Flower of Equality Blossoming from STEM

OpinionStaff Op-Ed

Former UCSD Physics Professor Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space on June 18, 1983. Photo courtesy of NASA.

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UCSD is recognized across the globe as an illustrious, first-rate research institution. With numerous on-campus hospitals, medical centers, and labs, run by distinguished professors, scientific discovery and technological advancement is a championed commonality. However, UCSD deserves credit for another form of progress, one that is unsung yet equally vital.

Encouraging involvement in and providing opportunities for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or STEM) is one area in which UCSD excels. Offering copious student organizations geared specifically toward women interested in pursuing science, our campus fosters equal opportunity to a successful and effective end. According to a recent study by BestColleges.com, UCSD ranks number one in the highest number of women graduates in STEM.

Included in a well-represented list of schools, comparing the most lucrative STEM programs across the country, UCSD tops the charts, beating out powerhouse universities like UC Berkeley and UC Davis. With an unrivaled one in three women graduating with a degree in computer science, biology, engineering, chemistry, physics, and/or mathematics, the Tritons are boldly tapping at the looming laboratory glass ceiling.     

The gender disparity in STEM fields is no secret. Although women hold around half the jobs in the United States workforce, they fill less than twenty-five percent of those in science and math related careers. In addition, the women that do work in those fields make substantially less. A study done by Yale University shows that women in STEM occupations make on average 83 cents to the man’s dollar. Although this is more than the 77 cents made by women in the general workforce, it is still unacceptable.

The culprit behind gender inequity in STEM, especially on college campuses, is the sheer lack of palpable support, encouragement, and opportunity for women to get involved in or gain access to science related programs. According to a study done by Million Women Mentors, only 4 percent of female students feel they have a mentor’s support to pursue STEM. By building a more robust female research staff and implementing more mentorship programs, universities like UCSD can better recruit and retain female STEM students.

Luckily, UCSD offers an abundance of student organizations that prioritize the involvement of women in science. From societies to sororities, there are groups for almost every STEM related major. The Society of Women Engineers is one of many campus groups who focus on providing upward mobility for women in STEM.

Lucero Lopez, a 4th year chemical engineer and the current president of the Society of Women Engineers, is proud of the organization’s commitment to “providing female engineering students the tools and community necessary to achieve and succeed.” In our conversation, she pointed out that “as engineers, [women] are often taught to see one another as competitors rather than resources,” another reason why many women feel discouraged pursuing science related majors. Therefore, maintaining organizations like the Society of Women Engineers is important, to provide resources and make the UCSD STEM community a more welcoming place.

Women are relatively underrepresented in the UCSD teaching staff, comprising only 30 percent. However, those who do teach here have, in my opinion, made a noticeable impact. This past year, I had the opportunity to take a seminar on re-engineering the heart taught by the esteemed Shyni Varghese. A former UCSD professor and director of the Bio-Inspired Materials and Stem Cell Engineering Laboratory, who was just recently promoted to work as the first MEDx (an interdisciplinary science and engineering program) investigator at Duke University, Dr. Varghese epitomizes a successful woman in STEM.

Having Dr. Varghese as a teacher and mentor was a refreshing and inspiring experience. It is not often that young women are exposed to female role models in STEM fields. Getting to know Dr. Varghese and learning about her work was encouraging. It got me excited about my potential as a STEM major despite the fact that it is considered a male dominated discipline. Women are rapidly joining the STEM forces, opening doors everywhere to those, like me, who dream of making a difference in the lab and in society.   

Although UCSD was successful in its equalizing endeavors, the fight for gender balance is not over. Gender disparity still plagues most aspects of society and is imperative to address. Either through articles like this or the continuation and support of organizations like the Society of Women Engineers, equality can be strived toward in a positive and constructive way, fostering empowerment for generations of women to come.

Sophie Reynolds is a staff writer for The Triton.

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Update: This article was updated on May 20, 2019 to correct a broken link.