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Plugging the last leaks

    STEM WISE  A panel of William & Mary's female researcher offers advice and encouragement to young women scientists at a workshop conducted by the Women in Science Education (WISE) initiative.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Established women scientists reach out to their STEM sisters

A pipeline with a leak isn’t very efficient—much of whatever is supposed to be transported will be lost along the way. That’s exactly what’s happening to women as they pursue careers in science. A phenomenon aptly titled “the leaky pipeline” describes how the number of women working toward science careers decreases at each stage of the educational process.

STEM at W&MThat attrition is something that five women scientists are addressing through the Women in Science Education initiative (WISE) at William & Mary. WISE is a STEM-outreach program that concentrates on helping young women to navigate through the final stretches of the pipeline that leads from kindergarten to a career as a practicing scientist.

“There’s a discrepancy between males versus females who get their bachelor’s degrees in science-related fields and then who go on to get their Ph.Ds. There is an even bigger gender difference in who gets hired as faculty and then receives tenure,” said Assistant Professor Cheryl Dickter. “For women, maintaining a career in STEM drops off over time and so the idea is to investigate why and figure out how we can help at each stage.”

Started in 2011

The initiative, which kicked off in 2011, seeks to conduct attitudinal assessments about women in STEM careers, provide female faculty members with research opportunities and sponsor career development opportunities. The workshops and activities are aimed at helping other female faculty members at William & Mary, Thomas Nelson Community College and Richard Bland College as they face challenges unique to women in STEM professions.

Along with Dickter, the five WISE women include Associate Professor Jennifer Stevens, Assistant Professor Catherine Forestell, Professor Pamela Hunt and Visiting Assistant Professor M. Christine Porter. Stevens is the principal investigator of the NSF grant. All are researchers in William & Mary’s neuroscience and psychology programs.

To provide women with career development opportunities, WISE is sponsoring a variety of activities, including workshops on topics such as writing, leadership and challenges that women in STEM disciplines face. Participants will also have the chance to attend an annual leadership forum, an annual retreat and four symposia each year. The funding for WISE, a three-year initiative, was provided by the National Science Foundation.

“This grant is to career-develop and empower female faculty in the STEM disciplines,” Stevens said.

Resources for research & transition grants

In addition to career development, WISE is also providing resources for research and transition grants, said Forestell.

“We are quite aware—as women—that women are typically caretakers,” said Forestell, noting that women are often responsible for the care of children and aging parents. “That might interfere with their ability to be productive researchers, so this grant is meant to provide a transition for them as they return from some of those family responsibilities.”

Women community college faculty, who spend most of their time teaching, are being provided with rare access to research opportunities as a result of the initiative. During the spring 2012 semester, several community college faculty members paired up with William & Mary faculty members to apply for grants to support collaborative research.

“Money is tight with big, national grants, so if we can provide women with access to these resources, it encourages and empowers them,” said Forestell.

In addition to career development and research opportunities, WISE is also allowing researchers to conduct several assessments related to women in STEM disciplines, said Dickter.

One such assessment is looking at how women in STEM disciplines perceive themselves.

“Research suggests that even women who are at really good schools and are tenured or who are tenure-track faculty still may have negative implicit perceptions of themselves as women in science,” said Dickter.

Funded by National Science Foundation

In order to examine those perceptions, the researchers are conducting several comparisons. They are looking, for example, at women participating in WISE versus women who are not, women who are in STEM disciplines versus those who are in non-STEM fields and women faculty versus men.

“We are looking long term to see if we can improve those implicit attitudes about women in science over the course of the three years,” said Dickter.

Stevens said that it is important that the NSF, as a national funding agency, funded this grant to support and fund research for women in STEM disciplines.

“They recognize the discrepancy between the genders and they’re promoting women in the STEM disciplines by funding these initiatives,” she said.

She added that it’s exciting that William & Mary is partnering with two community colleges for this grant and expects the grant to benefit students.

“We are a relatively small school and it is tough for us to get funding,” she said. “In comparison to large institutions, we created a community for fostering development, collaboration and mentorship by partnering with our community colleges and developing a critical mass. This will have long-term effects for our own faculty and should have down-stream effects for role-modeling with the students.”  Ideation