Hunter College CUNY Celebrates Achievements by Women of All Colors in Decade of Science

Dr. Ellen Ríos, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, and author Cornelia (Cory) Dean, senior science writer for The New York Times, were the keynote speakers at the City University of New York’s (CUNY) sixth annual Women’s Leadership Conference. The conference also featured a panel discussion by six distinguished CUNY scientists doing groundbreaking research. It was an opportunity to showcase CUNY’s Decade of Science, launched in 2005 and running until 2015, and the strong women, minority and otherwise, participating in this high-profile program.

The scientists and chemical engineers on the panel discussed the challenges they have faced as women in the fields of science and engineering. Panelists included Dr. Jill Bargonetti, professor of biological sciences, Hunter College, who is investigating the impact of chemotherapy drugs on target genes; Dr. Mande Holford, assistant professor of chemistry, York College, working on venomous toxins for drug development; Dr. Christine Li, professor and chair of biology, City College of New York (CCNY), studying genes implicated in neurodegenerative disorders; Dr. Gillian Small, CUNY vice chancellor for research, whose field of research is peroxisome biogenesis and molecular regulation of lipid metabolism; Dr. Maribel Vázquez, associate professor of biomedical engineering, City College, studying brain cancer infiltration; and Dr. Eleanore Wurtzel, professor and chair, CUNY Plant Sciences, Ph.D. Subprogram, Department of Biological Sciences, Lehman College, whose field is genomic development of high-vitamin food crops. City College President Lisa Staiano-Coico, a nationally prominent researcher in microbiology and immunology, served as moderator.

The consensus of the women attending the event, echoed during the panel discussion, was that all women, including minority women, face unique obstacles to higher success in the fields of science and engineering – from the difficulty getting their voices heard and research published and the gender bias they face in their labs, to the value of having a mentor and being a mentor to other women in the field.

Panelist Vázquez summarized the Women’s Leadership Conference exclusively to HO and described the positive impact the event made on her and other participants.

“The message was that although barriers for female scientists remain, many of us are succeeding and working very diligently to make the path easier for younger generations of female researchers. The feedback from attendees was great. Many young ladies were very excited about my particular answer to the age-old question: What do you say to the guy in the lab who thinks females get job offers and scholarships that are rightfully his solely because of gender? I always put the guy in his place by promising to find him later in life for the sole pleasure of ramming my Nobel Prize down his throat.”

Being a Latina from a single-parent home, Vázquez was inspired by her mother, who served as her mentor and support in the pursuit of her science career. “I am a Mechanical Engineer by training, but became a founding member of the CCNY Biomedical Engineering department in 2001. My inspiration has always been technology, as I enjoy fabricating new devices and seeing how they work, fail, break, etc.”

Vázquez draws a distinction between being Latin American-born and being U.S.-born, as she was. “My family is from the Dominican Republic. I have visited there many times with my family, and also alone on vacation, though I have not been back there in over a decade – graduate school was too busy and a pre-tenure position is very stressful. I believe that being Latina in science has the added difficulty of preconceived stereotypes. I have found that, interestingly enough, if people assume I am Latin Americanborn – and hence went to school there, etc. – that it is viewed as more positive than being U.S.- born. I feel this has a lot to do with the prejudice some have against affirmative action in this country, and how minorities struggle to illustrate that we have indeed earned our degrees just like everyone else. Our Ph.D.s were not bestowed as gifts because of race or gender. So this difficulty is one that is absent from a Caucasian female, but nonetheless, all women still struggle against the gender stereotype – from both sexes!

Maribel Vazquez

“I was encouraged to consider engineering by my high school calculus teacher, and supported/ inspired throughout this journey by my mom. She was a single mother with two girls who learned to speak English, complete a GED and graduate with a B.A. and M.A. from CCNY during the time that I was in middle and high school. I do not think I have done anything to compare with that!”

Vázquez stresses that important work is being done by women in the science and engineering departments at CUNY and describes what she is working on now. “My laboratory develops microfluidic devices and nanotechnology to study the migration of glial cells in the brain. We work with neurosurgeons and neuropathologists to measure the concentration profiles of chemicals in specific regions of the brain, and then re-create these environments within microchannels to stimulate and examine  cell migration.”

While much discussion during the conference centered on opening doors at the highest levels of academia for women, Vázquez offers this idea about how society can attract more women – specifically Latinas – into the science careers. “I believe that it is never too early to introduce young people to fun math and science activities. Too many people are afraid of math and pass along their own insecurities to the younger generations. One way to diversify these fields is for teachers of nursery through high school classes to work with scientists and engineers to develop age-appropriate math lessons for their students. While seeing role models is great, it does not compare to the excitement students feel when they can predict what will happen next in an experiment, or use math to describe how something works.”

