Gems in Stem

by Nikhita Hingorani | 10/17/18 2:15am

by Mia Zhang Nacke / The Dartmouth

Last winter, I took a biology class with a lab counterpart that was entirely dissection-based. Though the subject matter of the class was extremely fascinating, with every incision and extraction I performed, I realized that I did not have the passion necessary to continue the infamous pre-med track that I, like many of my peers, entered college intending to pursue. 

That biology class has been impactful to me in more ways than one, and many things have stuck with me since taking it: how blood flows from the heart to the body, the various types of muscle contractions and, perhaps most interestingly, a comment that my graduate student teaching assistant made to my small, all-girl lab table one evening. While sanitizing our scalpels and trays, we all got into conversation, and he told us that he was impressed with how “meticulous” we all were with our various dissections. He mentioned how he noticed that the women in our lab session were a lot more “detail-oriented” than our male counterparts, which was a characteristic he deemed necessary to not only continue with medicine, but to have a successful future as a whole.  

Though I have left the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics for the seemingly more gendered discipline of economics (which is made up by far too many “econ-bros,” if I may add), my TA’s comments still resonate with me to this day, especially when I see the increasing presence of females in STEM on campus. If women are so adept at the skills necessary for these fields, as per the stereotype of us being able to pay attention to detail and handle tasks with care, why has there even been a disparity in the first place?

The gender gap in STEM majors is closing in at Dartmouth, evidenced by the degree breakdowns of the Class of 2018. Out of the 1,145 Bachelor of Arts given out last year, 30 percent were under the sciences division. 12 percent were given to women and 18 percent to men. 

It is not uncommon to see a female student on campus finishing up her computer science problem set in the library before heading out to attend evening meetings for her sorority — it has instead become the norm. In 2016, Dartmouth made history by becoming the first national research university to achieve, and even exceed, gender parity in the number of engineering degrees awarded. This is remarkable considering that Dartmouth was one of the last Ivy League institutions to admit women. Sixty-one out of the 117 degrees belonged to women that year, and the numbers have not fallen much since.

Emma Doherty ’21 is joining the ranks of female engineering students at Dartmouth. She is currently taking Engineering Sciences 21, “Introduction to Engineering,” which is one of the common core courses required for the major. As a project-based class, ENGS 21 is known for being an engaging and interactive exposure to the field of engineering and its techniques, for both majors and non-majors alike.

“It’s a great introductory course because it guides you through the process of designing and product-building, while also exposing you to a lot of different parts of Thayer,” Doherty said. “We start out with need finding, and then once that need has been established, we go from conceptualization to actual design and testing, to an advanced prototype in the span of 10 weeks — it’s amazing.”

Lindsey Beaudoin ’21 is also majoring in engineering and was quick to realize the need to start early in planning her degree.

“I want to get a [Bachelor of Engineering], so I’ve had to spend a lot of time figuring out which courses I’m going to take and when I’m going to take them,” she said. “I’ve been meeting with my advisor regularly since freshman fall.”

Beaudoin noted that engineering students have to take a multitude of math and physics courses to fulfill the requirements for the Bachelor of Engineering, which are some classes at Dartmouth that can have a noticeable gender gap. 

“It’s not like a shocking deficit that you realize immediately as you enter the classroom, but I have noticed that some of the classes I’ve taken, especially physics, have been slightly more male-heavy,” Beaudoin said. “But by now, I don’t really think too much about it.” 

Catherine Slaughter ’21, who is a physics major, advises female students who plan on taking physics and other lab-based courses to “find a good lab partner — someone who will treat you like you’re equal.” 

She knew she wanted to be a physics major going in to Dartmouth and credits the growth of her passion to the Women in Science Program internship she had during her freshman year.

The Women in Science Program is geared toward female underclassmen as a welcoming introduction to the breadth and depth of Dartmouth’s STEM fields. Freshmen and sophomores perform research under the guidance of faculty members in certain fields, ranging from computer science to physics. They also have the opportunity to be paired with an upperclassmen mentor who has expertise in the major of their interest.

This year, Slaughter is continuing her work in the physics lab that she found through WISP, where she makes atmospheric models of stars. She plans on gathering more spectrographic data that can be used towards her project during her astronomy Foreign Study Program in South Africa this winter. Even though she has had such success in her field, she still acknowledges the various setbacks that women may face as STEM students. 

“With STEM, the discrimination is more inherent — it’s almost like built into the system,” she said. “A lot of time, the issues we face as women face are not necessarily issues that other people think they are creating. Someone could be explaining something to you that you already know well, and you’re just like, ‘That’s not what I was asking for, but thank you anyway.’”

Slaughter’s advice to combat this problem?

“Don’t be afraid to speak up,” she said. “If the question that actually gets answered is not the question that you had originally asked, let that person know.”

At Dartmouth, with the various research programs available, classes, mentorship opportunities and the sheer passion that students have, it is clear why women are not afraid to pursue careers in traditionally male-dominated fields. However, it is important to note that though the gender gaps in STEM have narrowed over the years, they have still not fully been eliminated. I urge my fellow ladies to continue to put our innate capacities for success towards good use, regardless of discipline. The world could surely use our help.