Science Grrl

As the Presidential campaign heats up (what you think it’s hot now?) the rhetoric about the “War on Women” will continue to escalate. Even though the GOP will continue to replay Hilary Rosen’s unfortunate “Ann Romney has never worked a day in her life,” quote, we need to refocus on what I believe Rosen was trying to focus on. The fact is that Ann Romney has never had to worry if her paycheck would stretch to the next payday, if she would get assigned enough hours at work or if taking a day off from work would result in being fired. Those are the issues I would hope we focus on as the United States decides who will lead them for the next four years.

Back in the lab, mothers in science have similar issues to contend with.

In the recent issue of  “American Scientist” the married social scientist couple of Williams and Ceci offer up the theory that perhaps the reason why there are so few women in science and engineering is that women want babies. BABIES! Oh, those cute, plump little beings that bring women’s work to a standstill (well except for changing diapers, feeding, clothing, rocking to sleep, but that’s not work, work, right?).

The premise Williams and Ceci present is that most, if not all, institutional discrimination has been dealt with. Let’s go with that for the sake of non-argument, ok? Their hypothesis is that “the hurdles women face often stem from a combination of several factors, including the decision to have children and cultural norms that place the burden of raising children and managing households disproportionately on women.

My first reaction (besides laughing, but I said let’s assume no other discrimination is taking place, right?) is that change does not happen this quickly. Even if we could say that equity had found its way to how women in science and engineering operate (fair shake in the grant, publishing and tenure processes) in the last ten years (to be generous), how quickly do we believe it will take to get a change in the landscape? Do Williams and Ceci believe that once the equity horn was sounded that women would hightail it out of the lab into the bedroom to start reproducing? That women who fled to other careers would run begging to be let back into their abandoned labs? Let’s give it a generation before we focus in on just motherhood as the root cause.

On the other hand, let’s go with Williams and Ceci. Let’s say that everything is hunky-dory except the whole mommy thing.

Let’s deal with why the mommy thing becomes the biggest challenge…

Sue Rosser recalls her own challenges with being pregnant and in graduate school. How people immediately expected less of her despite any decline in her work. She even reports that an adviser suggested that she have an abortion because her second pregnancy would interrupt data collection.

Rosser also outlines the systemic challenges to combining motherhood with a career in academic science – mainly paid leave after having the adorable career ending package, er, baby:

Although the National Institutes of Health offers eight weeks of paid leave to postdoctoral fellows who receive the National Research Service Award, recipients can only take the leave in the unlikely situation where every postdoc at the university is also eligible for eight weeks of paid leave. A study conducted by Mary Ann Mason of the University of California at Berkeley documented that of the 61 members of the Association of American Universities (the top elite research institutions), only 23 percent guaranteed a minimum of six weeks paid leave for postdocs and only 13 percent promised the same to graduate students.

Academic science is not your typical workplace. Experiments do need to continue, but much like a law firm, there are other bodies in the lab that can carry on the work. We just need a system that supports this model of respecting that scientists are human beings and as such we get pregnant, have babies, get sick and have to take care of our families.

Rosser ends her piece with some amazing advice for women and men who want to combine parenthood with a career in academic science. The one I repeat over and over to my students is PICK YOUR LIFE PARTNER CAREFULLY! This continues to be the biggest choice women have to make. Will your partner understand when you have to stay late to make sure an experiment doesn’t explode? That you do need a month on the open sea collecting fish? Or need to travel to Africa like Rosser?

In many ways, I wish that Williams and Cece were correct. That the question of why women aren’t staying in science is all about babies. Because we can fix that. We can build child care centers, we can pay women to stay home in order to heal from the birthing experience and bond with their bundles of joy. Sadly, I think it’s not the only reason. But maybe we need to start acting as if it is the reason and start changing the structure of how science is done. Because in the words of Ann Romney, we need to respect the choices women make and, for me, that means having institutions created that support women in those choices. Because it’s not much of a choice if there isn’t a way to act out that choice, now is there?

