All the science ladies

Scientists advocate for more women to pursue STEM careers

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Rachel Webb, one of the panelists from the "Women in Science” event on May 5. Stella Crabtree/PSU Vanguard

The Portland State Neuroscience Club hosted its “Women in Science” panel on May 5. The event’s three panelists were all women who work in different areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or “STEM,” at PSU.

The event panelists were Brie Tripp, Rachel Webb, and Joyce Pieretti. Tripp is a Ph.D. student working in Dr. Erin Shortlidge’s Biology Education Research Lab; Webb is a senior instructor II teaching statistics; and Pieretti is the diversity, recruitment, and retention coordinator for the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science.

Rebekah Hough, events outreach coordinator for the PSU Neuroscience Club, organized the event and asserts women have more barriers and less support than men pursuing STEM careers. Hough believes the “Women in Science” panel is an important platform for women in STEM fields to voice their experiences and provide insights that can help other women.

Brie Tripp: biology

Tripp’s desire to work in science stems from a speech she gave in fifth grade about Polish physicist Marie Curie, who won two Nobel Prizes.

“I was blown away by everything that she had done and that what she had done had actually taken her life,” Tripp said. “I mean, she died for the cause of science.”

Tripp planned to work in English until a professor of an intro to biology class in college inspired her to change her mind. The biology teacher was a confident woman who Tripp remembers as being encouraging and passionate, motivating her to give that same inspirational experience to others. As a current assistant teacher, Tripp seems to be on her way.

Despite Tripp’s inspired dive into teaching, her path toward teaching came with challenges. She asserted that the majority of male faculty of PSU’s Biology department have children while their female counterparts are much less likely to have children because of societal stigmas.

“I would not have time to do this Ph.D. if I had kids, unless I had a stay at home dad,” Tripp said. “I feel like women are pitted with this decision of ‘am I going to have a career? Or am I going to have a family?’”

Rachel Webb: statistics

Children or career? It’s a familiar question for Webb, a senior instructor II who teaches statistics at PSU.

“I went through the master’s degree program, I had a son and I had to make that choice: ‘Am I gonna stay with my son, or am I gonna go on to a Ph.D. program?’” Webb said. “I did stay with my son, because I didn’t have a stay at home dad, so I never got my Ph.D.”

Webb recalled a female colleague who has two kids and had pay docked because she missed a meeting while on maternity leave. That colleague quit after realizing she was receiving $6,000 less than a male counterpart with the same title who started the same term. If women get paid less than males, it can seem that having a stay at home dad is less possible.

Discrimination against women varies

Webb also encouraged women to help make academia and STEM careers safer for women by calling out inappropriate comments made toward them and forcing those perpetrators to face up to it instead of laughing and walking away.

Webb remembers one comment made by a teacher in college who discouraged her from pursuing a Master of Science degree because a Master of Science teaching program was easier.

“Well, I couldn’t do it,” Webb said, quoting the teacher. “I failed my exams, and you can’t do it because you’re a girl.” 

One attendee remembered being told there was no way she could possibly be “male enough” for a statistics master’s program. Another attendee recalled being told by her physics teacher to look around the room filled with boys and see that she didn’t belong.

Webb noted how there used to be a professor at PSU who didn’t look at papers and graded based on how he felt students did. One particular instance involved this professor grading a woman who tutored men in his course worse than the men she helped. This resonated with Hough, who recalled tutoring two male students in a graduate level biochemistry course.

“I would get five points taken off and they would get none, or one,” Hough said. “So I tried to talk to the professor about it and he was just like, ‘It’s subjective and it’s how many points I thought you deserved.’ I ended up having to drop the course because I didn’t want it to affect my GPA.”

Joyce Pieretti: diversity, recruitment, and retention coordinator

Pieretti’s experience has been different from others in her journey to a professional woman in a STEM career. Peretti went to an all women’s college where it wasn’t possible to have professors place emphasis on her male counterparts. Pieretti’s struggle, however, involved identifying in an academic community whose parents held degrees, while her’s did not.

Pieretti remembered realizing that she didn’t need to compare herself to others and encouraged attendees to stop comparing themselves to others.

“To not follow the path I’ve laid out, but actually to forge your own and do it better than I did,” Peretti said. “There are plenty of resources here at PSU…obviously, being a part of the Neuroscience Club, but there are also plenty of other organizations, the Women’s Resource Center, the Women’s Leadership Institute. There are opportunities for you to connect with those networks and have those support systems, which I was not as aware of when I was in college.”

Webb wanted people to show extra support for science and women in STEM careers given the current presidential administration’s policies.

“The climate on science and women, in general, is very hostile,” Webb said. “So I hope you guys don’t just give up for four years. I hope that we can fight this stuff and make it known that science is very important, and women in STEM majors are very important, and men in STEM majors, and STEM majors are just one of those things that we don’t have enough people and that’s why we need immigration.”

If neuroscience sounds like a good time and you want to hang out with others who think similarly, check out PSU’s Nueroscience Club at facebook.com/pdxbrains. Yes, that does say PDXbrains, which is objectively pretty cool.

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