Mount Holyoke professor aims to fix glaring gap in nation's research labs

Friday, December 2, 2011 - 10:59

This article was originally published in the December 2, 2011 edition of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

By CHAD CAIN
Staff Writer

Maria Gomez's first day of work at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, birthplace of the atomic bomb, was like stepping into a bygone era.

Even though it was 1997, she was the only woman in Los Alamos' theoretical chemistry department.

"It was surprising," says Gomez. "There were two buildings as part of our subdivision and the only other woman was the secretary."

Gomez heard rumors that another woman scientist came on board a short time later, but the two never crossed paths.

Gomez calls the Los Alamos experience "different" and "awkward." She had never been in a place that was mostly populated by men. She recalls attending talks at Los Alamos only to discover that she was the only woman among the 40 people there.

Her time at Los Alamos ended up being about more than her postdoctoral research. It helped shape her career path. Since 2003 she has taught chemistry at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, an all-women's school. She's now an associate professor there.

"One of the things I knew I wanted to do, in addition to the research, was to have contact with an undergraduate population where I'd have a lot of women to show them that they can do it," says Gomez. "I needed that experience at Los Alamos to see that."

FLASH FORWARD 14 years to a quiet chemistry laboratory on the Mount Holyoke campus.

Gomez, 40, is huddled around a notebook computer with a small group of students, going over some calculations. After much discussion, one student discovers a problem and is discouraged about having to go back to square one to fix it.

Gomez reassures the students.

"That's totally normal," she says. "In research, just when you think you are almost done, you realize you have to go back. It happens a lot."

It seems simple, but through conversations such as these, Gomez is introducing young women to the sciences, an area where they continue to be severely outnumbered by men in most disciplines.

Several reports in recent years have shown that women remain underrepresented in the so-called STEM professions: sciences, technology, engineering and math. The relatively few women who receive degrees in those fields are concentrated in the physical and life sciences.

And although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S., they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, according to a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The report, culled from U.S. Census figures, found that women comprised 27 percent of the computer and math workforce (the largest of the four STEM components) and about 14 percent of the engineering workforce. The numbers are higher in the physical and life sciences, at 40 percent female.

In a 2010 report called "Why So Few?" the American Association of University Women offers a similar picture.

Women have closed the gap in the fields of biology and agricultural sciences, making up some 50 percent of those earning a doctorate, according to the report. The numbers drop off considerably for other fields. The figure for women earning doctorates in math, for example, stands at about 30 percent, while about 20 percent of computer science doctorates are awarded to women.

THE GAP MAY have something to do with decrepit stereotypes, cultural biases, a dearth of women role models in math and sciences and career paths that are not family-friendly.

Others believe that girls have less confidence in their math abilities than boys, which can lead them to shy away from scientific careers, according to the "Why So Few" report.

Gomez never lacked confidence, but she has experienced stereotypes over the years. When she was a graduate student in the mid-1990s, she recalls, a physics professor discouraged her from taking his class, saying that women "just don't pan out."

She persisted, telling him that she wasn't dropping out, and ended up earning an A in the course. "It's useful to be stubborn sometimes," she says.

That stubbornness came from a deep belief in her abilities, a belief fostered by her mother. With her mom's help, Gomez completed experiments as a child, checked out science books during her many visits to the library, and practiced programming and math on a computer.

"I got lots of great exposure to interesting mathematics, programming and science," she says.

Gomez was born in Vienna, Austria. Her parents separated when she was 6 and her mother returned to her home in Bogota, Colombia. For the next three years, Gomez lived with her grandmothers there while in Colombia, during which time her mother moved to the United States and established residency in Rhode Island. At 9, Gomez joined her there.

Gomez says her mom's perspective was simple: You can do math in school. That confidence, combined with her love of the field, were "big motivators."

Plus, her dad was a mathematician.

"I've seen my father only about four or five times in my life," Gomez says. "So, my motivation for being able to do mathematics was more because my mother told me that I must be good at it since it was in my genes."

