Doing Science Well

by Margaret Nilsson

Enrollment of Scripps students in science classes has been increasing steadily since the mid-’90s. In 1990, there were three Scripps science majors. Now, Scripps women constitute the majority of the majors in the Joint Science Department (JSD), which is operated jointly with Claremont McKenna and Pitzer colleges.

The increase in women students at JSD can be explained in part by a national trend: starting in high school, girls are now pursuing science at a greater rate. Overall, college enrollments these days are skewed toward women, and women college students are going into science in greater numbers than they did in the past. While old gender barriers have not been completely eliminated, they have been lowered. Girls are growing up knowing that science is accessible to them.

Chair of the department Newt Copp says Scripps deserves some credit, too, for the increase in women science students at JSD. “Scripps, under President Bekavac’s leadership, really saw a future for science in women’s education.” The College, he maintains, has made an explicit effort to recruit the best high school science students. In fact, among James E. Scripps (JES) scholars, there are a disproportionate number of science students.

The College’s continued commitment to science education is spelled out in the 2007 Strategic Plan: “Scripps College will commit resources to the development and expansion of the sciences so that Scripps becomes nationally recognized as a leading women’s college for educating scientists, particularly those preparing for medical careers and graduate studies in the sciences.”

The department itself has instituted changes that have made JSD a more attractive place for women to pursue science. A decade ago, there were two tenure-track women faculty members in the department. Today there are 12.

While many of the women faculty are new and thus at a more junior level, the presence of more women faculty makes a difference, Copp suggests. “Years ago I was teaching a physiology course that I had been teaching for some time. It was quite successful: enrollments were high and there were a lot of women taking the course. Then we hired Marion Preest [now associate professor of biology] who taught physiology, and students came out of the woodwork.” The experience sold Copp on the importance of role models.

All this means that women — especially Scripps women — are prominent in the College’s science department. Students find their classes are filled with women; they have women role models and mentors on the faculty. Many Scripps students say this is a major benefit in pursuing a science degree at Scripps.

For biology major Ivy McDaniel ’08, the research opportunities at Joint Science have been ideal. She found it a unique environment where the research is of high quality and open to undergraduates. “At most large schools,” she says, “you’d be lucky to get a job washing glassware. Here you can begin doing techniques as a sophomore that postdocs do.”

Scripps students are embracing the varied opportunities available to them at and through JSD. They work as TAs and lab assistants, as researchers and co-authors of scientific articles. They present papers at Journal Club and at scientific conferences. In some cases, they are operating at the level of post-graduate researchers.

Scripps women were disproportionately represented this year in the department’s new interdisciplinary course, the Accelerated Integrated Science Sequence (20 out of 29 enrollees were Scripps women). The course represents JSD’s innovative approach to treating issues from the perspectives of chemistry, physics, and biology simultaneously; enrollment for the course is by application.

However strong the science program, Copp emphasizes that there is more work to be done. The robust interest in the sciences among students at the colleges has created a desperate need for more space — the department has outgrown the W.M. Keck Science Center — stateof-the-art in 1992. Additional faculty need to be hired and additional courses offered. The department will continue to implement curricular innovations that will better prepare young scientists, and it will assess areas where students could be better served. For now, though, Scripps students are at home in a department where women do science and they do it well.

 

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