The Gender Factor

Women Taking the Sciences by Storm

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Susquehanna women are storming the STEM fields.

The last three decades have been rather promising ones for women entering the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). According to the National Science Foundation, the number of women pursuing STEM careers has grown significantly since the 1970s. Consider that in 1977 fewer than 78,000 women were enrolled as graduate students in science and engineering. By 2008 that figure climbed to more than 232,000, and there’s every indication the trend will continue.

Susquehanna is certainly no stranger to this movement. Over the last 50 years, the university has graduated some of the most successful and celebrated women in STEM fields.

“Back when I first started teaching, the thinking was that ladies just didn’t belong in chemistry and physics,” recalls Professor of Physics Fred Grosse, who joined the university’s faculty in 1960 and will retire in May after 52 years of teaching. “I don’t know why, but it was just assumed that women weren’t supposed to be in those fields. All that has changed, and there are some really fantastic women who have made it happen.”

According to Lucien T. Winegar, dean of the School of Natural and Social Sciences, women have played—and continue to play—a vital role in the university’s science programs.

“We are very proud of our record of accomplishment when it comes to women in science at Susquehanna,” says Winegar. “We have a large and strong contingent of women on our own faculty, a history that stretches back quite a while. And we can also claim some very accomplished women in science as far back as the 1960s.”

What follows are profiles of six outstanding women who graduated from Susquehanna and went on to make great strides in STEM fields.

Marie Burns ’92

It was sometime during her second year at Susquehanna that Marie Burns fell in love. With scientific research, that is.

The summer following her sophomore year, Burns, a biochemistry major, took part in an internship with Tom McGrath, now a professor emeritus of chemistry. She helped him develop a novel organic synthesis method for a major chemical company. In subsequent summers, Burns worked at the Weis Center for Research at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa., and for Professor of Biology Peggy Peeler on sea urchin development.

“I loved applying the knowledge and basic principles I’d learned in class with my own two hands and the anticipation of getting the results of an experiment that could not be fully predicted,” recalls Burns, 41. “I’m still an ‘Oh wow, how amazing!’ junkie. Nature is stranger and more fascinating than the most imaginative fiction.”

Today Burns is a professor of cell biology, human anatomy and ophthalmology at The University of California, Davis. Her research focuses on mammalian photoreceptors—the rods and cones in the eye that capture light and mediate the first steps in vision—and nearly all of her work has important implications for the mechanisms that cause most forms of blindness.

“To this day I still experience that same rush that comes with scientific discovery,” says Burns.

In addition to the invaluable academic influence Susquehanna had on her career, Burns also says the university helped her appreciate an even more important life lesson—namely, how to balance her professional ambitions with her desire to one day be a mother.

“I had no female role models at that time in the sciences. Then, during my sophomore year, Peggy Peeler was hired, and the year after that, she had her second child. Watching her carry, deliver and then care for that baby as a new assistant professor inspired me that it could be done,” recalls Burns. “I knew I wouldn’t have to leave behind the whole of my gender or my personality to be a good scientist.”

NSF Grant to Enhance Diversity in Science Programs

In the fall, Susquehanna’s science programs received some exciting news: They would receive a substantial grant from the National Science Foundation to provide financial support for academically qualified students who have been historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The S-STEM grant will provide close to $600,000 over the next four years for the university’s Broadening Intensive Opportunities for Scholarship (BIOS) program, allowing Susquehanna to extend science scholarships, summer orientation, mentoring, advising, and opportunities for research and internships to select students with financial need.

“We have long been interested in gaining additional attention for our science programs and, at the same time, extending opportunities to students who might not otherwise have them,” says Lucien T. Winegar, dean of the School of Natural and Social Sciences.

According to Winegar, Susquehanna will admit 10 new high-achieving students each year over the next three years. They will be recruited as a cohort of biology majors, complete work together over the summer, and share various classes, labs and activities throughout their time at Susquehanna. The first group is currently being recruited and will begin working together this summer.

Since the grant doesn’t cover the full cost for 30 students to attend the university over four years, the program will receive supplemental funding from other sources. Susquehanna’s Center for Teaching and Learning will offer faculty training for mentorships, instruction and opportunities for participating students to learn outside the classroom.

Based on the initial cohort’s success, the potential exists for Susquehanna to apply for additional grant funding in subsequent years.

In addition to strengthening the university’s science programs, Winegar says the initiative further illustrates the importance of diversity in STEM fields. “First of all, there’s a moral imperative for diversity. If you believe in the value of higher education, you need to do whatever you can to increase access to all citizens, not just those who are privileged,” he says. “Moreover, there are now years of evidence that make it overwhelmingly clear that learning in diverse environments is good for everyone.”

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