January 17, 2012 in City

Science grant to help women

STEM field underrepresentation also studied
By The Spokesman-Review
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

Professor Joanne Smieja stands in her Gonzaga University research lab Thursday and holds a beaker of bone fragments that are part of a research project she is doing on the removal of minerals from drinking water. Smieja is creating a network to encourage other women to get into scientific fields.
(Full-size photo)

A National Science Foundation grant recently awarded to Gonzaga University is aimed at bringing more women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers, often called the STEM fields.

The nearly $600,000 grant also seeks to help advance women who are teaching in colleges and universities.

While representation in science and technology fields has improved during the past half-century, “women remain vastly underrepresented among working engineers and in many STEM fields,” said Joanne Smieja, a GU chemistry and biochemistry professor, who is leading the effort.

A 2010 study by the American Association of University Women concluded that there are three reasons for the inequality between men and women in the sciences: “Social and environmental factors shaping girls’ achievements and interest in math and science; the college environment; and continuing importance of bias, often at an unconscious level, blocking women from STEM.”

The five-year project is in its first year.

The grant money will help Smieja lead a nationwide network of 70 female faculty members from 12 undergraduate institutions in an effort to change the “current culture in STEM fields.” The project will use mentoring to encourage female faculty to advance in their careers.

“In terms of broader impacts, there are 26,000 females at these 12 institutions, so it could have a lot of influence,” said Smieja, who was the first woman to become a tenured chemistry professor at GU. “I think it’s going to potentially have a huge impact in a positive way.”

But the ultimate goal is to empower more women to enter the STEM fields, Smieja said.

“There are a number of reasons” why women are underrepresented, she said, “but what we have seen over the last few years is the number of women pursuing that type of career going up, but the number of women who stay steadily goes down, so there’s something about the system that’s causing them to leave.

“If America wants to stay at the forefront of science and technology, we need more people entering the field.”

Because the project is an academic study, at the end of five years the results will offer reasons for the underrepresentation of women. It’s also expected to help those who were involved in the project, by possibly increasing research opportunities as well as possible career advancement.

Joanne Waite, GU’s director of sponsored research, who worked with Smieja to write the grant, said obtaining the grant “means we are going to be a leader now in helping understand and develop sustainable programs for women, especially in the sciences.”

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