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Attracting Women to the Sciences


Harvard University has announced plans to spend $50 million over the next decade to encourage more female students and faculty in the sciences. The move follows controversial comments made by Harvard's president. He questioned whether innate gender differences might be what had prevented women from reaching the top in science and engineering. Yesterday, the California Academy of Sciences held a seminar meant to debunk myths about female inadequacies in the sciences. Young women also got some tips on how to survive in this male-dominated world. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

As the emcee, Dr. Carol Tang introduced the daylong seminar, it was clear this was an event with a particularly feminine bent.

Dr. CAROL TANG (California Academy of Sciences): Today, we all recognize that science and technology are more and more important in our everyday lives. So for example, questions about global warming or about how to rescue endangered wildlife or even questions like does chocolate help PMS, all those kinds of questions--I know the answer is yes, but you all have to prove it.

MARTIN: The tone may have been lighthearted, but these girls are serious about science. The 113 students are some of the best high school science minds in Northern California, according to the teachers who nominated them to attend the conference. Amanda Fahr(ph) is a junior from Monterey and has dreams of being a marine biologist.

AMANDA FAHR (High School Junior): Well, I took chemistry last year and I loved it. Just, you know, trying to figure something out. It's like solving a puzzle every day. And then physics--I really like the theory of physics. You know, how the universe works, trying to find out your world, everything like that. But biology is my favorite.

MARTIN: The conference was sponsored by the California Academy of Sciences and it was the first time the academy has designed a seminar specifically for girls. The day was filled with presentations by some of the top women in fields like biotechnology and physics. Frances Hellman is a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She captivated her audience while recounting some of the challenges of being a female student in the sciences more than 30 years ago.

Professor FRANCES HELLMAN (University of California, Berkeley): These guys are sitting there literally saying things like, `Oh, that homework. I finished that homework in about 20 minutes.' And we're like--we've been up the entire night before working on this. It turns out they're just making this stuff up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HELLMAN: So don't let them snow you. I mean...

MARTIN: Hellman reminded the girls that while there are many more opportunities for women in science than there used to be, there's still a thick glass ceiling when it comes to the top jobs, especially in the so-called hard sciences like physics and chemistry. Hellman says there are only five women out of 101 physics faculty members at Berkeley and even fewer have tenured positions. That's why it's important to have role models, says Carol Tang of the California Academy of Sciences.

Dr. TANG: They needed to hear it from somebody who made it and I think that they're going to need that for those days when it's a little bit hard, not just when their homework assignment is too hard, but when somebody makes a comment or someone laughs at what they do or they feel really uncomfortable in a seminar series. They're going to hopefully remember this day and that's what's going to get them through.

MARTIN: That's what 18-year-old Anna Erickson(ph) is counting on. She says more than professional connections or science know-how, the most important thing she's taking away from the seminar is confidence.

Ms. ANNA ERICKSON: A lot of the speakers are talking about how they had such a hard time. Even the physics lady was saying she tried to quit six times, you know, and she still made it, so it kind of provides hope and you're like, `OK. It's not impossible.'

MARTIN: Conference participants were invited to write an essay about where they see themselves in 10 years. The top two essayists will win full scholarships to the universities of their choice. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Martin in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.