Milestones: Women in Science Celebrates 25 Years
Twenty-five years ago, Carol Muller ’77 and Dartmouth chemistry professor Karen Wetterhahn launched the Women in Science Project (WISP) to encourage women to pursue science, engineering, and math studies and careers. At a recent celebration of WISP’s founding, Muller took stock of how far Dartmouth and Thayer have come. “When I first started working at Thayer School in 1987 it was still operating, with respect to gender, as if it was the 1950s,” says Muller, Thayer’s former dean for administration. “At the same time, the dean, Charles Hutchinson, and many of the faculty were eager to have more engineering students.”
Mentorship and research opportunities for first-year women form the heart of the program that Muller and the late Wetterhahn established. Since 1991, WISP has placed 1,707 student research interns with 331 faculty research mentors, and 4,400 students have participated in its peer mentor programs. According to WISP director Kathy Scott Weaver, from 1991 to 2016 engineering has hosted 299 WISP interns, more than any other department.
The opportunities WISP created have paid off. The number of women majoring in the sciences has grown steadily from 45 in 1990 to 114 in 2015. Biology has more female majors than male. And in 2016, the women of Thayer outnumbered men graduating with an AB in engineering—marking the first time a major research institution achieved gender parity.
Faculty Perspectives on WISP
We asked a few faculty members why they take on WISP interns. Here’s what they said.
Professor John Collier: We have had at least two interns per year for the last 12+ years, so at least 25. We have found that there is an excellent match between the experience that the wisp interns are looking for and the needs we have for skilled technical personnel in the lab. We typically use the first term to get the students up to speed on running the complex, highly technical equipment and the second term they produce results both for the other lab researchers and for their own research project on a topic of mutual interest.
Many of the WISPs have stayed with us through their entire undergraduate programs and have been sophomore and junior scholars and Presidential Scholars. We have had a few stay on after their undergraduate years through the BE and, at least one, through her master’s.
It has been an extraordinarily effective program for us.
Professor Jane Hill: I take WISP interns because whenever I have interviewed any of them (and I mean any), they have all been incredibly smart, capable, friendly students who would be wonderful additions to my lab group. I mentor because it is “the right thing to do,” but, in truth, we also often have excellent science being produced by these students, so, it really is a win-win situation.
After training on how to work safely with microorganisms and various instruments in the laboratory, WISP students have worked on a variety of projects, from measuring how effectively bacteria sense molecules in their environment to working on infectious disease diagnostic projects.
Professor Christopher Levey: I’ve been advisor for at least 15 WISP students since 1994. A unique aspect of the WISP is that it gets young women involved in research right off the bat in their first year at Dartmouth, before they’ve learned the fundamentals in our introductory courses. But that missing background is more than made up for in the wonder, creativity, and energy they bring to the team. My field is the fabrication of micro-systems, and I particularly enjoy brainstorming on what might be wonderful if it could be made very small, exploring ideas which are unfiltered by thoughts of “oh, you can’t do that” or “that’s not how it works.” We eventually apply real-world constraints and scientific method, but sometimes we find a way around what at first looked impossible.
Interview: WISP Cofounder Carol Muller ’77
Carol Muller cofounded Dartmouth’s Women in Science Project during the 1990-91 academic year. On the occasion of WISP’s 25th anniversary, we asked Muller why she and Dartmouth chemistry professor Karen Wetterhahn, who died in 1997, started a program to encourage women to pursue science, math, and engineering.
What made you, an English and philosophy major, so passionate about encouraging and supporting women in science?
Philosophy, of course, includes pondering concepts like justice, which is at the heart of including women in science, math, and engineering fields.
And although Dartmouth didn’t have a women’s studies course until 1978, after I graduated, I took that course when I was working post-graduation in the Dartmouth admissions office. The perspectives it brought, along with discussions of practical, everyday feminism which were a staple of my work conversations with a great group of peers and mentors, such as Holly Sateia, Beth Schmakel, Jan Tarjan, and Karen Keegan, helped me better to understand the very weird aspects of the “coeducational” experience I had over the previous four years. I’ve had a strong interest my whole career in women's education and work, and in addressing inequities which are still deeply embedded in our institutions based on past histories of exclusion.
