Science summit

More than 200 industry leaders, researchers, academics and undergraduates from across New England will converge at Wheaton College on Saturday, April 8, to lift up the next generation of women working in math, science, engineering and technology.

The inaugural Wheaton College Summit for Women in STEM will include talks on the challenges that women face in building careers in the math, science and engineering fields as well as scientific presentations by professional and undergraduate researchers.

Presenters at the one-day summit will include NASA astronomer Amy Mainzer, who also serves as the host and science consultant for the PBS Kids show, “Ready, Jet, Go” as well as Managing Director of Microsoft Research New England and New York Jennifer Tour Chayes, who will deliver the gathering’s keynote address and receive the inaugural Wheaton Woman in STEM Award.

Wheaton alumna Ivana Magovcevic-Liebisch, senior vice president and head of global business development at Teva Pharmaceuticals, will be among other presenters, including scientists from The Exploratory, Autodesk, Siemens, Raytheon, Clark University, the University of Michigan, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, Novartis and Alnylam.

“Our goal is to change the narrative about science and our society’s mental image of who scientists are,” said Rachelle DeCoste, associate professor of mathematics and an organizer of the summit. “The stereotype of the scientist is of an older white male. We want everyone, especially women, to see that these fields are for them, too.”

At present, women account for just 24 percent of professionals working in STEM fields. By connecting industry leaders with up-and-coming talent, the Wheaton summit seeks to create new connections, forge new relationships, build knowledge and match students with inspiring role models.

The inspiration for the summit, which is being organized by DeCoste and Assistant Professor of Biology Laura Ekstrom, came from a discussion with undergraduate women who were interested in studying math and science. The two professors were surprised by the direction that the conversation took.

“They had questions about what it’s like to be a woman in a mostly male-dominated field. There was anxiety of being in the minority,” Ekstrom said. “We were surprised that the questions they had were the same questions that we had 20 years ago as undergraduates.”

“A light bulb went off for me after that conversation,” DeCoste said, reflecting on her students’ anxieties about venturing into professions that are still male-dominated. “We need to do more for our students. We work with them one-on-one when they come to us, of course, but there’s more we can be doing to reach out to them.

“Our students need something more than what they are already getting. They need more role models of women in the sciences, and not just women in academia like us but also those who are doing this in the corporate world,” DeCoste said. “Just getting women here who are practicing scientists and mathematicians in a wide range of settings provides a network for students.”

The need clearly extends well beyond the Wheaton campus. Undergraduates from more than 20 other New England colleges—from Williams and Wellesley colleges to the University of Connecticut, Boston University and Middlebury College—are registered for the event, which is now at capacity and tracking hopeful attendees on a waiting list.

The two professors said their idea has generated a lot of enthusiasm that is helping the inaugural event take off. Wheaton College President Dennis M. Hanno and Provost Renée White encouraged them early on, offering funding for the first year of the effort. Raytheon and Higher Education Resource Services (HERS), the premier leadership development training provider for women in higher education, have signed on as sponsors of the event. Scientists at corporations, universities and research centers have also been very willing to participate.

DeCoste and Ekstrom hope to offer a full slate of opportunities that help women enter the STEM fields. In addition to making the summit an annual event, the pair of Wheaton professors hope this gathering will kickstart an ongoing series of workshops, lectures and professional development events.

As a high school student, Ekstrom recalls attending the “Promoting Women in Science” conference at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. “It had a profound impact on me,” she said. “It just gave me confidence to know that I was not the only person, the only young woman, interested in the sciences.”

“Wheaton has been a leader in women’s education, and we want to continue that tradition,” DeCoste said. “This summit is really just the start.”

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Professors Rachelle DeCoste and Laura Ekstrom are organizing the STEM summit.
Mars Center for Science and Technology
Higher Education Resource Services (HERS) has signed on as a sponsor of the summit, which will feature a number of prominent scientists and leaders as speakers.