Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Getting More Minorities and Women Into Science

Today I read a post by See Jane Compute on diversity. This topic is one of my passions. As of yet, I really haven't had the chance to influence this area, other than serving as a role model, and writing this blog.

I entirely agree that it is really difficult to get underrepresented groups into the science, technology, math, and engineering fields (STEM). I'd like to talk a little about my experiences in this area.

My mom is a chemist and my dad is an MS physicist. Most of my family is in engineering or medicine. I have two aunts who are engineers and three uncles. You could say that my family is supportive of women in STEM. I have always been interested in science and engineering and my family has always been encouraging. When I was 10 I wanted to be a meteorologist, 12 an ichthyologist, 15 an engineer, 16 a chemical engineering, and low and behold I am!

When I was entering my senior year of high school I had to make some choices. I was in yearbook, french, and AP science, and math. I wanted to take AP chem and AP physics. To do this, I needed to drop either yearbook or french. I decided to drop french to allow me two take both sciences. I was also enrolled in AP english and AP BC calc. My counselor thought that it might be too 'hard' to take two sciences in the same year. She advised me to drop AP chem and continue with french. I told her, "look I want to be an engineer. I'm going to college next year. If I can't handle two sciences and a math now, I'm in big trouble." Reluctantly, they let me take both sciences. I made all A's.

The point is that I did not receive encouragement. The counselors thought that I couldn't handle a load that was inconsequential compared to a standard college load. When it came time to apply for colleges, I applied to MIT. I think I might have been the first one (at least in years) to do so. The counselors again thought that I was 'aiming too high.' I was accepted (although I didn't attend for financial reasons). They were really shocked. But the only reason that I was successful, was because of the constant support of my family. If I had not had this backing, I am quite sure I would probably be a linguistics major or something. [nothing wrong with linguistics. I actually love it.]

In undergrad, I received a great deal of support from society of women engineers. We were really quite a group. The older students set up tutoring for the younger ones. We hung out together. We went to national conferences together. The recent grads helped get jobs for the graduating seniors. It was something else. Many of those from my network went on to grad school and are beginning faculty positions like myself. This support made my success possible, because I felt comfortable in the environment, because of the other women supporting me.

In grad school, my advisor was a woman. I had a mentor who was a senior professor with four children from newborn to age 10. I participated in preparing future faculty programs and WEPAN. I had support at every turn. Even when I had my children, which is a bit unusual, my colleagues were nothing but supportive and happy. [well mostly, a few of the male profs did make some offhanded remarks.]

Despite all my fears that I won't achieve tenure, can't maintain work life balance, and will never see my children, I am a 'success' story. To achieve this, I had extraordinary amounts of support. Unfortunately, the environment for women and minorities is hostile [see my post just what is the bias against women in science]. Each student that we ferry through the pipeline will require someone at every step of the way saying you can do this, others have done this, other women/minorities, this is your place, you are normal. And that, as Jane said, is hard.


At 9:13 PM , Blogger EthidiumBromide said...

I faced similar experiences as you - when in high school, our honors science program worked such that you took honors biology as a freshman, honors chemistry as a sophomore, honors physics as a junior, and senior year you could choose one of the three for an AP class. Of course, I came through and asked to take AP biology as a junior along with honors physics so that I could take AP chem my senior year, and just not take Spanish as a junior. My guidance counselor informed me that I would “suffer a mental breakdown” if I attempted this and so I went to discuss the matter with my high school principal, who questioned if it was appropriate for a girl to take two science courses in a year. I then went straight to the superintendent of the school district who reluctantly gave me permission. The result? A 4.0 both my junior and senior years of high school, went on to college where I achieved a BA in Biology and BS in Political Science, along with minors in math and chemistry, and now I am enrolled in a PhD program in oncology with a concentration in pharmacology. And out of the first year PhD students in the program, the only ones accepted straight out of undergrad without first getting a masters’ degree are all female. Yes, obviously females can’t handle taking two science courses at once. Not listening to my guidance counselor and principal was the smartest thing that I ever did.

At 5:41 PM , Anonymous Nuthatch said...

When I was in high school, despite my life-long interest in science, it never occurred to me to become any sot of scientist -- it wasn't presented to me, it wasn't portrayed in the media, it wasn't encouraged. Ergo, it took me many years to wind through a couple of careers and end up a scientist. I've written about women in science on my blog as well, and I'm glad I found yours.

At 10:58 AM , Blogger eve said...

Im actually a recent graduate trying to embark on the doctorate journey in the biomedical engineering field.
Searched for mentors but not been fortunate so far.
But reading your blog does encourage me and keeps me focused on not giving up on my dreams.

At 1:04 PM , Anonymous Inkycircus said...

I'm sure that guidance counsellors and teachers only say 'aren't you aiming too high?' because they are scared you'll be disappointed, but surely it's got to be worse to know that you didn't give it a go? I wish they wouldn't do that, but it certainly does give you a kick up the butt to say 'you think I can't do it? I'll show you...'.

Maybe one day women and men will be equally represented in science. There is absolutely no reason why they shouldn't be. Your blog is inspiring and I really hope you get tenure soon so you can start mentoring other young women going into science, and can show them that they can achieve whatever they want to.


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