Meet STEM Superstars at UW-Madison

women of STEM

By Julia Richards | Photographed by Hillary Schave

Amy Barger has access to some of the most powerful telescopes in the world. The UW-Madison astronomy professor ponders questions about the evolution of the universe from her cramped, sparsely-decorated office in Sterling Hall. She’s personable and unassuming, but her enthusiasm comes through as she recounts staying up all night observing the night sky with new technology—a submillimeter bolometer array. The equipment observes the universe in light with wavelengths that are roughly 1,000 times longer than visible-light wavelengths, so astronomers can study objects in space in much greater detail than before.

“It was very exciting because I showed up at Hawaii before this instrument was put on the telescope, and as soon as it was on the telescope I got to use it,” says Barger. “And we indeed discovered a new population of galaxies that hadn’t been seen before. …So it was exciting, heady times when you’re opening a new field.”

When Barger was hired in 2000, she was only the second female faculty member in astronomy. Now the department of 11 members is nearly at parity. This is unusual for the field, she says, but department leaders have appreciated having women on the faculty and try to make sure women are well represented on the short list when positions come open. Barger says that in addition to having excellent scientific abilities, the female faculty members have been especially engaged. “I think there’s just a lot of dedication to improving the department atmosphere and help- ing the students and so forth,” she says.

Barger is just one of many impressive women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields at UW. Some have won prestigious grants and awards and have had their leadership recognized at the nation’s highest level. As genetics professor Ahna Skop puts it, “There are big, heavy-hitter women that are changing the face of science that are on this campus.”

Yet women, particularly women of color, are still underrepresented in STEM fields at the UW, as elsewhere. As of 2018 women accounted for just 17.5% of faculty in physical sciences and 34% in biological sciences, compared to 45.5% in the social sciences and 49.2% in humanities, according to the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute website.

Several of the women profiled here are working to improve diversity and gender equity in STEM fields. And they go about tackling the problem like the scientists they are: thinking systematically, identifying variables, making hypotheses, testing them, revising and applying their findings.

Overcoming Bias

Electrical engineering lags behind other branches of engineering in attracting women to the profession, says Amy Wendt, who is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UW-Madison.

“I knew there weren’t a lot of women in the field I was going into, but there were a lot of things that were changing for women in the ’70s,” she says. “But then what I found in my career is that it’s taken a lot longer than I expected.”

Wendt speaks softly and pauses to choose her words. She’s now associate vice chancellor for research, a position she hopes will allow her to influence institutional policies that can level the playing field for women.

She also co-directs the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI), which does research on unconscious bias in the academic career path and offers training and workshops for hiring committees, department chairs and others on reducing unconscious bias and improving workplace satisfaction.

Jo Handelsman, a microbiologist, and Molly Carnes, a professor of women’s health research, founded WISELI in 2002 with funding from the National Science Foundation. Handelsman, who currently serves as director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, says she had been working on other ways to improve conditions for women in her college before that.

After she became tenured in the college of agricultural and life sciences, which at the time had less than 10% tenured female faculty, women started coming to Handelsman with complaints of everything from sexual assault to being excluded from beer with the guys where important department decisions were being discussed.

“I started getting besieged by young women, and they ranged from undergraduate to graduate students to faculty with these just awful stories— coming to me and asking for advice.”

She took notes on around 100 incidents and started looking for ways she could help.

Handelsman served on a committee, directed by the state legislature to look for and correct gender-based pay imbalances on campus. When they analyzed the women’s pay compared to men at a similar career stage, they found the women were paid either the same or less, but in no cases more. Legislative funds paid for salary adjustments for the women who were under-compensated.

“If you take the average of all the cases, women were paid less than men for the same work and that’s just illegal, so we corrected that,” Handelsman says.

She also gave talks around the country on unconscious bias women face in the sciences. Inevitably someone would question her afterward, disbelieving the notion that scientists, who are trained to be objective, could be influenced by factors like sex and race. “They were either annoyed or they were very dismissive,” she says.

Handelsman knew she needed to give the scientists proof in a language they’d respect, so she and a collaborator developed a scientific study.

Using the exact same resume with only different first names—either John or Jennifer—the study asked for feedback from biology, chemistry and physics professors all over the country.

“The response was strikingly biased,” Handelsman says.

Despite being presented with identical credentials the professors said they were more likely to hire “John,” would pay him more and were more willing to take him on as a mentee than they were “Jennifer.”

Now WISELI presents workshops to departments to raise awareness of this unconscious bias. “That’s the first step to addressing the problem, is to help people become aware that it’s happening. And then we present a number of strategies that can be used to reduce the impact of bias,” Wendt explains.

Interestingly, the studies show both women and men present this unconscious bias against women.

