AL students see positive shift in women seeking science careers


KRISTI MOORE: This is Kristi Moore from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Each month, we look behind the science to see the world from our scientists point of view and because March is Women’s History Month, we wanted to hear from our female graduate students about their experiences pursuing a career in science. See, the women seeking careers in science today are on the cusp of change. The generations before them didn’t have some of the opportunities considered normal today. They were told they didn’t belong in the lab or were barred from some scientific studies.

The generations behind this one are growing up in classrooms that are embracing the value of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM learning, and creating programs and lesson plans that introduce those subjects early. This generation gets the benefit of a hard path carved before them, but one that’s not completely paved. Some of our female graduate students at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science were still hearing what they couldn’t do and where they should be instead. They heard things like you can’t excel in a science career and have a family, and even then they have seen women succeed only so much in a career still largely dominated by men.

Nevertheless, they’re persisting.

They find strength in the women before them and are motivated to inspire those rising up behind them.

We asked some of these graduate students at UMCES’ Chesapeake Biological Laboratory to weigh in on the rise of STEM learning, share their experiences and thoughts on representation and diversity in the lab, and offer advice for the generations to follow. Here are their stories.

TAN ZOU: My name is Tan Zou. I studied civil engineering before I went to this lab. Civil engineering is about buildings and building bridges and other things, so I think it’s really cool to do that, but after a few years study I changed my mind and changed my major to environmental engineering in science because after several years I realized I wanted to do something to improve the environment and I feel studying civil engineering cannot help me solve those problems.  

STEPHANIE SIEMEK: My name is Stephane Siemek. I originally wanted to be a veterinarian and I worked at several veterinarian hospitals and then realized I liked being outdoors and wildlife more. I realized that there are a lot of environmental issues that needed to be solved and so that’s why I wanted to do more with the natural world, especially Chesapeake Bay since I grew up in Maryland.

ANNIE CAREW: Hi, I’m Annie Carew. I think for me the path to science kind of stems from this insatiable curiosity I have about the world around me. I want to know what everything is and how it works and how it all fits together. I specifically love biological science because it’s much more applicable to me, like I want to know how I work. I’ve always loved my anatomy classes, learning about cells and things like that. Getting into environmental science, I guess I’ve always loved and had a deep appreciation for nature and as I got older, I realized we’re kind of messing it up. I felt very compelled to do what I can to try and fix that. All of those interests and passions combined sort of directed me down the path to where I am today.

CLAIRE NEMES: My name is Claire Nemes. I actually went to an ecology magnet program in high school, but was thinking about doing art and kind of at the last minute instead of going to art school, decided to go to a school that would allow me to do both science and art. And I discovered birds about 10 years ago and then I never looked back because birds are basically the coolest thing on the planet. So that’s how I found my way into wildlife ecology.

KELLY PEARCE: My name is Kelly Pearce. When I was a young child, I grew up on a farm, so there was always this time spent outside with my siblings. Then in undergrad, I selected wildlife as my major primarily because all of the labs involved outdoor labs and the idea of spending time outside collecting information about how the world works and the mechanisms behind nature was always intriguing to me. I just think my interests started at a young age and continues on now.

MOORE: There’s been a lot of emphasis on STEM learning, in particular getting young women interested in science or a STEM career. What do you think of that push and is it enough?

NEMES: I think that the question of representation and being able to see women role models in the field is pretty indispensable and like just from my own experience, I can’t recall a ton of notable female wildlife biologists that I knew about growing up with the notable exception of Jane Goodall, but even having my favorite character on TV, the X-Files’ Dana Scully, who was a scientist, was really important just in terms of—sorry I had to get my X-Files shout out in here. But that was a role model in a scientist who was always applying the scientific method to what she was investigating and bringing it back to this rigorous, empirical hypothesis testing and so that provided that kind of visual representation for me, like I wanted to be like that. And I think now this push for STEM education earlier and earlier, for girls, but also, especially when it comes to wildlife, we don’t necessarily have a lot of ethnic, racial, cultural diversity either and that’s something that would be really important to get more representation. The push for early childhood education is important, not just for women, but for all groups, especially groups that are underrepresented in the field of science.

