Friday, July 27, 2012

Scientess Continuum

 This week I had the pleasure to work with a group of women on a new lab protocol. This group was a great representation of women in science: a high school senior interested in biology, an undergraduate sophomore double-majoring in chemistry and genetics, two research assistants (one of which has a background in microbiology and recently earned a GIS certificate), me, and a middle-school science teacher with daughters of her own who are teachers.
The research assistants are in a lab working on a next-generation sequencing (NGS) project using genotyping-by-sequencing (GBS), and I volunteered to help lead the group in the lab work, despite having only done the protocol once before! The lab work wasn’t perfect (is it ever?!), and we’ll have to redo some parts, but it has been a great experience ‘leading’ the group. Yesterday at lunch we had a conversation about women in science after I mentioned the study about women’s interactions with other scientists. There were more interesting comments than I can remember, but here are a few points that I think resonate beyond our particular experiences: 
  • Middle school is tough 
  • Middle school seems to be when girls realize that being excited about science (and school in general) is uncool. The middle school teacher noted that her 8th grade girls never answer questions in class, but that she has hopes for a cohort of 6th grade girls who are outspoken and engaged. We agreed that middle school is the time when we became aware of social pressures and the desire to be cool, even if we enjoyed school.
  •  High school is also tough
  •  One research assistant noted that she had been the only woman in an undergraduate math and statistics course. The undergraduate noted that she’s been the only woman in some of her chemistry classes (she attends a small college, but still!). It does seem like biology classes are the exception, and I know that at least in biology more women major and receive advanced degrees than men. Although I can only speculate as to why, I’m excited for the possibility for ‘capacity building’ in biology and spillover into related fields. 
  • If we encourage women in the sciences, we need to make sure that there are good jobs available for them once they finish so we don’t lose them. And spots in graduate programs don’t count!
  • I was indeed invigorated by working with them. Except for the research assistants, we were all volunteers, excited and willing to work together. It was a nice change from teaching introduction biology labs, I must say, where students feel like they’re forced to be there. Even in those undergraduate labs, being excited about science is still uncool.
  I can tell I’ve been thinking a lot about issues of women in science lately, much more so than in undergrad or graduate school. I valued the chance to interact with women across the science community, and hope to do it again soon, even if it means appearing ‘uncool’. It’ll be worth it.


  1. I was so heartened at the awards ceremony for graduating seniors at my small liberal arts school last year. The top prizes in Chemistry, Math, Computer Science and Biology ALL went to women! I think the time is coming when men are the ones we will worry about. My most troubled students are almost exclusively white males...

  2. That's very interesting - I can think of examples of that as well, though I wonder if that's because that demographic is still the most prevalent in colleges? Perhaps we should encourage the boys with a little bribe:
    This was an interesting story I heard, perhaps only slightly related, but maybe girls, now that they have the opportunity, are doing well because their inner drive is enough 'encouragement' on their own...