Angela Byars-Winston, a professor at the UW Center for Women’s Health Research in the School of Medicine, tries to check her own impulses. “I have to be mindful of the fact that I’m more likely to ask my female graduate students that are post-doc about how they’re managing the work-life balance than my male students,” she says.

Byars-Winston won a Champion of Change Award under President Obama for her work advancing gender equity in STEM fields. She currently serves on the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine’s board on higher education workforce.

She has studied the factors, from individual beliefs to institutional policies that influence the numbers of women in STEM. “Underrepresentation doesn’t just happen,” says Byars-Winston, who was the first black faculty to be tenured in the UW Department of Medicine. “There are active processes at work that contribute to why some people are in STEM and some people are not.”

She points to the example of computer science, a field which actually had a higher percentage of women during the ’80s—37% in 1984 com- pared to just 18% in 2011, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Byars-Winston attributes the change to a number of factors, including the space race and the rise of men attending college on the GI bill.

“More men went into computer science, often because they were incentivized by government subsidized scholarships to do so. They started going in and it became more attractive and now it’s a man’s job, and women became marginalized in that field,” Byars-Winston says.

Changing the Stereotypes

Stereotypes and the images people see every day can shape feelings of belonging and people’s belief in their abilities, explains Byars-Winston.

“The barrier is just the knowledge that women can do this job, and do it well,” says Skop. She studies how cells divide, a complicated process especially relevant for understand- ing stem cells, cancer and neurodegeneration.

Skop has a food blog (@foodskop) and makes cakes that illustrate her findings, often in the shape of a cell dividing with all of the cellular parts delineated in colorful frosting. She has found art and baking to be accessible tools for communicating science to a wider audience. Some of her art- work, enlarged photographs of magnified cells, tissues and organisms, hang in the lobby of the UW-Madison Genetics/Biotech building.

Skop travels a lot for work giving lectures on her research and on her science art. She’s run into numerous people, especially men, who have been surprised to find out she’s a geneticist. Once the man sitting next to her on a plane asked to see a business card for proof. Now she gives them out preemptively. “I blow through business cards, because people don’t believe that I have the job that I do,” she says.

The image presented by Bill Nye the Science Guy irritates Skop. “He’s a white male who wears a bow tie, in a lab coat. …It perpetuates the problem because he completely looks like what everyone assumes a scientist looks like.”

Skop herself will soon be a more visible role model as one of 125 female scientists from all over the world selected to be an IF/THEN Ambassador for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The program aims to elevate the visibility of women in science in the media via popular avenues such as Project Runway and Marie Claire magazine.

Handelsman has also worked to diversify the image of a scientist. She served for three years as a science adviser in the Obama administration. In that capacity, Handelsman talked to an audience of 300 film writers about unconscious bias and how they could make a difference in changing the portrayal of scientists.

While the idea is straightforward— when the only representations of scientists are white men, it’s harder for women and people of color to envision themselves in that role—the Hollywood writers often didn’t realize their influence. “What was very striking in their reaction was that many of them who talked to me afterwards said that they never thought of themselves as social change agents,” Handelsman says.

She’s continuing these efforts in her current work of bringing together the arts and sciences at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. “One of the ways is to bring scientists together with writers of all kinds, not just film writers, but people writing plays or other kinds of scripts or books and expose them to scientific ideas and scientists that they might use in their writing.”

The Importance of Mentors

In addition to role models, mentors also play a key role in success and retention in the sciences.

Barger, whose father is a professor in UW’s physics department, says her father insisted that his children take physics as part of their undergraduate education. “I’m really grateful for that … back then, it wasn’t that common for women to be encouraged to go into physics,” she says.

All of the women interviewed here noted mentors, both male and female, who helped them along the way. Just

like in other fields, in science, who you know is important for establishing collaborations or getting jobs, and there can be an old boys’ club. Programs designed to connect scientists from underrepresented groups can help.

A mentor connected Skop to the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, a group that actually works with all underrepresented students and professionals in science to foster success. She is now the local campus chapter adviser. She also created a website to gather resources related to STEM diversity on campus—stemdiversity.wisc.edu.

Handelsman was recognized by the Obama administration for her work developing a course on mentoring to train graduate students how to en- sure effective communication and show support when working with undergrads.

“At the time there was really nothing quite like it,” she says. “People weren’t thinking about training mentors in a systematic and scientific way that’s actually based on evidence.” The course has since been expanded and is used nationwide and even globally.

Byars-Winston’s current research includes a study for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine looking at policy around mentoring, such as whether rewarding mentoring in the tenure process would bring greater faculty engagement.

This research, along with the research coming out of WISELI will hopefully contribute to institutional-level change resulting in more women and more diversity in STEM fields at UW. The will is certainly there. Each of these women eagerly reached out a hand to those behind her.

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