I Met Only One Female Scientist In 20 Years
BY ERIN WATSON-CHAPPELL
My name is Erin Watson-Chappell, and I am a scientist.
My path to the lab bench is best described as meandering. The official story, or at least the one I used on my undergraduate scholarship applications, states that while working on a science fair project in 7th grade, I met a scientist and was inspired to explore the world. It’s the best kind of application story: accurate but not quite true, vague enough to be adapted to several applications.
The truth is that I met Dr. Michaela Burkardt while working on the “Faster Than a Speeding Waistband: What is Captain Underpants’ Maximum Speed?” project and she did help me with the equations I needed. But 15 minutes with Dr. Burkardt wasn’t enough to change my life, and 15 years later, physics still confuses me.
The real story is much less interesting. In middle school, I was intensely interested in the Black Death and wanted to build a super virus. I was told by my teachers that 1), building a super virus is considered an act of bioterror and generally frowned upon by polite society, and 2), boys didn’t like girls who were interested in that sort of thing, and didn’t I want a boyfriend?
Chastised, I repressed my chaotic neutral impulses and focused on other things. I didn’t return to science until college, after I realized that boys weren’t the center of the universe. Designing super viruses is more a hazy summer daydream. I’m much more focused on parasites and their hosts now.
The real tragedy is that my experience is fairly common. Girls are discouraged from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in six different ways before breakfast. It’s hard to believe in the impossible on a good day, it’s even harder when you’re told “girls don’t…,” and when you don’t have a solid education system to guide you.
New Mexico is consistently ranked poorly in terms of education. In high school, many of the textbooks checked out to us in the beginning of the year were so old that pages fell from the bindings. My friends and I didn’t do homework together because we liked each other (we were in fact, fighting over a boy). We studied together because between the four of us we had a complete algebra book!
That’s just one example. Experiences like that were, and are, disheartening. If girls aren’t encouraged to be in STEM fields outside the classroom, and there are no resources inside the classroom, where are we supposed to find support to follow our dreams? Evita had it right, it’s hard to keep momentum when you’re the one you’re following.
This is just one reason why representation matters. I’m not talking about Marie Curie, Hedy Lamarr, or Chien-Shiung Wu representation. Those women are the giants whose shoes we strive to fill; they inspire dreams and ambition, they are the stars we reach for. But we also need representation on the ground.
I have lived in New Mexico my entire life. Despite our state’s rich history of research, Dr. Burkardt was the first female scientist I met in the 20 years of my life.
That lack of lack of women scientists was keenly felt. I saw many male scientists at career day from kindergarten to my senior year of high school, but met only one female scientist. That is unacceptable.
Girls (and women) in STEM need to see everyday scientists. We need aunts who come to Thanksgiving brimming with excitement over their latest experiments. We need career day visitors who bring their passion and sass to the classroom. We need women on social media who post lab selfies because they are #WomenInSTEM.
We need to foster a network of scientists who can reach back to the girls coming behind us and help them forward. Especially now.
Politics has become intensely personal. The 45th president has a well-documented history of reprehensible behavior towards women and a willful ignorance of science, leaving many of us wondering what will happen. We have watched this president fill positions of power with individuals who echo that same dismissal of science and women.
We watched as Hillary Clinton, a well-educated and thoughtful woman, was systematically disparaged and pushed down. We watched as Governor Susana Martinez aggressively turned the fundamental right of education into a political bargaining chip.
It is now, more than ever before, that we need to see the full spectrum of women in science. We owe it to the women who came before us to stand firm. We owe it to all the girls and women coming after us to keep the door open and the way clear.
I’m off to the parasites and their hosts.
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