Monday, October 15, 2012

Making a Difference

I'm starting my 8th year at my liberal arts (LA) college, which is probably the longest I've ever lived anywhere, except for growing up and my extra-long-undergraduate+first-job stint in Madison.  Each year I learn more and more about the lack of women in STEM fields, but I become more and more comfortable with my place in life. Each year, I am ever more glad that I chose science.  I love my research and I greatly admire my department colleagues. As a professor who teaches a large number of non-science majors every semester, I am more confident in insisting upon rigor in my classes. I also stress to my research students that I expect them to be on-time, organized, well-versed, and prepared for anything.

Recently, my colleagues and I took three undergraduate students (all women) to the annual conference of the Michigan Space Grant Consortium.  Though my college is not an official member, I felt that this was a great venue for our students to present research, and when I asked, the organizers graciously allowed us to participate. All of the students had attended other conferences, but for two of them, it was their first time presenting. For the third, it was the first time she was giving an oral presentation.  Logistics were complicated, so we all drove separately, but all of them arrived on-time (or at least before the opening "welcome"), all were well-dressed, and no one had forgotten their poster or flash drive! Whew.

Since our college is small, professors tend to form personal relationships with students, and especially with our research students.  We check up on them if they are missing class; we express concern when they are down or stressed or distracted; and we cheer them on when something good happens.  Though we don't know the intimate details of their lives (usually), we do know these students as people rather than as an ID number.  We take a personal interest in helping them achieve their goals. 

As I watched the first young lady present our research to the auditorium filled with students, post-docs, and professors, my heart swelled with pride. She was nervous, sure, but she spoke slowly and clearly and expressed the excitement of our research and results.  And she handled the questions like a pro!  The two women with posters did an equally fine job, standing in front of their posters (as awkward as that can be) and smiling when people stopped by to read the abstracts.  They, too, answered questions clearly, and the passion they felt for their topic was apparent.

Why am I telling you this story? Because I feel like I've made a difference - I've given these three women the opportunity to present research at a conference, enabling them to gain the confidence they need so that they don't feel like "imposters", so that they, too, have a place in science.  Perhaps this will help to keep them in the STEM pipeline.  This is my way of "paying it forward", if you will,  in recognition of my advisors and mentors who had that kind of confidence in me.

What's your story?  How have you made a difference in the career path of an undergraduate student? Feel free to share it here!

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