Day: November 12, 2014

Notes from an Outreach Event

Gas is under $3/gallon! My heart sings.


Recently I went to an event aimed at very young female undergrads who planned to major in sciences or engineering. The girls were great, fun, and smart. The overwhelming majority of them had plans to go into biomedical fields.

There were several female professors there and each of us shared what we did for research; I was the only one whose work did not involve working with biological systems.

If the student cohort is interested in biomedical fields, it makes sense to bring faculty from those fields. But a few young women approached me afterwards and I learned they had interest in fields with a heavy emphasis on math, physics, or computing; they shared that they were starved for meeting people in their fields of interest.

I am in a field where it is quite common for me to teach to a classroom with no women. Zero. Not all fields are like that. And the few girls who do venture into those physical science fields apparently feel somewhat alienated from other young women with an interest in science, if this event is any indication, because their interests are not mainstream even among STEM-focused female students.

I don’t want to make a separation between fields, we are all scientists. But, I would say there is a pretty significant difference in the types of interests between the people who enjoy hands-on work in a lab or field and the people who enjoy largely mathematical and computational work. For example, I never had much interest in biology; while I had interest in chemistry, it was nowhere near as strong as my interest in math and physics, especially building mathematical models and later implementing physical reality on a computer. I see websites of people doing field work or  bench work and  I understand intellectually that there are many great problems to explore there, they just don’t rock my boat. I don’t get awfully excited about experimental physical sciences labs, either.

I wish we could do a better job of reaching out to young women who are interested in the math-heavy or computing-heavy portions of the physical sciences. It feels like they really are the outliers all around, among both the men in their classes and among other women in science. I know there are online resources, but it feels they don’t really reach the young college women demographics. Perhaps the best thing to do is exactly this, getting out there to meet them and trying to help them one at a time; ironically, this may work precisely because they are so few and far between.