WCS-UW is kicking off a new event this year that we’re really excited about! Every week we plan to host a casual discussion on a wide variety of Women in STEM topics. Your hosts, Heidi and I, plan on covering anything from how the scientific community is responding to the latest uproar to the newest research on gender biases in STEM, and everything in between. We’re meeting on Thursdays from 12:00-1:30 in CHB 339. Don’t worry if you miss some weeks, we’ll be updating this blog with summaries of the articles and our reactions to them.
Last week, WCS-UW and Free Radicals/PLU hosted a panel for undergraduates interested in applying to graduate school. Professors Rob Synovec (UW chemistry associate chair for graduate education) and Brandi Cossairt (member of the UW chemistry admissions committee) provided an administrative view of the application process while several graduate students shared their personal experiences. Thank you to all the of panel members and those who attended the event; it was a great way to start off the year!
If you missed it or would like to refresh your memory, here are a few key points:
Attention, physical science undergraduate students who are applying to graduate school! Would you like to get helpful feedback on your personal statement or other parts of your application? Several current graduate students and WCS members have volunteered to read and provide feedback on grad school application essays. Whether you need help with putting together a cohesive story that will stand out to the admissions committee, making yourself sound awesome, or just proofreading and grammar, we’re happy to look over your essays and answer your questions. We’ve all been there, and now we want to pay it forward.
To get feedback on your essay, just email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to include any other information (e.g., where you’re applying) or questions as well. If you’d prefer to remain anonymous, please specify that in your email, and we’ll make sure we remove your personal information before sending your draft to a grad student. Otherwise, we’ll connect you directly with a grad student (or two) and you can choose to discuss your essay via email or meet up in person.
We’re also hosting a graduate school application workshop on Tuesday, October 20th at 5:30 pm in CHB 102! This event is co-sponsored by Free Radicals/PLU, the undergraduate chemistry club. Professors Rob Synovec (director of the UW chemistry graduate program) and Brandi Cossairt (member of the admissions committee) will provide the admissions committee’s perspective on what makes a good application, and a panel of current graduate students will discuss how they made their applications successful. Pizza will be provided.
If you can’t attend the workshop, you’re still welcome to submit your personal statement for feedback. We’ll also post tips, tricks, and resources from the event here next week!
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
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 email@example.com.
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!
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.
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!
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!!
As part of her visit to campus for the Danz lecture last week, Jill Cornell Tarter spent some time answering questions and discussing science and her experiences with WCS members. Here are a few of the interesting and thought-provoking things we learned about Dr. Tarter and SETI:
Dr. Tarter’s favorite color is blue, her hobbies include flying small planes and samba dancing, and her favorite element on the periodic table is silver. If she could visit any other planet (without concern for environmental or technological restrictions), she would visit Mars to look for signs of life in its subsurface aquifers. Her second-favorite movie is Awakenings, which tells the story of Oliver Sacks and his work with a drug that could awaken catatonic patients. She is currently reading the book What If? by Randall Munroe, creator of the xkcd webcomic.
While she’s had an accomplished career and is very well-respected in her field, Dr. Tarter faced a lot of challenges during her undergraduate and graduate education. She was the only woman in her class of 300 engineering majors at Cornell. Since the women’s dorms were locked from 10 pm to 6 am, she had to do all of her problem sets alone while her classmates were working together in the men’s dorms. She received a generous scholarship from Procter & Gamble, but when she got married, her scholarship was cancelled, as they assumed she would leave college to start a family. Instead, she was already planning to go to graduate school for astronomy (the administration at Cornell advocated for her, and she got her scholarship back). When she started graduate school, someone told her and the other two women in her class that they were “lucky” to be there because all the smart men had been drafted for Vietnam. However, she persisted and was able tok
Dr. Tarter spoke very highly of the movie Contact, whose main character was based on her. Carl Sagan, who was on the board of SETI and knew a lot about its research, wrote the original film treatment as well as the novel (published before the film was actually made). The most significant mistake in the film is when Ellie Arroway says “You know, there are four hundred billion stars out there, just in our galaxy alone. If only one out of a million of those had planets, and just of out of a million of those had life, and just one out of a million of those had intelligent life; there would be literally millions of civilizations out there.” – the math just doesn’t work out. Other than that, the movie was very realistic in its portrayal of science and SETI. Jodie Foster, who played the protagonist and worked closely with Dr. Tarter to get her character right, said that her goal wasn’t to teach the audience about science, but to show them that scientists are real people.
I also learned a lot about the way SETI does science. Its goal is not specifically to find extraterrestrial intelligence, but to answer the question of whether or not it exists. Dr. Tarter was careful to make this distinction, refusing to make assumptions about possible alien life and emphasizing that she doesn’t know the answers to many related questions. SETI scientists have to be very rigorous when it comes to investigating any signal. They must consider all potential explanations, including the possibility of a hoax conducted by someone trying to fool them. Dr. Tarter is also very aware of the potential implications of her work, and what finding a signal would mean for human civilization.
It was inspiring to be able to spend some time talking to Dr. Tarter about her life and work, in contrast with the big-picture, meaning-of-life (but also inspirational) tone of her public lecture.