For some scientists, the decision to pursue a research career stems from a youthful curiosity for the natural world that gradually builds over many years. Whereas in others, there is single moment when they realize that their desired future involved research. My interest is a mix of both – I decided I was going to be a biologist at around five years old. However, I can also pinpoint the ten seconds of absolute bliss that has led me to pursue a career in research.
A month after graduating from high school, I joined a summer program designed to immerse students in what would be their first experience conducting research (ecological field research in this case). The lab that operated this two-week outreach program took place at a diverse field site along the Mississippi River. I specifically remember walking along a transect conducting reptile surveys with a female graduate student during a bright, warm mid-morning. In a matter of minutes though, the weather turned and the sky became various shades of lavender. Lightening ripped through the sky and I was assigned to quickly release multiple organisms that we had caught the day before. I ran to the top of a hill, over-cast by a sea of wildflowers, and saw rain streaming from the brim of my ball-cap. I remember thinking, “I’m cold and absolutely soaked… but this is so cool.” In that moment, I knew my future was in research.
During the fall after this trip, I began my undergraduate career as a freshman majoring in biology. As a first-year student, my initial semester included mainly core curriculum, lecture-based classes. Of those sixteen credit hours, I had only one female professor that taught the second-half of our introductory biology course. From then on, my courses averaged 1-2 females out of 6-7 total instructors per semester during my time as an undergraduate. In my last semester, I enrolled in a developmental biology course and again, one of my two female professors co-taught the material.
As a developing scientist, I look up to my mentors and class instructors and admire their personal journeys towards their current positions as professors. As a young female, I am especially inspired by the women in my life who share a similar passion for science. During my time as an undergraduate, I became involved in the WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) program designed to support women in largely male-dominated career fields. Through this program, I had the opportunity to connect with, support, and be supported by other women in STEM fields. The day I decided to pursue research as a career, I was led by a female graduate student who I looked up to greatly. To this day, I find myself identifying people who have made a difference in my life and I unconsciously note the characteristics about them that I want to draw from. Of those, a large proportion are women. Because of this, I believe more women are needed in science and more specifically, are needed as professors that directly interact with and inspire students like me.
Despite the integration of more women into higher education within the last half century, women are still underrepresented in science and engineering professions. Moreover, there is a large discrepancy between the number women that pursue higher degrees (e.g., Ph.D.) and the number that have careers in STEM fields. The National Science Foundation found that those awarded doctorates in 2016 sit at 46% female . According to the US Census Bureau, in the last half century, the percentage of women in STEM related career fields has risen from 7% in 1970 to 24% in 2015 [1,3]. Of those occupations, the life and physical sciences currently supports 41%, which is dramatically different from that of engineering at 13% . Out of the 31 professors that instructed or co-instructed my undergraduate classes, only 8 (or 26%) of them were female.
The lab that I journeyed with during my first field research experience specializes on the nesting ecology of Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) and explores the biological significance of temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD). During Summer 2017, I completed a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) project examining how thermal conditions influence survival and timing of emergence in hatchling turtles. Painted turtles are unique in that the neonates spend their first winter inside subterranean nest cavities and emerge the following the spring, rather than immediately disperse toward water (as in most other turtle species). My interests lie in how thermal conditions within nests during embryonic development and after hatching affect dates of emergence. My research would not have been successful without the support and inspiration from my lab-mates, many of whom were women.
It was because of this research experience that I knew what I was looking for in a graduate program. I began searching for graduate schools about twelve months before graduation, and I almost immediately narrowed down my top-choice lab and advisor – an older, white male whose research centered on a topic that I had dreamed of working on as a child. I contacted him and began reaching out to others in his lab, even meeting with one of them at a conference during that semester. What I unfortunately did not take note of at the time, was that all my interactions with this lab had been through males. A few weeks following this, I received an email from a mentor at my undergraduate university indicating that this “dream” lab that I had identified as my #1 pick for graduate school, was renowned for sexually harassing women. This lab was also known for hosting inappropriate parties at the advisor’s house. I remember being so overwhelmingly disappointed because the research was exactly what I wanted, but the environment at this university would have been not only unhealthy, but unsafe. Had it not been for that mentor, I would not have discovered this without being involved in the situation myself.
From that experience, I made an effort to ask at least one woman what it was like to be in her shoes at every prospective graduate program I considered next. By doing this, I became much more aware of the type of lab environment that I would enter, and I gladly accepted an offer into a department to work under two immensely knowledgeable advisors, one of whom is female. This fall, I will begin my journey as a Ph.D. student where I intend to work on some aspect of developmental and reproductive biology of reptiles, and I look forward to growing more as a student and scientist. My intent is to enter academia as a professor and contribute to the scientific community that I feel has supported me so immensely, but has also challenged me. Because of my passion for science and the obvious lack of women in this field, I am driven to follow a career in academia to create a change so that other women can see themselves doing the same.
To directly change atmospheres within university departments, we need strong women willing to combat stereotypes and insensible gender inequalities in varying academic fields to encourage other women to stay in their fields of interest. Whether it be the unspoken admiration from an undergraduate to direct interaction with a graduate student, more women need to be in science and education because the next generation is watching.
- Economics & Statistics Administration. 2017. STEM Jobs: 2017 Update | Economics & Statistics Administration, www.esa.doc.gov/reports/women-stem-2017-update.
- Hamrick, K. 2018. Who Earns a U.S. Doctorate? NSF – National Science Foundation. www.nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsf18304/report/who-earns-a-us-doctorate/sex-citizenship.cfm.
- US Census Bureau. 2013. Women’s Employment in Science, Tech, Engineering and Math Jobs Slowing. www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2013/cb13-162.html.