WISP celebrates 25 years at College

by Aleena Vigoda | 5/16/16 6:33pm

Next Thursday, Dartmouth will host the Wetterhahn Symposium in honor of the late Karen Wetterhahn, who died in 1997 and co-founded the Women in Science Program. WISP celebrated its 25th anniversary in April.

Established in 1992, the symposium is comprised of an annual keynote address from a distinguished scientist followed by an undergraduate research poster presentation.

This year, Anne Gelb, a professor of mathematical and statistical sciences at Arizona State University, will deliver the keynote address. Gelb has collaborated with researchers at the Euro-Mediterranean Center for Climate Change and is currently being funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to reconstruct images from synthetic aperture radar data.

WISP works with women interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields in their first year at Dartmouth. WISP also runs a research program that places participants in internships with professors and a peer mentoring program that matches upperclassmen to first-year women. To date, WISP has placed 1,707 student research interns with over 330 faculty research mentors and over 4,400 students have participated in the peer mentor programs.

WISP has contributed to a substantial rise in women in science-related fields at Dartmouth. In 1990, only 45 women majored in STEM subjects, but by 2015 that number more than doubled, with 114 women graduating in the sciences.

Almost 50 percent of Dartmouth engineering majors are female, compared to the national average of 19 percent. Today, more women major in biology at Dartmouth than men.

Carol Muller ’77 — a former assistant dean at the Thayer School of Engineering and one of WISP’s co-founders — said in her opening remarks at the 25th anniversary that, by the 1990s, Thayer “had scarcely been impacted by the great social changes of the 1960s and 70s.” She was surprised to find that so few of the engineering majors were women, and that Thayer only employed one female faculty member.

In late 1989, when chemistry professor Karen Wetterhahn was appointed associate dean of the arts and sciences, she announced her goal to encourage the inclusion of women in sciences. Together, the two found a “common passion not only for this goal, but also for results-oriented action,” Muller said in her remarks.

With their complementary experiences, knowledge, skills and positions at Dartmouth, Muller and Wetterhahn outlined a program to recruit and retain more women in STEM fields.

“Karen was one of the best collaborators with whom I’ve worked over the years,” Muller said in her remarks.

Elizabeth Hart ’19, who found the program to be incredibly useful, completed an internship through WISP.

“I don’t think I would have had the confidence to get involved in research so early without it,” she said. “I am learning so much and getting experience with multiple topics that interest me.”

She also noted the benefits of directors such as WISP director Kathy Weaver “who are available and ready to help us whenever we have any problems with our research.”

While Hart said the interns have a lot of responsibility for their own success, she believes that bringing the interns togethers through the peer mentoring program has helped her learn from the experiences of others.

Weaver wrote in an email that the success of the program largely depends upon the sense of community that peer mentorship fosters. The program establishes a support system for freshmen to look up to upperclassmen for guidance and helps to dispel the academic competitiveness found at other schools.

“The peer mentoring program is much more statistically significant in persistence of women majoring in science than we had previously thought,” she said at the 20th anniversary function.

Weaver, who has been the director of the WISP program for almost 20 years and appreciates the challenges she has overcome throughout her time with WISP.

“I have an admiration for the passion and persistence of many extraordinary Dartmouth students and faculty that I get to work with through the program,” she states.

Over time, WISP has “developed valuable partnerships and collaborations across campus so that we are no longer alone in doing this work to promote women in sciences,” Weaver said.

Zohra Aslami ’18 said WISP is an “amazing program that helps women at Dartmouth overcome institutional and social barriers into research, medicine, engineering and other male-dominated professions.”

She credits discovering her passion for research to the program and strongly encourages all freshmen women interested in STEM fields to apply.

“While my understanding of what we need to do to effect change has grown considerably more nuanced, I think we still pretty much got it right all those years ago,” Muller said.