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UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Summer 2012

Summer 2012by Karen Gross

Geek Becomes Her

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Getting young women excited about pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math isn’t easy, but it’s necessary.


For 13-year-old Katie Blessing, pursuing her dream of becoming a marine scientist has been a no-brainer. Now a bubbly eighth-grade student and avid science buff, Blessing says as far back as she can remember, the blue waters of the Pacific beckoned.

“I really started to think about it when I was little, just looking at the ocean,” she says. “The first question I asked myself was, ‘What’s in the ocean and what is it all about?’”

Blessing is clear about her career path, but the world of science hasn’t historically been so welcoming to girls and young women. When Biology Professor Sue Lowery was a college student in Mississippi in the 1970s, it was rare for a woman to be admitted to medical school. And when, armed with her own degree in zoology, she began applying for jobs in medical research, Lowery found out why.“I went to several interviews where people said, ‘Oh, we would never hire you. I don’t know why they sent you here,’” she recalls, adding that prospective male employers would reject her out of hand, certain that she would inevitably leave the field to become a mother. Lowery persisted, eventually earning her PhD in marine biology and carving a successful career path as an academic, and fervent champion of the underrepresented.

“Obviously we have a lot of catching up to do. We were purposely excluded from these fields several decades ago,” she says.

Encouraging young women to pursue the so-called STEM professions — science, technology, engineering and math — has become a passion not only for Lowery and her USD colleagues, but also for ranks of female scientists and researchers across the country. A sweeping research survey released by the American Association of University Women in 2010 titled, “Why So Few?” found that while the picture is improving, especially in medicine, biology and the life sciences, career opportunities for women still lag far behind in physics and engineering. And in computer science, their numbers have actually declined after rising for several years.

The reasons for the disparity are vast and varied: Popular culture often depicts scientists as socially awkward, geeky men, not to mention an ongoing implicit bias, which still sends school-aged girls the message that math class is hard, as Teen Talk Barbie once famously said. While there’s ample proof that girls score just as well as boys in high school math and science courses, fewer pursue STEM majors in college. And among those who do, the likelihood of dropping out somewhere along the pipeline is higher than it is for their male counterparts.

“It’s been found that if girls are not doing extremely well, they’ll transfer to something else where they will do extremely well,” says Kathleen Kramer, professor and director of the engineering program at USD. “It’s more likely that a male student will just shrug and say, ‘Cs get degrees.’”

So what does it take to convince more young women to sign up for a STEM career and keep their eyes on the prize all the way through graduate school? It helps to begin early, with a target group of eager and open-minded girls, and offer them accessible outlets to explore.

Both Kramer and Lowery work with that critical cluster through Expanding Your Horizons (EYH), a national organization dedicated to nurturing middle and high school aged girls’ interest in science and math. As president of the local chapter, Lowery recently co-chaired the group’s 10th annual conference on the USD campus. Some 400 girls took part in hands-on workshops where they tried activities ranging from crime scene investigation to chromatography to building towers with spaghetti and marshmallows.

“It’s difficult to get a really good hands-on workshop for students,” says Kramer, who sits on the committee for the San Diego chapter. “You want them to love it, and you want it to be effective.”

Judging by the number of girls who come back year after year, EYH excels on both fronts.

“Because of what’s happened before in science, how men have always been dominant, I like how this empowers women to get more into it,” said ninth-grader Symone Carreno, who was attending for the third time. “You get to do science with a bunch of other girls who are interested in the same stuff as you are.”

Another third-time participant, Katie Blessing was just as excited. “I love that it’s so interactive,” she said. “They encourage you to try new things and follow your goals.”

In order to make the subject matter more accessible, EYH recruits young mentors who shepherd groups of girls between workshops and answer questions about college majors and career choices. Most of them are undergraduates in one of the STEM fields. USD junior Amy Bowers, a biology major, has mentored for several years. She says it’s as rewarding for her as it is for the younger girls. “I like encouraging them. Even though we are women, and women aren’t that prominent in science, we can change that,” she says. “It’s really fun to see their eyes light up they realize they could have a career doing something they really enjoy.”

That’s the entire point of EYH, adds ardent supporter Neena Din. Assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Din has taken part in the EYH conference for several years and runs a workshop about cells, microbes and DNA.

“It’s all about getting the girls excited about these fields,” she says. “Especially math, which is obviously very important to getting them interested in physics and engineering.”

But when it comes to those two specific fields, the hurdles remain very high. Even at USD — where numbers surpass the national average — only about one quarter of engineering students and one fifth of the faculty are female. According to the National Science Foundation, just 12 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees and 17 percent of degrees in physics are awarded to women. Getting girls past these daunting statistics and stubborn barriers, which include subtle stereotypes, implicit bias, and a mostly-male work environment, can be tricky.

One key to the problem might be better marketing; studies show that women want to see the results of their work and know that it’s making a difference in peoples’ lives. And explaining what engineers actually do is crucial, says Debra Kimberling, a mechanical engineer at Solar Turbines, who spoke at the EYH conference.

“Young women need to know that they can make a contribution to society,” she explains. “That engineering is a viable field, it’s not just for nerds.”

At USD, female faculty are working hard to push science students further along the pipeline and to help them succeed beyond their undergraduate degrees. Through the Bridges to Doctoral Institutions program, the university sends two women to research-intensive institutions the summer after their junior year, increasing their chances of attending top-notch graduate programs.

Professor Deborah Tahmassebi, chair of USD’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, says that in many ways, science is still a man’s world. She sees it as her role, and that of her colleagues, to help female students feel like they fit. “I think it takes some good role models to pave the way,” she says. “And I have to say, that’s just not the case at many institutions. When you look around and try to find somebody who looks like you, you just don’t find them.”

Twenty years have passed since Teen Talk Barbie was silenced and forced to keep her controversial views on math to herself. Many academic institutions are making changes and working to draw more women into the sciences and keep them there. Programs such as Expand Your Horizons are growing, with teachers, parents and school administrators increasingly setting their sights on school-aged girls.

At the end of the day, says Kathleen Kramer, what young women really need is a strong dose of confidence. It’s a world that may not feel like home yet, but there’s only one way to change that. “As an engineer, I’m not used to being in the majority,” she laughs. “If (being a woman in a man’s world) was upsetting or threatening to me, then I’d need to change fields.”