An Autobiographical Moment
This week I attended the national ACS (American Chemical Society) meeting in New Orleans. I attended seminars about physical chemistry developments and the graduate school process. In addition, I presented my poster titled, “Gas Phase Spectra of MgO Molecules: A Possible Connection from Gas-Phase Molecules to Planet Formation”—a project that I completed at Georgia Southern University this summer during their NSF REU.
I have always considered presenting to be one of my stronger skills. I grew up as a performer, so I am confident standing in front people and speaking. Throughout high school I was often able to quickly throw together presentations and effectively deliver them. Gaining more experience speaking at conferences, I have started to notice a trend in my own behavior and tone as different audience members stop by to hear my spiel. My attitude can quickly change from serious to excited to fearful all within a 20 minute interchange of 3 audience members. Most of the time, my mannerisms will reflect the mannerisms of the person I am presenting to. Other times, my professionalism and speaking skills will simply fail when somebody I admire comes to hear me talk.
A woman approached my poster and began with the question “What does gas spectroscopy have to do with planet formation?” Initially hearing this question, I thought it would be an easy question to answer because my project proposes that spectroscopy can be used as a planet-detection method. I assumed she was very knowledgeable on the subject and I started to panic. The first 20 seconds of this presentation consisted of me sloppily starting sentences and then restarting them. “Spectroscopy…spectroscopy can be used to detect planets… well do you want to know… hmm… let’s start from the beginning.” I ended up giving her my stock speech because I couldn’t figure out how to form an answer to her initial question without background on the topic. At the end of my talk, she seemed unimpressed. She stared at my poster and started pointing at data oh no. She pointed out 2 small typos on the poster and started to ask me what they meant and how I acquired the data that they represented. To a less intimidating audience member, I could have easily taken a breath and realized that I had just wrongly capitalized the omega symbol that is used to symbolize harmonic wavenumbers. However, I was thoroughly intimidated, so I stayed silent for a few seconds and replied with “I’ll have to look at that.” She continued to ask me more questions that I was not prepared to answer and it ended with a whirlwind of stress and disappointment.
After we shook hands and she walked away from my poster, I realized that (after presenting the project at two separate conferences) she was the first woman to ever approach this specific poster. Although I completely butchered our interaction, I was happy to be able to share my research with her. In my head, I have built up women in science so much that I now view versed women in physical chemistry as triumphant crusaders who have blazed a trail for my colleagues and myself. In another way, they intimidate me because I know how hard they have worked. While I could have reviewed my poster a few more times to avoid this flub, I partly attribute my poor delivery on how she was able to intimidate me simply by being a woman in science.
Although it’s a small sentiment, I hope that my subconscious continues to hold these women on a pedestal. Hopefully, as time passes I will become less intimidated and I will be able to learn more from them when they visit my posters at conferences.
A recent discovery that I have made is that my major, chemistry, is comprised of 48% women at the University of Kentucky (UK Analytics). This actually comes as a surprise to me; I thought the percentages were much more skewed. I guess it just takes a quick data check to confirm that I am in fact ~not alone~. This misconception led me to do another quick data check of chemistry graduate school demographics. According to the American Chemical Society, women make up 27.4% of all chemistry graduate programs—that’s quite a drop. Why are women less likely to continue their studies in graduate school?
This month, I have been focusing on the camaraderie that is necessary for personal interest and encouragement in STEM. A STEM course load is not easy. As I have transitioned from introductory chemistry courses to upper-undergraduate and graduate chemistry courses, I have discovered that they only get harder. I am noticing now that I make jokes more frequently on how college has “humbled” me and that achieving B’s can enormous feats sometimes (I recently mentioned this to a professor and they responded with, “...but you should actually go for A’s...”). Without a relatable group of people, these jokes and woes will go unheard. In addition, it can be hard to understand that you aren’t the only one who struggles in school.
Now, camaraderie comes in. After doing poorly on an exam or not quite understanding what was just taught in class, it is always nice to talk about it with another student. However, it can be difficult for me to publicly express my hardships in school. This difficulty depends less on my personal ego than it does on my contribution to the general impression of women in chemistry. If I have a question in a male-dominated class, like differential equations (where the ratio is about 6:1 male to female), I will not ask it because I fear that my question will imply that women taking differential equations can’t keep up.
