Scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory are looking to both the past and the future to give women their rightful place in the world of science.
With about 100 members, including some men, the group Women in Science and Engineering has the ambitious goal of trying to bring more girls into science professions while setting the record straight by giving the often-overlooked female scientists of the past the recognition they deserve.
They’re doing a lot more than just talking about their goal.
They are going out into the community, with events to encourage girls and young women to consider in science.
And they’re planning edit-a-thons, revising existing Wikipedia entries about science and discoveries that omit or downplay women or adding new ones to recognize the contributions made by women scientists.
The CSHL group doesn’t have to look very far to identify a woman whose contributions were overlooked in the past. James Watson, chancellor emeritus at CSHL, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for the discovery of the structure of DNA. But Rosalind Franklin, who made a huge contribution to the discovery, had died before the prize was awarded, and it is never given posthumously. In recent years, she has won more recognition.
Alexandra Nowlan, a graduate student and neuroscientist in her third year at the lab, said the WISE network of scientists works as a support group and community organization, focusing on professional development, mentorship, career planning and outreach.
She said the group works on development through workshops, including ways to better communicate about their contributions, materials they need in their labs, and panels on problems women in the field face. They look for ways to develop institutional initiatives, such as including more women as speakers at CSHL events and inputting the names of women into databases of potential speakers or panelists at conferences. And they are busy in the community to highlight ways career paths.
“There are probably many female scientists who do not have such well known stories that we’re still trying to dig up and bring to light,” Nowlan said. “We have the unique opportunity to look back in time through the CSHL Library Archives, and I’m hoping we’ll be able to find some stories about female science leaders who passed through CSHL for a meeting or course to give their online profiles the depth they deserve.”
With their outreach, the scientists are trying to raise awareness of the inequality women face and to encourage girls to pursue STEM–science, technology, engineering an math–careers. Their efforts include offering coding camps and science cafes in middle schools.
The encouragement of girls touches Nowlan’s own experiences. “I attended an educational outreach in my community in 4th grade; parents sent me to science camp which I thought was kind of lame and nerdy but I had the most fun I could possibly have. We were lighting things on fire, growing bacteria, every day something different, totally fascinating to me. That kind of sparked a light bulb as something I would like to continue doing.
“After that I took just about any opportunity to do science or research; AP science classes, summer classes for research in high school and then college. I remember when I was little going to events where I saw scientists and knew, ‘I want to be you; you get to play with all these cool toys and asking insane questions.”
There are other similar groups around the country. Nowlan said that while the groups sometimes talk, they are not formally affiliated.
Photos by WISE.