Panel: Science is an equal-opportunity pursuit
By Lou Fancher
If girls and women are to enter or work in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in numbers equal to boys and men, conversations on the topic will have to evolve.
At the third annual "Science Thought Leaders Night" at Lafayette's Bentley School on Feb. 26, expert panelists, Bentley science teachers Erin Be and David Palange and an audience of approximately 100 people convened to move the dialogue a step forward.
The firepower came from UC Berkeley professors Dr. Chung-Pei Ma (astronomy), Dr. Claire Tomlin (electrical engineering/computer sciences), Dr. Mina Agananic (mathematics/physics) and Dr. Judy Yee, professor in residence at UCSF and chief of radiology at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Presenting the big questions consuming their current research and interests, the four women scientists spoke of control theory, advanced graphical imaging, dark matter and fundamental elemental forces. In layperson's terms, their curiosity applied to designing better flying robotics; detecting colon cancer with virtual colonoscopies instead of invasive procedures; studying the 4 percent of the universe that is luminous for clues to the 96 percent that is dark; and understanding gravity.
In even simpler terms, they solve puzzles.
Asked about experiences that sparked their interest in specific fields, their answers were no different from one would expect from their male counterparts: schools focused on science, role models, hands-on summer internships and camps, and an innate, childlike curiosity that never waned.
Most poetically, Agananic said she'd always found it amazing that the "messy and complicated" world could be captured in math equations.
"Things were actually simpler," she said. "Math cannot only describe nature, but physics can discover new math. And the arrow can go the other way, too."
Asked about challenges they face as women in STEM fields, the panelists offering blunt assessments of the hardships, but also used the question to leap to solutions and tools for overcoming obstacles, regardless of gender. Yee spoke briefly of "hurdles," like finding advisers in medical school, and including childbearing, which she acknowledged threatens training, "moments to shine" and learning.
"It's never convenient. People put off having children," she said.
Ma said guilty feelings are common -- not just in academia but for all working parents -- and having quiet self-confidence is essential to withstand such internal and external stresses.
Tomlin, phoning in to the gathering from the East Coast while on a business trip, was the real-life embodiment of the conflict being away from one's family presents. She said she never could have raised children before achieving tenure.
"Even now, I feel this pull, that I should be with my kids," she said. "That's the most difficult (thing), reconciling a busy career with being a great mom."
The best systems for supporting women in science are structured, with metrics to evaluate their effectiveness. Active steps to promote girls in science include giving college recruitment chairs a mandate to be diverse, fostering a positive environment in middle schools to prevent the "leaky pipeline" and providing grants that fund hands-on, direct-learning programs that bring professionals and students together.
Although it wasn't stated explicitly, Ma said that achieving societal shift -- in fields where tradition is lacking and biases run under the surface -- is arguably the critical obstacle that is "harder to combat."
A father's comment about his son and daughter and how each handles frustration ("For my son it's like water off his back, for my daughter, it's catastrophic," the man said) prompted strong reactions from the panel.
"If your daughter takes failures harder than your son, it might actually help her to work harder. If we allow girls to think being a woman is a handicap, then we're doing them a disservice," Agananic said.
Ma suggested girls are simply more expressive and boys may feel the same emotion. Yee reiterated the importance of placing women in leadership roles for young girls to emulate.
Courage, flexibility, resiliency and persistence, they agreed, are desirable characteristics not owned by either gender.