“So, where are you thinking of applying for college?”
The dreaded question every high school senior is asked around this time of year. As deadlines for early and regular decision applications loom in the not-so-distant future, most students are looking at co-ed colleges and universities, especially if they are thinking about going into a STEM field. But women interested in pursuing a STEM major should also consider women’s colleges* as an incredible alternative to the typical college experience. Women’s colleges are undergraduate institutions where the population of students is exclusively or almost exclusively women. Though opportunities for women in higher education are always growing, women’s colleges allow women to be the primary focus, which is extremely beneficial.
1. The science is just as good as co-ed schools. One common misconception about attending a women’s college is that they mostly cater to students interested in the arts and humanities. However, going to a women’s college does not mean that you have to sacrifice working in a scientific research lab during undergrad. Grant-funded scientific research is thriving at women’s colleges. Students are encouraged to ask questions, learn new methods, and even publish papers and attend conferences. Students are 1.5 times more likely to graduate with a degree in a STEM field if they go to a women’s college compared to women who attend co-ed institutions, and they are also almost twice as likely to go to graduate school. Some women’s colleges are building curriculums around research and allowing students to develop their own questions within the scope of a course in order to gain research experience.
2. Women’s colleges tend to be small.
With some of the country’s largest universities topping out at over 60,000 people, it can be challenging to stand out from your peers. Women’s colleges are much smaller, generally ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 students (though if you want to go really small, Sweet Briar College in Virginia reported 351 students enrolled as of September 2020). This means fewer students in classes, even in introductory-level courses. When moving into junior and senior-level courses, it is not uncommon to have fewer than ten students. My largest class at Agnes Scott College was an introductory biology class with 40 students in it, and my smallest class was my senior seminar with five. These small class sizes allowed me to build strong relationships with faculty members who were then able to write strong letters of recommendation for my graduate school applications.
3. You’ll find and grow your confidence.Women’s colleges pride themselves on being supportive environments. Part of that comes organically from the absence of male students on campus, as students may feel more comfortable on a mostly single-sex campus. But part of that is also fostered by the staff, faculty, and students. Alumni describe that encouragement from faculty to engage, even if they fail, had an immeasurable impact on their confidence and abilities. In the words of a Bryn Mawr College graduate and faculty member at Cedar Crest College: “Being taken seriously for four years will do amazing things for a woman’s confidence.” Additionally, students and alumni report that a distinct lack of sexism, particularly in traditionally male-dominated majors, gave students space to learn freely and grow their self-worth. This confidence building goes beyond the classroom and the lab, though. Women hold all of the leadership positions in school clubs and organizations, so you are always surrounded by women who are doing great things.
4. You’ll become a well-rounded student.While many women’s colleges started out as seminaries, they have adopted a wide variety of majors across the arts, humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences. This breadth of knowledge works to your advantage as a budding scientist. Not only does taking courses outside of your comfort zone challenge you, but it also teaches you “soft skills” which are helpful in any career. These can include public speaking, writing, creativity, and interpersonal skills. Alumni of women’s colleges recount that having experiences in different fields of study provided them with more opportunities professionally. One Sweet Briar College graduate noted, “In graduate school interviews, I could talk about my research and science, but also about music and traveling. [The interviewers] liked that I had a diverse background.”
5. You may even be more prepared for graduate or professional school than your co-ed peers.When I asked about the experiences of women’s college graduates who went on to graduate or professional programs, almost all of them said that their undergraduate education at a women’s college more than prepared them for graduate school. In fact, several of them said that their undergrad was more rigorous than their graduate program. Faculty at women’s colleges hold their students to incredibly high standards and push them regularly to be the best students and scientists that they can be. Students are asked to think critically while engaging in the course material, which is often what is asked of students during graduate and professional school.
I graduated from Agnes Scott College with a B.S in Neuroscience in 2018, and I loved my experience. Though the choice to attend a women’s college seemed unconventional when I first applied, I now, as a graduate student, attribute my successes in science to my experience at a women’s college. The faculty supported me in my research and academics throughout my time at school, and they pushed me to apply for a PhD program directly out of undergrad. I believe attending a women’s college was one of the best decisions I ever made as a nascent scientist, and I would encourage other women to explore these institutions when applying to colleges this fall.
*An important note: as the culture and language around gender identity shifts, many traditional women’s colleges are adopting policies to be more accepting of current and prospective trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students. Generally speaking, women’s colleges foster a culture of openness and acceptance with regard to sexual and gender identity. For more information regarding the shift in the definition of women in women’s colleges, see https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/9/21/16315072/spelman-college-transgender-students-womens-colleges
From zero to infinity, the thought itself is formidable for most of us. When a large population considered mathematics as a pointless and cold subject, a young woman's mind was fascinated and excited by it. Transcending beyond boundaries, Maryam Mirzakhani, a woman mathematician from Iran, went on to become the first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal. Fields Medals are regarded as the mathematics' Nobel Prize (which does not exist for mathematics).
