Perfect Chemistry

Give a child, any age, a piece of paper and a pencil or crayon. Ask them to draw a scientist.

Chances are very likely that what returns on that paper is a rendering of a white male in a lab coat, wearing glasses.

Lisa Eytel, a graduate student in organic chemistry, has conducted that experiment over and over as the outreach coordinator of Women in Graduate Science (WGS) at UO. Countless times, she's seen the same results. The stereotype has persisted for generations, decades, as far back as history cares to go.

It’s not just an image, but a message.

A scientist is a man. A Caucasian man with glasses.

“Sometimes, he might be wearing Birkenstocks, but it’s still a guy,” Eytel laughs, sitting at a table in the science library café, where the walls reflect written equations and formulas in a bright, attention-grabbing yellow. “Even we catch ourselves—I was at a conference and we were talking about scientists and kept using the male pronoun, ‘he.’ ‘He did this,’ and ‘he did that.’ Why does it have to be a he?

“Our society has trained us to think that scientists are automatically male, even though”—she stops and looks to the companions on her right and left and says, “—we aren’t.”

This is not surprising to the two women with Eytel at the table. On Eytel’s right is Andrea Steiger, also a chemistry grad student and the president of WGS, and across the table is Michelle Massaquoi, a biology grad student, and the social coordinator for the organization.

“From middle school through high school, most if not all of the science teachers are male,” Massaquoi says. “It’s starting to change. Once you get to the collegiate level, there are males and females, but still with a big discrepancy in tenure-track faculty positions.”

WGS (above) wants to change that. The 150 members of WGS at Oregon form one of the largest graduate student women’s groups in the country. The success of WGS is so uncommon, other university student groups nationwide are seeking directions about how to start and maintain a student women’s science organization of their own.

"Get over wanting to be 'liked'"

For Geri Richmond, UO Presidential Chair in Science and winner of the 2018 Priestley Medal, the highest honor of the American Chemical Society, one of the most important things for women who pursue a career in the sciences is “developing a good support system of women and/or men that you trust,” she says. “Use your support group and provide equal support for them.”

When Richmond was in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1976, women in the sciences were on their own. Nothing like WGS existed.

“I sort of created my own support group of other women,” she says. “However, most of my female peers didn’t really understand the issues as I did at that time. They certainly understand them now.”

Richmond, a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the recipient of a National Medal of Science, cofounded the Committee on the Advancement of Women Chemists in 1998. This grassroots organization encourages women to pursue science careers and supports women scientists across the US and in developing countries. Richmond’s advice for grad students like Eytel, Steiger, and Massaquoi is straightforward.

“Get over wanting to be ‘liked,’” she says. “More important attributes are being respected, trusted, and honest. Be willing to take risks in your science and career. Success in a venture that has uncertainty builds confidence more than one where the outcome is predictable.”

On the first morning of their chemistry recruitment trip to UO five years ago, Eytel and Steiger (below) were sitting together at breakfast when female graduate students appeared, handing out WGS pens and granola bars with business cards taped to them. They were the only group on campus that came to welcome prospective students, especially women. Andrea Steiger, in the lab

“I vividly remember the pen, for one,” Eytel says, in the office she shares with eight grad students and her Jack Russell mix, Rusty. “I loved the fact that there was a group for women in science.”

On a trip to another school, Eytel recognized a clear lack of female grad students in the organic chemistry department, her field of study.

“It was really disheartening to see,” she recalls, rubbing Rusty’s ears, who has just emerged from his den under one of the desks. “And when I asked why there weren’t more women, I was told, ‘Women don’t do organic chemistry.’ I immediately knew I wasn’t going to go to school there.”

UO became her top choice, and as she defended her undergraduate thesis at Russell Sage College in New York, she kept that WGS pen for the duration.

“It was like my security blanket,” she says, laughing.

Steiger, whose first childhood foray into the sciences involved mixing body lotion into her sister’s shampoo bottle to see the results, kept in contact with those WGS members. They advised her about academic conferences and finding a place to live in Eugene. The WGS approach impressed her so much that, now as president, she and other WGS members did the same thing at this year’s recruitment breakfast. Granola bars and pens are strategic offerings.

Seed funding from the National Science Foundation

In 2005, WGS was established by graduate student Sarah Staggs Wisser, who worked in the lab of Darren Johnson, a professor of chemistry and NSF CAREER Award recipient. He was writing a National Science Foundation grant proposal and included funding for the group, and has been the faculty advisor since that time.

“The growth of WGS into every science department at UO is remarkable,” he says. “WGS has also grown their organization and maintained many programs without a single paid position. Their activities are all motivated by graduate students who want to make a difference, enhance inclusion efforts at UO, and serve as role models for younger scientists.”