Without asking questions in class, I must base most of my education on textbooks and the trusted words of scientific acquaintances. By associating myself with a group of like-minded individuals, the role of being a student becomes much easier. “Katie, what you are describing is just friendship.” This description of camaraderie spans a bit further than friendship, however. As women gain more traction in science, camaraderie means that we will support each other through the hard classes, the graduate school applications, and the occasional sexism in group projects. Reaching out to the kid we sit next to in class but have never talked to and organizing study groups are effective ways to enforce camaraderie.
On campus at the University of Kentucky, there are many clubs and academic fraternities that reinforce this type of camaraderie. Of course, #IAmAWomanInSTEM is a great initiative that allows women to collaborate and discuss their college experience. Monthly meetings allow STEM women across campus to support each other in their scientific endeavors. In addition, UK has a large selection of academic fraternities and clubs like STEMcats and Feminist Alliance that encourage these types of relationships. By being open with each other and working together to learn, hopefully women will feel more encouraged to continue their studies in STEM.
by Mayte Hernandez-Murillo, Biochemistry major, University of Kentucky Class of 2018
Growing up I never really understood what it meant to be a woman in STEM. I had male teachers in all my science classes except for my AP chemistry teacher. She was my first female mentor and encouraged me to pursue chemistry. Girls success in interest in science and math depends on the effects of societal beliefs and the learning environment.1 Since none of my male teachers had ever encouraged me to peruse science, I never thought that could be a possibility.
That first impression of chemistry with my AP chemistry teacher gave me a push forward into science and I became a biochemistry major here at the University of Kentucky. With the class size being over 100 people it didn’t seem like there was a problem. As I moved to higher level chemistry classes the number of female chemists disappeared. Male first year college student are more likely to say that they are STEM majors, but by graduation only 20% of the female graduating class ends up earning a STEM degree.1 This is when the imposter syndrome first hit me. I had to take general physics along with all the engineers. Since my lab partners were male and experienced with the programs used in class, they would often take over the experiment and not let me participate. Their engineering fraternity provided them with a network of people they could access questions, tutoring, and other resources. Since I was not part of support group in the sciences, I felt like I was alone. How is it that I’ve made it two years through my college education and yet I feel like I didn’t deserve to be there? Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you aren’t qualified for the work and having the anxiety that one day you will be found out as a fraud. I did not internalize accomplishments and I felt like I was competing for second best because I knew first place would go to the male in the class.
My lack of confidence was inhibiting the way I performed in class. If answers didn’t come to me as easy as the males in my class, I would find myself questioning myself because I did not fall into the stereotype of male in a white lab coat. I was a victim of the “stereotype threat.” Even women who are strongly associated with their STEM field are susceptible to its effects. This phenomenon is the fear of doing something that would confirm that stereotype. In a study done in 1999 at Michigan state university, 30 females and 24 males were split into two groups. One group was told men performed better than women on the test, this was the “threat condition”. As a result, the female students in this group performed significantly worse. (Figure 1) This test proved that if the stereotype threat was removed then women would perform just as well as the men. The stereotyped individuals in this group often made more of an effort and this was evident in my studies. I was reading, practicing problems, talking to professors, and still it felt like I was coming up short. I needed to simply make myself aware of this stereotype. To overcome the need to feel accepted by the scientific world when in fact I just need to associate myself with chemistry and I could be the one in the white lab coat.
I did not believe the stereotype that girls and women were not as good as men and boys. Subconsciously, however, according to Harvard’s implicit association test (IAT), I did. This test measures the association between math-arts and male-female. These less-conscious beliefs underlying negative stereotypes continue to influence not only my behavior but everyone’s around me too. Since the establishment of this test in 1998, there has been a 70% association of male with science and female with the arts. This proves that a bias against women in STEM fields is not a thing of the past. It’s not that girls say that they cannot do math, it’s that they cannot identify with it. This crucial difference reveals that when girls and women cannot identify themselves with a particular path. Once I started associating with chemistry and math, I found myself doing better in my classes.
I will be graduating in May and now I fear that the implicit bias will follow me to the workplace. Women in “masculine fields” such as STEM typically ranked less competent than their equally qualified male counterpart. This ranking was not the same in “female” or gender neutral careers. In a conducted study by Heilman, it was reported that a successful woman in a male career are more likely to be disliked as well if they did not exemplify the classic character traits such as caring, understanding, and concerned about others1. There is a struggle to keep a balance between competent and being likeable. My experiences with Dr. Sylvia Cerel-Suhl have showed me how she has overcome these obstacles and become a strong representation of the woman in the STEM field. She is a local physician with lots of networked and has opened up several opportunities for me. She has shown me that stereotypes have not set boundaries on her but have she pushed her to dig into new fields of research. Her love for teaching kids inspired her to work with origami and different age groups. It’s inspiring seeing how she is very confident and can engage any audience. Her origami was recently put into a study to show how working memory could be improved.