ZOU: I feel like the problem I can see right now is there is always an invisible ceiling. Usually leaders and professors they are all of them male scientists and engineers. So I feel like many of the young girls, they may feel like they can get into the world of science, but they may stop at a certain level and they cannot move forward anymore. So I think that is very discouraging and I hope there can me more women scientists coming out and sharing their stories with the students so we can see that we can move forward.

MOORE: So basically you’re saying like because there seems to be the dominance of men in the field, especially after a certain point, if women see that, they might not think that they can achieve those higher levels, like you were saying there’s that invisible ceiling, they can only go so high.

ZOU: Yeah, I think that’s one of the reasons why women don’t get into the world of science or get frustrated when they get there, because they may feel like their development is limited.

MOORE: That segues well into one of the questions I wanted to ask you, which was about that diversity. What is the value to having better diversity in the lab or in the field?

PEARCE: I kind of think that diversity’s even broader than those physical characteristics that we can see. I think that the value of diversity is that everybody brings different pre-existing knowledge and experiences to the table, and so when you collaborate in science, which a lot of science is about collaboration, you have the opportunity to find different strengths of people. And through diversity the ability of people to bring different strengths to the table makes science better because you know you have people that maybe are more creative, people that ware more organized, and people from different cultural backgrounds that just perceive a problem differently than you, and so I think the opportunity to collaborate as a team is really going to push science to outside the bounds of kind of what it is traditionally.

SIEMEK: Going off what Kelly said, I agree with that because since I’ve become part of the science world I realized the complexity of everything and the problem that we are trying to solve in the world. As you learn more and more about it, you realize it’s more difficult to cure the anthropogenic activities that are destroying a lot of the ecosystems and things like that. You can’t have one person solve all this, so like Kelly’s saying with the different diversities, coming from different backgrounds and having different passions, you can put that together and everyone can contribute to solving these issues because obviously, we are very far away from getting where we need to be with sustainability.

NEMES: So I think part of that is encouraging ownership over and involvement in the scientific project in terms of, if you feel that science is something that is only being conducted by this group of people off in this lab, it’s something that really seems far removed from your personal experience and it’s harder to see how those questions and that research affects you and your life and your family and your community. So if we’re able to encourage more people to get involved in science, and that’s one of the big strengths of citizen science projects. That really encourages stewardship, encourages people get involved in the scientific process and thinking critically so it’s not just something that remains the purview of people off in this remote lab area. It’s something everybody can be involved in. It’s something everybody has a responsibility to understand and then that affects how we make political decisions, how we vote, the legislation that we as citizens support. So encouraging everybody to have at least a basic understanding of science principals and methodology is really important.

CAREW: Also important is that science doesn’t exist in isolation. I don’t think that any field of anything, art doesn’t exist in isolation, politics doesn’t exist in isolation, and so we have to be mindful of the different factors that affect literally everything and the different perspectives and situations and viewpoints that all contribute to this greater system that is the planet. I just think that, going back to this diversity thing, it’s important to keep all those things in mind and to remember, as Claire said, science isn’t limited to a bunch of old white guys in a lab somewhere, it’s everybody everywhere.

MOORE: I wanted to get back to that point Tan made, she touched on that idea of an invisible ceiling. Why do you think women are underrepresented in science?

CAREW: We are actually just talking about this amongst ourselves, about how like social pressure on women to be more of the homemakers.

SIEMEK: I looked up statistics yesterday and found that women in the Ph.D. programs in the science education realm are about 50 percent, but the jobs are actually like 20 percent of women in science get to the career stage and they often quit because of not being able to have that work and life balance. There’s a lot of pressure as a scientist to constantly publish papers and move on to the post-doc position and go on to a career or another post doc or whatever those opportunities are, so it doesn’t really leave room for a family. I think it’s difficult to find a husband or a partner who is very supportive and will help take half the responsibilities of raising a child and a lot of times you’re moving a lot when you have these different opportunities coming, like you never know where you’re going to be moving for that post-doc position or whatever else, so how can you raise a stable family and support them the way society portrays the right way to support a family. So you’re kind of giving up one or the other, so you’re giving up on your family or you’re giving up on your career. I think a lot of times women are faced with that before they figure out what their next step is after they get their PhDs. So I think we’re not the exception that it’s a struggle with demanding careers, with being able to balance that, and I think science is moving forward to accommodating for this better, but I don’t think we’re there yet and so I think we have to start better programs or have more supportive people in the science world and I think as more women become more involved in science, maybe it will gravitate more toward having that support, but having a dominate male field now I think it’s hard to switch that over.