I don’t know where to start.

On Monday, one of the fiercest champions of women in science died of breast cancer. I knew Susan more with her work on women in science. Rather, I connected with her around our shared work rather than our shared motherhood. I remember introducing her to my best friend at Blogher 2009, “This is Susan, she’s a rocket scientist. Really!” I’ve rarely ever been so proud of a friend as a colleague and a person.

We shared a student a few years ago. One of the women in my program spent her internship under Susan’s wing. Once I realized this, Susan and I exchanged a flurry of emails about how amazing this young woman is. That student was lucky to have had time to share with Susan. All the students, women and men, who interned with Susan were lucky.

When I say Susan was fierce, let me offer this as an example:

I tried to be nice.

I tried to be quiet.

I tried to keep this site a supportive, welcoming place where e-mentoring could be had for the price of a click.

But really.  REALLY?  When the long-awaited first images of Stardust’s encounter of Tempel 1 were released today, THIS is the headline NASA chose?

NASA Releases Images Of Man-Made Crater On Comet

MAN-Made?  What about the names LucyJessica, and Karen confused you?  Were none of the hundreds of scientists and engineers who worked on Deep Impact women?


You know better than this.

You know that language matters, and that women matter to the future of the space agency.

Or, at least, you did.

What happened?

Yup, even as sick as Susan was, she didn’t hesitate to rip NASA for their biased language. That’s why I loved her so.

I’m going to miss my partner in crime.

But when I think of Susan’s fight against breast cancer, she did not just fight for herself, she fought for all of us. She would rant about the lack of funding and research. It wasn’t until the 1990s that women were even expected to be included in breast cancer research (in fact, in any medical trial). There’s a lot of catching up to do and we’re going to need all hands on deck. Men and women.

In Susan’s husband’s post telling us of her passing, he said, “In lieu of flowers, please consider furthering Susan’s legacy through a contribution to the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Or please choose to make a difference somewhere, anywhere, to anyone.

So there we have it. Our marching orders. Come on everyone, our Warrior Princess has spoken.

Thanks to University of Wisconsin – Madison researchers for another study that says girls can do math!

We’ve been here before. I’m not blaming them. This research needed to be done. I wish it didn’t. But it does. This study does not only address if girls can do math or not, but it also addresses the frequent “solution” to helping girls do well in math and science — single-gender education.

From the conclusions of the paper:

[W]e conclude that gender equity and other sociocultural factors, not national income, school type, or religion per se, are the primary determinants of mathematics performance at all levels for both boys and girls. Our findings are consistent with the gender stratified hypothesis, but not with the greater male variability, gap due to inequity, single-gender classroom, or Muslim culture hypotheses.

In other words, the gap we see between girls and boys math ability is due to society and culture. [T]hese major international studies strongly suggest that the maths gender gap, where it occurs, is due to cultural factors that differ among countries – and that these factors can be changed.”

It is not due to some mystery math gene on the Y-chromosome (greater male variability), not due to more boys having access to math classes (inequity), not due to separating boys from girls nor is it due to some mystery about Muslim culture. The last one is the most odd theory some people cling in order to not see that gender equity in society has an effect on girls and math performance. It was in Freakanomics. Essentially it goes like this: Since girls in Muslim societies have little equity, but they do awesome in math, feminism/gender equity has nothing to do with girls doing math.

‘The girls living in some Middle Eastern countries, such as Bahrain and Oman, had, in fact, not scored very well, but their boys had scored even worse, a result found to be unrelated to either Muslim culture or schooling in single-gender classrooms,’ says Kane.

He suggests that Bahraini boys may have low average math scores because some attend religious schools whose curricula include little mathematics.

Also, some low-performing girls drop out of school, making the tested sample unrepresentative of the whole population. [cite]

The Muslim society theory depends on the strength of single-gender classroom theory. Kane and Mertz also debunks this beloved theory on how to combat the lack of girls in math and science. Other studies have tried to debunk the single-gender classroom/school theory by pointing out that most single-gender schools have smaller classrooms. I only say “try” because some people have ignored them.

