Women in STEM: Challenges & Successes

Panel participants (left to right) Betsy Bancroft, Allison Lambert, Lex Gidley and Kate Kearney

February 12, 2020

Hosted by the School of Engineering & Applied Science and inspired by students who wanted to hear more about STEM research by faculty members, this panel was part of the 19th & Counting yearlong recognition of women’s suffrage. Here, four female professors shared their journeys through grad school and into careers that involve research and teaching, plus the challenges faced by women in fields historically led by men.  

Participants

  • Betsy Bancroft, Ph.D. – Biology, Environmental Studies (College of Arts & Sciences)
    Research expertise: aquatic ecology and conservation biology
  • Allison Lambert, MHS, M.D. – Medicine (UW-GU Regional Health Partnership)
    Research expertise: COPD and treatment of adults with cystic fibrosis
  • Lex Gidley, Ph.D. – Human Physiology (School of Nursing & Human Physiology)
    Research expertise: biomedical physics and computational modeling of human movement
  • Kate Kearney, Ph.D. – Mathematics (College of Arts & Sciences)
    Research expertise: knot theories

What inspired you to enter your field?

Kearney: From a young age, I had a lot of ability in math. People often said, “You should be in engineering,” and in high school I questioned why I should go into engineering when what I really enjoyed was math. While studying math in grad school, I got involved with the topology group at Indiana and met the professor who later became my adviser. 

Gidley: I started in engineering. I was living the dream, playing soccer, studying at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a huge engineering school. One day, a professor called me into his office and told me I wasn’t going to be an engineer. That ruined my dreams. So, I bounced around to different majors in science and finally settled on exercise science. But then I took a bio-mechanics class and I found that everything I loved about engineering could be applied to everything I enjoy, which is play. When you find your passion and what you’re connected to, it doesn’t matter what you have to do to get there. I got derailed and found my way back. 

Lambert: In high school, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the sciences and when I was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to study at such an esteemed university. I had not previously considered engineering, but once there, I decided to study chemical engineering. My career interests and focus have evolved over time. I had never considered a career in research until later into my medical training. I never would have imagined that I would find myself in Spokane but am grateful for my education for having opened up opportunities to conduct research here and lead in our cystic fibrosis clinic.

Bancroft: I was a huge nerd. As a kid, I read encyclopedias and loved learning about animals. I thought I would be a bio teacher or a doctor, until I did a research project in ecology that I really loved, and a professor said, “You’re really great at this.” I talked with him more about the things I really loved and he said, “Sounds like you should be a conservation biology professor.” I’m glad he did because I love the way all the things I enjoy coalesce in what I do. 

 

Dr. Gidley, are you glad you were derailed? And to each of you: What would you say to women who are likely going to be derailed at some point in their studies or their careers?

Gidley: No, I’m not. You shouldn’t tell someone that they can’t do what they are passionate about. I love what I’m doing, but there are times I wish I had gone ahead and taken more engineering to support what I do. But, from that experience, I believe I’m a more accepting and better adviser. I would never say to a student, “You’re not good at this.” I give them opportunities to choose. 

My suggestion: Be true to yourself. I wasn’t, in that moment with that professor; I listened to someone I thought was a better authority on my life. (To students) I want to watch out for you, and that’s why I work at a place like Gonzaga. Listen to us for advice but not to make your decision.

Kearney: There are points in your life where you have some choice in who has authority in your life. Choose the people around you carefully. I had the opportunity to work with a different professor – one who may have opened up paths for me academically – but he was one who said, “What are you girls gossiping about?” to me and a friend who were discussing a research topic. So instead, I chose the adviser who was a man who had advocated for other women students and would advocate for me. 

Lambert: We have to recognize that implicit bias in all forms can and does occur. Gender bias certainly occurs and rather than debate about that reality, I hope we can train people of all genders to prepare for this. It will be important to prepare yourself, to advocate for yourself, or to find someone to advocate for you. Advocate for each other. Events such as these are so important for developing community, breaking down barriers to leadership. 

 

What led you to where you are in your career?

Bancroft: My adviser set me on my path, but walking that path is something different. He didn’t get me into grad school or through grad school. I had to figure out how to navigate it. Mentors are really important – but they’re not going to do it for you. It’s always up to you. 