NEMES: Right, so I think that the work-life balance question is part of it, as Stephanie was saying, but that applies to men as well – it’s not like men who are scientists don’t sometimes want to have families as well. I think another component is it can be difficult to find women role models. They’re definitely out there, but there are certainly some fields where women are very underrepresented and that can be discouraging to not see that being modeled for you in some way and being something you can reach for. Then there’s also sexism still exists. We’ve been talking a lot about the MeToo movement, sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual assault and there just not being a friendly and open culture, and I think that all of those factors have to be considered as well. It can’t just come down to women want children and that’s not why they’re going into the sciences. I mean that’s pretty reductionist, but that is I think a pretty important component of it and I think it’s just very complicated and it does vary by scientific discipline in that there’s some that seem to be a lot where the gender ratio is more equal.

MOORE: So how do you guys encourage yourselves or each other or future generations to continue on this path if it comes with so many difficulties?

CAREW: I think it helps to have a strong personal support network, male and female, you know, supportive family, friends, significant others who are standing behind you cheering you on. They’re not necessarily in the sciences themselves, which sometimes can be good if they are not involved in the sciences because they’re able to step back from it a little bit. So support network for sure. And then speaking as Annie, personally, I’ve always been very obstinate and if I think that someone’s going to tell me I shouldn’t do something, I become more determined to do it. So if I’m looking at the world and the world’s like, ‘No, you need to stay home and bake pies and be a mother,’ I’m like, ‘No. I’m going to have an awesome science career.’ So that’s me.

PEARCE: I have never been particularly faced with either somebody telling me I don’t belong in science because I’m a woman or have really faced any barriers yet in this field. There were other female graduate students when I was a master’s student and now as a Ph.D. student at Appalachian Lab, we’re probably 75 percent women at our lab, so I personally haven’t really felt any pressure or this idea that women can’t be in science because I’ve always been around other women in the field. So I think that has kind of been my motivation to continue on in this field. Women in science is important and I hope that I never face barriers that other people have felt before, but I do think we’re on a good trajectory right now. UMCES, in general, they have done a good job of recruiting female students and those females rock [laughter]. I don’t know, we’re just good at being scientists. It’s been fun being part of AL and having these other strong females that you can relate to in a lot of ways. But I am still in some situations where it’s a little bit more male dominated. That tends to be more of the wildlife field as opposed to environmental science and ecology.

CAREW: I would definitely agree with what Kelly said about the wildlife field being more male dominated. My undergraduate institution, I was a conservation biology major, which was a relatively small major that sort of interacted a lot with the wildlife sciences department and I think that’s where maybe I’ve run into the most, not direct opposition, but very subtle or less subtle sexist attitudes. In a wildlife sciences department in conservative South Carolina, there was sort of this attitude from a lot of my fellow students that I was a girl and I didn’t want to get my hands dirty and maybe I shouldn’t be here. Again, I just showed them I was here and I was going to get dirty by, you know, jumping into the mud or whatever.

NEMES: Wildlife, at least from what I’ve been seeing, does seem to be shifting pretty majorly. When I’ve gone to wildlife conferences with some older, more established researchers, it is, as Kelly said, white male dominated, but in undergrad I did environmental science with a wildlife concentration and almost everybody in the concentration was female. I think talking about the specificity of disciplines within the broad science category, there’s certain ones that are shifting faster than others.

