Women Scientists Encourage Girls to Pursue the Sciences

Story posted June 10, 2003

Mainely Women in Science is determined to spread the word that you don't need a Y chromosome to enjoy a rewarding career in the sciences.

Because scientific occupations are historically male dominated, MWIS focuses their outreach efforts on introducing girls who are interested in science to potential careers in the field. MWIS held their key annual event at Bowdoin College recently, as the group brought its Career Fair and Picnic to campus.

This four-year-old event has been growing steadily since 2000. The inaugural picnic, held at the Portland Head Light, was attended by fewer than ten students. This year, 127 students and teachers from 12 different southern Maine high schools came to Bowdoin to hear presentations by seven female professional scientists (the schools attending were from Portland, Bath, Brunswick, Topsham, Freeport, Fryeburg, Scarborough, Gorham, Lewiston, Cumberland, Boothbay, and Kents Hill).

According to Madeleine Msall, associate professor of physics and astronomy and chair of the picnic, the event is a great way for girls faced with "What's the next step after high school?" to hear about an array of career opportunities directly from women scientists with diverse occupations.

"MWIS wants to get the message across to young women that pursuit of a science career is fun, rewarding, challenging and most of all well suited for a host of interests and career paths," said Caryn Prudente, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Southern Maine. "It's important for these girls to realize there is no one signal pathway to one single career, and that having a sound education in science can open many career and lifestyle options."

The success of the event can be measured by the impression it made on the students who attended. Before the Career Fair and Picnic, Brunswick High School seniors Laura Hartz and Samantha Haaland had their doubts as to its likely value.

"I thought the MWIS career fair would be just a normal fieldtrip to hear a mediocre group of nerdy people," Hartz admitted.

Haaland concurred: "I signed up expecting it to be, truthfully, an event that would not be very helpful."

Hartz changed her tune radically after the event. "I couldn't have been farther from the truth. It was an amazing event that single-handedly refueled my desires to be scientist."

Haaland, too, was "pleasantly surprised.... I found the morning beneficial, and it gave me new motivation towards my studies next fall."

During the scientists' presentations, each explained her decision to pursue the sciences in school, described her particular field, and offered insight, affirmation and advice. After the presentations, the scientists chatted informally with the students. For many of the high schoolers, said Msall, this was their first ever opportunity for such close interaction with a professional female scientist.

"It was wonderful and energizing to hear the stories of the many different interesting women who pursued their dreams as scientists," said Hartz. "My favorite part was when the scientists circulated through the [crowd] to chat with us. They were approachable, knowledgeable and honest about the small annoyances and great pleasures of being a women scientist. Their humor, character and intelligence made them easy to talk to."

Bowdoin offered an ideal setting for the event (which takes place in a different location each year). The Admissions office provided tour guides to escort the students through the College's state-of-the-art science facilities in Druckenmiller and Cleaveland halls, and Bowdoin faculty and staff opened up their labs to allow students to observe first hand the scientific work that goes on here.

In addition to Msall, other Bowdoin participants included Karen Topp, lab instructor in physics and astronomy; Bev DeCoster and Colleen McKenna, lab instructors in chemistry; Anne McBride, assistant professor of biology and biochemistry; and several Bowdoin students. Ella Thodal '05, Alissa Waite '05, Takara Larsen '05, Jeff Cook '04, Emily Hricko '06, and Ben Needham 05 were among the tour guides.

The morning tour was a highlight for Haaland. "I found [Bowdoin's science facilities] incredibly exciting," said Haaland. "The tour actually made me more excited to leave for college in the fall!"

Scientists making presentations included Carolyn Radding, a veterinarian, teacher, and MWIS president; Jeri Erickson and Sara Ellingwood, genetic counselors at the Foundation for Blood Research in Scarborough; Nicole Poulton, a marine sciences post doctoral candidate working at Bigelow Laboratories, West Boothbay Harbor; Kate McDonald, geologist, URS Corporation, Portland; Barbara Kittredge, a physicist at AT&T; and Elizabeth Ehrenfeld, microbiology professor at Southern Maine Technical College.

"I never realized how many opportunities in the science field there are besides the classic physicist, biologist, doctor and chemist," said Hartz.

While the experiences and careers of the seven scientists have been varied, what they all have had in common is a realization, at some point, that their interest in the sciences should not be ignored and could lead to an exciting career.

