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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Barriers to and Opportunities for Women in Science"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Washington College

October 17, 2001

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

[title slide]
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Thank you, Dr. Sherman, for that kind introduction.

Good evening and greetings. My thanks go out to President Toll for inviting me and to Washington College for hosting this event.

Johnny is a good friend of mine. He's supported and encouraged me in many of my personal endeavors. So each time I visit Washington College, I always feel right at home.

When preparing my remarks, I recalled three phrases that have resonated with me throughout my career.

The first I heard in high school when I wanted to take chemistry. My teacher told me I'd never make it in chemistry. Simply put: women didn't have the necessary rigor and intelligence.

The second phrase I heard a few years later when applying for graduate school, my department chair informed me that "we don't waste fellowships on women."

The third, I read in a letter I received after my husband and I both applied for post-docs and got them at the National Research Council. Shortly after the award letter, I received another notifying me that their anti-nepotism rule precluded offering fellowships to husbands and wives. They would give me lab space, but no money.

Eventually I obtained funds from the National Science Foundation as a Research Assistant Professor. So you could say, I've come full circle in my career. NSF jumpstarted my career, and now I want help others get a similar start.

That's why I was eager to come talk to you.

I've titled my remarks, "From Glass Ceiling to Crystal Ball: A Vision of Women in Science."

[bullet slide]
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I will begin by taking a look back at the journey of early women scientists. Then, we'll look at where women stand today in science from elementary school up through the labor force. Finally, I'll cite a few examples of NSF sponsored programs to attract girls and women into these fields.

But first, I want to share a bit more about my own history, including - some of those not so fond memories that bear upon today's topic.

When my high school chemistry teacher told me I would never make it in chemistry--that angered me, but also galvanized me. I had begun to see science as a way to understand the world and as a way to make my way in the world.

As an undergraduate at Purdue University, many of my counterparts were majoring in home economics, learning how to make soufflés while I was learning how to balance equations.

In my senior year at Purdue, I found the encouragement of a good mentor--Professor Dorothy Powelson. It was rare in those days, back in the fifties, to have a woman professor.

She opened the door, or should I say lens, and I became entranced by the microscopic world. That enthusiasm was an asset when encountering various roadblocks along the way.

For example, for my master's degree research, I counted 186,000 fruitflies to study cross-overs in the linkage map of Drosophila, the fruitfly. Now we have the entire genome of Drosophila sequenced!

How science has changed! Yet, girls and women still have a long way to go to achieve equity in all phases of scientific and engineering education and careers.

The problems are highly complex and not all solutions are clear. That is why I prefer to discard the metaphor of the "glass ceiling" as too fragile to bear the weight of what we need to learn and change.

Instead I will offer the crystal ball as a symbol of being able to see our way through and beyond established strictures that keep girls even today from taking flight through the discovery of science and engineering.

This new metaphor presents us with clearer vision and a multitude of futures.

Knowing the past often helps when we want to change our future. Women have a long and distinguished history in science although we still do not learn much about past pioneers.

It is eye-opening to bring to light a few of these poorly known and even tragic stories.

Some of you have probably read or heard of the scientific bestseller, Galileo's Daughter, by Dava Sobel. NSF's National Science Board has given its public service award to Sobel for her book.

As we read Maria Celeste's letters to her father, the eminent Galileo, the dynamic personality of his daughter is revealed. She copies his manuscripts for him and takes avid interest in his scientific inquiries.

We can speculate how Maria Celeste--with all her intelligence, energy, and perseverance--might have succeeded in science herself in a later era that would not have consigned her to the life of a cloistered nun.

[Alice Evans in her lab]
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Jumping several centuries to our own, we find women who have accomplished much in science, but whose stories are seldom told.

One is Alice Catherine Evans, who studied the bacterial contamination of milk, and identified the organism that causes undulant fever in humans.

At a time when bacteriology was in its infancy, she challenged the wisdom of her scientific peers, triggering enormous controversy in the medical and dairy communities.

Unfortunately, Evans' work extracted a heavy personal toll. She contracted undulant fever while doing her research and suffered its effects for two decades.

Her pioneering work led to the near-elimination of undulant fever through the mandatory pasteurization of milk in this country, starting in the 1930s.

Another example is Gerty Cori, also know as "the lab genius" by her peers. She was the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in science.

With her husband as her scientific partner, Cori helped lay the foundation for our understanding of how cells use food and convert it to energy. Their work had major implications for the understanding of diabetes.

Though described as an "exceedingly quick and brilliantly intelligent" woman, she still faced discrimination throughout her career.

When the University of Rochester's medical school offered her husband a job, it was under three conditions, the third being that he stopped collaborating with his wife. When her husband refused, she was pulled aside and told that it was un-American for a man to work with his wife.

Later, when her husband was offered a position at the Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, the University bent their nepotism rule. They offered Carl the chairmanship of the pharmacology department, and regarded her as a technician.

Carl became a full professor at age 35, while she remained a research associate for thirteen more years before she was allowed to assume a professorship of her own.

Another woman who also received the Nobel Prize--Barbara McClintock--nonetheless suffered from scientific isolation during her career. McClintock won the Nobel for her discovery of "mobile genetic elements."

Through her studies of corn, beginning in the late 1940s, she proposed the existence of transposons--genes that can change position, carrying other genetic material along. McClintock's discoveries had huge significance for biology and medicine.

On a personal note, I can recall a college professor of mine muttering that he was forced to teach us McClintock's findings on "jumping genes," but that he did not believe the theories of this "crazy woman."

