How many women in your physics/astro grad program?

After reading some tweets about the percentages of women in undergrad/grad physics/astro programs, I decided to tweet mine, and then got curious about whats going on in other programs.  In my high school AP physics class, I was one of two girls in a class of ~30.  In my undergrad physics department, we had a handful of women in a department with ~30 or so majors.  I’m currently a graduate student in an astronomy department, and there are five women in my incoming class of seven.  I know this is definitely atypical (I also know someone in an astro grad program where the incoming class is all men), but I’m curious about other programs, and the difference between the fraction of women in astronomy and physics programs.

Are/were you in a physics or astronomy graduate program? What is/was the fraction of women? Is it any different from the fraction of women in your undergraduate department?

New online mentoring course for undergrad women in STEM

A new online mentoring program, Women in Technology Sharing Online (WitsOn) will connect undergraduate women (and men!) in STEM with female mentors who include astronaut Mae Jemison, Maria Klawe (president of Harvey Mudd College), Padmasree Warrior (Cisco’s chief techology officer), and Jackie Barton (the chair of the Caltech chemistry department).  There are over 300 mentors total.  Mentors will answer questions posed by undergrads, and participate in discussions with them, giving career and life advice to those who may not have female mentors.

I think this program is a fantastic idea, and is something that will prove really valuable to women just beginning their STEM careers.  I’d like to see how it could expand to include graduate students, as I would imagine the discussions they’ll be having there are discussions I’d very much like to be a part of!

Mildred Dresselhaus: physicist, advocate for women scientists

Today’s awesome women scientist is very special to me, since she happens to be a graduate of Hunter College! After reading this recent NYT interview with Mildred Dresselhaus, I was inpsired to read more! Mildred Spiewak Dresselhaus is currently a professor of physics and engineering at MIT, and is a prominent researcher.  Her work mainly involved studying various properties of carbon.

Dr. Dresselhaus was born in Brooklyn in 1930, but spent her early childhood years living in the Bronx.  Her early years were difficult, as she grew up during the Great Depression.  She first attended public school in the Bronx, but eventually started music lessons on a scholarship at Greenwich House, a settlement house in Manhattan.  Her older brother, also extremely intelligent, went to high school at the Bronx High School of Science; unfortunately, at the time, girls were not permitted to go to school there. Instead, she went to Hunter College High School.  After graduating from Hunter High School, she went on to Hunter College, hoping to become an elementary school teacher.

Mildred Dresselhaus

But then, Dresselhaus took a class in nuclear physics with Rosalyn Yalow, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize in medicine.  Dresselhaus describes her as a, “real leader and a very domineering person.”  Yalow encouraged Dresselhaus to pursue a career in science, and from then on was always there for Dresselhaus, attending her talks, and ready with letters of recommendation.  After graduating from Hunter College, Dresselhaus spent a year at Cambridge University, got her masters at Harvard University, and finished her graduate studies in superconductivity at the University of Chicago.

After a postdoc at Cornell, her and her husband moved to MIT, one of the few institutions at the time that didn’t have anti-nepotism rules.  There, she started studying carbon, which was not widely studied at the time.  In the NYT interview, Dresselhaus says, “The number of papers published on carbon when I started was essentially zero, and it’s been going up, up, up my whole career.”  She was one of the first people to use lasers for magneto-optic experiments, where light passes through a material with a magnetic field.  Among other things, she “invented breakthrough techniques for studying individual layers of carbon atoms”, and “devised carbon fibers that are stronger than steel at a fraction of steel’s weight” (NYT).  This year, she was awarded the incredibly prestigious Kavli Prize in Nanoscience.

Mildred Dresselhaus

Dresselhaus has consistently been a strong advocate for women in science, both at MIT and nationally.  She served as chair of the American Physical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Physics for two years, after serving as president of the American Physical Society.  She helped establish committees to “assess the status of women physics undergraduates, graduate students and faculty and make recommendations for improving their status.”  (  She has many other awards, including a National Medal of Science, the Enrico Fermi Award, and 28 honorary doctorates.  She was also president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Director of the Office of Science at the US Department of Energy under Bill Clinton.

Needless to say, Mildred Dresselhaus is an extraordinary scientist and woman.  She has made revolutionary scientific discoveries, and has managed to give back to the scientific community in so many ways.

