UCSB students kept their minds open as female faculty in science-based disciplines weighed in on the difficulties and joys of being a woman in science on Sunday, April 8 at the Student Resource Center multipurpose room.
The panel was a partnership between UCSB Reads and various STEM departments, discussing Hope Jahren’s book “Lab Girl” and the personal experiences of UCSB faculty as women in STEM.
The panel of faculty consisted of Michelle O’Malley, Jennifer King, and Carla D’Antonio, who are professors in the chemical engineering, geography, and environmental science departments.
Overall sentiment surrounding women in science was positive at the event.
“I think that now is a great time to be a woman in science or engineering,” said O’Malley at Wednesday’s panel. “The situation for women is vastly improving and there’s a lot of room for resiliency.”
All of the panelists stated that backlash was minimal and support was widespread in their careers — a privilege they attributed to trailblazing female scientists that came before them.
“I grew up in the 1940s, but I never felt limited in what I could do as a woman,” said Nancy Vivrette, who moderated the panel. “There were a lot of female role models, especially since my childhood occurred during WWII, when men were off at war and women picked up the slack on the homefront. And since then, incredible women have been paving the way even more.”
One of the most inspiring moments of the event was hearing the panelists share their research interests and accomplishments.
O’Malley has focused her research on producing biofuel with various methods, using membrane proteins as sensors, and discovering new genes and proteins.
King finds joy in interdisciplinary research, citing one of her most fulfilling research projects as analyzing methane emissions from rice paddy fields.
All of the women had first rate academic credentials, with O’Malley and D’Antonio completing postdoctoral fellowships at MIT and Stanford respectively. O’Malley is also the first female assistant professor in the chemical engineering department at UCSB.
The panelists acknowledged the hard work and long hours required for achievement, but stated that following their passions made the sacrifices well worth it.
“Finding your passion is like a rose with thorns. Research was my passion and I soon discovered that it was not a 9-to-5 career and that you never leave it behind. But when you view your work as an integral part of who you are, then it can be very fulfilling,” said D’Antonio.
King, who has devoted her professional life to studying biogeochemistry, echoed D’Antonio’s sentiment.
“Being a lab scientist involves long hours and a sense of frustration, but there’s also a pervasive sense that it’s worth it,” said King at the panel.
The latter half of the panel focused on career development for women in the sciences. D’Antonio, who has multiple decades of experience in both academia and teaching, said that she sees self-selection and a lack of social support as the main problems confronting women.
“It can be somewhat controversial to say this, but I think that one of the biggest issues is that women are less likely to put themselves out there,” said D’Antonio. “I see a lot of women with intrinsic humility that don’t put themselves out there for promotions or awards as much as men do.”
She continued, “I also think that it can be difficult for women because many start families during graduate school or during their postdoc and they can get behind during a critical time, especially since many necessary social supports aren’t prevalent.”
Despite a discussion of issues facing women in science, a pervasive sense of excitement and hope for the future of women in science permeated the event.
“Statistics are history. Your job is to change them and not let them define you. Because what are your chances of getting hired in an institution with no women? Zero. But if you apply, you could be a changemaker,” said Vivrette, who moderated the meeting.
Finding mentors, going for award opportunities, using graduate student networks, and building on strengths were strategies that the researchers cited as taking their careers to the next level.
Faculty on the panel made themselves available to talk to students and affiliates that attended the event — continuing a legacy of female scientists serving as role models to the next generation.