Women in Science
Three Female Scientists Reflect on Their Field
Something is happening in Michiana. Bethel College has undergraduates, led by Professor Lynne Cary, Ph.D., doing advanced research on breast cancer. Saint Mary’s College received the largest grant in its history – to remodel its Science Hall. They also received a National Science Foundation grant to promote scholarships for their students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). This past spring, IUSB hosted a panel discussion about women in science and women’s prehistory.
What’s going on? Don’t women traditionally avoid math and science?
That’s the stereotype, of course, and it’s one that many women are working to change. A recent National Public Radio story discussed the way in which the stereotype about women not being capable in math and science has modern repercussions, even though women have made progress in STEM fields. Psychologist Claude Steele and his colleagues found: “When women were reminded, even subtly, of the stereotype that men were better than women at math, the performance of women in math tests measurably declined. Since the reduction in performance came about because women were threatened by the stereotype, the psychologists called the phenomenon ‘stereotype threat.’” The story argues that this may be one reason why many tech companies and university math departments often have more men than women in STEM fields.
So what are women in our area doing to keep the progress of women on track and move beyond this stereotype threat? We talked to three female scientists to find out.
Women make up 46.6 percent of the U.S. labor force today, according to the nonprofit organization Catalyst, which works to expand opportunities for women in business. It’s difficult to find an exact figure on how many participate in the math and science fields, but Newsweek reports that 48 percent of all medical degrees are now earned by women.
The bag is mixed, though, especially when one takes a longer view. A glance through the history books of science reveals few recognizable female names: Marie Curie, Rachel Carson, S. Josephine Baker and Florence Nightingale are a few, but they are far outweighed by the Newtons, Franklins and Bells. In fact, only two women have ever won the Nobel Prize in physics, four in chemistry and ten in physiology/medicine.
But since the 1960s and 70s women’s movement, new names are being added to the lists, and those women who are in science are helping others along the path. The Association for Women in Science (NWIS) was founded in 1971 by 27 female scientists, and they now offer scholarships and grant opportunities for women scientists nationwide. Their local chapter is NWIS Notre Dame.
Their work, plus good teaching and good parenting, has made a great difference in the lives of young scientists. For example, Saint Mary’s biology assistant professor Cassie Majetic, Ph.D., first developed an interest in science, particularly ecology, because of her time with the Girl Scouts, her family’s support and her teachers’ encouragement. Even in high school, Majetic was fascinated by Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, a landmark book that helped launch the current environmental movement. “In high school, I was always encouraged by my teachers in the sciences. There was no sense of ‘You're a girl and girls can't excel in science or math.’ Instead, my teachers recognized that I had an aptitude and was stimulated by science, so they encouraged me to go for it. In college, I was surrounded by both male and female biology professors, and I never had a feeling of gender discrimination.”
Similarly, Stephanie Dolph, a technical expert in spectroscopy (how instruments work) and a New Carlisle native, was inspired by her New Prairie high school chemistry teacher, Kim Holifield: “She got me excited about this type of science and I enjoyed balancing chemical equations, learning about pH and all the other basic chemistry concepts taught in high school This class intrigued me enough to pursue chemistry in college.”
Building on the work ethic she learned from her father, a baker for Dainty Maid, Dolph sought and gained a summer internship with a perfume company in South Bend. This better prepared her before graduation, when she was offered a position with industry-leader Pfizer at their office in Connecticut. She’s been with them since 2006 and has nearly completed her Master’s degree in clinical laboratory chemistry and biotechnology from the University of Rhode Island.
Creating a Future
So what are women doing in the sciences? Take Cary’s work at Bethel as one example. When she came to Bethel in 2004 after a career as a research scientist at The University of Notre Dame, she knew she wanted to revolutionize the college’s program. Using a Lilly Endowment QUEST grant and after the construction of the new science wing in 2007, all the pieces were in place. Inspired by the plight of her friend who was suffering from breast cancer, Cary and her students started studying the biomarkers of BRCA1, a gene linked to the disease. In particular, they focus on the fact that not all patients respond to chemotherapy treatments in the same way, possibly because different tumors have different biomarkers. This is revolutionary work, especially for undergraduates, but Cary has high goals: “I want to grow the research experience so students can compete with other students from top schools,” she says.
Majetic’s work is more centered on plant biology than human. She studies potential connections between the odors and colors of flowers and their pollination. Recently, her work “branched out to consider how other aspects of the environment might shape floral scent production, a phenomenon called phenotypic plasticity.” Like Cary, Majetic is an instructor, but at an all-women’s college. She says, “Part of the fun for me is convincing [my students] looking for options beyond health care that plants are really amazing and/or the environment is vitally important, so you should consider exploring those fields for careers!”
In the past ten years, there has been additional national support for women’s research in the sciences. The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) ADVANCE program has the goal of increasing the “representation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers, thereby contributing to the development of a more diverse science and engineering workforce.” In its more than ten years of existence, the NSF has given over $130 million to ADVANCE projects.
A New Image
Female scientists are becoming a Hollywood and media trope as well. They are lead or featured characters on the “The Big Bang Theory,” “CSI,” “NCIS” and “Bones,” among others. And a female character played by Jessica Chastain is the featured analyst in the new movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow. In fact, Chastain’s character is based on a real female analyst, codenamed “Jen” in the memoir No Easy Day. Women have made great inroads in this role at the CIA. The first team assembled in the 1990s to analyze data about Al Qaeda was staffed almost entirely by women, according to a September 2012 Newsweek article.
While Cary, Dolph and Majetic may not be on the big screen any time soon, their work is changing people’s lives. They encourage other women to join the sciences as well, if that’s where their interests lie.
“I'd say that ecology and evolution today, within plant evolutionary ecology, is a pretty open space in which women can thrive,” reflects Majetic, “The general trend in all of biology seems to be in that direction.”
“The sciences are always changing,” says Dolph, “and this promotes constant learning and always makes the job interesting and enjoyable. Each day is something new, and I never feel bored. I am constantly stimulated and having to think on my toes.”