Women in STEM
“The leadership of our women faculty in the Arts and Sciences is a great indicator of women’s increasing presence and influence in STEM fields, nationally and internationally.”
While women make up half of the college-educated workforce in the U.S., according to the latest Science & Engineering Indicators from the National Science Foundation, they only comprise 29 percent of those in science and engineering occupations. Modest gains have been made over the past few decades, but the gender gap isn’t closing fast enough.
Women faculty in the Arts and Sciences, speaking from their own experiences, say that role models are the catalyst for bringing about change in STEM — and they are paying it forward for the next generation.
“Mentorship and role models are crucial,” said Laura Lopez, assistant professor of astronomy. “I think that young girls need to see that science is a possible career path for them. I think they need exposure to science in order to know what it is, what kinds of questions can be asked, and also what being a scientist actually is.”
A priority for the College of Arts and Sciences is to increase the number of underrepresented women and minority faculty, students and staff in STEM disciplines. A particular area of support is in offering partner career and support resources — ensuring that raising a family and having a career are not mutually exclusive. The university offers part-time tenure-track positions and tenure clock flexibility as institutional policies, along with other measures designed to make the path a bit more attractive for women and other underrepresented groups.
What’s lost if we don’t support women in STEM? The women on the following pages show that the opportunity costs are profound: improvements to children’s health, research to support therapies for cancer and multiple sclerosis, an understanding of our changing atmosphere and our massive universe, a convergence of technology with art.
And what’s to gain by having role models in place for the next generation? The possibilities are limitless.
Big Data for Big Problems
Elisabeth Dowling Root, associate professor of geography and epidemiology, wants to know why people get sick — by uncovering as much information as possible.
Root researches and teaches at the intersection of geographic science and public health, and is an affiliate of Ohio State’s Translational Data Analytics program. She explores geographic patterns of health and disease using quantitative spatial methodologies, with an emphasis on improving children’s health. She has been involved with several major international health projects, including in Bangladesh, Honduras, Philippines and Indonesia, and with two research initiatives in the United States.
Her work evaluates the short- and long-term impacts of public health interventions in low-income countries, including vaccination campaigns, health system changes, maternal and child health and family planning programs. She is currently working with the Ohio Department of Health and Ohio Department of Medicaid to examine infant mortality in the state and identify interventions and resources necessary to improve birth outcomes in underserved populations.
Speaking from experience, Root says that by sparking curiosity about the world, educators will inspire more young girls to pursue STEM fields.
“I think we can encourage young girls to go into STEM by developing their curiosity about the world and encouraging them to ask questions and to accept that they don’t always know the answer, but the adventure and the excitement is trying to figure out the answers to those questions,” she said.
As she was doing her chemistry homework as a young student, Claudia Turro, the Dow Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, knew that chemistry was the field for her.
“I realized that atoms came together to make molecules, and molecules made up everything in the world, in the universe,” Turro said. “That everything around me — the table, the floor, the dirt, the flowers — was made up of atoms and molecules. This fascinated me, and I wanted to learn more.”
Flash forward, and Turro is the recipient of several top awards and honors from organizations including the National Science Foundation and the American Chemical Society.
Turro’s research focuses on understanding and utilizing reactions of metal complexes that can be initiated with light.
Such light-triggered reactions have enormous therapeutic, industrial and environmental applications, including treating tumors, developing luminescent reporters and sensors, degrading pollutants and converting solar energy. Turro has been a driving force in her department’s quest to recruit and retain underrepresented minority and female students at all levels, and she said she sees the tide turning in her field in large part due to role models and mentors.
“Role models are invaluable,” Turro said. “Having role models who look like you let you know that it’s possible to reach the level of what that other person has achieved. Having mentors who treat and promote everyone equally has also made it possible for me to be where I am today.“
Intervening With Evidence
Ruchika Shaurya Prakash, associate professor of psychology, is director of the Department of Psychology’s Clinical Neuroscience Laboratory. Prakash examines the efficacy of psychosocial lifestyle interventions, such as physical activity training and mindfulness meditation, in preserving and improving cognitive control and emotion regulation in older adults and in individuals with multiple sclerosis (MS).
“For a long time, MS patients were told not to exercise because there was a fear it could exacerbate their symptoms,” Prakash said. “But we’re finding that if MS patients exercise in a controlled setting, it can actually help them with their cognitive function.”
Recently, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society awarded Prakash a $631,000 grant to investigate the relationship between increased physical activity and improved cognitive functioning in people with MS. Prakash and her team will be comparing the impact of a step-count tracking intervention to a water-intake tracking intervention on measures of cognition and brain functioning.
If proven effective, step-count tracking could represent a low cost intervention for increasing levels of everyday physical activity in people with MS, with subsequent gains for cognitive health.
Prakash says she’s been fortunate to have positive role models throughout her career, but that those in STEM need to be cognizant of the messages they send. When she was completing her PhD at the same institution as her husband, one of her committee members asked her whose career would be more important, noting that a man’s career would normally take priority over a woman’s.
