Mentorship programs help bridge STEM gender gap

By Shawna De La Rosa

Taken from

Dive Brief:

  • In the midst of male-dominated fields that can sometimes deter females from entering, mentorship programs are cultivating interest and opening up opportunities to girls in STEM, EdSurge reports. In fact, when it comes to the percentage of girls who understand the relevance of STEM and the possible jobs within it, there’s a 20% difference between girls who know a woman in STEM (73%) and those who don’t (53%).
  • Women only make up only 29% of the science and engineering workforce, EdSurge notes, citing data from the National Science Board. And when it comes to computing, Girls Who Code thinks the gender gap is getting bigger — by 2027, they estimate that only 22% of computer scientists will be women, down from 37% in 1995 and 24% in 2017.
  • It’s similar to a need for more diverse teachers that minority students can look up to — even if girls don’t get encouragement from a teacher, friend or family member, seeing a woman succeeding in STEM can show them that they can do the same. As David Shapiro, the CEO of Mentor, told EdSurge, “Research shows that life experience and human relationships give us a sense of what’s possible and help us navigate to those possibilities.”

Dive Insight:

Due to the high demand for STEM workers, entering these fields can make for a successful career. But while women make up roughly half of the labor force, they are vastly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math. And the continued lack of a female presence in these jobs begets a negative cycle — if young girls don’t see women in these occupations, they have fewer role models to look up to and are less likely to visualize themselves in the space in the future.

Getting girls hooked on STEM doesn’t have to wait until high school, either. Elementary and middle school years present promising windows of opportunity to introduce girls to the science disciplines. In elementary school, roughly 66% of girls say they’re interested in science — practically the same percentage as boys — but in middle school, this number drops due to a loss of confidence and interest. By high school, only 15% of girls are likely to pursue a STEM college major or career. 

Jobs in STEM fields are often well-paid and often pay men and women more equitably than other areas — in STEM, women earn 92 cents for every dollar men earn. On average, women are only paid 77 cents per each dollar men earn.

Several organizations, including Million Women Mentors, work to match female STEM figures with young girls who are interested in these fields. The company also provides corporations with information on how they can develop mentoring programs of their own.

School districts can also work to introduce girls to STEM by promoting related activities from an early age and by ensuring they’re getting encouragement from teachers to pursue what they’re good at or interested in. Additionally, hosting expos that introduce girls to women in science — like Peninsula School District in Washington, which holds a yearly Career And Pathways Expo for middle school girls — connect them to female leaders who they can see as sources of inspiration.

Fighting Heisenberg; how do we improve precision without losing accuracy?

It is easy to say that we are approaching a new golden age in modern medicine. Just in the last few years, we have made great strides in many areas of biomedicine and medical technology. However, with all this new data we face the inevitable dilemma of changing our dogmas and current understanding of science. I chose the title of this blog to be “Fighting Heisenberg” because I love the philosophy behind Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Physicists know the practical definition as the inability to exactly measure both the position and the velocity of a particle; however, the principle states that the more precise we try to measure one object, the less accurate we will be. I have a copy of Heisenberg’s principle next to my desk here at the University of South Carolina to remind me of that very principle every day.

An inherent problem

There is an inherent problem in science; it sucks, and it is very unpredictable. As we push the envelope of scientific discoveries, we face the possibility of misinterpreted results. A recent article by TheScientist discussed the technical bias of RNA-Seq datasets. They address this problem in a well-written article about the reproducibility of RNA-Seq data. This article focuses on the use of quality-control tools to correct the discrepancies in results. They discuss the importance of using consistent quality-control measures and argue for the standardization of these controls. I agree with this argument, the deeper we dig, the more differences we will find. We need to find ways to improve our accuracy as we push the precision of our work. However, within this problem, we uncover another dilemma; what should we believe!? There is a point where we control so much that we inadvertently cause the differences in our results.

What do we do next?

Those who know me best know how I would answer this; do more science! Keep pushing the envelope! But keep our friend Heisenberg in mind. We have to keep pushing our science so that our more precise findings are more accurate and reproducible. On December 13, 2016 the United States Congress passed into law the 21st Century Cures Act. This piece of legislation authorized $6.3 billion in medical research funding. Having been a large part of the 2016 presidential election, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the status of medical science. Most appropriately, it was titled Getting the Bogus Studies Out of Science. This article cited a study by Leonard Freedman at the Global Biological Standards Institute in Washington, DC. which estimated a whopping $28 billion per year was wasted on studies that fail to reach publication or contribute to medicine from the inability to reproduce previous results.

