Meet my friend Abby. She’s going to be the first woman on Mars. How do I know this? When I met her recently, she showed me her scale model of a cold front that she made herself, complete with labels for the advancing cold front, developing cumulonimbus clouds, and receding warm front. She included the layers of the soil on the ground, you know, just to be complete. She did this all herself, for fun, not as a class project, without her mom’s input or supervision. She’s 7.
Here she is with her diorama of a rainforest ecosystem, in which she explains the importance of reptiles. Again, this was a project she did on her own for fun.
And here she is, researching minerals on her mom’s laptop. This particular day, she was studying feldspar.
When her mom told me that she wanted to meet me because I was a “real scientist,” I immediately felt the weight of responsibility of nurturing this brilliant young mind in science. As a recent article in the New York Times magazine illustrates, there are relatively few females in science. A recent Business Insider article deliniates seven things that are keeping women out of science. Mavenites, we’ve discussed these issues before – gender bias against women in science, and the difficulty of balancing motherhood with a science career. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with the seeming obstacles stacked against women in science.
Meeting Abby reignited the fire: I want to help this little girl to succeed in science.
I’ll never forget my first science teacher – Mrs. Moore taught my Junior High biology class, and I loved it. I credit her with getting me hooked on biology, and especially microbiology. She encouraged us to bring whatever weird thing we wanted to class to study under the microscope. Seeing an amoeba slither around under the microscope for the first time fascinated me to no end. It still does. I truly love and respect all of my science teachers and mentors – they fostered my love of science, and never told me that science was a man’s world, with no girls allowed. Mr. Harbour, Mr. Matthews, Mr. True, and Mr. Fankhauser all encouraged me in my high school math and science courses. Dr. Richard Robison and Dr. Bill Pitt at BYU were my graduate mentors who guided me through my research and courses. How many female microbiology instructors did I have in my six years of college and grad school? Zero. I give a lot of credit to Dr. Robison who sponsors a lot of women in their graduate programs -- he's helping foster a new generation of female science mentors. Dr. Mark O. Martin, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Puget Sound, is also an ardent supporter of women in science and has mainly females working in his labs. They are among the few who tip the balance a little.
Eileen Pollack’s article cites some of the reasons why women don’t go into the sciences: gender bias, cultural ideas that science and math are for boys and not for girls, difficulties in having children for women in the sciences, and disparities in pay and benefits between men and women. This quote struck me particularly:
But beyond strengthening our curriculum, we need to make sure that we stop losing girls at every step as they fall victim to their lack of self-esteem, their misperceptions as to who does or doesn’t go on in science and their inaccurate assessments of their talents.
And then I thought of Abby, working away at her cold front model. This girl LOVES science. I want to help her keep loving science. I don’t want her to hear from her teachers and male peers that she’s not smart enough, that girls don’t do math and science, and only see men as her science mentors. Because, dang, this girl is smart, and I want to help her go to Mars.
I recently read about a program sponsored by Marvel comics, The National Academy of Sciences, and Underwriters Laboratories that will match up girls ages 14 and up with some of the most powerful women in science as part of the marketing campaign of the movie Thor: The Dark World. Natalie Portman as an astrophysicist? It's a bit of a stretch, but it’s a step. Girls and young women may see her in this movie and think, "Hey, I can do that too!" Let’s keep encouraging girls and young women in science. Let’s continue to be enthusiastic supporters of women in science, like Bonnie Bassler. Let’s get this girl to Mars.
Female Mavenites: How were you encouraged in science, technology, engineering, and math fields? What more can we do, as women in science, to encourage girls and young women to stick with science?
[All images of Abby the Super Scientist courtesy of her mom, Tracy McKay]