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Women in the Sciences Alumnae Panel

Women in the Sciences Talk Shop

Six women—all Susquehanna graduates, all employed in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers—came together on Feb. 24 to discuss with students how they found their way in these male-dominated fields. From the post-doctoral fellow at Yale University to the seasoned biologist with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the women were set on their respective paths by unique influences.

Paths to STEM Careers

Pamela Gehron ’74 Robey, chief of staff of craniofacial and skeletal diseases at NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, called herself a “born biologist … the kid in the back yard dissecting anything” she could find. Jayanthi Jayawardena ’96 Wolf, associate director of biologics safety assessment at Merck Research Laboratories, said her interest in medicine, particularly vaccines, stems from having grown up in developing countries. Dawn Grigg ’68 Mueller, M.D., a retired associate professor of pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine and attending physician for the university health system’s neonatal intensive care unit, knew she wanted to be a doctor since high school.

Others, like Jennifer Wolny ’96 Shurtleff and Ashley Shade ’04, discovered their interests while studying at Susquehanna. Shurtleff, who studies harmful algae at the University of South Florida, said she fell for the “visual-ness of biology” after being introduced to microscopic organisms in a botany class taught by biology professor Jack Holt. Shade, who today is a microbial ecologist at Yale, was influenced by undergraduate research she performed in the dying coal mining town of Centralia, Pa., with biology professor Tammy Tobin, while Renee Lathrop ’00, an assistant professor of physics at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was influenced by a high school physics teacher.

Challenges in a Man’s World

All but one of the women recognized gender challenges working in their respective fields. While Shurtleff said “ecology seems to be an open book” when it comes to gender equality, Lathrop cited the presence of stereotypes about women wanting to have children, and the idea that “maybe we’re not as invested in our careers because we are more family oriented.” Robey noted the challenge of overcoming the “good old boys network,” which she has combatted by thinking of herself not as male or female, but rather as just another worker. Mueller’s experience was similar when she stepped into medical school with only eight other women in the early 1970s. Although they got “the once-over” from the men, who initially thought they didn’t belong there or took a place away from their buddies, Mueller said the women quickly won them over.

For Wolf, the challenge has been finding female role models in the highest ranks of her organization, although she said this is likely due to a generation gap that is beginning to close. Shade said women can be their own worst enemy, too. She recounted a lecture on imposter syndrome that she attended in graduate school. Much to her surprise, she had most of the symptoms—feelings that she was only successful by chance or luck, and that someday it would be revealed that she isn’t as good as she appears to be. There are already enough hurdles for women in STEM fields, she said, and women shouldn’t make it harder by allowing themselves to feel this way.

Advice for Students

The women encouraged students to develop their communication, leadership and organizational skills by becoming involved in extracurricular and volunteer activities. Shade suggested travel as a great way to advance their understanding of the world. Mueller said students also need a healthy dose of liberal arts. “You need to be a well-rounded person.”

Several noted the importance of writing-intensive courses. “Writing is really more than half the battle in STEM fields,” Robey said. They also pointed out the benefits of research, a rarity for many undergraduates but commonplace for Susquehanna students. Lathrop said the independent and critical thinking skills that develop as a result of research are indispensable.

Above all, the science professionals agreed students should follow their aspirations. “You have to develop your passion,” said Robey. “If you don’t have it, you’re in the wrong place.”

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