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Environment

“The only limit is within yourself”

by Dorothee Kellinghusen, staff writer

Octavia Sola photo courtesy the Environmental Leadership Center

According to a recent study, gender bias still exists in the field of science in higher education. In “Why are still so few women in science,” an article published in the New York Times Magazine on Oct. 3, Eileen Pollack explores the study in which resumes were sent out to professors from the chemistry, physics and biology departments at different universities. The fictive applicants’ resumes were identical, but half of the applicants were named John, and the other half were named Jennifer. The professors who received the resumes were asked to rate them on a scale of one to seven “for competence, hire ability, likability and the extent to which the professor might be willing to mentor the student.” The professors were also asked to name a salary range for the fictive applicant.

The study found that John was ranked higher in all categories, except for likability, and was offered a higher salary, at an average of $30,238 per year, while the average salary offered to Jennifer was $26,508. The study also found that female professors were just as biased as their male colleagues. Also, there was no difference between the departments of chemistry, physics and biology.

Nationwide, 45 percent of freshmen science majors are women. But according to Nature, an international weekly journal of science, less than one-fourth of positions in the physical sciences (physics and chemistry) are held by women. However, at Warren Wilson, this gender gap is less apparent. While 25 percent of male students enrolled are declared science majors, 23.5 percent of women are science majors. With 120 women science majors and 81 men science majors, there are actually more women in the classroom and in the lab, but this is more reflective of the demographics of the college—women make up 61.5 percent of the student body.

In terms of the faculty makeup, about one-third of the math and science professors at Warren Wilson are women, which is a greater proportion when compared to other colleges.

Facts and numbers are one way to look at the topic of women in science. The voice of people is another. What is there to say about women in science at Warren Wilson College and how do women feel about their situation? The following four interviews provide personal experiences and opinions: Stephanie Williams is a senior, Octavia Solá graduated in December 2011, Dr. Amy Boyd is a biology professor and Dr. Paul Bartels is the Chair of the science department. 

Stephanie Williams from Birmingham, Alabama is a senior in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Chemistry. She researches salamanders that are toxic and specifically analyses the change in concentration of toxins as a response to predation. JJ Apodaca and Langdon Martin are her research advisors.

DK: Is this your dream come true to be a scientist?

SW: Somewhat, I never thought I would pursue chemistry but I knew I would be an environmental studies major when I came to Warren Wilson. I took Chemistry I and realized that I’m very interested in it, so I figured it would be a fun major. I didn’t envision myself becoming a scientist, but I guess it just sort of fell into place.

DK: What made you continue when it was so hard?

SW: I like a challenge and there’s always something new to learn. Chemistry certainly isn’t easy, but it’s also never dull. It’s worth the hard work because I enjoy the subject.

DK: According to researches, men are still dominant in science. What do you think?

SW: I see a lot of female science majors here at Wilson so it’s difficult to think that’s abnormal. I definitely get strong reactions from people when I go home, though. It doesn’t make a huge difference to me either way, because I enjoy science and I wouldn’t let being a female stop me from doing the things I want to do.

DK: What is your plan for the future after you graduate with a BS?

SW: I want to get a Master’s degree, but first, I’ll take a year off to travel.

Octavia Solá from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, graduated from Warren Wilson in December of 2011 with a degree in Conservation Biology. She had to overcome many obstacles to be able to graduate in this field while focusing on coastal and marine conservation, which is not offered as a program at Warren Wilson.

DK: Why did you choose a mountain college to study Marine Biology?

OS: This, I wondered myself when I came here as a freshman. But then I had Paul Bartels for my freshman seminar in Fragile Oceans. I felt like the luckiest girl in the whole world. He was my academic adviser and an extremely valuable resource for me, helping me to connect with internships and research opportunities in marine sciences.

DK: So you found your way?

OS: It was not a paved way and it was not easy. But it was worth it. I took the fall semester of 2009 off to work with sea turtles with the Environmental Leadership Center (ELC) monitoring and protecting their nests. For five months I was at the beach every day at sunrise, just me and the baby turtles.

DK: How do you see the role of women in science?

