NSF grant will provide ongoing support for women in sciences

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Editor’s Note: This story contains seven words from the NSF Web site describing the program awarding the grant the University received. An Editor’s Note was published in the April 14, 2010, Herald. That Editor’s Note can be found here.

Brown has recently received a $3.3 million five-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program, an initiative that seeks to increase the representation and advancement of women in the sciences and engineering.

Associate Provost Pamela O’Neil, a co-principal investigator for Brown’s ADVANCE funding, wrote the initial grant proposal in July 2005. Though she has known for several months that Brown was likely to receive the grant, the funding was only finalized about two weeks ago.

“I had been exposed to the grant, and it was a perfect match for Brown because of what we’re doing with hiring new women faculty,” O’Neil said.

The grant money will go toward supplementing an ongoing effort to facilitate the success of women faculty in the sciences and engineering as well as allow them to serve as mentors and role models for female science concentrators.

The University’s efforts to recruit women faculty in the sciences have been very successful in recent years, according to Associate Provost and Director of Institutional Diversity Brenda Allen, who also served as co-principal investigator for the grant. In the last hiring season, eight of the 18 new science faculty members were women. This raised the percentage of female faculty in Brown’s science departments from 9 percent to 12 percent.

O’Neil said the ADVANCE funding will improve the experiences these and other women faculty in the sciences have at Brown.

“Most institutions are still working on recruitment,” O’Neil said. “But because (President) Ruth Simmons is so dedicated to recruiting women in the sciences, we’re well on our way. … The ADVANCE grant is about ensuring that the faculty we do recruit have what they need to be successful.”

O’Neil said the grant will fund a mentoring program open to all science faculty, in which senior faculty will give advice on aspects of academic work like writing grant proposals. The University will also give small grants to individual female science faculty members.

“We want women to be able to compete in science,” O’Neil said. “Most published papers have lots of authors, so you really need concrete connections with scientists outside of Brown. Money that will go to female scientists will encourage this type of collaborative activity.”

According to Allen, data shows that women are less connected to such national collaborative networks and receive fewer mentoring opportunities than men.

“Male faculty members are more likely to get help informally,” O’Neil said, whereas female faculty members may be less inclined to ask for such assistance and might want to avoid the perception that they are not completing their research independently.

The University seeks to establish “transparent programs, so (women faculty in the sciences) do not feel like they are asking for a favor,” she said.

In addition to supporting women science faculty in academic pursuits, the University will use funds to hire staff to help with domestic issues such as babysitting and daycare, said Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron.

The ADVANCE funding will also be used to help ensure that women continue on in the sciences, thereby curtailing a national trend in which women change their career focus away from science or choose not to pursue a career at all after obtaining a degree. Though women receive 50 percent of national graduate degrees in biological science, women only constitute 20 percent of science departments’ faculty at research institutions, Allen said.

Despite rise in female science concentrators, room for improvement remains

In the past 16 years, the number of female students concentrating in the physical sciences and engineering at Brown has risen dramatically. In 1990, women made up 19 percent of students graduating with degrees in physical sciences and engineering. Last year, they made up 36 percent.

Still, administrators say there is work that remains to be done.

“(These numbers) are probably fairly typical,” Bergeron wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “But on a campus where undergraduate women slightly outnumber men, it could be considered a problem.”

In the life sciences, such as biology and community health, women outnumber men. In 1990, 52 percent of students graduating with degrees in the life sciences were women. In 2006, women made up 68 percent of these graduates.

The reasons for these gender imbalances are difficult to pin down concretely, but Allen said they might have something to do with the nature of the fields.

“Some people argue that the life sciences are more relevant to issues women are concerned with,” Allen said. “Also, the physical sciences are heavily compounded with high-level math, and many girls start taking less challenging math classes in high school. It’s differences in early preparation.”

Erin Donohue ’07, a materials science concentrator, echoed this view.

“People read about biology in the newspaper every day, but you usually don’t hear about physics,” she said.

Donohue is the affinity group coordinator for Brown’s Women in Science and Engineering program, a mentoring group that provides advising and support for female science and engineering concentrators.

In past years, WiSE has been a large component of the University’s effort to encourage female students to pursue science concentrations. Each science department has an affinity group, where women can discuss issues ranging from coursework to graduate schools and jobs. WiSE also provides a mentoring program that pairs upperclassmen with first-years and sophomores.

Sheila Blumstein, a professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences and a former dean of the College, and David Targan, the associate dean of the College and the dean for science programs, started WiSE in 1991 with funding from the NSF.

According to Blumstein, the program was largely successful in its first few years. In 1992 and 1993, the University saw a 29-percent increase in the retention rate of women in science programs compared to 1990. From 1990 to 1994, 94 percent of students who participated in WiSE followed through with their studies in the sciences. In contrast, only 48 percent of female students who did not participate in WiSE stayed in the sciences.

Martin Maxey, who has been a professor of applied mathematics at Brown for over 20 years, said WiSE has been very helpful in attracting female students to the sciences.

“As more students have been interested in science and math, other students say, ‘I can do that too,'” Maxey said. “They encourage each other.”

Professor of Physics James Valles, a faculty sponsor for WiSE, said the affinity groups provide a forum for generating common bonds among female science concentrators. Still, he said the program is more active some years than others and is affected by the quality of student leadership.

Donohue also said some affinity groups are stronger than others and added that participation in the program tends to taper off as the year progresses. But she said the program, particularly the mentoring aspect, has been a helpful resource for her.

“I think it’s a good way to see what other people are doing and see what’s out there,” Donohue said. “There are a lot of classes where you’re the only girl, and it’s nice to see that other people have been in the same situation.”

Though support from WiSE helped, Donohue said the gender imbalance “wasn’t much of an issue” for her.

“Brown does a good job,” she said. “I had female professors my freshman and sophomore years, and knowing they were present was nice. But even beyond that, I never felt discouraged. Professors always encouraged girls and never made an issue of gender. They always made me aware of the opportunities I’d have as a girl.”

Despite this encouraging environment, not all female students continue their studies in the sciences as Donohue did. For Blumstein, the key issue is figuring out why.

“I think the most important thing is to look at why women don’t stay in the sciences – why they come in interested in science but don’t graduate in science,” she said. “If students can have successful experiences as undergraduates and go on to graduate school, they can be models for the next generation.”

According to Allen, the ADVANCE funding Brown just received will allow women faculty to become these models.

“When we do things to support the development of women faculty, it has the generalized effect of supporting the whole faculty,” Allen said. “When we strengthen our faculty, it strengthens what we can do for our students.”

With additional reporting from Nathalie Pierrepont