When I went on to earn my PhD, I also took the first graduate feminist studies course offered at Stanford, and my dissertation advisor was the labor economist Myra Strober who made a career of studying women and work. From her, I learned more about occupational segregation, and the lower remuneration that accompanies women’s work compared with men’s, as well as the ways in which women are more likely to be socialized toward certain fields rather than others.
When I first started working at Thayer School in 1987 it was still operating, with respect to gender, as if it was the 1950s. And at the same time, the dean, Charles Hutchinson, and many of the faculty were eager to have more engineering students. I think it helped that I was an educator, rather than an engineer, to be able to appreciate how a student arriving at Dartmouth would experience the educational path required for engineering, and make suggestions to the faculty about a whole variety of things that they could do to encourage more students to consider engineering.
Though I myself had not been particularly drawn to study science, math, and engineering, I wanted to be sure that those who were did not encounter discouragement. Furthermore, as someone concerned with women’s economic opportunity, it was apparent that some of the more rewarding careers that have developed over the last few decades do rely on math, science, and engineering, and if women are underrepresented in these fields, it hurts their economic independence.
Why did you and Karen Wetterhahn think that research experiences were important for first-year women?
From my perspective, having what are now commonly called “hands-on” learning opportunities, represent a very important motivator. Students in math, science, and engineering typically have to take a lot of sequential prerequisite courses, which sometimes were taught with too little context, and it’s not surprising that students are not sure if they want to slog through all these courses without having some idea of the “end game.”
I think from Karen’s perspective, she had found her own work in the lab so interesting and rewarding that she wanted students to get that sense of excitement early, and also to see that science, contrary to stereotypes, is a very social enterprise, with teamwork and colleagues, as well as trial and error.
Twenty-five years later, how have your views about ways to encourage women in STEM evolved?
This would probably take a book, not a few sentences. There has been a massive amount of research published over the last three decades that has informed inclusive practices. (Unfortunately, millions of dollars have had to be invested in research which finds over and over again that women are fully capable of the highest accomplishments in math and science, so that leaders won't make the same mistake that then Harvard President Larry Summers did in 2005, when he suggested that perhaps brain differences might explain why there were so few women on Harvard’s mathematics faculty. Popular notions that men and women are biologically different in ways that explain women’s underrepresentation in math, science, and engineering fields still persist in a few quarters, but have been laid to rest by most of the social science research community.) We’ve learned to stop thinking of gender, a social construct, as “binary’ and are learning a great deal more about intersectional identity—that individuals’ identities are shaped by their culture and experiences, as well as through the cultural expectations based on perceptions of gender, race (another social construct), socioeconomic class, nationality, regionality, religion, and many more influences.
It continues to be very important to draw everyone, and especially men, into the discussions and actions to create environments where all can thrive. Even back in 1990, we anticipated that many faculty members would learn more about the gendered experiences of students through supervising WISP interns, and in fact, that did happen. We also need to understand the ways in which institutional practices, policies, procedures, and ambiance impact the experiences of our students, and sometimes inadvertently reinforce inequities we would prefer not to perpetuate. Walls lined with portraits of the distinguished scholars of past years, for instance, tend to be predominantly white and male, especially at places like Dartmouth. We now know that such “walls of fame” have known subliminal affects in making women and students of color feel less welcome and included.
Did you anticipate that 25 years later, WISP would still be thriving at Dartmouth—or did you think (or hope) the need for it would have disappeared?
While I would definitely expect that WISP would change over time, I would not have expected that the need for such efforts would disappear, even over a 25-year period. If one studies gender in history, philosophy, economics, and higher education, it’s apparent that gender is one of the most pervasive constructs of social organizations. Institutions of higher education change relatively slowly. Faculty members, once tenured, tend to stay for much of the rest of their lives at an institution, and it is they who are instrumental in shaping the institutional curriculum, educational experiences, and overall culture. Moreover, the culture of institutions of higher education doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and we have the culture of the whole society, which also is still very gendered, especially when it comes to math, science and engineering. We’ve seen a lot of useful progress, however, and the numbers have been climbing, albeit slowly. Fundamentally, women in engineering and science are encountering the same challenges faced by women in almost any profession—implicit gender bias and stereotypes; intended or unintended discrimination, expectations in many cases that they will shoulder more responsibility for raising children and household operations, etc. Because of historical exclusion from educational and employment opportunities, especially in these fields, they have more “critical mass” situations to address, and are more likely to encounter cultures less conducive to gender equity.