Last month my office co-sponsored a Girls and Computer Science Day for high school girls. During the lunch Q&A panel where some of our undergraduate and graduate women in CS talked about how awesome our CS department is, I chimed in. I told the girls that our quest to see more girls in CS is not merely a pro-girl movement, rather it is a movement to ensure that we have as many heads at that table as possible when solving problems our world is facing. I don’t do my job just to get girls and women into science and engineering to get the numbers up. Rather women and girls add something to the process of how science and engineering is done. It is not that women do better science, but with women at the table, science is better. Kane and Mertz sum it up pretty well in their concluding remarks:

Eliminating gender discrimination in pay and employment opportunities could be part of a win-win formula for producing an adequate supply of future workers with high-level competence in mathematics. Wealthy countries that fail to provide gender equity in employment are at risk of producing too few citizens of either gender with the skills necessary to compete successfully in a knowledge-based economy driven by science and technology.

Now that we’ve settled these questions, let’s get back in the lab and get some science done, shall we?

As I prepare to head down to Atlanta for the National Women’s Studies Conference and the Girlw/Pen panel, I have to share with you one of my new favorite sites: Gendered Innovations.

What is Gendered Innovations?

Gendered Innovations employ sex and gender analysis as a resource to create new knowledge and technology.
The Gendered Innovations project:

    1) develops methods of sex and gender analysis for scientists and engineers;
    2) provides case studies as concrete illustrations of how sex and gender analysis leads to innovation.

There is a wonderful video of Londa Schiebinger explaining the project too.

What I love and greatly appreciate about this project is that it nicely explains why gender is important in science and engineering. From seat belts that project pregnant women and their fetus to heart disease researchers working with women in mind, gender plays an important part of science and engineering innovation.

This chart outlines all the points along the innovation path where sex and gender must be acknowledged in order for the outcome to be relevant and appropriate for all.

Setting Research Priorities and Making Funding Decisions? Who is valued? Is the National Institutes of Health funding research in women’s health at an appropriate level? And just becuase there is an Office of Women’s Health does not mean the funding matches the need.

Once funding is approved by Congress, does NIH set objectives that will positively impact women’s lives? For years heart disease was seen as a men’s disease and that women also had it. But women exhibit symptoms differently. We are still trying to educate women and the medical community to these differences.

There’s a laundry list of things to consider when deciding on methodologies, gather and analyzing data and evaluating the results with consideration to sex and gender. Most importantly is that fine line of setting up a research project to look for gendered differences and being able to identify those differences afterward.

And off to market we go! Will our voice activated gadgets recognize the higher pitch of women’s voices? Will the hot new drug work just as well in women as in men?

It’s not just about women either. Men are left out of research on so-called women’s diseases like osteoporosis.

For a researcher who is still learning like me, I really enjoy the terminology page. Because even the most seasoned feminist needs a quick reminder of when to use sex or gender appropriately.

Obviously I give this site a huge thumbs up. It is great for those who just want to understand what the big deal about gender in medicine/science/engineering is or for those of us who are doing or planning to do our own research into how gender impacts innovations.

Sylvia: Bad Girl Science Chats

There are many reasons why women are underrepresented in science & engineering. Some are specific to certain areas and some are systemic. When I was an undergraduate in science, as I tell my students, many moons ago, the advice I received from older women was to wait until tenure to start having kids. In the late 1990s that meant waiting until about your mid-late 30s. That did NOT sound like a good plan. Nowadays I see more graduate students and post-docs starting families. I know not an ideal time, but it coincides better with fertility.

