Tech Grrls

My 11th grade chemistry teacher wore scary shoes-orthopedic black rubber bootees with holes cut out over the pressure points on her feet. Not glamorous, with her lab coat and short gray hair, in that era of miniskirts and platform heels. So what? Mrs. H was a wonderful teacher, and seeing a formula always recalls for me the thrill and satisfaction of learning to balance molecular equations, her dry sense of humor, and unflappable temperament.

But if she'd dressed like a pop singer, would she have inspired more of her female students to go on in science?

The suggestion actually has been made, although not at Bryn Mawr, where students get the PB&J (passion, beauty and joy) of science; 27 percent of its bachelor's degrees are awarded in the natural sciences and math-five times the national proportions-and graduates go on in equally high rates to advanced education or careers in science, engineering and technology (SET).

In opening the October symposium, however, President of the College Nancy J. Vickers noted that Bryn Mawr's successes and those of other women's colleges highlight "the degree to which girls and young women in general do not pursue these fields. In college, where women are in the majority, potential female scientists and engineers continue to be underrepresented and in some fields the situation is getting worse. The figures in computer science are particularly troubling. In 1984, when the field was still relatively new, women earned 37 percent of undergraduate degrees. By 1999 the numbers had dropped to less than 20 percent."

Despite the dot-com bust, the United States faces a shortage of workers with strong SET backgrounds. Reports issued in 2000 and early 2001 by U.S. congressional and State Department commissions warned that the nation's security and economic well-being depend on tapping the domestic intellectual talent of women, underrepresented minorities and disabled persons, who constitute two-thirds of the U.S. work force. Some critics of the H-1B visa program think that the millions of dollars being spent to bring in foreign scientists and engineers should be put instead into reforming our educational system and career patterns.

"Industry is dying to find good women and minorities," said symposium speaker Jill Shapiro Sideman, Ph.D. '65(chemistry), director and vice president of CH2M HILL, an international environmental engineering firm, and president-elect of the American Association of Women in Science (AWIS). "This is not just because it's the right thing to do. It is a bottom line issue. Many industries have learned that diversity-not just in terms of gender or race, but in thought processes, understanding of cultures, all of the ways in which you can think of diversity-is critical to their success and competitiveness. In my firm, which is a large scale $2 billion a year company with 140 offices around the world, if we can't field a team of people to go talk to a client who can think like that client, look like that client, and act like that client, we don't get work."

"Where are we now?," the question for the panel discussion that opened Bryn Mawr's symposium, also should be considered in the context of post-September 11, said moderator Catherine Jay Didion, AWIS executive director. "I feel very strongly that we have to look at what we can do to integrate women more fully into the seats of power, not only in science but in policy as well," she said.

Science literacy

The importance of science literacy as a part of citizenship subsumes that of industry's recruitment needs. In the 21st century, all nations and societies will face challenges to provide health care, nutrition, housing and energy resources while conserving ecosystems and biodiversity. Knowledge of science will be crucial to democratic deliberations of policy. The CAWMSET report notes, however, that while "75 percent of Americans believe that the benefits of scientific research outweigh harmful results, and nearly 70 percent say they are interested in science and technology," their grasp of science remains "abysmal."

During an online discussion, among faculty who teach in the College Seminar program, of the polarization between literary intellectuals and scientists described by C.P. Snow in his 1959 essay, The Two Cultures, Professor of Physics Peter A. Beckmann commented, "I have met many scientists who sincerely appreciate theater, novels, poetry, music, painting, and sculpture, and the contribution they make to providing the best models (or, if you prefer, stories) for understanding what it means to be a human being in this particular universe, but I have yet to meet a humanist who can tell me, even in the simplest terms, the roles of thermodynamics, evolution, Newtonian mechanics, quantum mechanics, or general relativity in the development of 'the story'." For discussions of the Working Group on the Two Cultures for Bryn Mawr's Center for Science in Society, see:

In spite of a decade-long drive to improve science learning in public schools, it has plateaued at elementary and middle school levels and has declined among seniors, according to The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) test, given to 50,000 fourth, eighth and 12th graders chosen randomly in 40 states. Students were ranked in four categories: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced. Science scores of proficient or above for public school seniors in 2000 dropped from 21 to 17 percent.