Growing up in Tehran was difficult for imaginative Maryam since the Iran-Iraq war was fought from 1980 to 1988, and the environment was tough. She dreamt of becoming a writer and was creative enough to make stories of a girl who achieved great things like becoming a mayor. Growing up, her favorite pastime was reading novels, and surprisingly she did not love playing with numbers. Her older brother got her curious about mathematics by telling her stories about elegant ways to solve problems. She completed her schooling in Tehran and has always credited her teachers for her education. She stressed during an interview that she was fortunate to have a nurturing environment at home and that her mentors fought hard to have equal opportunities for girls in a post-war world. She also stated the importance of her friendship with a classmate, Roya Behesti. She has said that such alliances not only help to build your passions but keep you motivated to achieve your dreams.
Maryam Mirzakhani represented Iran in the Mathematical Olympiad in 1994. She scored 41 out of 42 and was awarded a gold medal. The more time she spent with mathematicians, the more she fell in love with mathematics. During her undergraduate program at Sharif University, she published scientific papers and survived a bus crash while participating in an inter-city mathematics competition. There was no stopping Maryam henceforth. She completed her graduate studies at Harvard under the guidance of Prof. Curt McMullen and was awarded the doctorate in 2004 for her 130-page thesis Simple Geodesics on Hyperbolic Surfaces and Volume of the Moduli Space of Curves. Being from Iran, she often drew comparisons between the education system of Iran and the USA. She took the best from each of the cultures advancing in her pursuit of mathematics. She described her work to be connected with theoretical physics, topology, and combinatorics. Being a pioneer in her field, she was fascinated and inspired by the multiple ways and perspectives a problem could be approached as well as the existence of different methods to solve a problem. She found collaborations exciting and learned a lot from collaborators, all while working on her mathematical enigmas. While she took pride in the accolades, she was never concerned with them. Her research ideology was to follow the problems and be guided by them in the field. She directly engaged with the scientific challenge with mathematics, no matter how formidable the challenge was.
In 2004 she was offered a junior fellowship at Harvard, but she turned down to accept the Clay Research Fellowship. She was appointed as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University. The Clay Fellowship offered many benefits to Maryam. She was able to think about more challenging problems, travel freely, and it allowed her to have rewarding mathematical conservations with colleagues. She has also said on record that she was a slow thinker and took time to clean and present her ideas. Her humble nature allowed her to admit her shortcomings and praise colleagues of different backgrounds for helping her make progress in her work.
Maryam started her career in mathematics with a background in combinatorics and algebra, but by the time she joined Stanford University as a Professor of Mathematics, she was described as "a master of curved spaces." In a short time, she proved many amazing theorems about shortest paths called 'geodesics' on curved surfaces, among many other remarkable results in geometry and beyond. In her own words, she described that "The most rewarding part is the "Aha" moment, the excitement of discovery and enjoyment of understanding something new, the feeling of being on top of a hill, and having a clear view. But most of the time, doing mathematics for me is like being on a long hike with no trail and no end in sight!"
Maryam advocated for students to find their passion in life. She did not believe that everyone should become a mathematician, but she firmly believed students should give mathematics a real chance. She once said, "I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it. I can see that without being excited, mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers". Upon being asked to give career advice to students, Maryam simply said that she used career advice on Terry Tao's web page herself.
As of today, women only represent 20 percent of full-time math faculties in U.S. universities, according to the American Mathematical Society. Women need to change the stereotyped role models to "see themselves" in certain STEM careers. Maryam's legacy will inspire the next generation of women.
Legacies are not defined by accolades but are defined by the way they inspire millions of minds. A down to earth woman mathematician who won a Fields Medal loved spending time with her husband and daughter while enjoying herself reading and exercising. Being a simple, humble young woman from war-torn Iran, a loving wife, and a beloved mother of a daughter, Maryam Mirzakhani has shown the world that legacies like hers will inspire millions of young women to pursue and excel in any field of choice. Maryam Mirzakhani's stimulating legacy dares girls all over the world to dream big and pursue their dreams facing any adversities in the way.
HAVING A BABY DURING A PHD
When my husband and I started chatting about having kids, I was in the first year of my PhD. We went back and forth, trying to decide between having a baby during my PhD or waiting until I submitted my thesis. My PhD supervisors, who were all mothers, gave me great advice: there is no right time to have a baby when in research and to go with your life plan. Putting my PhD out of mind, we decided that it was the right time to start trying. I had my daughter at the end of my second year of my PhD and had a year of maternity leave in 2018 (3 months paid and 9 months unpaid, which is fairly normal in Australia).