This semester I will be working with a cognitive training platform that claims to increase general cognitive function that usually declines in late-life. The previously reported cognitive interventions were reading aloud and practice origami showed successful working memory manipulation and its correlation with frontal alpha power as detected by EEG. I hypothesized that the reading aloud and origami intervention would improve alpha power in order to improve working memory. I will be working with Dr. Yang Jiang and I think she and Dr. Cerel-Suhl will continue to help me overcome my challenges and continue to be a strong woman in STEM.
- Hill, Catherine, et al. Why so Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. AAUW, 2010.
- Crooker, Ellen Dr. Imposter Syndrome. https://dib.uky.edu/iamawomaninstem/sites/www.uky.edu.iamawomaninstem/files/ImposterSyndrome-Crocker.pdf.
At my elementary school, we had five “Math Planets” which were hung up on our cafeteria walls. These planets were tools to encourage students to learn their basic math skills. Once a week, we would sit down at our desks and solve math problems as our teacher timed us with a stopwatch. Once a student “mastered” a math topic, their name would be written on a gold paper star and taped to one of the planets. After the student would landed on one math planet, they could move on to the next. In succession, the planets covered the topics of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions. I was determined to make my mark on the last planet, and through determination, angst, and one tearful breakdown, I became one of the first second graders to ever make it on the fraction planet. "Goodness Katie, be humble." I know. I'm trying.
I was a kid who loved math—or perhaps the attention I received when I was good at it. Yet, apparently the odds were stacked against my seven-year-old self. It’s unfortunate and unsurprising to hear about the biases against young girls who are learning the foundations of math and science. While most of these biases are not held consciously, they still make a harmful dent in the appreciation of STEM for many young girls. For example, a study was performed in 2001 observing naturally occurring family conversations at science exhibits in a museum. “…parents were three times more likely to explain science to boys than to girls while using interactive science exhibits in a museum” (Crowley et al.). Most parents do not intentionally withhold science-talk from their daughters, but in most cases, daughters are kept out of these conversations. This disparity alone can contribute to the gender gap in children’s scientific literacy.
This issue isn’t just prolonged by family-life either. Even in a kindergarten setting, perceptions of the scientific capability of girls versus boys is skewed. A large 2016 study states that, “Teachers consistently rate girls’ mathematical proficiency lower than that of boys with similar achievement and learning behaviors” (Cimpian et al.). While earlier and small studies have suggested that there is not a gender gap in early-education, this new data may give us a closer look to the issue. According to the same study, math performance begins to decrease significantly as girls advance from kindergarten to the second-grade.
Childhood is a crucial time to begin to understand the foundations of science. Children who advance in mathematics are more likely to pursue careers in STEM professions in the future (Anderson). These early gender-based disparities are likely a large contributor to the small percentage of women working in math-based STEM fields. In the first grade, I cried when I didn’t beat my PR on a multiplication quiz. In the second grade, I would use sidewalk chalk to solve 30-digit long division problems for fun. In the fourth grade, I watered plants with Gatorade and hydrogen peroxide and called it a botany research project. It’s hard to reflect now on the gender-biases that I possibly faced as an eight-year-old—but if I was facing some sort of societal bias, I was definitely fighting it.
It Doesn't End There
By becoming aware of the unconscious biases that we may hold, it’s easier to fix these issues. In addition, creating programs focused on STEM for young girls is very beneficial. Last November, I had the opportunity to spend a day at Girls: Engineering, Mathematics, & Science (GEMS), a collaboration between the University of Kentucky and the Girl Scouts of Kentucky’s Wilderness Road Council. This program gives girls the opportunity to gain hands on experience from local STEM related experts in their field. I created a quick video which summarizes the day and will hopefully spread the word about this fantastic and unique program.
Watch the video about GEMS Here:
How do you think we should encourage young girls to pursue STEM? Comment below!
“One feels illegitimate in doing something, or appearing as something; one feels apologetic, undeserving, anxious, tenuous, out-of-place, misread, phony, uncomfortable, incompetent, dishonest, guilty. Many women and men I know seem to share these feelings. But some research and much observation suggests they are especially severe in women, both in chronic life-long forms and in acute forms in particular situations.”
Do you have any practices that help you deal with "imposter syndrome"? Please share below in the comments.
If you want to read more about "imposter syndrome" below are links to articles and blogs provided on the #IAmAWomanInSTEM website: