends launched the Alliance for Sustainability club, too. At the time, she was taking a conservation biology course while helping to restore parts of the North Creek Wetland. “Listening to the stories of the workers and how some used cultural approaches and sustainability practices in their work reminded me of peer coaching and how a diverse, global perspective can lead to community advancement,” Fita said.
From coursework, she knew the significance of a healthy environment on a community’s wellness — and from coaching/leadership class she knew the importance of diversity, safe spaces and of opportunities for new students to become involved. “Connecting the two and drawing inspiration from the workers, my friends and I founded the Alliance for Sustainability,” she said. “Our vision is to reach passionate individuals from different walks of life who want to learn about global sustainability practices and ways to create healthier local environments.
“Not only did this experience reinforce within me the importance of what I previously learned in leadership,” Fita said, “but it also showed me the significance of collaboration when many individuals are engaged in attaining a shared goal for advancement.”
A message to students
Throughout most of her time at UW Bothell, Helen remained uncertain as to what she would do with a degree in Biology. “I kind of felt like I was drifting along. I had many passions and interests but no solid vision for future careers like some of my friends did.”
Fita is also grateful for the people she met who transformed her mindset — including faculty, co-workers, family and fellow peers — and helped her to become the person she is today.
“Some of my fondest takeaways from my time as a Husky was challenging myself to surround myself with people already doing better than me and, in turn, becoming that encouraging, empathetic person who supported others on their way to reaching their potential,” she said. “I will also never forget the impact UW Bothell has had on my own faith as a Christian. Working first-hand with students, faculty and the campus brought to life what it means to serve our communities and use our strengths and skills to strengthen and uplift one another, something we all should do.”
As an alumna, Fita also has some advice for current and future students: embrace with confidence the uncertainties.
“Regardless of where they are on their path, I wish for current and future students to enjoy every circumstance and opportunity they find themselves in,” she said, “and to discover the joy of using their interests and passions to bring about positive change and to strengthen the campus, their communities and themselves.”