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Thoughts from Women to Watch celebration May 15, 2012

Posted by Connie Chow in Executive Director Musings, General Post, women in science.
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It was such an exceptional experience (though it shouldn’t) to be in a roomful of highly accomplished women. It was certainly an honor for me to be recognized as a woman to watch by Mass High Tech, amidst CEOs, principal investigators and leads of biopharma, technology and engineering endeavors. It is to Mass High Tech and the selection committee’s credit to recognize that STEM education, even informal education, as squarely a field within science, technology and engineering.

Awardees’ stories were inspirational and instructive (we were told to share advice as if with a sixth grader). Risk taking, perseverance, hard work, finding passion were major themes.

I share mine below.

A: Art is just as important as science.
B. Beautiful experiences are worth hoarding. Beautiful things: worth a look, keep a few.
C. Curiosity keeps you from being cornered by boredom.
D: Dare to think and be different.
E: Eat for enjoyment. Food is a gift.
F: Fail with flair.
G: Goblins may be Outside Over There, but that’s the only way to grow (Note: Hat tip to Maurice Sendak who just passed away).
H. Heroes are ordinary people making themselves extraordinary. And remember, heroes holler and so can you.
I. Imagination is powerful. Imagine yourself full of power.
J. Jump for joy, for your own success and other’s, and for no reason at all.

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Immunologist, Linda Yang’s Letter to her Younger Self April 27, 2012

Posted by Science Club for Girls in Letter to Young Self, women in science.
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Linda Yang is a postdoctoral fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.  While attending graduate school at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, she studied metabolic pathways underlying obesity.  This lead to examining how metabolic pathways define cancer and now she is currently studying tumor immunology.

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How do I begin to tell you the adventures your scientific career will take you on?   Do I tell you everything or leave some stories as a surprise?  A little hint is that your love of science will take you to NYC where you pursue a doctorate in biology.  Eventually you’ll meet your husband, a fellow graduate student, while working hard in lab. You realize you don’t have to hide behind how smart you are to get a guy to like you.  Just be the wonderfully inquisitive, thoughtful, and intelligent person you are and boys will get that and like that about you.

Always remember to stay curious because this will be the foundation of your love of science.   Ask questions like how do plants grow and why is the sky blue and have fun in the pursuit of the answers.   Eventually this will lead to asking bigger questions with more difficult answers like how does cancer form and how do we cure it?

Above all, remember that liking science doesn’t make you nerdy and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.  Keep working hard and doing well in school.  There will definitely be days you won’t want to do this but stick to it.  Your perseverance will lead to a rewarding career finding cures to help sick people and along the way you’ll make wonderful friends that will last a lifetime.   Don’t be too self-conscious and remember that what makes you different will be your strength.  Be confident, adventurous, laugh easily, and don’t worry so much about what your next step should be.  Pursue the things that interest you and the rest will fall in place.

Virologist Researcher, Sarah Pagni’s letter to her 16-year old self April 27, 2012

Posted by Science Club for Girls in Letter to Young Self, women in science.
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Sarah Pagni is a  PhD candidate at Mount Sinai School of Medicine studying how dengue virus modulates the human immune system.  She earned her Bachelors degree at Mount Holyoke College majoring in biochemstry and minoring in art history.

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Dear Sarah, age 16, fall 2000,

I’m sure you aren’t going to want to hear this but I’m just going to say it, junior year of high school isn’t your best year.  Take a deep breath, you’ll do perfectly well in your classes, but everything is much harder this year than before.  Right now you’re struggling through Mr. Noll’s physics class and I know it doesn’t seem fair that you were put into the extremely hard class and other people are coasting through the easier class right now but believe me, this is a good thing.  While I never came to really love physics and the class does not get easier as the year goes on (sorry), Mr. Noll really pushed me to think critically.  To do experiments to answer my questions.   To always ask why.   And he’s right, physics makes a lot more sense with “the calculus”.  The two semesters of physics you’ll take in college are so much easier than the year in high school; it makes so much more sense.  Most importantly, this year of physics torture will be a very transformative one for you; the one thing that Mr. Noll really imparts to you is to be passionate about what you do in life.  I’ve probably only met a handful of people who truly, absolutely love what they do as much as he loved teaching high school juniors and seniors physics.  And you’ll decide that’s what you want; no, not the physics, but the passion.

By the way later this year, a guy in your English class is going to break a plate over his head (more…)

Meeting with Women in STEM from around Africa April 20, 2012

Posted by Connie Chow in Executive Director Musings, STEM pipeline efforts, women in science.
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Earlier this week, I met with four scientists and engineers from Africa, who were here in the United States for the first time, as part of the Department of State’s International Visitors Leadership Program, hosted by WorldBoston.