A report on U.S. security in the 21st century issued by the State Department in January 2001 states that "Our systems of basic scientific research and education are in serious crisis" and recommends "a new National Security Science and Technology Education Act" that would fund programs to train science and engineering professionals as well as qualified teachers in science and math. The report also recommends providing loan forgiveness and scholarships in exchange for a period of K-12 teaching in science and math, or of military or government service.

Bryn Mawr's Plan for a New Century pledges to train all students, regardless of their major, in "the concepts, processes, and goals of science," and to engage them in "considering the position of science within the context of changes in society."

Liberal arts background key

Alumnae participating in a November 8 panel discussion on science careers, sponsored by the Career Development Office, identified for students a number of emerging issues in their fields:

New technology laws and business thinking: "Very few business deals are struck among parties to make everybody be a winner, because essentially business people are just trained to win for themselves," said panelist Victoria Guerra Brady '79, a global project manager for Du Pont. "Very few are trained to make sure their customers and their suppliers win, too."

Long-term care and gerontology: "Because of health care and technology, everyone is living longer, and the baby boomers are aging into Medicare, so policy makers have to figure out how to support the program," said Mary Ruchel Ramos '89, Director of Education for the Medicare Rights Center in New York City.

Bioethics and medical ethics: "A liberal arts background is the key thing to learning to understand the process for identifying what the factors are in an ethical dilemma, what the dilemma really is, and then how you might go about resolving it," said science writer Ruth Levy Guyer '67, who from 1996-2000 developed and directed a bioethics curriculum project at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. "It's a most incredible field because of the situation we've put ourselves into in terms of technology and other advances in medicine."

Architectural conservation: "This is a growing field, and a very multi-disciplinary one," said Catherine Matsen '97, who majored in chemistry at Bryn Mawr and worked at Du Pont for three years before realizing her interest in the applications of chemistry to the preservation and conservation for fine art and architecture. She held a one-year position at Winterthur Museum, DE, in the analytical lab of its conservation division. "I analyzed the material composition of a wide variety of fine arts objects and architectural elements in the collection as well as those sent from other museums and private conservators. After a summer internship last year on the paint conservation team at the National Trust site of Drayton Hall, a 260-year plantation house in Charleston, SC, she began the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate program in historic preservation concentrating in architectural conservation.

"Any person with a science background has an incredible advantage in this field, and having a liberal arts education also really does make a difference," Matsen said. "The field will expand in the analytical area- as a scientist, you know how to analyze materials, and even if you don't actually do the analysis, you need to know how to read test results that are sent back. An area that's going to be more incorporated into conservation is polymer chemistry. More often than not, you're going to have to incorporate modern materials into older buildings." Alumnae on the career panel and at the science and technology conference stressed the importance of being able to interpret science and technology in ways that real people can understand. "I spend a lot of my day communicating, communicating, communicating-writing and talking, with pictures and facts," said Frances Schultz '79, a consultant specializing in the cleanup or reuse of contaminated sites, and vice president of GZA Geo Environmental, a small environmental and engineering consulting firm.

Schultz said that another trend in her field is "a mini boom in the infrastructure development of highways, airports in general, globally, which means that there's work for people. Generally we're also a mature market, meaning that it is very competitive. Everything is considered a commodity, and people are buying the lowest price. Anything one company can do distinguish itself and be different, better, faster, cheaper is going to make it more valuable. We need to continue to marry the engineering and the technical, the science and the technology, with the practical and not let people go so far to one extreme or another that you end up with structures that are too spartan for anyone to feel comfortable in or too hot or too architecturally elaborate to stand up or be built. There will be even more computer-based modeling, even more standardization, which relieves people like me from worrying about how something gets done and gives me the freedom to think about what I'm trying to do. When I first started working, if you had contaminated soil you had one choice - dig it up and put in a secure place. Now we having hundreds of choices about what we can or want to do with the dirt. You can clean it or cook it or turn it into bricks or glass, depending on the contaminants. The same is true for water."

Ramos alerted students to the importance of "figuring out where the money is going to come if you're considering any job in the not-for-profit world. There's no real revenue source, unlike a private organization or business. The money comes from charitable organizations, and you do a lot of grant writing and looking for those kinds of foundations."