[graph: science gender gaps at ages 9, 13, and 17]
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It helps to learn about those few who preceded us. Others with stories worth remembering include astronomers Jocelyn Bell, physicist Lise Meitner, biologist Rosalind Franklin, and the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) women who programmed the first electronic computer during WWII.

Even today, far too many girls and women fail to even cross the threshold into science and engineering. We know that obstacles and cultural conditioning begin to appear very early in life.

In a study of young children reported in the book Athena Unbound, a four-year-old boy told researchers that "...only boys should make science."

Part of the problem today lies in what I call the "valley of death" in education: grades 4 through 8, when girls are discouraged--in subtle and not-so-subtle ways--from pursuing science and engineering.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows a gender gap in science proficiency as early as age 9. We can trace this through ages 13 and to age 17, when the gap has widened further.

There has been little change in this trend over two decades.

No doubt many of you have heard the term "leaky pipeline." It's an apt phrase for the loss of women in science and engineering throughout higher education, and continuing in academia, through the route to full professor.

[Bachelor's degrees earned by women: selected fields]
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It is interesting that between ages 25 and 34, the typical American female is more educated than her male counterpart. Women now earn more than half of all college degrees, and over half of those in the life sciences. Well over 40% of math and chemistry bachelor's degrees also go to females.

But some developments are deeply disturbing. For example, the percentage of women receiving bachelor's degrees in computer science has been dropping since the mid-1980s. We see a downward trend for both men and women--but it's been more precipitous for women.

[US doctorates: women]
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If we take a closer look at doctorates earned in the United States by women, we see a divergence among the disciplines. Women now earn around 40% of all doctorates. However, this differs greatly by field.

In the life sciences, women earn over 40% of doctorates. But in the physical sciences and mathematics, women earn fewer than 20%. In engineering, they receive a little over 10% of PhDs.

[MIT graph and quote]
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A couple of years ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took a close and courageous look at women on its science faculty, releasing its study in 1999.

Introducing the report, MIT president Charles M. Vest wrote, "I have always believed that contemporary gender discrimination within universities is part reality and part perception. True, but I now understand that reality is by far the greater part of the balance."

As the study began in 1994, the MIT School of Science had only 15 tenured women, versus 194 men.

They found that women science faculty had been "marginalized" throughout their careers, facing discrimination in salary, awards, space, and other parameters.

We look forward to following MIT's response to the report as it evolves. We all can benefit from the lessons emerging at MIT.

[US total vs. S&T workforce]
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Our problem is larger than the institutions of higher learning. In more than 400 job categories in our economy, women are found predominately in only 20 categories.

Women comprise less than a quarter of the total science and engineering labor force. The S&E workforce looks very exclusive. This is dangerous for the nation. We need the talent of every worker in order to compete and prosper.

NSF has taken several steps to reverse this trend. We are, in essence, sealing the pipeline from beginning to end.

[San Diego Girl Scouts: collage]
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We have a number of programs that target girls and women in science, engineering, and math at all ages.

An excellent program in San Diego intervenes early, focusing on teaching about computing and science to minority girls in grades four-through-eight. The program is led by the San Diego Girl Scouts and the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

Girl Scout adult teachers have now trained about 5000 girls on computers. The program is being expanded to Houston. The girls' entire families get into the act on Family Nights for hands-on computer learning.

[Carson City gender equity]
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NSF funds gender equity research across the country, planting seeds in the form of pilot programs. One example, in Carson City School district in Nevada, focused on 10 Hispanic girls who barely knew English.

Within a year, they had learned English using a computerized tutor; learned to use computers; could make presentations about a Geographic Information System; and were being sought out by employers. Nevada's Department of Education has picked up the funding of the program.

[ website]
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Computer games--often the first exposure kids have to computers--are one factor that can turn off girls. They dislike the violent, repetitive and sexist elements of the games that are widely available.

They ask for identity games in which they could create a character or build a world, with chances to communicate and collaborate. NSF has funded a game called "Josie True," an Internet adventure in which a girl travels back in time to rescue her inventor-turned-teacher named Ms. Trombone.

The journey includes science, math and technology games.

[ADVANCE: bullets]
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On the other end of the NSF pipeline is our newest flagship program to address the retention and advancement of women in science and engineering: ADVANCE.

With over a $40 million investment, ADVANCE will spark system-wide changes that foster a more positive climate for women to pursue academic careers. Clearly, men need to participate in these changes, and they are also eligible for the three types of awards: Institutional Transformation, Leadership, and Fellows awards.

Institutional Transformation Awards support institutions in their efforts to improve the work environment.

Leadership Awards recognize individuals for their contributions toward increasing the participation of women in academic science and engineering careers.

Fellows Awards jumpstart the careers of women who've had limits placed on their advancement, like family needs.

ADVANCE sends the message that NSF values and rewards the hard work needed to change the conditions for women in science and engineering. It gives participants an opportunity to make a real difference over the long-term.

[graph of NSF support for women-targeted programs vs. all support for women PIs]
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I should also underscore that NSF's largest investment in women scientists and engineers is through all our other research and education efforts.

NSF support for women researchers has tripled over the past decade to approach 500 million dollars.

Today, the frontiers of science and engineering seem endless, yet we need the participation and perspectives of all to probe as far as we might in every direction.

When we consider how to attract women and minorities to science and technology, we begin to reexamine our assumptions about education across the board, from kindergarten to lifelong learning.

We need to change our thinking about how we educate those who will carry out the research of the future, and we look forward to Washington College leading the way.

Thank you.



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