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Jill Bargonetti started off as a dance major at the State University of New York at Purchase taking only a few science courses. She eventually exchanged her dance shoes for a lab coat, enrolling in graduate school at New York University. "Some scientists in the field made me feel bad because I was always interested in art and in fashion," she recalls. Jill stood out for another reason. She was one of the few African American students in her department.
Until recently, simply being a woman studying science meant being different. But in the past 20 years the number of female students in scientific fields has grown, as has the number of women holding senior positions in academic departments and in industry. Despite these changes, women from certain ethnic and racial minorities and women with disabilities remain greatly underrepresented. For many of them, being a minority has made them more determined to succeed and to help others follow in their tracks.
Not fitting the mold
After obtaining her Ph.D. (in molecular biology) and completing her postdoctoral training, Jill decided to seek a position at a college with a large number of minority students. In 1994, at age 31, she became one of the youngest faculty members to join the department of biology at Hunter College, City University of New York.
The paths leading to science careers are as diverse as the people travelling them.
"One of the things that I really try hard to do is to expect the best from all my students," she says. "I tell them, ‘You need to work hard, you have to be organized, you have to be articulate.'" But having learned from her experiences she also encourages her students to pursue a wide range of interests, even if these have nothing to do with research. "There is not a particular lifestyle or look that you can associate with being a good scientist," says Jill, who married in 1991 and has two sons. "You need to be passionate about science to do well, but you can be passionate about more than one thing."
Taipei-born Jackie Ying also knows what it means to stand out. In her undergraduate class at The Cooper Union in New York City, the typical student ratio was about eight men to every woman. "Some of the floors did not even have bathrooms for women," she recalls laughing.
She landed a position in 1992 as the only Asian American female faculty in the chemical engineering department of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. At age 32, she became the youngest scientist to obtain tenure in her department's history.
She is appreciative for the support and encouragement she received from senior colleagues at MIT and in her field. "Being a minority you always have to prove yourself and work harder than everyone else, but there are also a lot of people who really want to see you succeed," she says.
In 2003 Jackie left MIT to lead Singapore's Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, a government-supported research institute that opened in March 2002. "This was a unique opportunity," explains the 41-year-old, who has already seen her staff grow 10-fold. "It has been a lot of fun to recruit excellent young scientists, engineers, and medical doctors and to create an environment where we can do really exciting research."
As head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science's (AAAS) education and human resources program, Shirley Malcom has dedicated her career to helping young people achieve. Her commitment comes, in part, from her own life experience. Shirley was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, under strict racial segregation. "In high school all my teachers were black and all the students were black," she explains.
Inspired by the excitement surrounding the US space program in the 1960s, Shirley went to the University of Washington to study science but she almost failed her chemistry labs. "I had come from a poor school and had not seen any of that equipment before," she recalls. An African American teaching assistant helped her get through the class. "I convinced him that I was not dumb, just underprepared," she says. "If I had not done well I would have given up." Later, a faculty adviser invited Shirley to join his research lab and encouraged her to go to graduate school at Pennsylvania State University.
Shirley says that as she was advancing through her career it sometimes felt tiring to always have to prove that she had a right to be there. "I hope that the fact that I have done it will make it easier for other women to do it," she says. "I am not exceptional. I am married with children. I have struggled with all the same issues of juggling family and career as any other woman."
For students who are interested in science and research, Shirley says to "go for it!" even if it seems an odd choice to your friends and family. "It has always been fun and interesting and challenging. To be able to build a life around something that carries these attributes is pretty cool!"
Focusing on accomplishments
© Micheline Pelletier
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim was an outsider both when she left her native Mauritius to attend university in the United Kingdom, and when she returned home 10 years later. "I was the only woman who had come back with a postgraduate degree at the Ph.D. level," recalls Ameenah, who obtained a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Exeter, UK, before moving back home to a position at the University of Mauritius.
A mother of two young children and the 2007 L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award laureate for Africa, Ameenah was the first woman to be promoted to the rank of full professor at her university. She is currently pro-vice chancellor of the university. "In a way I feel like I have broken the glass ceiling," she says. Being a minority was not always easy, but Ameenah says she always focused on what she wanted to accomplish. "You have to really believe in what you are doing and develop a mindset that you will not pay attention to people who say you cannot do it."
Being a minority did not keep German-born Imke Durre from a successful career as a scientist in the United States. A physical scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Imke is among a fairly small number of female researchers in the field of atmospheric science. She is also blind. "Some people think that being a woman and having a disability is like a double whammy, but I don't see it that way in my case," she says. "I need certain on-the-job accommodations on account of my blindness, but none for being a woman. As a result, the fact that I am a woman tends to fall to the background."
Imke Durre, second from left
Imke got her first taste of research when she was a high school student in Fort Collins, Colorado. When a reporter from a local paper asked a climatologist at Colorado State University when the earliest 100-degree day in the year had occurred, he did not have the information at hand. But Imke, who was volunteering for a local meteorologist, quickly found and submitted the answer to the paper, where it was published the next day. "I had never done something so forward," she recalls. The bold move resulted in a summer job at the Colorado Climate Center.
Imke advises students with disabilities to make sure they get all the same opportunities and experiences as other students, even if that requires doing things a little differently. "The fact that I have faced challenges isn't all that much different from anyone else's experience," she explains. "Regardless of whether we have a disability, we all encounter challenges that we need to figure out how to handle."
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