That is why I practically screamed in my office when I read that the White House was announcing some new initiatives at the National Science Foundation to assist in this family versus career battle:

  • Allow postponement of grants for child birth/adoption – Grant recipients can defer their awards for up to one year to care for their newborn or newly adopted children.
  • Allow grant suspension for parental leave – Grant recipients who wish to suspend their grants to take parental leave can extend those grants by a comparable duration at no cost.
  • Provide supplements to cover research technicians – Principal investigators can apply for stipends to pay research technicians or equivalent staff to maintain labs while PIs are on family leave.
  • Publicize the availability of family friendly opportunities – NSF will issue announcements and revise current program solicitations to expressly promote these opportunities to eligible awardees.
  • Promote family friendliness for panel reviewers – STEM researchers who review the grant proposals of their peers will have greater opportunities to conduct virtual reviews rather than travel to a central location, increasing flexibility and reducing dependent-care needs.
  • Support research and evaluation – NSF will continue to encourage the submission of proposals for research that would asses the effectiveness of policies aimed at keeping women in the STEM pipeline.
  • Leverage and Expand Partnerships — NSF will leverage existing relationships with academic institutions to encourage the extension of the tenure clock and allow for dual hiring opportunities.

These are some serious changes folks!

For one, as the Sylvia comic points out, women, from my own sampling, do want to use their awesomeness to help the world. What some young women struggle with is seeing how their fab science and math skills translate into working with people to solve the world’s problems. I know, I know…for some of us it is obvious. For some of us it takes time to learn how imperative it is to have empathetic and caring people in science and engineering. Not that only women are those things, but girls are raised to value emotions and relationships. But even when they can see how much of the world they can impact with their civil engineering skills, many have plans to be mothers one day.

I do not believe women are leaving science & engineering because they want to be mothers, but it may be influencing how easy it can be for them to decide to leave when they hit other challenges and roadblocks.

The no cost extension benefit will be tricky. Most, if not all, scientists and engineers have others working for them off these grants. From graduate students and post-docs to supporting department administrators (like the accounting office), all that would also be on hold.

My cynical side needs to be reminded that these are just the beginning. Hopefully if the National Science Foundation is sending this strong and clear message that women in science & engineering are valuable enough to enact these changes, that other institutions like universities will follow. Perhaps bridge funding for the graduate students who need to keep working on their experiments while the faculty member is bonding with a newborn? More on campus child care centers to allow parents to stay on campus (and in the lab) longer each day, instead of dashing out at 5 pm to make the 6 pm pick up.

These changes are a start. Not a small start either, but still a start. And a huge signal to the next generation of scientists and engineers that their human lives will be valued as much as their lives in the lab.

It always feels awesome when something I shared on Twitter is retweeted so many times, my phone starts to chirp. That is what happened on Tuesday when I heard the news that the winners of this year’s Google Science Fair were all girls.

This year’s Google Science Fair winners are all girls! #stem

Comments on the retweets included “Woohoo! Get it, girls!” “This news makes me so happy,” Who runs the world…,” “That’s awesome!” and “Hooray!” Were these tweets from anti-boy feminists? Heck no! But I get asked that question, either indirectly or directly, when I cheer on a headline about girls running the table at a competition. Spelling bee, chess, science fair, mathlete, and so on.

I am sensitive to how the cheering looks. Believe me, I do. I went through a very long and deep “Girls Rule, Boys Drool” phase. It wasn’t until I was a mom and raising my daughter that I was smacked in the face with the complexity of raising a pro-girl girl without making it sound like we were being anti-boy.

I am also aware that the tide is changing. Women are going to college more then men (that’s been happening since at least the 1990s) and girls are the majority of high school valedictorians. I get it. And yes, more women are heading into science, especially the fields the girls did their experiments in (chemistry, medicine, environmental science, biochemistry). But that does not mean we can’t jump up and cheer when we see three brilliant young women win like this.

This is why. Even for someone who has a degree in biological sciences, sees the progress on a daily basis, and watches first hand young women evolve into promising researchers, the “Girls don’t do science” taunts just never seem to fully go away. For some of the women in my life who were talked out of science, told they can’t do math or all the above, headlines like this are validation that their third grade teacher was wrong, wrong, WRONG! And yes, for some of us, it is also just plain and simple celebrating that 39 years after Title IX, a mere two generations, we are witnessing what it truly an exhibit of girl power. Three young women unafraid of their brain power holding some pretty kick ass LEGO trophies.

