WCS Starts off the New Year with Ice Cream and Introductions

This past week, WCS kicked off the start of a new academic year by hanging out with familiar faces and meeting some new ones. The ice cream social was a chance to catch up with friends we’ve missed over the summer and to network with faculty new to campus. WCS adviser Brandi Cossairt gave a great introduction to the role of our group at UW and the continuing need for organizations like ours in the academic community. If you didn’t have a chance to come, we still hope to see you at our next meeting, coming soon! (After all, we’ve still got some ice cream to finish.) Photos by Rae Eaton

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Ice cream social Tuesday 9/29!

To kick off the academic year and welcome new graduate students and faculty members to the department, WCS is hosting an ice cream social! This event will take place on Tuesday, September 29th in CHB 102. Ice cream (including non-dairy options) will be available with supplies for sundaes and floats starting at 3:00 pm, and we’ll share some introductions and remarks of welcome at 3:45. Hope to see you there!

We have a lot of other events coming up, including chemistry art outreach at the UW-Bothell Discover STEM Festival, a panel discussion for undergraduates who are applying to grad school, our third birthday party, officer elections for 2015-2016, and much more! To get all of the details, you can subscribe to our members or events mailing list or contact us at wcsuw@uw.edu.

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Featuring WCS members involved in STEM-OUT

Here’s a really great article describing the STEM-OUT program, featuring WCS members Joan, Addie, and Scott! STEM-OUT is a partnership between UW and TAF Academy, in which graduate students mentor high schoolers working on senior projects. The goal of the program is to broaden participation in STEM fields among underrepresented minorities. You can find more information about STEM-OUT and request information about applying to be a 2015-2016 mentor here.

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Summer book club 2015

The WCS-UW summer book club will take place on Fridays at noon in CHB 339, starting this Friday, July 10th. We’ll be reading Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine, which should spark some interesting discussions of both the science of gender and the role of gender in science! Here’s the summary/promotional blurb, via Amazon:

It’s the twenty-first century, and although we tried to rear unisex children―boys who play with dolls and girls who like trucks―we failed. Even though the glass ceiling is cracked, most women stay comfortably beneath it. And everywhere we hear about vitally important “hardwired” differences between male and female brains. The neuroscience that we read about in magazines, newspaper articles, books, and sometimes even scientific journals increasingly tells a tale of two brains, and the result is more often than not a validation of the status quo. Women, it seems, are just too intuitive for math; men too focused for housework.

Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, Cordelia Fine debunks the myth of hardwired differences between men’s and women’s brains, unraveling the evidence behind such claims as men’s brains aren’t wired for empathy and women’s brains aren’t made to fix cars. She then goes one step further, offering a very different explanation of the dissimilarities between men’s and women’s behavior. Instead of a “male brain” and a “female brain,” Fine gives us a glimpse of plastic, mutable minds that are continuously influenced by cultural assumptions about gender.

Passionately argued and unfailingly astute, Delusions of Gender provides us with a much-needed corrective to the belief that men’s and women’s brains are intrinsically different―a belief that, as Fine shows with insight and humor, all too often works to the detriment of ourselves and our society.

If you’re interested in reading and discussing this book throughout the summer, please email Heidi (hdnelson at uw.edu) or add your name to the book club contact list here. Everyone is welcome!

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Photos from the Shoreline STEM Festival

Photos from the Shoreline STEM Festival on May 9th, where we taught students and their families about nanotechnology by making rainbow thin-film bookmarks. All photos by Jeffrey Buenaflor.

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Why have women entered some STEM fields more than others? A discussion with Professor Sapna Cheryan

Yesterday, WCS and Women in Genome Sciences hosted a discussion with Professor Sapna Cheryan of the UW Department of Psychology. This event left me with a lot to think about, and was definitely worth the trek over to Foege Hall!

We talk a lot about underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, but this is a broad and complicated topic. Looking at the demographics of students taking AP exams and getting undergraduate degrees in different STEM disciplines, some fields (biology, chemistry, and math) are now close to 50% female at this level, while others (physics, computer science, engineering) have a much more significant disparity. By looking at differences among these fields, Professor Cheryan hopes to untangle and understand different causes of women’s underrepresentation in STEM. She emphasized that she investigates different aspects of STEM fields rather than focusing on qualities of the women who enter or leave these fields, which I thought was an important and beneficial distinction to make.

Professor Cheryan and her group just finished a large-scale review of studies on gender and STEM, focusing on the STEM participation of students in the US and seeking to find which factors have the biggest impact. They considered a variety of individual (early hands-on experience, self-efficacy, math performance) and societal (stereotypes of the field, negative stereotypes of women, presence of female role models, discrimination) factors that have been cited for the lack of women in these fields. Their conclusions were that the difference in demographics between bio/chem/math and physics/engineering/computer science is primarily due to two factors: the gender imbalance in early hands-on experience (toys, projects, classes, media), and women’s perception of the field or how they relate to it.

