Proving that Yes, Times Do Change

By Paul Harasim

In 1949 only 5.5% of entering medical school students were women, with 6% of the physician workforce comprised of women. In 2017, the Association of American Medical Colleges reported that the number of women enrolled in medical schools exceeded the number of men for the first time. Now, nearly 40% of working physicians are women.

Why the change? Because of people like Alexis Hilts, a member of the third class of UNLV School of Medicine students. She has used her public forum as Miss Nevada 2018 and as a contestant in the 2018 Miss America pageant to argue for far more diversity in all fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“I want all young people to see what they can accomplish,” said Hilts.

As a little girl, Hilts often asked her father about a plaque on the wall of their home that depicted a lake in rural Canada. Engraved on the artwork were the words, “Hilts Lake.”

The body of water was named after her grandfather, who had been a physician in a small Canadian town. “From a young age I have wanted to be like my grandfather, a physician with a profound impact on the community,” Hilts said.

Born and raised in Las Vegas, the 24-year-old summa cum laude graduate of the UNLV Honors College is largely known through the media as the young woman who won the 2018 Miss Nevada pageant that sent her as the state’s representative to the Miss America pageant.
With an abbreviated media background devoted only to her winning pageants, one could easily envision her living a life generally devoid of any gritty personal challenges.

As so often happens, however, a presumption made off of scant information is well off the mark.

She was 13 when her family life dramatically changed. Her parents’ tumultuous divorce left her caring for her 5-year-old sister. She fed her, took her to school and served as a parental figure.
“During this time, I was without parental guidance and relied on intrinsic motivation to achieve my goals. I also realized that, like me, there were other students navigating the education system without engaged role models. In this discovery, I found an opportunity to serve others as I had done for my sister.”

Over the next decade, the teenager who found joy in studying science, realized that the number of women and minorities in STEM were depressingly low, often because of discrimination.

Engineering occupations have the lowest share of women at 14%. Women comprise only one-fourth of workers in computer occupations.

Only 7% of African-American adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher are in the STEM workforce. College-educated Hispanics are just 6% of STEM workers.

After researching the disparity of minority representation in STEM, the young woman who earned bachelor’s degrees in biology and political science with a minor in neuroscience, created the “More than a Princess” program to encourage students, particularly women, to pursue careers in STEM. She went into area schools to introduce students to figures in the sciences they may not have heard about.

One of those individuals was Marie Daly, the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States. Born in 1921, she went on to do groundbreaking work on the causes of heart attacks.

Hilts has come to realize that everyone is facing their own battles in life.

“My grandfather battled cancer … I fought for stability and normalcy for my sister and myself,” Hilts said. “These battles … have shown me strength and motivated me to help others, especially children who need advocates.”