OS: Most people have this picture of scientists in lab coats that are not very approachable. When I worked for the Department of Natural Resources in South Carolina, I realized that the local people did not understand what we were doing and why. I saw the need for education, so locals would understand why wildlife conservation and management is essential for a healthy community. I think that it is critical that we have more scientists that understand how to make current scientific research relatable and understandable for the general public. My role models and heroes are two amazing women who did a spectacular job at that: Rachel Carson and Sylvia Earle . I met Earle in the summer of 2011. She is amazing.

DK: Are women equal in science?

OS: “It is still not culturally normal to see women in science. But that is our task today. We need to be role models for little girls and get them interested in science.”

DK: What did you do after you graduated?

OS: While I was still in school, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Oregon offered me a job as a Wildlife Education Coordinator for the National Wildlife Refuges on the Oregon coast. That was awesome. I taught 700 kids of 23 classes and 6 schools about shorebirds until the end of the school year. I also had the opportunity to lead kayak tours for the general public. But the recent sequestration by the government had an effect on my position. There is no further funding available at this time.

DK: So what is your plan?

OS: First, I’ll help my grandmother with her art gallery. Ultimately I hope to attend graduate school to continue studying wildlife biology.

DK: Do you have any advice for Warren Wilson students?

OS: “Yes. If you have a goal: Go for it. Find ways to make it happen. The only limit is within yourself.”

Dr. Amy Boyd is a professor for biology, environmental studies and science education. She is a faculty member at Warren Wilson since 2001. Her specialty and research topic is “pollination”.

DK: What have been your experiences as a woman studying science?

AB: As an undergraduate student, I was not aware of any inequality. But then in graduate school, there was some discrimination. I read a book about women in science which led to my decision to look for a healthy amount of women among the faculty for the doctorate program.

DK: What is important for women in science?

AB: It is important to be in a positive environment with female role models.

DK: Do you think it is harder for women in science to be successful in their career?

AB: Oh yes. We live in a culture where women still receive the message that men are better in science and math. It is difficult to stay with science, because it is like swimming against the current. You have to have endurance, but it is doable.

DK: Why did you come to Warren Wilson?

AB: I came here in 2001, because it is a good place to be as a biologist. I enjoy being a teacher and researcher at Warren Wilson.

DK: So this is the perfect world?

AB: Warren Wilson is part of our society, and as such is vulnerable to the sexism that is found everywhere in our society. It’s a great place, but we shouldn’t be complacent about this or racism or any other prejudice. It is important to question things—even at Warren Wilson.

DK: What do you like about being at Warren Wilson?

AB: Aside from my position, I like the surrounding environment, the atmosphere on campus and my office. I enjoy coming here every day. Also, it makes me happy to see so many young women choosing a major in science.

Dr. Paul Bartels is the chair of the math and science division. He came to Warren Wilson in 1986 as a zoologist. Currently he researches water bears, a group of complex, yet microscopic animals.

DK: As the chair of the math and science division, how do you see women in science at Warren Wilson?

PB: Traditionally, there are more women than men enrolled at Warren Wilson and many of them study sciences. A big attraction is our environmental studies program that interests a number of women. We require basic science knowledge in chemistry, general biology and ecology even for a bachelor’s degree of arts.

DK: How are women doing compared to men?

PB: Great. We have a lot of success stories about women in this department. Some are displayed in the hallways of this building. It is not always easy. But it’s not easy for men, either. I remember Val Asher who struggled with all our sciences. Many times she thought about dropping out. Then, after graduation, she went on to work with wolves. She was here in the 90ies at the time when Alice Whitelaw was also a student. Whitelaw participated in wildlife research in the U.S., Mexico, Canada and Russia and then became the co-founder of the Working Dogs for Conservation Foundation. Erin Lowe from the Bahamas graduated here in environmental studies, and went back home to be a captain on a big charter ship. Sarah Hargrove is a veterinarian doctor in Asheville. But first, after graduating from Warren Wilson, she went with the Peace Corps to Tanzania before she got her master’s degree at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. I could go on and on. Many of our female science students continue at a graduate’s school or go to medical school. I really do not see any difference to the male students in science.

DK: Looking at female teachers in science at Warren Wilson: What is the rate compared to male science teachers?

PB: Currently, we have 10 women and 24 men in our division. That is a high percentage of women, about one third. But the numbers are not essential. Science is about knowledge, qualification and people being good teachers. It is not a matter of gender.

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