WISP celebrates 20th anniversary

The Women in Science Project, founded in 1990, celebrated its 20th anniversary last Thursday and Friday with various events including an alumnae panel, a mentoring workshop and a student poster symposium, according to Assistant Dean of Faculty for Undergraduate Research and WISP Director Margaret Funnell. The Karen E. Wetterhahn Science Symposium, named after the deceased chemistry professor who co-founded WISP, featured the work of 79 WISP student interns in a variety of fields ranging from biology to mathematics on Thursday, Funnell said.

The symposium was “the culminating experience for the WISP interns,” Deborah Delmore, WISP’s project coordinator, said.

The 79 WISP interns presenting at the symposium participated in the WISP research internship program, which is primarily offered to first-year female students. The program matches student applicants with faculty members and other professionals in the sciences for a two-term, part-time paid internship, Delmore said. The matching process considers both the preferences of the students and the faculty members and provides approximately 30 percent of students with their “first choice,” she said.

“Research internships are the flagship of our program,” Delmore said.

Female students apply for the internship during the fall of their freshman year and then begin their projects by working with Dartmouth faculty members and local professionals from institutions like Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the Veteran Affairs Medical Center and the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, according to Weaver.

The internship provides first-year students with “early research opportunities” and the chance to cement relationships with professional mentors, Funnell said.

Karen Wai ’14 said her experience with the program strengthened her interest in science and gave her hands-on experience with real research that would have been otherwise unavailable to her. Wai is a research intern with Dartmouth Medical School professor of radiology Roberto Nicolalde.

For the anniversary celebration, organizers also invited five WISP alumnae including an energy engineer, a pediatric oncologist and a conservation biologist at Disney’s Animal Kingdom to speak on a panel about their careers and how to balance work with personal lives, according to WISP Assistant Director Kathy Weaver. She said It was exciting to see previous students return to the College and want to “carry on the WISP tradition of helping each other.”

WISP also offers a peer mentoring program that matches first-year students with upperclass women who major in the sciences, Funnell said.

The mentoring program provides first-year students with “assurance” from upperclassmen who have encountered and overcome similar academic challenges, according to Joyce Njoroge ’11, a peer mentoring program coordinator. Njoroge participated in the program as a mentee and said the experience was a “great resource” for advice on classes, professors and balancing academics and social life.

Weaver attributed the success of the mentoring program to the sense of community it fosters among female undergraduates. The program establishes a “support system” that first-year women can rely on for academic assistance and other advice, and seeks to address the sense of competitiveness that is cultivated in some high schools, Weaver said. This is particularly important because students in the sciences need to work together in order to preform well in difficult courses, she said.

A recent alumnae survey conducted by WISP revealed that both the peer mentoring program and the research internship made a significant difference in helping women continue to work in scientific fields after graduating from Dartmouth, Weaver said.

“The peer mentoring program is much more statistically significant in persistence of women majoring in science than we had previously thought,” she said.

WISP was originally founded to establish “a learning environment where women can succeed in the sciences” and increase the retention of female science students, Funnell said. WISP has increased the retention of women in the biological sciences at Dartmouth, but men are still the clear majority in other fields like computer science and physical science, according to Weaver. Although incoming students who express an interest in majoring in the sciences are evenly split between women and men, a higher percentage of men actually major in the sciences, Weaver said.

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