“Fortunately for me, I’ve had the backing of several role models in my life who have provided me with unwavering support, and I’ve been able to persevere forward, but we need to watch out for the messages that we give young women and girls — those messages sometimes really impede our ability to succeed within these fields.”
In high school, Virginia Rich, assistant professor of microbiology, thought she wanted to be a poet, but — by her own admission — she realized she wasn’t very good at it. Science, however, was a different story.
“I had some amazing teachers, and the further I got along in my biology classes, the more convinced I was that this was an amazing thing I should do,” said Rich.
Rich received her PhD through the MIT and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Joint Program in 2008, then served as a postdoc, then assistant professor at the University of Arizona before joining Ohio State’s Department of Microbiology in 2015.
A “global change” microbiologist, she studies how microorganisms respond to and mediate change caused by human activity, including climate change.
“Women researchers can help address the challenge of our under-representation. We need to share our passion; show and tell the stories of amazing role models so that more young girls can begin to see themselves in STEM fields.”
Rich co-leads an international team of 13 researchers in Arctic Sweden on a quest to understand how thawing permafrost impacts climate change. Permafrost-associated soils cover nearly a quarter of our planet’s land surface and contain more than a third of the world’s soil carbon. When permafrost thaws, the release of carbon into the atmosphere has major implications for climate change.
The three-year project is funded by a $3.75 million Department of Energy grant. Rich draws scientific inspiration from her mother, who, although not a scientist, was a fifth-grade teacher charged with leading science experiments.
“Her curiosity about how things were working as she prepared to teach fifth-graders was absolutely contagious,” Rich said. “Not just that, but her intellectual rigor in evaluating the experiments she was doing still remains my bar for how rigorous I want to be and how excited I want to be about my science.”
Laura Lopez, assistant professor of astronomy, decided she wanted to be an astronomer in the fifth grade.
“Our class went stargazing, and I was really captivated by the night sky and how everything worked in space,” said Lopez. “I was only 11 years old and I had no idea what an astronomer actually did, but I was really into the mysteries of space and trying to understand it.”
Lopez came to Ohio State in 2015 after serving as a NASA Hubble Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, as a NASA Einstein Fellow and as a Pappalardo Fellow in Physics at MIT. She earned her PhD in astronomy and astrophysics in 2011 at the University of California-Santa Cruz.
“Young girls need to see that science is a possible career path for them. They need exposure to the sciences in order to know what they are, what kinds of questions can be asked and also what being a scientist actually is.”
Lopez’s research focuses on the birth and death of massive stars and how these processes affect the surrounding interstellar medium. She studies star-forming regions and supernova explosions in the Milky Way and nearby galaxies using data from across the electromagnetic spectrum.
In March 2016, NASA appointed Lopez to the X-ray Surveyor Science and Technology Definition Team to study the feasibility of one of four candidate space-based telescopes to be launched in the 2030s.
In addition to her passionate dedication to teaching and research, Lopez is deeply committed to enhancing the participation and retention of women and diverse students in the sciences.
“My mom was really supportive of me when I decided I wanted to be an astronomer, and she encouraged me to get involved and try new science activities,” Lopez said.
Art + Tech
Assistant Professor Isla Hansen’s colorful, quirky soft sculptures, robotic installations and unusual videos may look frivolous … but they pack a punch.
Hansen, who specializes in art and technology and holds faculty appointments in both the Department of Art and the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD), said she wants her art to reflect the technology that surrounds us.
“I make art about the times we live in,” she said. “What are the tools that define us? What are new ways to think about the technologies we use every day?”
A current piece she’s creating, called Demolition One, which will debut at the Columbus Museum of Art, is a huge, colorful soft sculpture of a limo with hidden soft sensors that viewers can push, punch, poke and prod. When they do, a connecting animation of the vehicle will show it slowly being destructed.
“It breaks the rules of traditional art because you can touch it,” Hansen said of this piece and others she’s created. “In some of my works, I want people to get involved, to interact with the piece. On the surface, the work is playful and silly, and allows people to play with familiar technology in new ways. But underneath, there is a more complex critique.”
Hansen said her challenges lie in the balance between art and science. “People working in traditional STEM fields might not take me seriously. And people working in traditional art forms may not take me seriously either,” she said. “But I want to offer both of these fields a new perspective, to push people to challenge their preconceived notions. Even if they don’t ‘get it’ right away, I think people are starting to come around to the idea that play should be taken very seriously.”
The Way Forward
No one argues that the pursuit of STEM careers is a straightforward path for women. While many challenges remain, Ohio State aims to make a difference by emphasizing diversity in STEM fields.
The arts and sciences have a long legacy of embracing inclusion, diversity, community and openness, and as the college looks toward the future, it will continue to advance these values and serve as a role model to all.
The bottom line: A brilliant scientific mind cannot be wasted, and brilliant scientific minds know no gender. The women featured here are living proof.
Meet six of @ASCatOSU's #WomenInSTEM who play an impactful role in their fields and at @OhioState #ASCDaily