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.
Maria Klawe earned her B. Sc. And Ph. D. in mathematics from the University of Alberta. From there, she worked at the University of British Columbia from 1988 to 2002, and then at Princeton University from 2002 to 2006. Dr. Klawe also has experience in industry, working first for IBM and now on the board of directors for Microsoft. Marie Klawe became president of Harvey Mudd College (HMC) in 2006, the first woman president in the college’s then 51 year history.1 As president at HMC, Dr. Klawe has been instrumental in guiding the school to a 1:1 male-to-female ratio from a previous ratio of 2:1. As of 2013, the percentage of female students in the computer science program is 40%, compared to a national average of 12% in 2010-2011.2
Her talk on December 4th was divided roughly into two parts. In the first part, Dr. Klawe described how she went about making HMC a more gender equal campus, and what methods could be employed at UW. During the second part, she took questions, which largely continued the discussion of how to increase diversity, particularly faculty diversity, in the chemistry department.
Obviously, Dr. Klawe’s focus was primarily on improving computer science (CS) at HMC, which was largely dominated by male undergradates. Dr. Klawe attributes the especially dramatic changes in this department to one professor, who in 2005 began pushing to make the department more open to women undergraduates. For ideas, Dr. Klawe drew from example programs at Carnegie Mellon University and University of British Columbia. Unlike other programs, including chemistry, computer science is not a recommended or required high school course. Thus, the range of expertise of students in an intro CS class is large. An integral part of her plan became redesigning the introductory CS courses. The intro CS at HMC is now divided into three skill levels, with students assigned to a level based on a placement test. The names of the programs do not reflect whether the class is for beginner, intermediate, or advanced, which keeps students from despairing of their CS skills before the semester even starts. A second component of the plan was to encourage faculty to mentor students and encourage their growth in CS. If a student was already skilled in computer science, faculty were advised to encourage their interest through individual meetings.
Dr. Klawe then discussed was ways to use these lessons to increase the number of female chemists who apply to academic positions at school like UW. Interestingly, female computer scientists and chemists move on inverse trajectories down the academic pipeline. Although women in CS are less common as undergraduates, their numbers increase at the graduate level; the percentage of female CS academics is higher still. Meanwhile, although men and women chemists are in almost equal numbers as undergraduate and graduate students, the number of male chemists in academia far outweighs the number of female chemists. It has been argued that this difference between fields is because in chemistry the “most desirable jobs” are in academia, while in CS the best jobs are in industry, implying that women are found in lower numbers in the jobs with the most prestige. Regardless of implications, the fact still remains that we have yet to balance faculty gender ratio in chemistry, especially at UW (currently, 5 out of 38 listed faculty members are female).3 This is largely due to the exceedingly low percentage of women who apply for professorships in our department, only 15-20% of all applicants. Since we are a public school, we are supposed to hire men and women in rough proportion to the percentages that apply, and to not give extra advantages to either gender. However, we can try to make UW a more welcoming environment for female professors in chemistry, without needing extra benefits from the department. One example, something that many departments discuss but rarely implement, is emphasizing mentoring skills and teamwork in prospective faculty search profiles. Finding new faculty with these traits will only increase the openness of our department to diversity. Additionally, we can encourage faculty to find a greater work-life balance in their lives, and create a culture that embraces taking time off to start a family. Both of these policies would benefit men and women by creating an open and flexible work environment, and lack of these department policies/ department cultures is oftentimes mentioned as a reason that women leave chemistry academia for industry. Although these don’t seem like high impact changes, if our experience is anything like Dr. Klawe’s then we could use them to significantly change our department environment within the next decade.
The aspect of the talk that I most appreciated was Dr. Klawe’s interest in engaging her audience in a dialogue about women in STEM. Throughout the talk she tried to get contributions from the UW faculty and even the students. As Dr. Klawe stated, the situation for women in chemistry is different from her background in computer science, and she seemed eager to treat her talk as a conversation and a place to generate ideas. She even actively sought out former Harvey Mudd students who were at UW to learn about their experiences as graduate students here. It’s that openness and curiosity, I believe, that has contributed to her success as president at HMC, and makes her advice about expanding diversity extra valuable.
- Harvey Mudd College Biography of Maria Klawe
- Computing Degree and Enrollment Trends”, 2010-2011 CRA Taulbee Survey. The Computing Research Association.
- Numbers measured using UW Chemistry Faculty Directory