Progress STEMs From Us

Women scientists have always had to fight to be heard over their male colleagues. For most of history, science was considered a male dominated field plagued with sexism and implicit bias, which  that still persist in some circles. Today, the tides are slowly turning as more and more women are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Women are slowly infiltrating the male-dominated “hard sciences,” mathematics, physics and computer science. Minority women are  represented less in science, making them fight for every opportunity. At the College female students compose 65.2 percent of the student body, there exists a slightly higher ratio of women to men in STEM departments. 

According to data from the School of Science and Mathematics (SSM) Annual Report during the 2016-2017 academic year, the school’s faculty is 31 percent women and 10 percent minorities. In all departments except the biological and biomedical sciences, whose national average is at roughly 50 percent. The College employs more than the national average of women in STEM according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). 

Two female professors, Dr. Pamela Riggs-Gelasco and Dr. Ashley Pagnotta both work in STEM fields chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Dr. Riggs-Gelasco chairs the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, and Dr. Pagnotta is an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Dr. Riggs-Gelasco and Dr. Pagnotta came to the College at very different times and had their own unique experiences as women in  STEM careers.

Dr. Pamela Riggs-Gelasco

As a teenager Dr. Riggs-Gelasco realized she wanted to be a scientists. In high school she decided to pursue opportunities in chemistry. Dr. Riggs-Gelasco explained that chemistry gives scientists an avenue to create something never before seen, which justified her interest in the subject. Dr. Riggs-Gelasco described that in college, she was exposed to interesting problems including those “that affected human health or that were biologically related.”  

When Dr. Riggs-Gelasco interviewed to become the fourth female faculty in the chemistry department. She recalls thinking “three out of 16 was awesome. That’s where we were at that point.” Women compose about half the department. Dr. Riggs-Gelasco believes that the department no longer needs to “actively recruit women because the field has equilibrated enough that half the candidates are good women.” Dr. Riggs-Gelasco described that her encounters with discrimination are irregular and unexpected because she “rode the coattails of other women…who broke up those barriers.” Dr. Riggs-Gelasco describes her encounters with discrimination as “a slap in the face” which sometimes sparks “shock” and “outrage” within. The professor enjoys that her job is dynamic, constantly changing between lab experiments and interactions with students.  

Dr. Riggs-Gelasco explained that the most difficult part of her career is balancing her home and work life. She does not believe this struggle is unique to careers in STEM fields and is a dilemma many working people face. Dr. Riggs-Gelasco noted that being fully present and engaged with her family is sometimes difficult “when you’re in a career because you love it and you want to give it your all.” The Professor noted that transitioning from traditional gender roles supported career endeavors. Dr. Riggs-Gelasco can get work done while her husband cooks and shops.   

The Professor advises women interested in STEM “ to not sacrifice your personal life for your career.” Dr. Riggs-Gelasco said someone once advised her that “you can have a family, a career, and hobbies, and you only get to choose two.” The Professor concluded, “If you have a supportive spouse, family and friends you can do those things right. It’s about having a good support network to respect and understand the type of focus and commitment it takes to be successful.” 

Dr. Ashley Pagnotta: 

Dr. Pagnotta grew up in Houston, Texas in NASA’s shadow. The agency’s presence in the area sparked Dr. Pagnotta’s interest in space. As a child, Dr. Pagnotta desired to be an astronaut. As a professor, she still remains interested in traversing outer space. Dr. Pagnotta claims she “never outgrew her three-year-old dream.” She credits “good physics teachers and some good math teachers” for sustaining her interest in physics. Dr. Pagnotta currently studies stars which have exploded into novas and supernovas “to measure distances throughout the universe” as an astrophysicist. 

Though Dr. Pagnotta is relatively new to The College she acknowledges that it is refreshing to be “in an environment that has on average more women than men in terms of students, which is not an environment she (sic) in often as a scientist.” Dr. Pagnotta realizes that the department still maintains a male majority but is glad that she works with other female colleagues and has the opportunity to teach many female students. 

The hardest part about being a women in STEM for Dr. Pagnotta is “always fighting against this pervading societal attitude that you’re not a scientist, that you shouldn’t be a scientist.” Dr. Pagnotta says her encounters with discrimination are limited, but some men have assumed that she was in the wrong place, when arriving at work. Dr. Pagnotta also recognizes that “there are still men in astronomy who give talks who say that women aren’t as good at astronomy and women shouldn’t be doing certain types of astronomy because it’s too hard for them.” Dr. Pagnotta explained that her relationships with female colleagues are a highlight of her job. She describes that her circles have a “stick together” attitude and that female scientists and astronomists “fight for each other.”   

Dr. Pagnotta advises young people to “find your people. Wherever you are, an undergrad or at grad school, find people that you can work together with and support each other.” She continues to say “don’t do it on your own…it doesn’t make you a better scientist.” Dr. Pagnotta enjoys teaching and wish she gave it “a try earlier.” The Professor distinguishes the importance of research but also emphasizes that teaching the next generation is a priority as well because “it’s really important for the public to understand what we’re doing and how it benefits science in general and the public as a whole.”

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