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Science-Focused Clubs Empower Young Women

By Julie R. Barzilay, Crimson Staff Writer

Eva Gillis-Buck ’12, a joint concentrator in Women, Gender, and Sexuality and Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology, has spent a great deal of her undergraduate career unpacking the gender paradigms that pervade autism and neuroscience research.

But whenever her studies of gender biases start to seem discouraging, Gillis-Buck says she looks to the inspiring women that work alongside her in her stem cell lab.

“They do not fulfill the stereotype of the geeky scientist alone in the corner,” she says. “They’re super smart but also very well-rounded, very fun, very silly.”

Understanding the importance of these types of role models inspired Gillis-Buck and Meredith A. MacGregor ’11 to launch the Harvard Science Club for Girls this past spring. The program sends Harvard women and other female scientists into schools each week to mentor young girls and foster enthusiasm about science.

“We’re not just there to convey information, but to show them that science can be fun,” Gillis-Buck says. “That you can be a scientist and have lots of interests and not look like Einstein.”

Harvard Science Club for Girls joins a growing contingent of campus organizations that support women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Among these groups are a new women’s science magazine called Women Innovating Science and Engineering (WISE) Words, WISHR (Women in Science at Harvard-Radcliffe) and WISTEM (a mentoring program for females in STEM fields run by the Women’s Center).

“The number of women who graduate with STEM degrees and continue on to the next phase shrinks at every step,” notes Women’s Center Director Gina Helfrich. “I largely understand groups for women in science to be a place that creates a sense of community and belonging for its members. Through that network of support, they help to keep women in the STEM pipeline.”

THE ‘WHOLE GIRL’

As Gillis-Buck explores the “pervasive and problematic theory” of “autism as the extreme male brain” for her thesis, she says she is excited about unpacking the consequences of doing neurobiological research under a gendered paradigm.

Her thesis touches on the distinction between what her advisor, History of Science and WGS Assistant Professor Sarah S. Richardson, calls the topic of “gender and science” and the topic of “women in science.”

The former, Richardson explains, deals with the way gender conceptions influence the content and practice of science. Meanwhile, issues of “women in science” deal with attracting women to STEM fields and with women’s status in these professions.

Richardson—who also serves as the faculty advisor for the Harvard Science Club for Girls—says she sees these issues as intrinsically linked.

“If a field of scientific research is systematically in its knowledge excluding women, as medicine once did, if it is perpetuating theories that are sexist or misogynist or in some way sex-biased, I would suggest that this may contribute to the hostility of that field towards women entering it,” she says.

Breaking stereotypes is one of the Harvard Science Club for Girls’ main missions. From anatomy to crystals to circuits, the Club’s lessons are meant to be diverse and engaging—but Gillis-Buck says the program is mainly about fostering “the whole girl” and demonstrating that “science is for everyone.”

The Club also provides a positive community for its older members, according to Gillis-Buck and Richardson.

“[Engaging with the young girls] puts them at the front lines of that work and will make them, as they move up the ranks, very sensitive ... leaders in the effort to draw women and girls into science,” Richardson says.

THE MERITS OF MENTORS

When WISHR Co-President Jennifer K. Cloutier ’13 returned home this past summer, she says she was shocked to find her favorite physics teacher instructing an all-male class.

“He asked me to come back sometime this year and talk about science, tell the girls not to be scared of it,” she says, noting that the episode re-energized her WISHR plans for the year.

One aim of both WISHR and WISE Words Magazine, founded this spring by Julia C. Tartaglia ’11 and her sister Christina E. Tartaglia ’09, is to increase the visibility of women already in science.

“Most people can’t name one female scientist, and we really want to change that,” Christina Tartaglia says.

Women’s Leadership Conference organizer Rachel M. Neiger ’12 also emphasized the struggle to attain and navigate female science networks.

“It’s sometimes hard for women to advance in science because there isn’t that network of female advisors, so it’s harder to get appointments and grants,” she says.

Leslie A. Rea ’12, who organized the first “Women in Science” panel in the WLC’s 24-year history, helped recruit School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Dean Cherry A. Murray to speak about how she became a leader in science and about the importance of mentoring.

Rea says her personal mentor has been Sujata K. Bhatia, who joined SEAS in May as the assistant director of undergraduate studies for Biomedical Engineering.

Bhatia says that many of the students she encounters worry about work-life balance and whether or not they have what it takes to succeed in engineering. Bhatia encourages women to speak up in class, so they can “learn that they have a unique voice to contribute to the field.”

WISHR Co-President Swara S. Kopparty ’12, an Applied Math concentrator notes that in the future she hopes WISHR’s bi-annual National Symposium for the Advancement of Women in Science will include speakers in fields like economics and computer science as well as hard sciences.

WIDENING THEIR IMPACT

When WISE Words won the i3 Competition in the spring of 2011, the organization received funding its founders hope will allow the publication to have a national impact.

“We think that our online presence allows us to have really wide-spread effects, so our audience can be nation-wide,” Julia says. “People might not have time to go to an event or a conference ... but everybody has time to check their computer.”

Professor Melissa Franklin, who was named the first female chair of the Harvard Physics Department in 2010, says that though the department’s female population has risen in recent years, there are still inherent obstacles in the system.

“It’s hard to be a minority,” Franklin says. “I used to think it had a lot to do with confidence. If girls had confidence, they would just learn physics, no matter what anybody else thought.”

Susanne F. Yelin, a senior research fellow in the physics department, said she feels that “on average, women doubt themselves much more than men,” and that “one always feels like the odd one out at meetings where everyone else is male.”

For these reasons, she believes a publication like WISE Words that promotes the visibility of women in science is invaluable.

Whether facilitating mentorship relationships, challenging stereotypes, or providing role models, these clubs have in common a desire to make evident the potential for rewarding and engaging scientific careers for women.

Richardson notes that once women break into certain fields, they ask different types of questions, thereby generating new knowledge and transforming the discipline in exciting ways.

“If a woman is willing to stick with a career in science or engineering, she has a really bright future,” Bhatia says.

“With the girls in my class, I tell them: ‘you belong here.’”

—Zhanrui Kuang contributed reporting to this story.

—Staff writer Julie R. Barzilay can be reached at jbarzilay13@college.harvard.edu.

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