March highlights: Women in STEM

March is recognized in the United States as Women’s History month. Commemorative events and individual tributes are widely celebrated online and in local communities (for a sampling of noteworthy entries, see the website of a collaboration of government agencies institutions here). Women’s History Month has revealed the past contributions of women to the enterprise of science—especially when such endeavors were underplayed or marginalized. Taking note of historical figures in science also highlights ongoing concerns and promotes new initiatives for contemporary women working in STEM fields. My own pursuits during March had me thinking in new ways about this trajectory, and how we can move into the future of scientific work in a way that is inclusive of all who want to participate.

First, a little context. For some time, Women’s History STEM tributes have tended to focus on specific individuals in science who made notable contributions: well documented examples include Marie Curie (radiation researcher; see my previous blog post on radium for more information) and Rosalind Franklin (structural biochemist and X-ray crystallographer whose iconic image of DNA sparked a revolution in our understanding of the molecular basis of inheritance). In recent years, the emphasis has broadened to include the contributions of women as a whole to science—much like the popularization of “Rosie the Riveter” brought awareness of the collective contributions of women to industrial work in World War II. For example, the popular book Hidden Figures and the recent movie based on it examine the contributions of several specific women who worked for NASA as mathematicians and engineers during the Apollo mission era—including Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson. (See my earlier blog post for a more thorough review.) This powerful story of how offices full of African American women performed critical calculations for the moon missions, even as their contributions and working conditions were marginalized during the height of the 1960s Civil Rights era, has resonated with large audiences and reinvigorated conversations about modern working conditions and opportunities for women working in STEM fields, especially for those individuals who come from minority or other underrepresented backgrounds.

Katherine Johnson, one of the famous mathematicians at NASA, was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Image credit: NASA [Public domain]

Meanwhile, March provided the backdrop for two events of my own that intersected with the women-in-STEM them:

  • Early in the month, I once again spent a Saturday leading a workshop on genetics with groups of middle-school girls. This marks my 15th year of participating in the annual “Curiosity, Confidence, Challenge” STEM exploration event for girls, which features workshops and assemblies led largely by women. For a generation now, the goal of the event has been to get girls excited about studying science, math, and technology and show them by example how women are participating in those fields. I’ve enjoyed being able to contribute each year to helping girls have a positive day and helping them think in new ways about what it’s like to study science in high school and college and work as a biologist. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time over the years considering the value of such events and whether my participation—and theirs—matters. Anecdotally, I think it does, at least in the moment, but that a one-day experience may stick with more girls than with others. It certainly has resonated with me over the years, and I often wonder what I would’ve made of a similar opportunity back when I was in middle school. Data on programs such as these is not easy to find, as highlighted in this recent article about girls’ STEM camps. Yet I keep doing the event, because it is fun for everyone involved, if nothing else, and highlights the work that women are doing around our community in STEM career fields.
  • At the end of the month, I presented an overview of my new undergraduate course in biology community engagement at the 134th Annual Meeting of the Indiana Academy of Science. Like all scientific conferences, this meeting gave me an opportunity to network with and hear from people doing interesting work in science, science education, and public policy in my geographic region. The meeting is also a useful opportunity for local undergraduate students to present their work as they learn the fundamentals of conducting science at a professional level. Having recently attended the much larger American Association of the Advancement of Science meeting in February (see my previous blog post for insights from the conference), I have been eager to consider the intersection of science, education, science communication, and public engagement from a more local perspective. The IAS has been around for a long time, and some of its activities—such as a centralized statewide annual meeting and a dedicated journal for publishing local scientific work—are continuing reminders of a long and robust history of science in our state, but one that in the past was carried out most typically by men. Today, the IAS has visible high participation and leadership by women and actively involves scientists, educators, and science enthusiasts from different backgrounds and areas of science. And yet, thinking about how to better advance broad participation in science across the state will likely challenge us for many years to come.

While my “in-real-life” activities had me interacting with diverse constituencies of scientists, students, and community members (and also taking a break to enjoy a few days off for spring-break moments with my family!), the internet was swirling with women-in-STEM stories and calls to action for building new support for inclusivity and equality across disciplines and working environments. Below is a sampling of what appeared on my screen over the past few weeks:

A large part of the discussion about the women-in-STEM issue focuses on building the pipeline to create a framework for recruiting a more equitable and diverse set of talented people in the future. (This diversity extends beyond gender to include race, ethnicity, and other elements of individuality or cultural identity.) Other conversations focus on the fact that a pipeline can’t be effective if there are leaks at the professional level that cause people to leave because of interpersonal or institutional elements that create unacceptable working conditions. Which is more important to address in the short-term? I’m encouraged by the increasing attention seemingly being paid to both issues, at the same time.

The “leaky pipeline” problem for women in science, based on data from 2013. Image credit: UNESCO [CC BY-SA 3.0-igo (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0-igo)%5D

By addressing problems that can be fixed in modern professional science and also building a robust pipeline of diverse future scientists, perhaps we will one day not still be making a big deal out of “the women of STEM” every March. New grassroots initiatives add a hopeful note to kickstarting urgency toward advocacy for diverse faces and approaches to doing science, both today and in the future. (And, yes, even middle school girls are on the list!) Indeed, the latest generation of scientists and science communicators is taking to the internet and social media with gusto to increase the reach and visibility of women in science. With new tools for communication and connection, the scientific community continues to evolve new ways of doing work and engaging more people in that work. I will continue to play my own part through work on campus, in my community, and online. I look forward to continuing to promote my love of all things science-y and encourage a new generation of people from different backgrounds and interests to get involved. Together, we can learn fascinating things.

Erica Flores worked as an intern at Jet Propulsion Labs/NASA for several years, studying the origins of life on Earth. Read more about her experiences here. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr

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