Friday, October 4, 2013

Defying Gravity and Success is the Best Revenge - Nurturing STEM Talent in Our Students, Females and Males

The article by Eileen Pollack in The New York Times, Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science? is a must read. Eileen was one of only two females to receive an undergrad degree in physics from Yale in 1978 and writes eloquently about her experiences and those of other females then and more recently in the pursuit of studies in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. She asks a fundamental question as to why still in the new millennium there are so few women in science and math. The conclusion reached in her very thoughtful and well-written article, filled with highlights from various studies as well as personal stories, is that it is the culture and the lack of support and mentorship.

She ends her aticle by describing a picnic back at Yale recently at which there were several female grad students (it was a picnic for the physics and astrophysics departments) in which there were a few female grad students including one African American.  Pollack concludes as follows:
The young black woman told me she did her undergraduate work at a historically black college, then entered a master’s program designed to help minority students develop the research skills and one-on-one mentoring relationships that would help them make the transition to a Ph.D. program. Her first year at Yale was rough, but her mentors helped her through. “As my mother always taught me,” she said, “success is the best revenge.” 

As so many studies have demonstrated, success in math and the hard sciences, far from being a matter of gender, is almost entirely dependent on culture — a culture that teaches girls math isn’t cool and no one will date them if they excel in physics; a culture in which professors rarely encourage their female students to continue on for advanced degrees; a culture in which success in graduate school is a matter of isolation, competition and ridiculously long hours in the lab; a culture in which female scientists are hired less frequently than men, earn less money and are allotted fewer resources.

The above speaks to resiliency and the role that, we, as educators, have in nurturing talent and confidence in our students, both females and males alike, in technical fields.  I teach in a business school but have 3 degrees in Applied Math, with a PhD in the specialty of operations research.  I love math, computer programming, and the applications that our tools and methodologies can help to formulate and solve from transportation to financial services to healthcare to logistics and supply chains. I have written about gender inequality in business schools as well.

A kind sentence can make a difference in a student's life and can give her (or him) the confidence to believe in her or himself and to pursue  advanced degrees and careers in areas where you may stand out (this may have some negatives, at first, but people will remember you).

My seventh grade math teacher, Mrs. Fuller, back in Yonkers, NY, said to me, "One day you will be a calculus professor." That statement has stayed with me to this day as have those that have said: "Anna, being a professor is the loneliest profession," and "Anna, the higher you rise, the greater of a target you will be." The latter two were by two of my male professors at Brown and there is wisdom in both statements, which I appreciate.

And culture is clearly so important so we need to increase the visibility of female scientists, engineers, and also business professionals and scholars. The Times article noted the rather stereotypical representation of female scientists and females in the TV series Big Bang Theory.

Let me give you a VERY cool and REAL example of a top female scientist, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the UMass Rising gala event last April that I wrote about -- the astronaut Dr. Cady Coleman. Cady received her undergrad degree from MIT and her PhD from UMass Amherst in polymer science and engineering.

The photo of Cady and me below was taken at the UMass Rising gala. Cady lives in western Massachusetts with her husband and son when not training and flying in outer space. She was one of the Masters of the Ceremony (along with Ken Feinberg).
There was an article yesterday in our local newspaper, the great Daily Hampshire Gazette (DHG), about Dr. Cady Coleman and how she consulted with Sandra Bullock on the movie Gravity, which will be released today and which also stars George Clooney. She was also featured in Mother Jones with the full article here as well as in Wired. 

In the DHG article, Cady states: I think it's an especially good film for girls. They need models of strong, courageous women who may not always know what to do, but can figure it out. I liked it, in that respect.

 So do be positive with your students -- a few words that recognize talent and an achievement can change a direction of a life!