Walk a mile in her lab coat: STEM professors share their experiences in the field

Katelynn Singleton, Campus Carrier editor-in-chief

Sam Askew, Campus Carrier managing editor

From 2010 to 2018, the number of students who received a bachelor’s degree for a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) major increased by 62%, more than the 20% growth that other degrees received, according to a report from the PEW Research Center in 2021. Despite this growth, women remain underrepresented in computing, engineering and physical science jobs, with 74% of women in STEM fields being in healthcare services. STEM fields have a reputation for being male-dominated, and as a result, many young girls feel as though they can’t study these subjects. Organizations such as SciGirls, the Girl Scouts and the National Girls Collaborative Project work to encourage girls from all backgrounds to participate in STEM and increase diversity in the field.

Alice Suroviec, a professor of bioanalytical chemistry and the dean of the school of mathematical and natural sciences, said that she has noticed more women are entering and pursuing STEM. There was a point where women in the field felt as though they had to choose between starting a family or continuing their careers. 

“We are getting to be more equitable in family medical leave and parental leave and understanding that you can’t be at work outside of school hours as easily,” Suroviec said. “There are a lot more understanding policies. Europe more so than the U.S., but the U.S. is changing.”

Caitlin Conn, an assistant professor of biology, became interested in the field as a child. When she went to graduate school, she said that her advisor, who was a man, tried to make sure that his students felt valued in the lab. She also said that several of her mentors supported her and her experiences.

“He was so supportive and he was so conscientious about trying to make everybody feel represented and valued in the lab,” Conn said. “So I’ve been really fortunate in that regard. I’ve had a lot of mentors who have been women in STEM as well, so I got to have those role models to whom I can relate to pretty easily.”

Suroviec encourages students who are interested in a STEM career or Ph.D. program to reach out to professors to get involved in research, either by working with professors on campus or off campus.

“Don’t be scared of it. STEM, I think, has a reputation of being hard and weeding out people,” Suroviec said. “I think Berry is a great place where we really mentor, nurture and if you want to do it, we’re going to help you figure out a way to succeed in your courses and in your major.

Judith Wilson, department chair of animal science, echoed this sentiment and said that the animal science department has an excess of students requesting research.

“We have a lot of students that want to do research and a lot of the faculty here, particularly the younger faculty, are very involved in research and we want students to work with us,” Wilson said. “In fact, we have so much pressure from students that want to work with us in research projects, sometimes there are not enough places for them, but eventually they get there, you know, during their four years here.”

Conn said that to make STEM a more accessible field for girls, it’s important to keep marketing in mind.

“I don’t think that girls are inherently not interested in STEM,” Conn said. “It might be an issue more so where sciency toys are more marketed toward boys for example. Engineering toys tend to show up in the “boys’ sections” of toy catalogs. So I think the long-term big solution is to change how we’re advertising the field of STEM to people of all ages.”

Wilson said it’s important to ensure that girls in middle and high school understand that they have much of an opportunity in STEM as the boys in their classes do.

“Just explore it and see what’s out there, whether it’s opportunities for them to get involved with some clubs or visit with their science professors, even in high school to say, hey, what are my options,” Wilson said. “And just look at all the different avenues where they can start figuring out ‘am I really great at math, and do I want to do something with math, or could I be an engineer, if I wanted to be an engineer?’ And just to encourage them.”

Conn makes an effort to prevent stereotypes of STEM by being mindful when groups of students visit Berry and making sure to avoid picking the same students to do certain activities.

“We want to make sure that we’re getting input from everybody who’s in the group, giving similar jobs to everybody in the group,” Conn said. “If we’re doing an outdoor lab, we don’t want to just send the boys into the mud or into the pond to do the dirty work. We want to make sure that everybody has a chance to try everything out and that everybody feels like they can do it.”

Suroviec said Berry does well in hiring diverse professors that students can relate to. Starting next fall, there will be four new professors in the chemistry, mathematics, environmental science and physics departments, all of whom are women. Because Berry has a sizeable female student population, Suroviec said it’s important for the faculty to reflect the students.

“Having role models on campus, I think, is also important. There’s lots of great lady professors who are doing this job,” Suroviec said. “We have for chemistry some guest speakers coming in, biology has [speakers] too in the next month or two, just women who are in STEM and like, what are they doing and how they get there? I think just seeing that as possible makes it more achievable.”

When Catherine Borer, associate professor of biology and affiliate faculty of environmental science and studies, came to Berry in 2006, there was one other female professor of biology, who had a master’s degree. This made Borer the only female biologist with a Ph.D. when she was hired. Now, Borer says there are more female professors, allowing for more role models in the department.

“We’re probably 50/50 at this point from the perspective of faculty, which I think is really great for the students as well because the students get to see what I hope are really awesome female role models in the biology department,” Borer said.

Conn acknowledges that while she has had good experiences as a woman in STEM, there are challenges that she and other women in the field face. Due to much of her research being outdoors, she sometimes feels intimidated being alone at a site. 

“That’s definitely a challenge that I think sometimes gets overlooked, especially by men who are higher up in STEM,” Conn said. “Just this problem that sometimes we can face in terms of feeling safe by ourselves in remote locations.”

Despite most fields within STEM being male-dominated, animal science is a majority-female field. Wilson said that it has flipped over time.

“If we went 40 years ago, it would be male-dominated. In the past couple of decades, that has flipped. So it’s predominantly female students that are involved in animal science. And when we look at that school and like the students, we have coming to Berry for vet school, it’s predominantly female.”

In addition to being largely male-dominated, STEM is also a predominantly white field. According to the PEW Research Center, 67% of those in STEM jobs are white. Although it is important to increase gender diversity, diversity in aspects such as race, sexuality and physical ability is also crucial.

Everybody has different perspectives. Everybody has a different upbringing and different socialization from their early life, continuing on through the rest of their lives,” Borer said. “And as a result, we all have different perspectives on our lives and on the world. And we have different types of ideas. So I think having a broad diversity of representation, not just females, but, other races and cultures and perspectives is to everyone’s benefit.”

Leave a Reply