Having a baby during my PhD had its pros and cons. It brought time for my manuscripts to go through the peer-review process and get published while on leave. It was hard to come back, and when I did, I only had six months left to submit my thesis. My husband ended up taking his paternity leave in the last three months of my thesis so I could focus all my attention on getting it done. Having a baby definitely made the experience harder but ultimately more rewarding! The same options for maternity and paternity leave are not readily available to everyone, so make sure to be aware of the support you are entitled to and use them to your advantage.
Tips to share from this experience:
TRAVELLING FOR RESEARCH (WITH A BABY)
I was fortunate enough to receive a grant to collaborate in Germany while on maternity leave. As a PhD student, this was too good an opportunity to pass, so we decided to go, though we recognized the challenges ahead. I was then lucky enough to get a travel award to attend a conference in Scotland. Perfect! We would extend our trip and after Germany, do a bit of travel and then head to Scotland.
But of course, things don't always go to plan. My husband got promoted. The role change meant he couldn't take two months off anymore. He still was able to take off a month for Germany, but what about Scotland?
Since grants and awards don't come easily, we decided to go to Germany for a month, go back to Australia, and then after two weeks, I would head back to Scotland by myself to attend the conference. It was an insane plan that I can't believe we managed to pull off!
Tips to share from this experience:
SCOTLAND WITHOUT A BABY
The trip to Scotland was much harder. The conference was a great experience, and I got to present my research. But being away from my daughter was incredibly difficult as it was the first time leaving her for an extended period of time.
Tips to share from this experience:
COVID-19 AND A TODDLER (AND DEALING WITH THE TERRIBLE TWOs)
I was a post-doc for seven months before COVID-19 struck. Our daughter turned two just before the craziness, and we are dealing with the 'terrible twos' while juggling working from home. I work in the morning while my husband looks after our daughter, and then we swap in the afternoon.
Tips to share from this experience:
Here are two hard truths that I've come to (eventually) accept two and a half years of juggling parenthood and research that help me maintain my sanity:
While I was fortunate to have generous support during my PhD from my supervisors, family, and the university in terms of maternity leave, not everyone has the same support. Policies that help new parents in science will provide equal opportunity around the world. In particular, universities should provide paid-leave, well-appointed breastfeeding rooms, and flexible working hours to support new parents and nursing mothers. Parenting often coincides with when female researchers are climbing up the career ladder. A lack of support will leave researchers struggling at crucial phases of their scientific career.
However, the positive message I leave you with is that while having a child and juggling research is challenging, it is not impossible. I'm amazed at what I've achieved so far, and I know many mothers who have successfully balanced parenthood and research life!
The subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are often grouped together due to their inherent overlap in subject matter and logic-focused approach to teaching and learning. However, with a rising employment focus on interdisciplinary skills, STEM is increasingly paired with the arts to create the all-encompassing educational approach known as ‘STEAM.’
Even for those within the field, the ‘arts’ can be hard to define. In reference to ‘STEAM,’ the term ‘arts’ typically refers to the creative arts, subjects such as creative writing, photography and film, music, drama, illustration, and design. The integration of these subjects into STEM learning is no new concept; you could say it laid the foundation for the entire European Renaissance of the middle ages, driving rationalized creativity, invention, and perhaps even modern society as we know it. STEAM thinking has served an excellent purpose for societal advancement throughout history; however, in our post-renaissance logic-centered world of circuit boards and wires, do the arts really have a place in 21st Century STEM, or is STEAM-thinking just another outdated trend?
A Focus on STEM
Despite many groundbreaking scientific discoveries being coupled with the arts (look at the first images of microbes sketched by van Leeuwenhoek, or the amazing mechanical inventions of Da Vinci), not everyone agrees upon the value of modern STEAM; in fact, some believe that the arts should leave STEM well alone altogether and not detract from a purist approach to technological progress. This resistance to STEAM is perhaps unsurprising, considering the STEM-focused pressures of our rapidly changing world and 21st Century fears surrounding job insecurity.
In recent decades, an explosion of new technology, environmental issues, and consequent social pressures have resulted in increased funding opportunities (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/uk-cues-big-funding-increases-rd) for science and technology research and development, supposedly increasing job security for those who study within STEM-related fields. This wealth of opportunity within STEM has detracted potential funding from the arts, forcing a clear distinction between the two in schools and universities - this is probably the main reason many of us view the arts and sciences as inherently distinct.
A scarcity of funding for arts-based research has made establishing an arts-focused career a challenge for many - a fact which has not been overlooked by schools and universities. A lack of tenure track opportunities for arts-qualified individuals means that STEM professors remain the pride of educational institutions, leaving post-doctoral artists hidden in shadowy, forgotten departments (should there be any at all). Outside academia, the prospect for arts graduates looks a little more promising. However, creative arts retain some of the lowest employment rates of any discipline (https://theconversation.com/humanities-graduates-earn-more-than-those-who-study-science-and-maths-141112). These ongoing challenges have forced many creative personalities into a more lucrative career in STEM, making STEAM an all-the-more appealing outlet when it comes to professional development and creative careers.
