November 16, 2022

By Alaina Uricheck ’23

This is the first story in our series on Women in STEM.

Peggy Peeler leads Women in STEM group for female science majors

It would be hard to find an SU biology major from the past 33 years who did not know the inimitable Peggy Peeler.

She arrived at Susquehanna in 1989 as the first female biology professor at SU and only one of two female science professors, something Peeler said was not at all unusual. She was used to seeing few, if any, female science professors as a student and said giving SU students the chance to see a woman in a position of authority in STEM made her “feel a little bit like a groundbreaker.”

“I was aware that I would need to be a role model for these women, and I recognized the importance of my students being able to see me in the lab and teaching while pregnant,” said Peeler, now Charles B. Degenstein Professor of Biology. “It was good that they were able to see that they could have a family and work in this field.”

“Working in the STEM field for my whole career gave me understanding of the importance of supporting women at the beginning of the careers,” Peeler said. And it was that understanding that led her to collaborate with an interdepartmental group of faculty to start SU’s Women in STEM program in 2016.

Peeler runs the Women in STEM program, which currently has over 50 members. So far this year, they have hosted a panel discussion with students who participated in summer research experiences or internships and a discussion with Karol Weaver, professor of history and faculty coordinator for fellowship advising, about fellowships for STEM majors. Peeler is also planning a workshop with Christiana Paradis, Title IX coordinator, on combating sexism in the STEM workplace. Women in STEM also participates in SU’s annual Break Through professional networking event in February with a lunch/discussion that focuses on work/life balance issues with female alumni who work in STEM fields.

The goal of the program is to prepare women for careers in a workforce that has traditionally been a male-dominated space and to support them as female-identifying students studying in challenging majors. Though STEM fields are still male-dominated, Peeler noted how far the field has come since she entered it. “It is remarkable how unremarkable women science professors have become,” she said.

Peeler said she tries to be a mentor and has had students and alumni tell her they view her as one. This year all four of her senior capstone students are women and have participated in the Women in STEM program. In the spring, they will enter a world very different from the one in which Peeler began her career.

Erin Rhinehart flips the script on who ‘does science’

Erin Rhinehart, professor of biology Erin Rhinehart, professor of biologyNineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is credited with saying, “The problem is not so much to see what nobody has yet seen, as to think what nobody has yet thought concerning that which everybody sees.”

It is a sentiment that comes to mind when talking to Susquehanna University’s Professor of Biology Erin Rhinehart as she describes one of her assignments in the Introduction to Physiology course she created and teaches.

As a woman in STEM, Rhinehart is all too aware that when asked to name a prominent or influential scientist most people tend to name a white male.

“This is largely because we are constantly bombarded with consistent, stereotyped images about what type of person ‘does science.’ In most science courses and textbooks, even a Google search, the people given credit for major scientific advancements almost exclusively are white males,” Rhinehart said. “Whether or not this lack of diverse representations of scientists registers consciously, the impact is clear and consistent. Therefore, it is important that STEM faculty recognize the impact of this messaging and develop mechanisms to combat it.”

So when Rhinehart assigned her students to write a biography on a scientist, she required they choose from a list of women and people of color who have made and are making incredible contributions to science. The assignment required they write a paper and give an oral presentation to the class about the scientist’s personal life, career trajectory and scientific contributions, along with a discussion about how the student related to the scientist personally.

“To assess the assignment’s impact on students’ belief in scientist stereotypes, I conducted a pre- and post-course survey, which showed a significant shift in students believing scientists are predominantly white and male,” Rhinehart said. Focus group assessment also revealed that the assignment improved student identification with people in science-related careers.

Rhinehart also noted a shift in the number of students who said they could relate to scientists personally. For many women and individuals of color in STEM, the scientists they learn about do not seem relatable. Even many of the systems students learn about in scientific disciplines are named after white men. Worse, the history of scientific accomplishments is spattered with examples of white men using women and minorities as unwilling or unwitting guinea pigs.

All of these factors make the widespread introduction of projects such as Rhinehart’s across STEM disciplines crucial, she said.

“It’s good for students to see many women on the faculty in STEM, especially because STEM still isn’t friendly for women,” Rhinehart said. “Luckily, Susquehanna is an outlier and fosters a good environment for women in STEM. People need a good environment to succeed, which makes highlighting diversity in STEM and creating an environment in which everyone belongs and can be successful so important.”