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With support in place, more women flock to science

The University has recently observed a large increase in the number of female students pursuing study in the physical sciences — and administrators say they have the necessary support programs in place to help sustain the gain.

The number of women in the freshman class who indicated interest in science, math or engineering has increased 42 percent since 2006, jumping to 162 from 113, according to statistics from the Office of Admission.

"It does seem like there's a trend upward," said David Targan, associate dean of the college for science education. But he cautioned that "the statistics fluctuate from year to year."

The general increase in women indicating interest in the physical sciences does not reflect a change in the University's admission policy, Targan said. But admissions officers are "aware of imbalances" and try to reach out to underrepresented groups of students, he said.

Brown received a grant of $3 million in 2006 from the National Science Foundation to support women scientists and engineers. This grant has been used primarily to give women faculty members the support and resources that they need to advance in their careers, Targan said.  

"It has a big impact on undergrads, who look up to them as role models," he said.  
One goal of the University's Plan for Academic Enrichment is to improve the diversity of faculty. In some departments, more women faculty have been hired to eliminate a gender gap or to provide more role models for female students, Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron said.

Support and Retention
The Women in Science and Engineering program, formed 15 years ago to encourage women to pursue study and careers in science, may have contributed to the successful retention of students in the field.

WiSE activities "create a community so you don't feel like you're the only girl in science," said Katherine Phillips '10, a chemistry and mathematics concentrator who serves as a WiSE mentor.

But being a student in a male-dominated field can sometimes be a benefit, too, Phillips said.

"I also feel the pressure to prove that I could do it," Phillips said. "It drives me to succeed." 
Nikhita Raman '11, an applied math concentrator, said she had a helpful experience in her freshman year when she was paired with a WiSE mentor.

"It was better than having a Meiklejohn," she said.

WiSE activities "foster conversation about science" and help female students "see each other in similar situations and not get discouraged," said Meenakshi Narain, a professor of physics who is active with the group.

It is important that women "can sustain their interests (in the science) past Brown," Narain said.

Another affinity group, Women in Computer Science, aims to "make the field more attractive to women," said Thomas Doeppner, an associate professor of computer science who directs undergraduate studies for his department.

The Women in Computer Science program has hosted a number of events featuring female guest speakers who are top executives in high-tech companies, said Doeppner.

The program also has female undergraduates make presentations to high school students in the department's yearly open-house events, he said.

"We want to make clear that we welcome female students," Doeppner said, despite the fact that only about 15 percent of the undergraduates in the department are women.

Brown is not the only school where the number of women in the sciences has increased. According to Forbes Magazine, engineering is now one of the biggest majors at the all-women Smith College.

Smith's Achieving Excellence in Mathematics, Engineering and Sciences program was introduced in 2008 to increase women's access to science and make the transition to college easier for freshmen, said Laura Katz, a professor of biological sciences at Smith.

"Smith's central mission at the moment is to provide support for women's professional pursuits in the sciences," she said. "We're becoming much more aware of supporting students going for medicine or other Ph.D. programs."  

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Society of Women Engineers has been around for over 10 years and is also one of the largest organizations on campus, according to Tina Ro, a senior at MIT who is president of the society.


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