Integrating Art into Science and Tech
By integrating the arts with STEM, a growing market for education, communication, and engagement provides much-needed career opportunities for creative individuals. This is perhaps best exemplified within the increasingly diverse sector, known as medical communications (medcomms). Increasingly, visual artists, producers, and writers are employed into medcomms for their visionary thinking, communication skills, and understanding of design. These skills are extremely valuable when communicating hard-hitting, complicated, or technical aspects of STEM (such as pharmaceutical, surgical, or public health matters) where relying on non-creative insight simply would not be enough.
Though the arts and sciences share a distinctly different agenda, understanding and interpretation are both essential to innovation. Typically, STEM subjects focus on hard skills (such as calculating, operating, and building) in an understanding of how the world works. The arts, however, tend to focus on soft skills (such as communication, understanding, and expression) through an interpretation of our human experience. By applying an arts perspective to STEM know-how, creative solutions can be found for real-world problems; perhaps the most obvious example of this is in the development of advanced robotics and artificial intelligence.
Fiction and fantasy have long since predicted the development of machines that can truly live the human experience (consider films like ‘AI’ or ‘Ex Machina’). While there is no doubt that robotic technology is rapidly advancing, true intelligence will never be achieved without a deep and profound understanding of the arts, imagination, and culture. While humanized robots may seem far from reality [yet], STEAM is already having an impact on innovation closer to home. If you own a high-end or latest generation tablet, computer, or mobile device, there’s a strong probability you chose it, at least in part, for its appealing design and intuitive user experience. Steve Jobs famously said, “technology alone is not enough,” and this STEAM approach has produced some of the most human-centric innovations of our lifetime.
STEAM For The Future
As we continue to innovate our understanding of the world, we must also innovate our education systems. By re-integrating the arts into STEM within schools and universities, it is possible to appeal an understanding of science and tech to the broadest possible audience - not just those who have a natural aptitude for hard skills. By using the arts as a tool for science communication, it is possible to promote a new, public understanding of science and trust in technology - something which is ever more essential in our STEM-driven world and not least prepares young people for a STEM-oriented jobs market.
A collaborative post with the Fancy Comma
Each day, there is new scientific information to absorb from daily interactions and the media. The most pressing issues facing the world today, like climate change and COVID-19, require scientific understanding and scientific solutions. This post will explain the significance of science literacy with the goal of educating how to arm yourself with the necessary tools to meet the information age from an informed position. With science literacy, the ability to judge truth from fiction becomes a reality.
What is Science Literacy?
Science literacy is the basic understanding of scientific concepts, methods, and research findings to be able to comprehend scientific studies and results. Science literacy involves four interrelated abilities:
1. Determining scientific validity. The awareness of basic scientific standards which validate research such as reproducibility and peer-review.
2. Knowing where to find valid scientific research. Websites such as PubMed and Google Scholar are hubs for peer-reviewed journal articles. Some journals are accepted as legitimate by the scientific community, while others are viewed skeptically.
3. Understanding scientific information and arguments. The basic understanding of scientific concepts and methodology. Perhaps paramount, is the ability to judge the validity of conclusions made in scientific studies based on the presented data and chosen methodology.
4. Applying scientific concepts to other contexts. This means understanding the relationship between research and real world application.
Why is Science Literacy Important?
Science literacy allows us to understand what is happening in the world, how to prepare for the effects, and what you can do to mitigate the impact. Knowing what questions to ask about the information you are presented with will influence the solutions you support. Conflicting explanations, media/political bias, and the shortcomings in science journalism can cloud a scientific message. Science literacy is the power to make your own evidence-based conclusions that can guide your actions (ie: voting, mask wearing, vaccination choice).
How to Improve Your Science Literacy
There are essentially two different means of increasing your level of science literacy. One is to take a “textbook” approach, using learning resources available online, such as PowerPoint lectures, recorded lectures, study guides, or print resources such as textbooks or books.
The other approach is a “learn-as-you-go” approach, reading scientific research and researching the meaning of specific concepts, methods, or findings as you come across them. The key is to make sure that you understand these concepts, methods, and key findings well enough to explain them in simple terms to others. As you read more research your knowledge will continue to build. If using the "learn-as-you-go" approach, be sure to check that the information you gather is coming from a reputable source.
It seems there is an ever-increasing proliferation of competing research and scientific explanations that bring with them a rapidly increasing need for every individual to have a basic level of scientific literacy. Keeping up with this information and making determinations about the legitimacy of competing arguments is no trivial task. To learn more about science literacy, why it matters, and how to gain it, check out our blog post here.