Another panel participant, Dr. Gillian Small, in her capacity as chancellor for research at CUNY, encourages and supports females in the science and engineering professions. In the Fall 2010 CUNY Research Newsletter, Small reported there was good news and bad news for women scientists and engineers. She noted, “Women still comprise less than 10 percent of full-time, employed doctorates in engineering.” But she also expressed a brighter side to the larger picture in higher education. “Nevertheless, over the last two decades women have moved in larger numbers into leadership positions at academic institutions across the country. In fact, in 2007 women occupied approximately 23 percent of college and university presidencies in the U.S. This number was only 9.5 percent 20 years ago.”

She specifically cited CUNY as a place where important progress is being made for women. “It is noteworthy that, of the 23 CUNY campuses and schools, nine are currently being led by women presidents or deans. Women are also leading the charge in industry, with executives such as Deborah Dunsire, president and CEO of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, and Tina Nova, cofounder and CEO of Genoptix Medical Laboratory.”

Still, Small noted that challenges still exist for women in the science and engineering fields. “The opportunities for women to excel in a career in science are vast and varied. However, we should also bear in mind that only 15 of the 72 members elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2010 were women, and that between 1901 and 2009, the Nobel Prizes were awarded 537 times to a total of 802 individuals – yet only 40 women in total have been awarded the Nobel Prize.” (Marie Curie received the award twice, in 1903 and 1911.)

In this same newsletter, Small cited a 2008 report on why women leave science and noted that “the average age that a women receives her Ph.D. is 34; therefore, the five to seven years she then spends moving towards tenure fall right in the middle of her peak years for starting and raising a family.” On the CUNY website, Chancellor Matthew Goldstein explains the mission of the decadelong program. “Breaking boundaries in science at the City University of New York, distinguished women scientists at all CUNY colleges are making history all year round by conducting pioneering research in fields that are critical to our nation’s future. Through CUNY’s ‘Decade of Science,’ they are teaching and working with outstanding students in laboratories and classrooms in cuttingedge areas of applied and basic science. Vice Chancellor for Research Gillian Small and Vice Chancellor for Facilities Planning, Management and Construction Irisi Weinshall are working together on the programming and construction of the new CUNY Advanced Science Research Center at City College. World-class faculty. Breaking boundaries. Making history. All year round at CUNY.”

Smoldering Embers of Fiery Gender Debate

The annual Women’s Leadership Conference was also an opportunity for White and minority female scientists to get tips on how to flourish in science and gave one keynote speaker an opportunity to correct the misconceptions that have been the fig leaf providing a rational explanation for the relatively low number of women represented in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions.

Keynote speaker Cornelia (Cory) Dean, former Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, from 2004 through 2008, taught graduate and undergraduate courses at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences on the public’s understanding of science. She is the author of Am I Making Myself Clear? – a book aimed at educating scientists on how exactly to make themselves clear talking to a reporter, going on television or lobbying legislators. She is at work on a book about the misuse of scientific information in American public life. Dean’s address offered women scientists pragmatic advice on how to succeed in a sometimes unreceptive environment, and took aim at the speech Larry Summers made in 2005 that ignited a firestorm that is smoldering to this day.

Summers, then president of Harvard, came under fire at that time for, arguably, seeming to trivialize women’s participation in the sciences. While acknowledging that there are “patterns of passive discrimination and stereotyping in which people like to choose people like themselves, and the people in the previous group are disproportionately White male,” he dismissed this as “hardly pervasive” and not the “dominant explanation” for the lack of women in high-powered science and engineering positions. He also expressed doubt that there are high numbers of women who are being held back from these high-powered roles. Summers said, “If it was really the case that everybody was discriminating, there would be very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high-quality people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating, because of what it would mean for the pool that was available.”

Dean took issue with Summers’s assertion that gender was a minor concern in the fields of science and engineering by chronicling other predominantly male careers that have become more gender neutral once gender consideration was removed from the hiring equation. One example she cited was orchestra auditions where the gender of the applicant was unknown. The so-called “blind auditions” (where applicants audition behind screens) resulted in a dramatic rise in females being given orchestra positions. Her most dramatic example, however, was the story of transgender scientist Ben (aka Barbara) Barres, who has documented his experience having his work published. He related that he had much more success as Ben than he had as Barbara. Dean also asserted that studies have shown that there is an increase in their funding when females are permitted to nominate themselves for research awards.

Summers also dismissed the disparity of women scientists and engineers with the supposition that what the disparity all boils down to “is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.”

Dean deals with this argument by pointing out that the math SAT gap between high school girls and boys has shrunk considerably over the past 10 years. She also pointed out problems that women face that aren’t even considered by Summers in his argument. Those problems include what is referred to as the Two Body Problem, in which women more often than not are hampered in their attempt to secure a tenure track position because they have a spouse with an established tenure-track path, which limits the wives’ geographic options. Women also are often designated child and parent caregivers, which make career moves more problematic.

Dean concluded by offering the women scientists and engineers suggestions to succeed in establishing their own strong career paths. Among her tips were first and foremost do good work, but also, when considering a job offer, assess whether it is located in a place where other women have flourished and excelled. She also suggested developing good negotiating skills, be willing to accept a helping hand – and have alternative plans in place if your first plan doesn’t work out.