Today Gomez's students are facing biases similar to the ones she had to overcome.

Mount Holyoke senior Luong Nguyen, a math major from Vietnam, recalls how a female high school teacher told her that men are smarter than women when it comes to the sciences. That didn't discourage her; it made her mad.

At Mount Holyoke, Nguyen has completed two science internships, including one at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. She says the internships have been an invaluable confidence booster. They "proved to me that I can do this, that I am no worse than a man," she says.

Christina Ghenolu, a former student who graduated in 2004, recalls worrying that she couldn't comprehend the complicated science, but that Gomez always came up with ways for her to understand the material.

"She could identify weaknesses and help work with them in a positive way," says Ghenolu. "Very rarely do you find that in mentors."

As Ghenolu's skills grew, so did her confidence. Today, she has a degree in biochemistry and is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of molecular biology at Cornell University.

"I was just simply amazed because I never thought I could do this hard-core chemistry work," says Ghenolu.

She says Gomez has set the bar for mentors high, and in the seven years since leaving MHC, she's found few that can measure up.

SO WHY IS it important for more women to dedicate their professional lives to math and science?

Increasing the number of workers in STEM fields will strengthen some of the most innovative and fastest-growing sectors of the nation's economy, according to Rebecca Blank, acting deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

And women, who make up nearly half of the country's workforce, represent an untapped opportunity to expand STEM employment and advance America's interests in the global economy, she says.

Additionally, the fields pay well. Women with STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than women in non-stem jobs, according to the Department of Commerce. Still, within the STEM professions, men earn 14 percent more than women, according to the Department of Commerce.

Many initiatives have been launched to bridge this gap, including one this fall by the National Science Foundation. The Career-Life Balance Initiative is a 10-year push that aims to eliminate barriers to women's advancement and retention in STEM careers.

The initiative will allow researchers to delay or suspend their grants to care for a newborn or newly adopted child or fulfill other family obligations; provide supplements to cover the costs of maintaining labs while researchers are on leave; and publicize the availability of family-friendly opportunities.

Another way to bridge the gender gap is to mentor aspiring female scientists. That's where people like Gomez come in.

"She challenges us, but in other ways she's always helping us figure it out," says Nguyen, who is studying math and chemistry.

Former students, like Patricia Peart, agree. Since she graduated from Mount Holyoke in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, Peart has completed graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and now works as a senior chemist at Dow AgroSciences in Indianapolis, Ind. But Peart says there were times in grad school when she questioned her decision to pursue an advanced degree in chemistry, worrying that she wouldn't succeed. She spoke with Gomez often about her concerns.

"She was very encouraging and we corresponded often via email during those first two years," says Peart. "She probably believed in me at times more than I believed in myself."

Gomez has helped students find internships and post-grad positions at laboratories and private businesses around the world, at places like Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Dow Chemical and more, she says.

"This helps with their confidence and introduces new places where they can grow," says Gomez, who tracks the progress of former students through an alumnae page on the college's website.

"I went into academia because I didn't see any women when I was at Los Alamos," she said. "Now, I can see progress in this area."

Saryu Jindal, a 2006 graduate, is one example of that progress.

"Having mentors like Maria is definitely great because when I see a woman like that in my field, I see that I can do it," says Jindal. "If it wasn't for her, I don't think I would have gotten my doctorate and I definitely would not have thought of doing it as a career."

Jindal always excelled in chemistry, she says, but hadn't considered going into research until Gomez hired her one summer for a theoretical chemistry project. During their work together, Gomez would talk about other scientists in the field and about her own career.

"It inspired me to make a difference in my life," says Jindal.

She is now following a career trajectory similar to Gomez's. She's a postdoctoral associate at Los Alamos, where the women-to-men ratio in her department is only slightly better than what Gomez experienced. There are five women among the staff of 500.

"When we have students come through here, I do think about how Maria might have inspired them and how I might be able to," Jindal says. "Women have made progress, but we are still lagging behind in many ways."