Kearney: Presenting at a conference as a young graduate student – as minimal as the accomplishment might have been, gave me great confidence. I’m really proud of having been asked to write a chapter for an encyclopedia of knot theory. It was a really great feeling – both to have the invitation and to see where it places me in terms of people recognizing my expertise. Put yourself out there and have interactions about your work. 

 

Can you share a time when the humanities impacted your learning in science?

Lambert: I minored in literature and I think this was highly valuable for the opportunity to read and to train in writing compelling cases. Now as a medical researcher I write all the time, to communicate my scientific findings, to seek research funding, or to express my opinions in a group email to faculty.

Gidley: My undergrad took me 13 years. I took a lot of philosophy and psychology, and a faculty member who taught sport sociology/psychology said, “Let’s just make this a minor. It will make you more marketable.” I was hired for my first job because I had that experience and could teach sport and exercise psychology. 

Bancroft: In undergrad, I took a class called Science in Context. I hated that class. I was an English minor as well, but in this class, the science considered all the social factors all together and we had to present an opinion about salmon management being purely science or reliant on human perspectives like communities. I realized the science doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to work in human dimensions. That actually drove the rest of my career decisions, including coming to Gonzaga. 

Kearney: In my undergrad bio class in Iowa, we did field research in the prairie. At the same time, I was taking History of the American West. It was an amazing experience taking these two together, to see how people have interacted with the land over time, and learn about the actual plants on the land. It helps to have perspectives on the broader world, even when you’re working in abstract mathematics. You have to understand the context. 

 

What is your proudest accomplishment? 

Bancroft: In navigating the dynamics of a mentor who always said no to ideas, I was led to prove and defend my ideas. That made me able to own my own thoughts, to trust myself and instincts, even when people challenged me. My previous experience gave me the power to stand up and assert myself.  

Lambert: Like Dr. Kearny said, presenting your own work in a national or international forum is really empowering. I tend to question my authority, but presenting teaches you what you really can do. 

Gidley: When Dr. Kearney was talking about her moment, I thought about presenting my first-ever doctoral presentation at an international conference. I didn’t even realize at the time that this was big, and I think that’s because I never felt I belonged there. I was presenting in front of all these people and I was answering questions and yet still didn’t think I was good enough. From a female perspective, that’s where we still are, thinking we aren’t good enough. 

 

How much support do you feel you have from male colleagues, and has that changed from when you first began in your career? 

Kearney: I started school in the early 2000s and that’s 20 years and I really don’t think it has changed. But … it’s very different in different places. In my department here, it’s about 50/50 – a great group of women and men who are supportive. Where I went to grad school (and in many larger universities), there are 40-50 faculty members and two are women. In the long run, things are starting to improve, but there is so much yet to change. 

Lambert: People in STEM need to be more comfortable being transparent with peers about what we (women) are offered and what we negotiated. Hiring practices should change and things like maternity leave need creative solutions. Ask for concrete answers to those things (when you’re looking for a job) and if you can’t get that, it’s probably a red flag. 

Bancroft: Biology fields are female heavy; ecology and wildlife biology can still be male-oriented. Most men have been advocates and allies for women, but there have been moments where someone treated me differently as the only woman in the lab. There’s nothing you can do about it other than to call them out, and that’s difficult when there’s a power dynamic. 

Lambert: There are so many women before me who made my way easier every day. I’m eternally grateful for them. With confidence in scientific abilities comes confidence in navigating the bias in everyday encounters. I’d also say that with implicit bias there isn’t always malice, so it’s important to assume positive intent, to find those people you rely upon to gauge whether an incident should be questioned, and to identify mentors and sponsors and supporters to help you pursue your goals. 

Gidley: We have made great strides, but there’s still a lot of work to do. It really comes down to solidarity. It was solidarity that made a difference when women around the world made the vote happen. We need young men in here today to stand in solidarity with us, too. This crosses sexes, age, lineage. It’s not us versus you, because I need you as much as you need me. 

 

Click here to learn more about women in STEM and their accomplishments through the last two centuries of science.