Several panelists mentioned how much they had come to enjoy working with people.

"I moved up through the ranks to management," said Schultz. "When I started all I did was do field work and write reports, but that was great because you got to go to lots of different places, do different things and be outside. I also have learned to really enjoy managing people, being able to motivate them and teach them, and share the knowledge that I have with people who are coming up and trying their hands at something. I manage a group of up to 12 different people on six different project teams at one time, on something as small as removing a gasoline tank from a gas station and cleaning up the groundwater that may have been contaminated by the leaking tank, to a giant power plant, which is a multi-billion dollar project, although we actually have only a small part of it. I work with lots of different people on the same - a client who is a lawyer or engineer, contractors, local politicians, and representations of bureaucracies like the railroads or the state."

After completing her Ph.D. in materials engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, Brady said she "had several jobs doing research in areas that had absolutely nothing to do with my expertise. Then I did some project management and got involved with motivating and managing people, which I thought was the best thing anybody could do and wanted to do it. As a result of that I held several R&D management roles for a while, building on my Ph.D. experience. After that I thought it would be a good idea to actually put dollars and cents to the technology we were doing --otherwise how can you ever know what you're worth?--so I moved into the area of business management. The best part of my job is that I work with people from every country in the world that we do business with. I know them well, I've visited their countries, and made friends there, tried their food; we communicate daily."

Because the Medicare Rights Center is a national organization, Ramos does a lot of training across the country. "I work with people who are in community-based organizations, usually small social service agencies and health service providers, and educate them about what consumers need to know. An exciting day for me is actually being out in the field and doing training, talking to groups and interacting with people." As the Center has begun to receive more grants from large foundations to enable training, Ramos now has three people who work with her on several projects. "I've ended up doing more oversight and management, and I really enjoy the latter, troubleshooting and trying to anticipate what the problems might be before they really come up. My management style is 'what can I teach you so that you can do your job better, make our working relationship better as well as the quality of the service we give to people."

Guyer and Brady also discussed how they have balancing having a family and a career.

Guyer, who works at home and teaches in the graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins University, was a bench scientist for several years in California and at the National Institutes of Health. After the birth of her first child-she has two daughters-she did not want to return to work full time and decided to pursue her passion for writing. Her first writing position was at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, where in 1981, she began writing about AIDS and other scientific and medical subjects. In 1985, she developed a new feature for generalist readers, "This Week in Science," for Science magazine and found herself enjoying "telling people about science who were not scientists." In 1991, she left Science to write for the general public and focuses on bioethics, medical ethics, and the related issues of social and environmental justice.

"I define balance like a physics major-you need to have equal and opposing forces," said Brady, who has a son and a daughter. "If you don't love your job, you don't have balance if you do love your family, so you need to be able do what you love outside. A lot of the decisions I have made have been based on whether I like the work or not." She said she can't underestimate the value of "relaxation" classes she took at Bryn Mawr: "If I don't go through the effort of relaxing every day, I can't do my job; I can't go about my life."

Guerra encouraged students to consider internships. "Try things you're uncomfortable with. When we're in college or when we're starting out, we're more comfortable with taking a course, because that's all that we know to do, but there are a lot of things for which there are no courses. Because experiencing things is important, I'd have to say, if you have to choose between a course or an internship, I'd go with the latter."

Schultz said there are internships available in her field, but "don't bother looking in the newspapers. Look in the technical journals of whatever field you're interested in. Anybody who is hiring probably also is willing to take a summer intern because they're cheap, almost free labor--but it's a wonderful for you and a great opportunity for them. You get to see what it's really like, day to day in an office. Can you stand it? Do you like it? We've had some interns who have said, omigod I can't wait to get out of here, this just isn't for me. And we've had others who have said, I never realized it would be so much fun, so challenging, so diverse. That I'd get to use so many different skills and learn so many different things. We, at the same time, get to learn what's the person's work ethic? How well do they interact with other people? How well do they write? How quickly do they learn? How good a problem solver are they? Can they take the information they know and apply it to something they don't know and still come up with a workable solution. We've had several interns who have left with job offers. There's something about walking out the door with a job offer at the end of the summer that you can take to other employers and say I've already got a job but I'd rather work for you. Can you do better than this?"

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