U.S. Dept of Commerce: Women underrepresented in STEM, have been for last decade

The U.S. Department of Commerce recently released a report about the status of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) entitled “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation”.  I read through the executive summary of the report, available for download here.  Here are some of their findings:

  • Women comprise 48% of the U.S. workforce, but just 25% of STEM jobs.  This has been consistent throughout the last decade, even as more college-educated women have entered the workforce.
  • From 2000 to 2009, the percentage of women in all STEM  jobs has not changed from 24%.  This can be broken down by field.  The percentage of women in computer science and math jobs has decreased from 30% to 27%, the percentage of women in engineering has increased from 13% to 14%, the percentage of women in physical/life science related jobs has increased from 36% to 40%, and the percentage of women STEM managers has increased from 23% to 25%.
  • The gender wage gap for STEM jobs is 14%.  This means that women in STEM jobs earn 86 cents for every dollar a man in a STEM job makes.  This is less than the non-STEM job wage gap of 21%.
  • Women in STEM fields earn 33% more on average than their female counterparts in non-STEM jobs.  For men, the difference is 25%.
  • The gender wage gap for college-educated STEM workers is 12%.  Broken down by STEM field, the highest gender wage gap exists in computer science and math.  The lowest gender wage gap is for engineering jobs, at 7%.
  • In 2009, there were 2.5 million college-educated working women with STEM degrees, compared to 6.7 million men.
  • 57% of college-educated working women with a STEM degree have their bachelors degree in a physical/life science.  In comparison, 31% of college-educated working men with a STEM degree have their bachelors degree in a physical/life science.  The bulk of men with STEM majors choose engineering degrees.
  • 40% of men with STEM degrees work in STEM jobs. 26% of women with STEM degrees work in STEM jobs.

To conclude, the report finds that women are “underrepresented both in STEM jobs and STEM undergraduate degrees, and have been consistently over the last decade.”  Women who receive STEM degrees are actually less likely to work in STEM than men who receive STEM degrees.  While the gender wage gap is smaller in STEM fields than for other fields, it is still a significant gap.  The report doesn’t attempt to explain why gender differences in STEM exist.

Female undergrads more likely to answer questions in math class when professor is female

Researchers from the University of Amherst recently studied the performance of undergraduate students with male and female math professors.  The differences that appear in the performance of female students is particularly fascinating.  The data breaks down like this:

1) Percentages of female students attempting to answer questions posed to the class (beginning of the semester)

  • With male professor: 11%
  • With female professor: 7%

2) Percentages of female students attempting to answer questions posed to the class (end of the semester)

  • With male professor: 7%
  • With female professor: 46%

3) Percentage of female students approaching professor for help after class (beginning of the semester)

  • With male professor: 12%
  • With female professor: 12%

4) Percentage of female students approaching professor for help after class (end of the semester)

  • With male professor: 0%
  • With female professor: 14%

Finally, the researchers evaluated how much women “identified” with mathematics and found that women were less confident in their mathematical abilities when their teachers were men (even when the women were scoring higher than men on tests).

So what does this tell us?  First of all, we need to make women scientists and mathematicians more visible!  Having female role models is  a significant way of boosting women’s confidence and participation in mathematics, so we need to show students that there are many successful female scientists and mathematicians.  Second, there are subtle factors that may alter a woman’s decision to pursue science or math.  While overt discrimination still exists, it is important to be aware of these subtleties, because they play a role in the under-representation of women in STEM fields as well.

Reference: Psych-Out Sexism by Shankar Vedantam

Dealing with rejection

In this season of summer internship applications, rejections abound.  I feel like scientists are always applying for something or another; whether it is grants, internships, jobs, or scholarships.  And although we often have to deal with rejection, it never seems to get any easier.  So here are my tips for dealing with rejection! (They’re sort of slanted toward dealing with summer internship rejection, but I think they could be adapted for almost anything)

1) Give yourself a little time to wallow. Getting rejected sucks, and sometimes there is nothing you can do for the moment to make yourself feel better.  So let it out!  Cry if you need to.  It’s okay to be sad or angry.

2) Indulge. Give yourself a homework break for the night (unless there is something urgent!).  Curl up with a funny movie, hot chocolate, and popcorn (or whatever snacks you fancy).  Read web comics (Science-y ones are the best. I recommend XKCD and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal).  Watch funny videos on youtube.  Look at cute pictures of animals.

How can you be sad looking at a kitten wearing a frog hat?

3) Remember that whatever program you got rejected from isn’t the only program in the world. Maybe you didn’t get into the Super Awesome Program Of Your Dreams, but there will be other opportunities for you to succeed.  There may be advantages to not getting into the Super Awesome Program Of Your Dreams.  And who knows?  Maybe you will get into the Even More Awesome Program Of Your Dreams.