ZOU: Based on my own experience, because I was studying civil engineering before I came here. Most students were male, especially for different programs. Half of the students were female in my class, but all of them including me left after the program ended and only part of the male students will stay and continue their study as a Ph.D. student. And I feel it’s because of who the adviser is and the atmosphere in the department. For me, my former adviser is a guy and I feel like there were so many things he could not understand. I feel like I felt really lonely and I also feel like my other female classmates, we could not get any support or help from the adviser in the department so we wanted to leave instead of stay there. I know there are some advisers, especially female advisers, I think they can better understand female students’ feeling and what they need. I see more female students under the supervision of female advisers.

MOORE: So what advice would you guys have for that future generation, people who might be pursuing the same path you’re pursuing now?

NEMES: Go after what you want but understand that you’re going to run into a whole bunch of challenges. That’s what education and science are about, but try to shift that mentality away from you have to be inherently a math person or really grasp certain concepts. That’s not what science is about. Anybody can develop critical thinking skills and I decided I was really going to apply myself in undergrad and I’m going to do well in algebra and I did and I made an A in a math class for the first time in my life. And I was like, ok, so it didn’t have anything to do with inherent aptitude or talent. I think a lot of times people make this mistake. That you have to be naturally good at something to succeed. You have to be able to grasp quantum physics. But really the amount of success you have is proportional to the amount you put into it. So if you’re passionate about something you’re going to put in the work and you’re going to succeed, or you might fail, but those failures on are on a path toward a successful outcome.

ZOU: For me, I have mentioned that I felt really lonely at the beginning of the program and I almost gave up because I felt like there was no one who could help me. At the end of my graduate program, I found the Society of Women Engineers and I found a lot of women engineer students in it, so that was encouraging and helped me understand I am not alone. There are still a lot of people like me and we can talk to each other and understand each other, and absolutely we can support each other.

PEARCE: My advice would be to find someone that you can go out and gain experience with because learning what you like to do and what you don’t like to do, you know, science is such this huge umbrella and there’s so many little niches within science. So go out and shadow somebody that works with plants. Go out and shadow somebody that works with wildlife, or go out and shadow somebody that works in environmental science and water quality, and find what speaks to you because in science what I’ve learned is if you’re not passionate about what you’re studying, it’s really hard to make a contribution. Because in science, the reality is, to contribute to science you have to spend years studying and then you have to write it up and then you have to disseminate it through publications or public presentations. And if you are not passionate about something, it’s really hard to go through that follow-through process. People that are just getting into the field, go out and volunteer with a variety of different scientists and see which one speaks to you.

SIEMEK: I came into this career very passionate, like yes, I’m going to help save the world and I realized that I am terrified of public speaking and with science comes presentations and conferences and things like that and you really have to get out of your comfort zone. That might intimidate people and that might just automatically make people shut off from wanting to pursue science, but you get over it and I have talked to so many people like scientists that do presentations like nothing now and said they used to be like that long ago, too. And somehow after so many times you give a presentation and it comes easy to them now. So there is hope. No matter what the thing you think is setting you back now, just keep going with it, and one day you will get over it and you’ll be like why was so scared or why was I that way and it makes you a more confident person, too.

CAREW: I was a camp counselor one summer for a science-based camp at a museum and I specifically taught the wetlands camp, we were called the Swamp Stompers. And I had a lot of female students. I’m specifically thinking of one little girl. She told me on like the second day of camp that she wanted to be an ornithologist when she grew up.

NEMES: Whoo!

CAREW: Yeah, exactly, that was exactly my reaction. Not only does this 7-year-old know the word ornithologist, but she’s decided that’s her ambition. I think about her now and again and I really hope she stuck with that. I did my best in the very limited time that I had to tell her some of what I knew about birds and tell her I love birds, too, and I love wetlands, I love science, just trying to be that positive role model for her. My advice to younger people, especially younger women, looking to go into science would be keep asking questions, don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially difficult questions, and then don’t be afraid to try new things because I think some of the best things that have ever happened to me in my life were because I said, well, I’ll just give it a try.


MOORE: Thanks to Tan, Stephanie, Annie, Claire and Kelly for joining us on this podcast and sharing your stories. If you want to hear more stories like this, be sure to visit