Before this review, Professor Cheryan’s research has mostly focused on women in computer science. In one study, non-CS-major undergraduates were brought to Stanford’s computer science building and given a questionnaire on their interest in the subject. Some of the students were in a room containing several stereotypically CS-related items (Star Trek poster, sci-fi books, lots of Coke cans) while others were in a more generically decorated room. While male students demonstrated the same level of interest in computer science regardless of the room decor, female students were substantially less interested when they were in the stereotypical computer science room. Emphasizing the stereotypes influenced their perception of the field, which affected their interest (this reminded me of our discussion of Whistling Vivaldi in last summer’s book club – stereotypes can be really powerful!).

There are a variety of stereotypes related to computer science that can turn off women’s interest in the field. The stereotypical programmer is socially awkward, stays up all night coding and drinking energy drinks, and is into video games and Star Trek. Success in computer science is perceived to be related to innate genius or brilliance, rather than hard work (a recent Science paper explored this effect among different fields). And it’s not seen as a people-oriented area – computer scientists don’t work with people, and their work isn’t focused on helping society. (I realized that this last point played a role in my decision not to major in computer science. It was challenging and interesting, but I wanted to make an impact on the world with renewable energy or biomedical science.) However, computer science stereotypes can vary a lot across cultures – in some countries, typing code on a computer is seen as a logical extension of being a secretary, a traditionally female job; these countries are generally much closer to gender parity in computer science.

Fortunately, there are many other ways to counter these stereotypes and make STEM fields more welcoming. A twelve-year-old girl recently surveyed a set of popular apps and found that most of them offered male characters as the default or only option. This creates the impression that these games (and the industry that creates them) are not for girls, but it would be easy for developers to offer more female characters in games. At the undergraduate level, some colleges and universities are redesigning their computer science curricula (Harvey Mudd is the most prominent example) and creating more open-ended or interdisciplinary majors to emphasize the different applications of computer science, encouraging students to move beyond their existing perception of the topic.

In our discussion of ways to encourage girls to get into computer science, Professor Cheryan also pointed out how some of these methods tend to enforce the same stereotypes that prevent many girls from developing an interest in the field. Many people and programs emphasize that girls can be nerds too (Microsoft runs camps for girls where they learn about CS in relation to sci-fi movies and video games) or that you can be a nerd while still being feminine (computer engineer Barbie has pink glasses, a binary t-shirt, and a pink laptop). But maybe we’d be better off teaching girls that not all computer scientists are nerds. This reminded me of the Seattle Expanding Your Horizons conference, where some of us told our audience of middle-school girls that you don’t have to be a nerd to do science, while others wanted to emphasize that being a nerd is awesome and nothing to be ashamed of. When trying to make STEM fields more diverse, we need to think not only in terms of gender and demographics but also in terms of personalities, interests, and perspectives. This is definitely something I’ll try to be aware of in the future when doing outreach and talking to the public.

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Body Language Workshop Wrap-up

Last week, WCS partnered with Monica Cortes Viharo, an actor and PhD student in the Drama department, to host a workshop on body language and communication. The turnout was awesome, with a diverse group of individuals at different career stages and from departments around campus ready to learn about presenting. We talked briefly about specific issues that affect how we speak, ranging from uptalk to overzealous hand gestures, before beginning the active part of the workshop.

Apparently, a significant portion of people’s problems with public speaking stem from anxious tension. In order to relax everyone, Monica had all of us stand and try consciously breathing. When people get nervous they tend to breathe shallowly and from their chest, which activates the fight or flight response. This has a counterproductive effect of actually increasing stress and isn’t ideal for projecting a calm, confident demeanor. Monica’s number one piece of advice was to take a few deep breaths from your diaphragm before speaking. These breaths tell your body to calm down and can help stop shaky hands, something that happens to me during presentations.

We then started to stand up straight, since it turns out pretty much everyone slouches constantly. Since the workshop I’ve been trying to maintain proper posture and it requires a surprising amount of effort. As an added bonus, it’s an ab workout! While standing nice and straight, we all proceeded to look ridiculous while stretching our facial muscles and attempting various tongue-twisters. These loosened up our facial muscles to allow for easier and clearer enunciation, all while being fun and silly.