4) Make a list of all the reasons why you make a good candidate. Usually, there’s no way of knowing why a program didn’t take you.  But getting rejected doesn’t mean you don’t have good qualities.  Remind yourself that they will miss out on your awesomeness, but that you will find another opportunity.

5) Try again! The more times you try, the more likely you are to get an acceptance.  Learn from your rejections.  Is there anything you could have done better on your application?  Identify these things, and fix them the next time around.  Trying will undoubtedly come with rejections, but every rejection brings you closer to an acceptance!

And remember this:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” -Winston Churchill

How to give effective oral presentations

While I was at AAS, I attended a professional development workshop about giving effective oral presentations.  The instructor was Jean-luc Doumont, author of the book Trees, Maps and Theorems: Effective Communication for Rational Minds, and an engineer who has a PhD in applied physics from Stanford.  He went over how to structure your talks, how to get your message across, how to construct a good powerpoint, how to build confidence, and how to answer difficult questions.  Giving effective oral presentations is something that many people, including myself, struggle with.  I wanted to share some of the tips he gave; I found them extremely useful, and I am actually excited to give an oral presentation so I can put these tips into action!

The “What” vs. the “So What”: Doumont stressed the idea of getting across your message.  He differentiated the message from the information.  The information can be thought of as the “what”.  The message is therefore the “so what”.  One of the most useful things he said was to “maximize what the audience gets out of the presentation, not the information you put it.”  I think it can be really tempting to put as much information into your presentation as possible, but it is more effective to parse out unnecessary information and concentrate on the “so what”, the motivation for your work.  Your talks should always have a message.

The three rules of communication:

  1. Adapt to the audience: You need to be aware of who your audience is.  Understand who you are addressing – is it a group of people in your field or a group outside your field?
  2. Maximize the “signal to noise” ratio:  You want to maximize your message and get rid of noise.  Noise can be things like fidgeting, cluttered powerpoints, too many “likes” or “ums”, or unnecessary graphics.
  3. Use effective redundancy (verbal and nonverbal):  Don’t be afraid to make the same point a few times.  In all likelihood, this will drive the point home, and not seem unnecessarily repetitive.  Use both verbal and nonverbal methods to drive home your main message.  Nonverbal methods includes writing it on your powerpoint, showing graphs, etc.

Steps to constructing a presentation:

  1. Planning: Gather your thoughts.  Ask yourself the following questions.  Why – What is the purpose of my presentation? Who – Who is my audience? When/Where – What are my time/space constraints? What – What did I do/What is the content of my presentation?
  2. Designing: Define the structure of your presentation.  Start with an attention getter, i.e. something funny but relevant, an anecdote, picture, question.  Tell the audience the motivation for your work up front.  If they recognize the importance/the need for your work, they’ll be more likely to pay attention.  Tell the audience what you did to address this need.  Then put in the main message, the one sentence you want your audience to remember.  This way, they will be aware of what they should be getting out of the presentation and will keep it in mind throughout your powerpoint.
  3. Creating your slides: Make slides for the audience, not for yourself.  Only put one message per slide.  A bad slide is worse than no slides; if it is a last minute presentation, forget the slides.  Show stand alone slides, so that someone deaf could get the point.  At the same time, speak a stand alone text, so that someone blind could get the point.  Rehearse everything without slides.  Make sure that you include the message for slides with graphs (i.e. why is this graph important?).  Be concise.
  4. Delivery: Master all channels – verbal, vocal, and visual.  Memorize the outline, but not the wording.  Verbal – Eradicate filler words, and learn to value silences.  Don’t be afraid to pause to gather your thoughts.  Vocal – Adjust your tone, rate, and volume.  Modulate to convey meaning, complexity, and importance.  Visual – Project confidence by controlling your body.  Ensure presence through strong eye contact.
  5. Questions: When taking questions, do not rush.  Listen, repeat/rephrase, think, then answer.  Be honest – if you don’t know the answer, say so.  Also be helpful – tell them you will try to find the answer.  If you get an aggressive question, take a pause to quiet the atmosphere.  Then acknowledge their concern, but disagree with the opinion at the intellectual level.

Nervousness:  Accept nervousness as a good thing!  The adrenaline rush can actually make for a better presentation, since you are more aware.  Nervousness comes from a fear of the unknown, so try to eliminate as many unknowns as possible.  Make a connection with someone in the audience.  Familiarize yourself with the room before presenting.  Focus during the presentation – pace yourself, and breathe slowly.  Finally, have a positive attitude, and visualize yourself succeeding!

I hope you guys find these tips as useful as I did!  There are some online references on Jean-luc Doumont’s website, including webcasts, videos, slides, and handouts.