I will leave you with the idea that if we do not keep fighting Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle we will only find ourselves at a standstill in medicine. Keep pushing to find more precise answers to nature and science, but make it part of your job to find and develop cutting-edge methods in your research that will improve the accuracy of your findings.

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Minority PhD students in STEM fare better with clear expectations, acceptance

Taken from

Women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields are more likely to advance professionally, publish more research and secure postdoctoral and faculty positions if their institutional culture is welcoming and sets clear expectations, according to a study of hundreds of Ph.D. students at four top-tier California research universities.

Mark Richard, incoming provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the UW.

Mark Richards, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the UW.Courtesy photo

University of Washington Provost Mark Richards, the study’s senior author, and a team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) sought to understand how gender, race and ethnicity impact graduate students’ success in math, physical sciences, computer sciences and engineering, as measured by publication rates in academic journals.

The findings, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that doctoral scholars in STEM fields are more likely to publish if enrolled in well-structured graduate programs that lay out clear, unbiased expectations for assessing students and supporting their careers.

“Our study strongly indicates that the onus should not fall on minority students to make changes to succeed in STEM settings,” said Aaron Fisher, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study. “Institutional changes that make students feel welcome and provide clear guidelines and standards for performance are optimal ways to ensure the success of all students.”

“An important implication of this research, as reflected in several papers our group has published recently, is that essential interventions that promote the success of underrepresented minority and women PhD students in STEM fall mainly in the realm of academic culture, and do not necessarily require the investment of major resources. These interventions benefit all students, along with students who have been traditionally underrepresented in the STEM fields,” said Richards, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of earth and planetary science who became provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the UW in July.

The interventions identified in the study are especially relevant to the success of black graduate students, who are publishing at lower rates than their peers, Fisher said.

While white, Asian and underrepresented minority males and females in STEM fields recruited for the study at the four campuses were found to have published at roughly equivalent rates, black graduate students were nearly three times less likely to have published a paper in an academic journal.

However, when accounting for black students’ perceptions of departmental structure and sense of preparedness and belonging, the statistical model used in the study shows that this racial disparity may be due in large part to negative experiences associated with being a minority in otherwise white settings.

“African Americans have been communicating for decades about the difficulties and discomforts of being black in white-majority settings, and our data represent a clear example of empirical support for that narrative,” Fisher said. “It’s not so much that being black results in fewer publications, but that the experience of being black in a university setting presents challenges and obstacles that white students are either not facing, or facing to a lesser degree.”

Among the new efforts underway under Berkeley’s leadership is the Research Exchange, a national consortium of nine universities made up of the four California Alliance campuses as well as Georgia Tech; Harvard; the University of Michigan; the University of Texas, Austin; and the UW. The Research Exchange facilitates inter-institutional visits for advanced underrepresented graduate students from these nine top-tier institutions to expand their visibility and experience when applying for elite postdoctoral and faculty positions.

The UW has long been committed to increasing the number of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields and was one of the original National Science Foundation ADVANCE grant recipients that developed a host of interventions to make the campus climate more welcoming for both students and faculty from these groups.

“Provost Richards’ commitment to diversifying the STEM study body, faculty, and workforce – and his deep belief that diversity is critical to excellence – was something that last year’s provost search committee saw as an important strength,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce. “We expect that under his academic leadership the UW will continue to be a leader in this regard.”

The newly published study was conducted through the UC Berkeley-led California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), a partnership of UC Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford and Caltech that seeks to boost the ranks of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields among the graduate students, postdocs, and faculty at research universities.

Previous research published by UC Berkeley members of the alliance, which was launched in 2014 with a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, found that underrepresented minorities publish in academic journals at significantly lower rates than their majority counterparts, placing them at a disadvantage in competing for postdoctoral and faculty positions.

“Publishing in academic journals is a key predictor of future success in academia, which is why our research is so concerned with this often-neglected indicator,” Richards said.

In addition to Fisher and Richards, co-authors of the paper are Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Colette Patt, Ira Young and Andrew Eppig of UC Berkeley; Robin Garrell of UCLA; Douglas Rees of Caltech; and Tenea Nelson of Stanford University.