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This Summer STEM Program Is Mostly Female, Adviser Says Mentorship Is Key

Asia Parker wants to be a mathematics professor.

“Math is just amazing. You can do anything,” she said.

Parker, 17 from Carrick, waited in a Duquesne University laboratory near a kiln heating materials she was using in semi-conductor experiments. Semi-conductors are often used in computers and solar panels. The high school senior wants to make new compounds for Jennifer Aitken’s research, which is looking at shifting the wavelength of lasers.

Aitken is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the Bayer School of Natural Environmental Sciences at Duquese University and organizes Project SEED there. It’s a national program that partners students from economically disadvantaged high schools with professors and undergraduate students to work on various projects.

About two-thirds of students who have participated in Duquesne’s program are females. Aitken said she doesn’t have to recruit them for the program.

“There are plenty of females interested in science,” she said. “A lot of it, though, is increasing the confidence level in these young women. Giving them the opportunities to travel, to go to conferences, to meet with other people, to communicate their science.”

Women are still underrepresented in STEM fields. About 29 percent of people working in science and engineering fields are women, according to the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics' 2016 report. Women make up slightly half of the biological and medical scientists in the country, though.

A recent survey conducted for Junior Achievement, an organization promoting youth financial literacy, found that while 36 percent of boys surveyed said they wanted to pursue a non-medical STEM field, only 11 percent of girls did.  

With STEM careers expected to grow by 6.5 percent by 2024, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, many programs aimed at cultivating female scientists, engineers and mathematicians are looking at ways to keep women interested in science and pursue a career.

Aitken said it comes down to mentorship.

“I found that a lot of people who could have encouraged me, whose words would have meant a lot, didn’t encourage me. Or I felt like I wasn’t taken seriously by some people,” she said. “Those kind of relationships are hurtful, but you just hook onto the people that help you.”

The students will present their projects July 28 at the BSNES Summer Undergraduate Symposium. One student is working on using fluorescent sensors to detect lead in drinking water and another is working on finding ways to bring a crystal growth experiments happening at Duquesne to high school classrooms.

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.
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