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Personal Reflections on Extra Obstacles for Women in Science

by Jean Chiar

January 1996

One of the biggest problems that young girls face is simply that they are not encouraged, and are sometimes
discouraged, from going into science. An additional problem is that some girls/women tend to "drift" along in classes. In other words, when they aren't following along in lecture, they assume they are the only one who "doesn't get it." This feeling leads to fear of both asking questions in class and seeking help outside of class and has obvious detrimental effects on the learning process. Although there are certainly boys/men that fall into this category, more often than not, they are more outspoken in class and in many cases get more attention from the instructor. These two problems are among those that I have faced since I became interested in science. I'll start with my high school education, since this is where I feel the real challenge began.

The first high school I attended was an all-girls private college-prep school. I remember being disappointed when I discovered early on that there were no "honors" classes in any subject. I was told that we were all expected to be honors students, so special classes weren't necessary. A few of us who were ahead in math went into the next grade's math class, but the most advanced math offered was pre-calculus. Science in 9th and 10th grade was biology. None of us could figure out why biology was spread over two years, but
we all thought the reason was that were weren't enough science instructors to teach 4 different subjects over 4 years. Biology started to get a little boring after the first year and overall, I didn’t feel very challenged. I was also discouraged by the fact that there were no advanced placement (AP) courses in math or science (although, to be fair, there were AP History and English offered to seniors). There didn’t seem to be any extra offerings outside of the regular curriculum.

Physics class was optional for us; I can’t remember whether it was offered junior or senior year. In any case, I was very enthusiastic about taking it. I was surprised to find out that none of my closest friends (3 or 4 other girls) were even considering taking physics. None of them was planning on a science major in college and they thought the class would be too difficult. I was very discouraged with their reaction. I didn’t think I was going to be well-prepared for college math and science courses.

Fortunately, around my second year in high school my family moved to a town (just a few miles from our old house) where the public school had an excellent reputation for their strong math and science curriculum. So, I arranged to go visit for a day and it didn't take me long to decide to switch schools starting in 11th grade.

Before classes started, I met with the guidance counselor to decide which classes to take. I assumed I would be able to sign up for the honors and AP math and science classes. I was encouraged to sign up for the AP physics class, but apparently, the school was very select about who they let in to the honors math class. They told me my grades weren't high enough to be allowed into the class. I couldn't believe it. After going through all the trouble of transferring schools for the purpose of taking advanced classes, I couldn't
sign up for honors calculus. So, I did my best to convince both the instructor and the guidance counselor that I would do well in the course. They gave in; I was registered for the class on a probationary basis and would only be allowed to continue in the honors math sequence if I got an A in the class. Needless to say, this was going to be no small feat.

It seemed that for most of the other kids in the class, understanding came easily and they didn't need to study to get good grades. I tried not to let that discourage me and I bought every calculus review book I could find and did problems until I had none left to do. It wasn't easy, I was borderline A/B throughout the year. To make things even worse, a guy in the class noticed that in the role book, my name had an asterisk next to it. He asked the instructor, in front of the entire class, why that mark was there. Now everyone knew that I was struggling to remain in the class. I could only imagine how embarrassed I might have felt if I
weren't in the advanced calculus class the following year. Fortunately, I never had to face that embarrassment. I made it to the class the following year. Since I had gotten into such good habits by doing practice problems the previous year, I did very well in the class. There were very few exams that I didn't get the top grade (everyone always knew what everyone else got since the class was small and the top
grade was always announced by the instructor). I even consistently beat the guy that had seen the asterisk next to my name!

My brother, who is a year older than I, naturally started applying to college the year before I would start applying. RPI was one of his first choices and he had all the catalogs and such. I looked through them and was immediately interested. When the time came for me to apply, RPI was the only place I wanted to go to. My parents tried to encourage me to go to a small liberal arts school and discouraged me from applying to RPI. They told me I would never survive in such a male-dominated environment. Well, it turns out that I got a small scholarship to attend RPI, so they just couldn't say no.

During my freshman and sophomore years, I wasn't exactly getting all A's. I certainly wasn't close to getting D's or F's, but I don't think I was really grasping all that was being taught. I never asked questions in class and although I occasionally asked the professor or TA for help, I didn't do it often enough to really learn the material well. I got by with B's (and some C's) mostly because I spent a lot of time on my homework and that always helped my grade. Unfortunately, I wasn't really acquiring the knowledge I would later need to take graduate level courses. I got involved in undergraduate research at an early stage. The main reason for this is that my brother had talked about the research he was doing in school and it sounded like fun. I don't think I completely understood what doing research meant, but it was definitely something I wanted to do soon. Of all the physics classes I had taken, I was most interested in astronomy. I started in my hunt for a research project in the second semester of sophomore year. I asked the astronomy/astrophysics professors about doing research with them and found someone who was willing to work with me. Even though at that time there was little money available for undergraduate research students, I stayed the summer at RPI. This was the beginning of my very fruitful research career.

I stayed at RPI for graduate school. I struggled to do well in my first year of graduate level physics courses. I felt that my background was weak and I didn’t have a good understanding of my undergraduate course-work. I asked one of my professors to tutor me, but there was a lot of ground to cover before the qualifying exams at the end of our first year. While my peers were reviewing different topics, I was learning them. I didn’t pass the exams. We did have another opportunity to take them at the end of the following semester. However, I was so far from the minimum passing grade that my advisor was advised to discourage me from taking them again. I’ll never forget the meeting when we went over my scores together and he told me he didn’t think I should try to take the exams again. I was stunned and just absorbed what he said, promising him that I would consider my options. A few hours following our meeting, shock turned to anger and determination. I e-mailed my advisor that very evening telling him that I had every intention of taking
the exams again. My decision shocked a couple of faculty members who didn't think I had what it took to be a graduate student in their department. Fortunately, I was strongly supported by a couple of others. The professor who had tutored me over the summer devoted many hours to me during the semester. I became truly driven and worked harder than I (or anyone else) ever imagined I could. My advisor's outlook on things gradually changed once he realized that I was willing to do whatever it took to pass the exams. To
make a long story short, I passed those qualifying exams, did extremely well in the rest of my classes, and was awarded a department fellowship in recognition of my achievments. Passing those exams was my biggest stumbling block in graduate school. With the exams out of the way, I could devote time to the thing I enjoyed the most - research. My early start in research helped me develop the skills I needed to be a very productive graduate student. I already have several journal articles in publication, have attended numerous domestic and international conferences as well as given invited talks. I feel that I have earned respect from the faculty, my peers and collaborators and I look forward to a long productive career in astrophysics.

Jean Chiar is a Graduate Student in Physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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