By Peggy McGlone/The Star-Ledger
Princeton graduate student Hannah Zanowski was running an experiment that linked a rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to the destruction of coral reefs in the ocean. A few yards away, three female FBI agents were discussing the science of evidence recovery, while chemist and “space geek” Lenore Rasmussen was describing her work creating synthetic muscle, work that is scheduled to continue at the International Space Station.
These women were among 25 scientists from fields ranging from astrophysics to oceanography to biogeochemistry to robotics who participated in the Young Women’s Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics, or STEM, at Princeton University on Friday.
An annual event, the conference tries to increase the number of women who pursue STEM careers by bringing female students in seventh to 10th grades to the science labs to hear and see what women can do.
Despite gains in biology and medicine, women are still underrepresented in these scientific fields. Last year, a National Science Foundation report found women earn a small percentage of higher education degrees in science and engineering. Although participation has increased in the last two decades, only about 25 percent of the degrees in computer science and engineering awarded since 1991 have gone to women, the study found.
“There’s still this stereotype of the old white man in the lab coat, of Albert Einstein,” said Andrew Zwicker, head of science education at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physical Laboratory, host of the event. “It’s a heavily dominated field, and if we don’t engage these young people, we are losing a lot of brain power.”
It’s unclear why women opt out of these fields, although several of the presenters believe the lack of exposure to these careers is a big reason. Young girls have experience with doctors, for example. But they don’t know what astrophysicists or materials scientists actually do.
The conference aims to fix that. Almost 400 young women from 46 schools in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania attended Friday’s event, which has doubled in size since the first conference in 2001. They heard lectures, toured the Frick Chemistry Building labs and participated in dozens of hands-on experiments and demonstrations that explored a broad range of scientific careers.
A popular stop was the geosciences experiment that asked students to build structures to mimic photoplankton, microscopic plants that live in the ocean and must be “neutrally buoyant” to survive.
The students created structures from pieces of foam, badminton birdies, beads and pipe cleaners, and tested their buoyancy in a tank of water. After testing their ideas and changing their designs, they dropped their creations into the race tank. Graduate students timed how long it took for the structures to sink, and the slowest won.
“This is great because it’s fun and they don’t have a choice. They have to try,” said geoscience graduate student Jessica Dumont. “And it shows two great things about science: trial and error and healthy competition.”
Johanna Bernstein, program coordinator at the Rutgers Institute of Advanced Materials, Devices and Nanotechnology, was using photographs and models to show how material scientists determined if a 9-foot artifact could be displaced in a vertical position. She said programs like this one are important.
“Despite advances in science in the lower levels, in K through 12, it’s not transferring,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein said she remembers being surrounded by men in college and graduate school and often feeling like she didn’t belong. Showing students successful women in jobs they don’t know exist can only help raise their numbers.
“This shows science is everywhere, and hopefully it will inspire somebody,” she said.
Many of the students said they were considering studying science in college. Brianne Novak, an eighth-grader from Fisher Middle School in Ewing, wants to be a forensic anthropologist. She’s a fan of TV’s “Bones.”
“I want to be like (Temperance Brennan)” she said, referring to the crime-solving character.
Betty Czelen, one of a group of eighth-graders from Lawrence Middle School in Lawrenceville, was intrigued by Rasmussen’s development of synthetic muscle.
“I’ve heard about it but I’ve never seen it,” said Czelen, who said she is “interested in medical science.”
“It’s really inspiring to see people who have taken the steps to be scientists, to be different,” added classmate Clara Love.
Rasmussen, the founder of her own business, RasLabs, said she didn’t fit in in school until she got to Virginia Tech in the 1980s and discovered her love of chemistry.
“When I was in middle school, you were smart or you were pretty,” she said. “Now you can be whatever you are. It doesn’t have to be an either-or decision.”
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