At the end Monica took some time to address specific questions people had about their own presentation skills. If you couldn’t make it to the workshop, or just have a big presentation coming up, she suggested getting some free help from the UW Speaking Center (http://www.com.washington.edu/speaking-center). I know that I feel more confident about my next presentation and plan on using these resources for my next talk!

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Next workshop: Body Language and Public Speaking

We’re hosting a workshop this week, “Body Language and Public Speaking,” on Thursday, April 16 from 12:30-1:30 pm in CHB 439. The workshop is hosted by Monica Cortes Viharo, an actor and PhD student in the Drama department.  She will focus on ways to use your body as a better instrument for communication, as well as public speaking fears, body language, and the qualities of a strong speaker.  Get ready to prepare for your next academic presentation or job interview!  And come hungry, because there will be free pizza!!


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Seattle Expanding Your Horizons Wrap-Up

March 14th brought young women and volunteers from around the area to Seattle University for another year of Seattle Expanding Your Horizons (SEYH). During 50 minute workshops, groups of middle school girls could try anything from designing planes to extracting their own DNA. This year, WCS ran last year’s CSI workshop as well as a new workshop on astrochemistry and the Mars rover. In our workshops, girls used qualitative chemistry tests and physical observations to figure out answers to two questions: who dumped toxic waste into the Puget Sound, or could any of the rocks collected at a crater site have come from Mars?

One of the best things about our organization, is the opportunity not only to participate in outreach programs but also to develop our own projects. When it was first mentioned that we had enough people interested in SEYH to develop a second workshop, I knew I wanted to work on a Mars rover workshop, but didn’t have any ideas where to begin. But with the help of some incredibly cool and very inventive members (a huge shout out to VP Heidi, who guided me through the whole process and was generally the best co-leader), we pulled together a great workshop that not only let the girls do science experiments but also tied those experiments to real tests that Curiosity did on Mars. And, much like real science, we designed a workshop that didn’t have a correct answer, which let everyone draw their own conclusions about which rock could be from Mars.

I think the fun we had making the workshop definitely came through in the final result. As a member of the astrochemistry workshop, I got to talk about lasers and flame tests all morning. I heard a lot of “whoa”s, “cool”s, and even “shiny”s that day (it helped that one of the rock samples sprinkled rock glitter over your hands even time you touched it). Even if they learned nothing else that day, I hope we showed  people that science comes in many different forms, most of them pretty fun.

So thanks to Brigit Miller, Kimberly Davidson, Kimberly Hartstein, Kalkena Sivanesam, Olivia Lenz and Jessica Wittman, who all volunteered with the CSI workshop, and Heidi Nelson, Zuzana Culakova, Kira Hughes, Katie Corp, Beth Mundy, Scott Rayermann, and Addie Kingsland for their work designing and/or running the Mars rover workshop.

The Mars Rover workshop presentation team. (L to R: Rae Eaton, Addie Kingsland, Kira Hughes, Katie Corp, Heidi Nelson, and Zuzanna Culakova)

The Mars Rover workshop presentation team. (L to R: Rae Eaton, Addie Kingsland, Kira Hughes, Katie Corp, Heidi Nelson, and Zuzanna Culakova)


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Happy Birthday to Emmy Noether

As you may have seen on Google’s page, this March 23rd marks what would have been Emmy Noether’s 133rd birthday. If you hadn’t heard of Emmy Noether before, you’re not alone (I hadn’t either); it just goes to show how easy it is for scientists to be lost to time even when their discoveries aren’t. So let’s take a look at Emmy Noether’s contributions to science/math.

Emmy Noether was born in Germany on March 23rd, 1882. As a child, she was not noted for being academically gifted, although family friends remarked on her talent for solving logic puzzles. She studied at the University of Erlangen, which, in addition to only having 2 female students out of almost a 1000 total, only allowed her to audit classes. In spite of this, Dr. Noether would eventually successful complete a dissertation in mathematics in 1907. After being introduced to the work of David Hilbert, she began her first forays into abstract algebra. David Hilbert went on to get her a teaching position at his university, although the school would not pay her and only referred to her as his assistant. She eventually received recognition of her status of a professor, along with a small salary. Unfortunately, as in too many histories of German scientists, the rise of the Nazi party in Germany came with the expulsion of Jewish professors from their posts. Although Dr. Noether continued to meet with students to discuss mathematics, she eventually left Germany for a paid position at Bryn Mawr College, where she worked until her death in 1935.

Much as it pains me to admit, I cannot hope to properly explain Emmy Noether’s contributions to the field of abstract algebra, particularly non-commutative algebra (where the commutative property no longer applies). Suffice to say, her contributions to mathematics and theoretical physics helped theoretical mathematics to become a field of study, and are still being used today. So happy 133rd birthday to Dr. Noether!

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