Johnson says WGS has exceeded every expectation he had when he wrote the proposal, noting that the group has attracted the support of donors directly, and had one of their board members invited to serve on a UO president-level committee on strategic planning.

“Their impact on our campus is simply astounding. In the last five years alone, WGS has easily impacted the lives of thousands of graduate students, undergraduate science researchers, and younger future scientists through their outreach and mentoring activities alone,” Johnson says. “I am certain that past WGS members would tell you that if it weren't for WGS, they would have left science and/or graduate school. WGS makes UO science better, and I am eternally grateful to them for that.”

WGS has three main facets: outreach, professional development, and a social component. Combined, they serve to create a support network for women in the sciences and to institute a curriculum and awareness for future women in science.

Girls start to veer off from the sciences between fourth and sixth grades, Eytel says, “and by seventh grade, they’ve made their decision that they don’t belong in the sciences. They don't see role models.”

WGS wants to correct that. They coordinate field trips for elementary school classrooms, produce science slams in the spring, and work with local organizations like Ophelia's Place in afterschool programs for older female students. With their extensive outreach efforts, WGS offers Science Adventure Days—a six-week program on Saturday mornings that covers the gamut from forensics to geology to astronomy—for girls at the exact age when they start to abandon science. Female graduate students staff the program.

Science sleuths and astronauts

During a recent forensics class, eight fourth- to sixth-graders entered a classroom in Klamath Hall to discover that someone had “stolen” their cookies. They lifted fingerprints, learned about whorls and signatures in the prints, ran experiments on the ink in the ransom note, and by noon, had correctly identified which of the adults standing by was the culprit. On another Saturday, the subject was geology, and the young girl scientists used crayons to represent rocks and explore ideas such as compression. They laughed and shrieked as they jumped on heavy books to increase the pressure on their crayon “rocks,” replicating how sedimentary rocks are formed. Lisa Eytel, with young science students

“We are passionate about outreach,” says Eytel (right, in hat), who wants someday to teach at the collegiate level. “A lot of the time, science is long-term gratification. And for me, seeing a community being built and watching young kids get excited about science is an immediate gratification.”

Professional development is also key for WGS, through seminars and workshops on résume building, identifying personal and professional strengths, and networking. WGS also covers nonconventional approaches, such as how to explain your science in a one-minute elevator pitch or use art to demonstrate what an application of inorganic cluster compounds looks like.

WGS also sponsors a mentorship program with undergrad students, offers scholarships, and funds travel awards to conferences—regardless of gender.

“All of the graduate mentors are female but the undergrads are male and female,” Steiger says. “WGS welcomes anyone who supports the advancement of gender equality in the sciences. Faculty members, staff, undergrads, grad students—anyone is welcome.”

These efforts cost money; fundraising is always on the minds of WGS leaders. They are fortunate to have private donors and grant funding, but grants sometimes aren’t renewed. “We are always looking for more ways to join with faculty in mutually beneficial partnerships,” Steiger says.

Astronaut Wendy Lawrence visits Women in Graduate Science The WGS annual fundraising banquet is one of the group’s main sources of income. This year, the keynote speaker was astronaut Wendy Lawrence (left), a veteran of four space missions, including trips to the International Space Station. Lawrence, in a measure of solidarity, waived her speaker’s fee. The day prior to the banquet, she arrived on the UO campus to deliver a lecture about working for NASA, and afterwards, led a more intimate Q&A session with WGS.

Collected around Lawrence in a half-circle, the members asked her what it was like during take-off, what Earth looks like from that far away, if dreams are different in space, and how the sciences can become more appealing to women.

“It’s still something that requires a lot of effort,” Lawrence said. “But I think what you all are doing is critically important, because I really think kids need to see somebody who looks like themselves doing it. To plant that seed. Sally Ride used to say, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ Even now, you are role models. You are showing young kids what is possible for them by what you are doing now. Reach that hand behind you and say, ‘Come along, let me help you. Because I’ve been able to navigate this path, I’ve been able to persist, I’ve been able to stick it out. You can do it, too.’”

Steiger couldn’t agree more. She sees a positive future not just for WGS or female science students at UO, but across academia and industry. Within 10 years, she hopes the organization will have expanded to have equal involvement from all UO science departments and the number of women faculty, undergraduates and graduate students in UO sciences will reach 50 percent.

“At WGS, we’re about empowerment,” Steiger says. “We are at a school in which the faculty and departments are invested in gender equality. No, it’s not perfect, but you would not be able to have a group like this be so successful if no one cared. The fight for gender equality is not only a women’s fight.”

Someday soon, she hopes, when a child draws a scientist, it won’t always be a “he.”

—By Laurie Notaro

Laurie Notaro is a New York Times bestselling author. Her most recent book is Crossing the Horizon.