WISP increases female participation in the sciences

By Natalie Cantave/The Dartmouth Staff

The number of women majoring in the sciences has grown since the WISP program was created.

In 1990, there were only 45 senior women at Dartmouth who majored in the sciences. The number has since more than doubled, thanks largely to programs such as the Women in Science Project and professors’ ongoing efforts to reach out to women undergraduates.

Currently, around 20 percent of female students and 30 percent of male students at the College major in the sciences.

More women than men major in biology, while roughly equal numbers of men and women major in chemistry and earth sciences. Men still outnumber women in the computer science, engineering, math and physics departments, according to a 2011 WISP survey.

Since WISP began in 1990, over 1,400 women have worked as research interns and over 3,500 have taken advantage of the peer mentor program. Around 22 and 14 percent of WISP members go on to obtain master’s and PhDs, respectively.

More women than men at the College also apply to medical school. Approximately 80 percent of the pre-health Nathan Smith Society executive board — or 27 out of 34 members — is female.

On a national level, slightly more men than women apply to medical school — 52.7 percent of applicants for the class of 2012 were men and 47.3 percent were women, according to a study by the Association of American Medical Colleges last year.

WISP focuses on engaging women undergraduates in science by offering research internships with faculty members and through a separate peer mentorship program.

The WISP internship program lasts for the winter and spring term and culminates with research presentations at the annual science symposium in May.

Sixty-two freshman women have been matched with faculty members for internships so far this year.

Physics professor and WISP faculty advisor Kristina Lynch said the program has significant value for the retention of women in the sciences.

“WISP establishes right off the bat a community of other female students who are interested in [science],” she said. “We try to get as many students involved in research as soon as possible. WISP has done that for women.”

Chemistry professor Jane Lipson, who is currently working with a second-year WISP intern, said the College’s small size allows women to learn closely from their professors.

“It’s more personal, and there is less of a tendency to get lost and think that because you don’t understand something that means you aren’t as good,” Lipson said. “You don’t make that leap if you know that other people are going through the same thing, and the faculty are accessible for help.”

Access to female faculty members can help keep undergraduate women inspired in science. Currently, 25 percent of the physics department’s tenured professors are female, which is a relatively high percentage, Lynch said.

Computer science professor and WISP faculty advisor David Kotz said the College also reaches out to female high school students interested in science, which plays an important role in the long term.

WISP was started by Carol Muller ’77 and former chemistry professor Karen Wetterhahn, who wanted to help women who may have felt intimidated entering the field.

“They really recognized the dramatic underrepresentation of women across the board in the sciences,” said Kathy Scott Weaver, assistant director of undergraduate advising and research.

Other departmental programs focusing on boosting women’s representation include the Association for Women in Math and Women in Computer Science.

The Women in Computer Science club can help break the “stereotypical image” of a software developer, said club co-leader co-leader Betty Huang ’14, adding that she was aided by a strong support network in the computer science department.

The Nathan Smith Society ensures that women students interested in medical school have mentors through the shadow program with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

“I think that working under or shadowing women in the medical field allows female students to feel more empowered in the sciences, and to learn from women who have been successful in the fields of medicine and scientific research,” executive board member Kiah Williams ’15 said in an email.

Weaver said the College is encouraging female students to continue their interest in the sciences beyond the undergraduate level, through programs such as MentorNet, a program created by Muller that connects women who are interested in science careers with mentors.

“We’re working all along the pipeline,” Weaver said. “We want to encourage students to stay in science because they want to and to not leave because they feel that they don’t have the confidence.”