In the end, no matter how far we have come, women and girls in science still have a long way to go until we get to not just parity in numbers, but parity in leadership roles, paid fairly and so on. Until we get to that utopia called “parity” I’ll be cheering on all our victories, large and small.

There are rare moments when I read an article or listen to a recording and can’t form words to respond. Today is one of those moments and it is because you really should just listen to this recording for yourself. It’s that perfect.

The NYTimes invited four women who are at the top of their respective fields of science in for a roundtable discussion. They shared their thoughts about:

Differences between men and women in science:

TAL RABIN: Even when we do make it to the conferences, I think that there is still something different about the way that we promote ourselves.

I remember standing next to one of my co-authors, and he was talking to some other guy, and he was telling him, “I have this amazing result. I just did this, I just did that.” And I was sitting and thinking there, what result is he talking about? Until he got to the punch line. It was a joint result. It was a result of mine also. I would have never spoken about my result in the superlatives that the guy was speaking about it.

MS. KOLATA: What would you have done?

DR. RABIN: I would have said, you know, “I have this very interesting result, and we achieved very nice things.” But not “This is the best thing since we invented the wheel, and here it is.”

Having a family:

MS. KOLATA: It must be exciting for your children to grow up with a mother who has such passion for what she does.

DR. APRILE: It depends on the child. The second of my daughters used to say, “Mommy, why can’t we have dinner at 6 p.m. like everybody else?” They finally accepted these crazy hours that I had to live with.

Asking where the women are going:

DR. KING: I think the choke point is going from a postdoc to an assistant professorship to a tenure-track position. In my experience the largest remaining obstacle is how to integrate family life with the life of a scientist.

What they would say to their daughter about going into science:

DR. RABIN: The truth is that I feel differently. I think that the life of a scientist is a fantastic life. I think it is exciting because every day there is something new that you can go and think of. There are challenges, no doubt, and the times when you can’t solve things. So I think it is all a wonderful life. And not to mention even things like time flexibility, traveling around the world, meeting a lot of exciting people. I think that these are fantastic jobs.

This is the type of conversation I would have KILLED for as an undergraduate. The one faculty member I tried to have this conversation with rebuffed me. She was pretty old school, couldn’t go to Harvard with the men and it took me awhile to figure out why she wouldn’t address the gender issue. I don’t blame her either. When you build up a defense mechanism, it is hard to let it go.

What I love about the conversation are the differing opinions. As I tell my students, there are no firm answers. You gather up all the data you can and make the best decision you can. From this conversation, one can see that difference decisions all lead to some awesome science making.

Normally I would wait to read the actual book before writing a glowing post about it, but last week I was privileged to sit front row as Dr. Claude Steele gave a moving talk about his new book, Whistling Vivaldi, and his great contribution to understanding stereotypes. I was in the front row because I have lost count how many times my partner and I have cited Dr. Steele in grant proposals.

His biggest contribution to the field of women in science and engineering is the theory of “stereotype threat.” It describes the impact stereotypes have on our lives. It means that whether we are aware of it or not, we operate with the knowledge that there is a negative stereotype about us and that knowledge can hinder us. My favorite experiment on stereotype threat showed that if you remind a group of Asian-American women that they are women before a math test, they under-perform. But if you remind them of their Asian heritage, they kick butt. [1] There are various ways of “reminding” people to their identity. All those demographics you have to enter at the start of standardized tests? Best way to remind people to their location in society. Stereotype threat has been shown when asking African-American men to take IQ tests, white men to run a race, women taking a math test, on and on.

There is no group that doesn’t have a negative stereotype, and when that if that stereotype is relevant to them in an important set of situations, like the classroom or the workplace or the basketball court or something that they care about, then they’re going to feel this pressure. ~ Dr. Steele on NPR’s Talk of the Nation.