For Kate McDonald, a staff geologist at URS Corporation in Portland, it is her "fabulous" junior high school earth science teacher who deserves credit for heading her down the path to a science career. "Don't skip earth science. Leave your options open," the teacher encouraged. McDonald listened, and was surprised to find how fascinating - and fun - earth science was. "I always thank that teacher," she said. "It was the best class I ever took." It encouraged her to take a geology class next, because she realized "that could be cool."

A 1996 graduate of Bonny Eagle High School and a 2000 graduate of Bates College (where she completed her senior honors project in Mexico on mine waste and arsenic), McDonald now makes a living doing geo-technical fieldwork on such projects as building, airport and road construction, drilling, hazardous spill containment, and map drafting. She simply calls upon her skills at "getting people to come around" should she run into anyone questioning a woman's ability to do the job.

Sara Ellingwood, a genetic counselor at the Foundation for Blood Research in Scarborough, was introduced early on to what eventually became her career. Her sister had birth defects and learning disabilities. As a young girl, Ellingwood accompanied her sister to doctors' appointments, where she learned that her sister had a "chromosome difference." Fascinated by what the doctors were explaining to her, she considered going into medicine, and entered college with her mind set on pre-med.

"You may go into college thinking you know exactly what you want to do," she said. "But you'll be surprised at how many other things are available to you, and how many other things you will learn that you like."

After working with a doctor at the University of Virginia Center for Biological Training, Ellingwood realized - two years into pre-med - that becoming a doctor was not for her. A guidance counselor suggested other alternatives, including genetic counseling.

She had found her career.

Professionally Ellingwood interacts with many different people, and she enjoys how the scientific aspect of her job melds with its social component. As a genetic counselor she is required to take complex genetic information and find a way to explain it in everyday language to people who do not have a medical or scientific education. "That way they can make informed decisions about their treatment," she said. Ellingwood added that minoring in psychology at college proves valuable everyday, because much of her job involves helping and supporting patients and their families who are dealing with difficult situations.

Ellingwood's favorite part of the job, she said, is the variety: from seeing patients with many different needs, to clinical support for labs, to educational outreach for doctors and nurses. To find the career that best suits you, she said, variety is also important during college. "I encourage you to take advantage of as many different courses, fields, and summer opportunities as are available."

The multitude of opportunities offered at college was one of the Career Fair and Picnic's major themes. "College is a time to explore who you are, what you want. Take advantage of the people there and talk to them, people who can give you advice," Prudente advised the group.

"It was heartening to hear that it's not necessary to know exactly what one wants to do when they enter college," said Hartz. "All of these women seemed to follow their dreams as they developed, not forcing the process."

The flexibility offered by attaining a science degree was also encouraging to the students. "Although I have always known that the science field is where I want to be, I found it reassuring that you can still change your mind at any time and try different and new things," agreed Haaland. "There are so many things in the science field that interest me, so I was very glad to hear that so many of the women that talked to us had changed their minds."

Elizabeth Ehrenfeld, a microbiologist and teacher at Southern Maine Technical College in South Portland, is a good example of how science can be flexible and lead to a varied career and lifestyle. In high school she had three main interests: science, the outdoors, and chocolate. She has been able to make all three work for her.

She became interested in science in high school, taking physics and biology classes. Deciding she wanted to be a physicist or a veterinarian, she went to Cornell University. Admittedly not a mathematics aficionado, and realizing how much advanced math she needed to be a physicist, she wound up saying "bye-bye" to that career plan. She also worked in a vet clinic, but it, too, turned out not to be what she envisioned. She always seemed to be on the road traveling from one horse farm to another, rather than working with animals.

A microbiology class, where she learned about the transfer of diseases, was a turning point for her, and she went on to graduate school to study bacterial genetics. Later her career took her to Switzerland, where she worked at a medical school and - a chocolate lover's dream come true - at Nestlé on Lake Geneva. Her study of bacterial DNA replication fit nicely alongside plenty of hiking, skiing, and chocolate tasting.

Food diagnostics has remained in the forefront of her career. Since moving to Maine she has researched salmonella in chicken, bacteria in water, and bacteria in lobster shells while employed at IDEXX Laboratories and SMTC. She now balances teaching in the winter with outdoor activities in the summer as a certified Maine Guide and trip leader for L.L. Bean.

As they continue in their efforts to ensure a future with more women scientists, organizers of the MWIS Career Fair and Picnic can only speculate how many of the girls attending this year's event will be tomorrow's genetic counselors, geologists, physicists, veterinarians, and microbiologists. But one thing is sure: this group of high school girls can move ahead with confidence that studying science can lead to a wonderful, meaningful career.

"Overall, it was a great day, and one that definitely refocused me on my intended Environmental Science major," concluded Laura Hartz.

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