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BU Student Riley Leighton Talks Following Your Passions and Being a Woman in STEM

Picture this: I’m at yoga during my first week at Boston University. I had just driven in from the middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania, and I was now surrounded by all new faces. But during this yoga session, I turned and saw a face I knew that I had seen before… and it was Riley Leighton! Riley was a friend of mine from freshman year of high school who moved out of state, and we, unfortunately, lost contact. But there she was right in front of me on the BU Beach! I walked up to her, reintroduced myself, and ever since then, we’ve kept in contact and restarted our previous friendship.

And just as I got the chance to meet Riley again, I feel like everyone else should meet Riley, too! She’s truly phenomenal — Riley is smart, down-to-earth, funny, and extremely kind. She’s always walking with a friend or two, she’s always smiling, and she just has that personality that makes you feel happy. So let’s get to the interview!

Q: what brought you to BU? has bu lived up to your expectations?

A: I am from Pittsburgh, PA, but I grew up in Harrisburg, PA and I now live in California in the L.A. area. When I was in high school, I honestly didn’t know where I wanted to go to school, but I did know that I wanted to be in the city and that I also wanted to have a clearly defined campus. I also knew that I wanted to study biomedical engineering on a pre-med track. When I was doing my college research, I found out about BU and found out that they had an excellent engineering and pre-med program. I really like the idea of doing a senior project — which is what you do at BU’s engineering program — because I feel like it gives you a lot of hands-on experience that you can later use in the field. This was really important to me when I was deciding on where I wanted to go to school as well. I didn’t get to visit the school before I committed, and about three months before I came to BU was actually the first time that I was in Boston, and it was everything that I wanted and more. When I came to visit, even though it wasn’t on a tour, it was the first school where I felt like I actually belonged. BU has lived up to my every expectation and has gone beyond them.

Q: What is your major? What do you hope to do in the future?

A: My major is biomedical engineering on a pre-med track. I decided to do biomedical engineering because when I was younger I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I liked engineering and wanted to be a physician. Biomedical engineering is really the perfect mix of the two of them together. And although I want to go to med-school, biomedical engineering is a really good backup plan if I change my mind or don’t end up getting into med-school because I know that I will still end up doing something that I love, and I will have the opportunity to help people no matter what I do. If I do end up in the engineering field during my career, there are so many things that I would like to do with my degree. I would like to work on artificial organs and use different materials in order to make working organs with people’s own stem cells. I would also like to work on making medical devices that are more accessible and affordable to the general public because, at the moment, a lot of the current technology is not accessible to the general public.

Q: how do you feel you are making an impact as a woman in STEM? how Has BU prepared you?

A: I feel like just by being a woman in STEM you impact the field. The more diversity there is in a room, the more diverse ideas there are. And increasing diversity will help people in the field create technology that helps to impact more people in a better way. I think that being here also encourages other women to join the field, which is extremely important for the future of technology especially in biomedical engineering and other medical fields. I think that BU helps us to prepare for the field and being a woman in STEM, especially during our engineering seminar sessions. There, we learn about how diversity in engineering impacts technology and how, at the moment, the lack of diversity is impacting technology, like facial recognition devices. BU really helps us to understand why it is important to have a diverse team working on a project.

Q: Do you have any other life experiences that resemble your current experience as a female student in a male-dominated field?

A: Starting from when I was about 8-years-old to the end of high school, I did martial arts. This is an extremely male-dominated sport where sometimes, during competitions, I was the only girl in an age division. I used to have to get permission from my instructors and my parents in order to compete against them, and then when I would win, they would tell me after that they were going easy on me, to which I would tell them that they shouldn’t have. I think that growing up in this kind of environment gave me a unique perspective of what it is like being in a male-dominated field because I don’t always notice the gender gap until someone points it out to me since I’m so used to being the only woman in a room. But I also have already experienced the sexism that comes with it during competitions.

Q: What would you tell other women or anyone else looking into STEM or engineering?

A: When you go into STEM, a lot of people are going to tell you how difficult it is and how most people drop out, but no one tells you how fun it’s going to be and how you will get through it. So yes, while it is hard and you are going to have people ask you why you’re doing what you are doing, it’s worth it. It is so exciting when you finally get a program to work correctly. There’s nothing like watching a project form from start to finish and seeing your designs become real things. Also even though it’s difficult, you can get through it and you will get through it. The difficulty is what makes it worth it in the end.

Here’s one thing we can all learn from Riley: follow your gut and never give up. There will be times when you feel like giving up is the only option, but you have to persevere — if not for you, then for everyone looking up to you. You’ve got this!

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Boston University 2025 International Relations Student Lover of dogs, coffee, and movies :)
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