As Dr. Steele goes on to discuss and I believe is detailed in the book, we can stop stereotype threat by educating ourselves and others about it. There are ways that educators can minimize the effect during exams. Of course the trick is to figure out how to actually do it, because the thing is that the more you care about being X and doing well at Y, the higher the impact of stereotype threat. The more confidence one has, the more stereotype threat will make an impact. Kinda sucks huh?

One thing that Dr. Steele did say at the lecture was that avoiding talking about stereotypes in an effort to shield children from them does not work. Apparently the one thing that Condi Rice, Skip Gates and Steele have in common are parents who sat them down early in life and said, “Life isn’t fair. People will expect you to act/think/behave one way because you are Black.” I can’t recall how he said his parents that fortified him to go forth into the world and become as awesome as he is, but I do hope it is in the book!

Stereotype threat theory includes discussions of why critical mass is so important. In other words, why it is vital to have more than one woman in a room/on a panel/on the Supreme Court. Steele talks about Sandra Day O’Connor during the NPR interview, as he did at the lecture I attended.

I will be honest to say that while I have used his work for years and applied it to my work, attending his lecture made me reflect on how many times in my life I allowed stereotype threat to impact my life. How I struggled to get into graduate school out of undergrad and allowed that struggle to take me off track. And so many other times. Steele talked about how he still finds himself realizing that he is allowing stereotype threat to frame the world. HIM! That made me feel so much better.

I hope to bring you all an actual review of his book later in the summer. My classes are over and I’m eager to read something that I won’t be tested on.  Even if in reality, this book is about the work I do day in and day out, so it’s actually more important than any test could ever measure.

The title of the book comes from a student who told Steele that in order to combat people’s stereotype of himself, as a young Black man, he would whistle Vivaldi while walking the streets of Hyde Park in Chicago. People stopped seeing him as a threatening Black man and, he believes, more as the University of Chicago student he was.

[1] Shih, Margaret; Pittinsky, Todd L.; Ambady, Nalini (1999), “Stereotype Susceptibility: Identity Salience and Shifts in Quantitative Performance”, Psychological Science 10 (1): 80–83

Choices, not discrimination, deter women scientists

So read the headline that summed up a few weeks of articles, blog posts and opinion pieces on Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams’ article, Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. And that’s the conclusion I would come to as well if I didn’t understand that you can’t examine the issue of underrepresentation of women in the sciences by comparing women and men with equal resources to each other. Because part of the issue with the lack of women in the sciences is that resources are not distributed equally.

It’s Women’s History Month and for the past few years women in the sciences has received a lot of attention during this month. First Lady Michelle Obama mentioned the shortage of women in the sciences and the Smithsonian Channel included comic books to their Women in Science programming this year. After 15 years of studying and working on this issue, if it were that easy, I’d pack it up and move on to a new puzzle to solve.

But let’s look at the “choices” Ceci and Williams claim are at the real root of the issue:

If not discrimination, what is the cause of women’s underrepresentation? Today, the dearth of women in math-based fields is related to three factors, one of which (fertility/lifestyle choices) hinders women in all fields, not just mathematical ones, whereas the others (career preferences and ability differences) impact women in math-based fields. [1] Regarding the role of math-related career preferences, adolescent girls often prefer careers focusing on people as opposed to things, and this preference accounts for their burgeoning numbers in such fields as medicine and biology, and their smaller presence in math-intensive fields such as computer science, physics, engineering, chemistry, and mathematics, even when math ability is equated. [2] Regarding the role of math-ability differences, potentially influenced by both socialization and biology, twice as many men as women are found in the top 1% of the math score distribution (e.g., SAT-M, GRE-Q). [3] The third factor influencing underrepresentation affects women in all fields: fertility choices and work-home balance issues. However, this challenge is exacerbated in math-intensive fields because the number of women is smaller to begin with. [Numbers in brackets were added by me.]

