Women in Science founders Anya Brown and Cecilia Sanchez inside the Science Learning Center. (Photo by Nancy Evelyn/UGA)
By Katie Cowart
Five years ago, Cecilia Sánchez and Anya Brown, ecology doctoral candidates at the time, founded the Women in Science organization at the University of Georgia in service of creating a community where they could connect with peers and mentors. Open to anyone (including men) interested in pursuing equality and diversity in science, WiSci has grown to incorporate undergraduate students and an outreach program as well as all STEM disciplines.
The organization hosts several events each academic year, offering opportunities in mentoring, networking and career development, with either a career panel or workshop organized every semester. Career panels illustrate the variety of careers undergraduates can pursue with their degrees. Career development workshops help students work on their resumes and cover letters, interviewing skills and negotiation techniques in preparation for entering the job market. Occasionally, the group sponsors social gatherings where participants meet up and have fun as they connect with others.
“We also have a tiered mentoring program where we pair up undergraduates with graduates and graduates with postdocs using a survey,” said Barbara Del Castello, a third-year Ph.D. student in genetics from San Francisco and president of WiSci. “This helps put like members together and increases the effectiveness of the mentoring program.”
Grant program established
On campus, the group is beginning a tradition of support in the form of the Females First Grant.
“One of the major reasons we lose women in STEM fields at such a high rate is that compared to other fields, we don’t accommodate the ability to have children,” said Del Castello. “One such obstacle is that scientists need to attend conferences to meet collaborators, exchange ideas and see what new discoveries are being made. These conferences can be weeklong, and if a scientist has a child, lack of funds for adequate child care can deter them from attending, affecting their work and professional development. This is a particularly serious problem for graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and adjunct professors.”
While there are some travel grants on campus, the funds are usually designated for transportation, lodging or food, not for child care. Raising funds since 2016, the Females First Grant program has reached a point of self-sustainability. Their goal is to award two to three small grants per year to be used for child care while participants attend a local or regional conference.
“The Women in Science organization at UGA has been remarkably committed to women in science at all levels, from undergraduates all the way to faculty members,” said Rachel Roberts-Galbraith, an assistant professor in the department of cellular biology and active member of WiSci. “They do a great job helping these women, and the Females First Grant is a new chapter of their involvement that will be great for women with families and child care obligations to allow them more flexibility in their careers.”
Going beyond campus
WiSci also pushes beyond the boundaries of campus and into the community. In an ongoing tutoring program at Clarke Central High School, each high school student is matched with a WiSci member to receive one-on-one help in chemistry. The group recently hosted a table at Sandy Creek Nature Center during its inaugural Science Open House where the children engaged in hands-on learning activities like extracting DNA from strawberries. WiSci is currently working with Girl Scouts of the USA in Athens to help Scouts earn their STEM badges. During the 4-H Fall Festival, WiSci will offer students the opportunity to perform scientific experiments with WiSci volunteers.
“We started to do outreach because we realized we needed to inspire the next generation to keep WiSci going and growing,” Del Castello said.
They will host a booth at the annual STEMzone tailgate before select UGA football games with an interactive game called “Guess That Female Scientist” to match the scientist with her contribution to the world.
“The goal is to show everyone that there are female scientists working in a variety of different fields that have changed the way we observe the world,” said Patience Wright, a graduate research assistant in the chemistry department and the outreach coordinator for WiSci.