They included Ms. Kobamelo DIKGOLA, Principal Hydrological Engineer, Department of Water Affairs, from Botswana; Ms. Ayuni Segum FAI, Operations and Maintenance Supervisor, MTN Cameroon (a communications company); Ms. Josephine Aku Holanyo ECKLU, Teaching Assistant, Department of Food Process Engineering, University of Ghana; and Mrs. Celestina Nkem STEVE-OBIAGO, Founder/ Chief Executive Officer, Sonec Confectionaries in Nigeria.

Sister Ann Fox of the Paraclete Academy, who has been working on a STEM school for girls in Rwanda for the last decade, joined us. Sister Fox and I discussed with them how they can design and adapt similar programs back in their countries.

As a handful of women in science and engineering in their own communities, they were highly aware of the need to attract and mentor more young women into these fields, and were particularly interested in learning about our programs here and in Ghana. In fact, both Ms. Ecklu and Ms. Steve-Obiago already mentor young women, in academics and in entrepreneurship. They were particularly interested in shared curricula ideas and I also shared some books from Sally Ride Science, which they eagerly accepted.

The larger issues of gender stereotyping and class were much more pronounced in their home countries, and formed major barriers to getting girls and young women interested in science and other male-dominated fields. They agreed that building girls’ confidence is a key step in sustaining their efforts, and role models and practical experience are essential in fueling their interest.

Much to my delight, I discovered that Ms. Josephine volunteers with the Ghana Sustainable Aid Project in Pokuase, where we have Science Clubs. We will definitely see each other again!

What’s equity in politics got to do with parity in science and engineering? March 22, 2012

Posted by Connie Chow in Executive Director Musings, STEM pipeline efforts, women in science.
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A version of this post appeared first on Aspire Wire, Wheelock College’s blog on Advancing Social and Educational Policy, Practice, and Research

Worldwide, merit alone has not led to gender equity in appointments in public office, business and certainly not tenure in science and engineering. Disappointingly, a recent report suggests that it will take another 40 years before 50% of new academic hires in STEM in the United States will be female. Supply and attrition are significant contributors. The degree to which personal choice, institutional practice, and societal norms are involved can be debated.

“Quota” is often a dirty word in the United States. And that puts us behind many countries, such as Rwanda, Namibia and Bangladesh – countries that have used this temporary measure to increase the number of women officials at the highest levels of government. While India still has fewer than 10% women in parliament (because of continuous opposition to legislation to reserve seats for women by the lower house), Dr. Pam Rajput of Punjab University has been instrumental in putting over a million women in local office, which does have a 33% quota, by methodically and doggedly training urban and rural women, uneducated and with higher degrees, in the last 30 years. This has resulted in significant changes in policies around education and public health, improving not only the lives of girls and women, but entire communities.

While a quota system (hopefully voluntarily implemented by institutions) may accelerate change for women and girls in STEM, it will not be enough.

Current efforts to broaden participation in STEM for girls and women and those from underrepresented groups at all levels, from outreach programs for K-12, research opportunities and scholarships for university students, mentoring programs for graduate students and initiatives like ADVANCE, are essential but not sufficiently far-reaching. A practical tool increasingly used by government, businesses and academia in the EU and other countries is called a gender audit, or gender sensitive budgeting.

Instead of just having a numerical target for equity, this tool encourages thoughtful review and discussion of recruitment and hiring practices, workplace or program policies, and other elements that can hinder or promote equity. Moreover, gender auditing asks for the collection of gender-disaggregated data (as well as race, class or other factors as are relevant), that helps set baseline data, identify gaps, monitor progress and test effectiveness of program changes. Recommendations are not just hortatory. Review and reallocation of the budget ensures that proper resources are provided to go the extra mile in implementing necessary policies and slowly reverse any discriminatory practices, intended or otherwise. Importantly, it is an educational tool that opens the eyes of individuals, departmental units and institutions so that women and underrepresented groups don’t carry the full burden of advocating for themselves.

And this is why participation of gender-sensitive women and men at all levels of decision making becomes important if we are to transform the ivory tower, especially for STEM. When a more diverse group of people are committed AND have the ability to direct resources to creating girl- and women-friendly policies in our society, which are at the end family-, human- and earth-friendly policies, then more people in turn can make decisions about who can do science, what engineering research is legitimate, what are appropriate applications of science, technology and engineering. Then and only then can we escape the shackles of business as usual and incremental change. Let’s not let the wait be any longer.