Let’s take these one at a time:

1] Career choice. Girls just like working with people better. I’ve wrestled with this issue for years. I almost bought into it too at one point, but I came to a different conclusion. Parents, educators and career/college counselors are terrible at teaching kids, boy and girls, what “good” comes from math-based careers such as computer science and engineering. For the most part, I would agree that women are attracted to careers that appear to benefit humanity. It’s easy to see that connection when one looks at medicine and biology, especially with the abundance of shows about doctors saving lives on TV almost every night. The CSI franchise is moving that view towards chemistry. Now to work on computer science! Which is why I love that my campus has a good number of women faculty members in the computer science department.

2] Are we really going to revisit the Larry Summers debate? Really? Do I really need to state again that one does not need to be a genius to be a rocket scientist? Yes, smart…but if we restricted math-based careers to just the top 1%, I think we’d have a shortage of computer scientists. Oh, wait, WE DO!

3] The fact that fertility coincides with the tenure clock is discrimination. It impacts women far greater than it does men. The fact that the academy has dragged its feet to alter the tenure system to retain intelligent women in all fields is at bare minimum biased towards a masculine way of promoting workers and thus smells like discrimination.

We can no longer hide behind the idea that women choose to do X when all the social forces in her life is choosing for her. When we settle the question of inequality with “but women choose” we let ourselves off the hook and place the entire burden on individual women. When we don’t encourage our girls to embrace their intelligence, we choose for them. When we tell them that being an engineer isn’t helping humanity, we choose for them. When a woman faces the “choice” between buckling down to get tenure versus starting her long awaited family, we choose for them.

Until women and girls can truly make free choices, we must look hard at the system we operate in and ask, “What is wrong? Where can we help women make the choice they really want versus the choice that seems to fit best?” Now that’s a choice I can stand behind.

I’m taking a point of privilege here this month to boast about my recent trip to Washington, DC. Why did I go? My office received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring!

To answer the first question I get, no, I didn’t get to meet the President, but the director of our center did. She’s third from the left in the seated row. She’s even shown shaking President Obama’s hand (at 4:35) in a “West Wing Week” video!

But along with my coworkers and the other awardees, I did get to go on a tour of the White House. I also participated in a meeting with Ray M. Bowen, Chair of the National Science Board, and Cora Marret, Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation, where we had a great discussion about the role of two-year colleges, the need to additional funding and of course the importance of mentoring in the effort to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering.

One afternoon all the awardees spent presenting our programs to each other. It was humbling to hear from awardees who have been working to increase diversity in science and engineering longer than I have been aware of the issue. In some ways we are all doing the same work. In more ways, we are addressing the problem in our own ways. Some are focused on American Indian students, some on increasing diversity in energy jobs, others work at institutions where the population has flipped from majority Caucasian to majority Latino and others are using mentoring as a framework to expose their students to international health issues.

It was no coincidence that we received this award the same week as the State of the Union. President Obama and his administration are truly committed to science and engineering. Yet there are holes in this commitment as well stated in a recent NY Times article on science fairs. If this is truly our Sputnik moment, there should also be a Sputnik-sized investment in our education system from pre-school through graduate school. Considering who is in control of the House of Representatives, I doubt we will see that.

No amount of mentoring will get ever get us the increase in scientists and engineers the USA needs without additional support for their education and yes, I do mean cold hard cash. Science and engineering is expensive. Can you imagine how many petri dishes a college runs through in a year? Egads, right? Those costs are passed on to students. Tax credits can only go so far with the skyrocketing cost of college. And that’s just at the undergraduate level.

I will continue to do my part of solving this large challenge to increase diversity in the ranks of scientists and engineers. I love my work and even without this amazing honor, I would still get up in the morning happy with the work I do. This honor is phenomenal and I have stared at the certificate that bears President Obama’s signature a few million times since returning to Chicago. But it’s time to get back to work and if you see me with an extra hop in my step, you know why.