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Investing in our Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) Future: Akamai Foundation supports the USA Mathematical Olympiad

Recently, I had the privilege to present scholarships to the three highest scorers in the USA Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO) on behalf of the Akamai Foundation. The Akamai Foundation is a proud supporter of the Mathematical Association of America, which includes the USAMO and the European Girls' Mathematical Olympiad. This year, for the first time, there were two young women in the top twelve Math Olympians in the United States. Yea!
It's really exciting for me to lead public policy for a company like Akamai where STEM is part of the intellectual and cultural fabric of the company. Indeed, Akamai's own corporate story is a shining example of how applied STEM can yield extraordinarily innovative results -- and can even create new industries. Akamai's founders used applied mathematics and algorithms to solve the problem of Internet traffic congestion and dramatically improve how consumers experience the Internet. From its inception, STEM has lived and thrived at Akamai.

My own professional journey illustrates some of the opportunities available to those pursuing a STEM education. As hard as it is for me to believe, I started engineering school more than 30 years ago. Like many female engineering students of my time, I became an engineer because my dad - a PhD engineer - urged me to pursue an engineering degree. He said that studying engineering would provide me with the quantitative analytical skills to approach problem solving in a way that I couldn't learn with another curriculum and that it would serve me well regardless of whether my ultimate profession was engineering. (And, he pointed out, that I wasn't likely to pick up an engineering test and read it for fun.) Like any other teenager, I was hesitant to say my dad was right. He was. I received a B.S.E., which was definitely the road less travelled then (in my major, women constituted only 5 percent of those receiving bachelors degrees). But it was taking that road that made all of the difference in my career.

Even after pursuing a law degree, there have been countless times when having an engineering undergraduate degree has proven invaluable. For example, after staying at home full-time with my two young children for six years, I sought to re-enter the workforce. My engineering degree and technical professional experience as a network engineer helped hiring personnel at my re-entry employer overlook my gap in employment history. And I got other positions along the way both in the private sector and in the federal government because I was someone who could speak the language of law as well as technology. More recently, I was able to tap these skills while working as the lead on cybersecurity policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology. There, one of the joys of my job was speaking to groups of young women and encouraging them to pursue STEM careers.

It is a real personal pleasure for me to work with a Foundation that has stepped up to support STEM education in concrete ways and understands that tomorrow's technological innovation grows from supporting and enhancing the STEM pipeline of today. Along with many in the US technology sector, Akamai is actively exploring ways to do more in this area. It's vital to our company and vital to our country.

As someone who was a bit of an unintentional pioneer, I exhort the high school Math Olympians and other students with an interest in STEM fields to do all that you can to define your own path to professional excellence. Maybe you'll do what the Akamai founders did and invent an industry. Maybe you'll find the cure for a disease. Just be passionate about what you do and ignite that passion in others. As for me, those two young children that I stayed home for are well on their way to STEM careers - one is a software engineer and the other is a mathematics and finance major in college. Go ahead, be STEM!

Lauren Van Wazer is Vice President of Global Public Policy at Akamai.