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Women changing stereotypes of math and science fields

Korey Southerland couldn't believe it when she heard why some of her female classmates at UND were dropping out of fields of study already short on women.

Korey Southerland
UND student Korey Southerland, working towards degrees in environmental geography and politicall science, has organized the first Women in Science organization on campus. Herald photo by John Stennes.

Korey Southerland couldn't believe it when she heard why some of her female classmates at UND were dropping out of fields of study already short on women.

"A few of my friends said, 'Well, girls just aren't good at math,'" she recalled.

Yet she understood their self-doubt, having been there herself in middle school and high school. Growing up, she said, she wasn't good in school, and, yes, she wasn't good at math.

She channeled her frustration into organizing the first Women in Science organization at UND to support and encourage women to pursue careers in math and science.

Along her educational path, Southerland conquered her own self-doubts. Growing up, she wasn't good in school, she said, at one point, even refusing to read.


"I thought I couldn't do math, but now I love it."

She's on the brink of earning bachelor's degrees in environmental geography and political science, with an emphasis on atmospheric science and a minor in math.

Women in Science groups are becoming more common throughout the country, said Southerland, who was recently named Phenomenal Woman of the Year by UND's Women's Center and Multicultural Student Services.

"Women are encouraging other women," she said, "and they don't keep quiet when they hear someone say, 'I can't go into math or science because I'm a girl."

Its members are mentoring not only freshman women students at UND, but also girls in the community, especially in middle and high schools.

Southerland's most recent project focuses on communicating climate change information to middle-school students. She is creating a learning module that will help students better understand the greenhouse effect and how climate models work.

The project, sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is headed by Gretchen Mullendore, UND assistant professor of atmospheric sciences.

Increasing interest among girls


Lorraine O'Shea, a seventh-grade life-science teacher at Schroeder Middle School in Grand Forks, said girls' attitudes are changing.

"More girls are interested in these fields than in the past. We're encouraging that."

At the recent state science fair in Grand Forks, four of the nine Schroeder students who competed in the junior division, grades seven and eight, are girls, she said.

This year, the school hosted its first science fair for seventh-graders, partnering with UND students.

"That was very exciting for us," she said. "I noticed that girls were more excited about their projects, even more than the boys. At least half of the more in-depth projects were done by girls.

"At this age, in general, girls are a little more mature than boys and may put forth a little more effort," she said.

"I don't see girls who say they can't do science or math because it's too hard."

More options


When O'Shea was in college, 30 years ago, she was one of two women majoring in chemistry, she said. "It was very intimidating. I ended up switching my major to science education."

She had been considering becoming a doctor but thought she may be too sensitive to cope with losing patients.

"Back then, if you were interested in science, you could be a biologist, chemist, doctor or nurse," she said. "Now there are many more options. Science is so broad. Nanoscience, for instance, was only in its infancy ten years ago."

O'Shea said girls are becoming more confident in what they can do.

"I think that's changed a lot. They feel they can go out and do what they want to do," she said, probably because of role models in the home and in the media.

"We're seeing more women in the sciences; girls see them on TV and in the community. There's way more women doctors. It used to be, 'Oh, you'll be one of only a few.'

"The more girls see things like that the more it helps them to know they can do it."

Sexism diminishing


Mullendore also says progress is being made in this arena.

"There was a time when there was almost rampant sexism in labs. That has largely gone away or is dealt with," she said. But the academic and private sectors have yet to achieve parity.

"The number of (college) women students in the sciences has increased and, in some fields, we do see a 50-50 split between men and women. But there's a significant drop-off in the number of women holding faculty and senior-level positions."

Women sometimes shy away from math and science fields not for lack of confidence but because of worries about lifestyle, O'Shea said. "They wonder, 'Can I do this along with the other roles I have?'

"But there are a lot of women doctors working part time and plenty of science jobs that are less time-demanding. And hopefully we're getting the word out about that."

The challenge of work-life balance is not limited to women, Mullendore said, but often they don't have other women in their department to talk to about it. Research shows that such support is important.

"When I hear of someone who's interested in science but won't go there because, for example, they want to have a family and think it won't work, that's a problem we need to work on."

Wanted: a diversity of scientists


"For science to be successful we need the best minds working on problems and we need different perspectives," she said. "Until we have everyone who's interested, and get their viewpoints, we're missing exciting ideas."

O'Shea said the female perspective is crucial.

"Women think a little differently and solve problems a little differently than men. To have different brains working together helps us to look at problems from a bunch of different angles."

Southerland agrees.

"Our idea of a perfect world is that anyone who wants it can go for it. There is no difference between women and men in the ability to do science and math."

Her own story is her best example.

At UND, she has received several scholarships including the McNair which prepares students from low-income backgrounds for graduate education.

She's also received one of five IGERT fellowships which provide full financial support for four years of doctoral studies at Washington State University. IGERT is Integrated Graduate Education Research Training.


"I wanted to be a woman in science -- the odds were against me -- and I've become one," she said. "Other women can too; they just have to want it."

Reach Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or send e-mail to pknudson@gfherald.com .

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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