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Women in Chemistry Win Student Service Award

Women in Chemistry Win Student Service Award

Women in Chemistry (WIC) is looking out not just for its members, but for the interests of all graduate students in the department.

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When Women in Chemistry (WIC), which has been awarded this year’s College of Natural Sciences Student Service Award, set out to survey chemistry graduate students about how gender issues played out in the department, they got mostly good news, along with some evidence of lingering problems. They also found themselves with an unexpected but welcome new responsibility, which was to look out for the interests of all graduate students in the department.

“The survey was created in response to some concerns about gender discrimination,” says Stephanie Taylor, co-president of the organization, which is affiliated with Iota Sigma Pi, a national honor society for women in chemistry. “We did find some issues, and we’re planning to explore those further in the future. More surprising to us was how the survey ended up offering a glimpse into the lives of graduate students that had nothing to do with their gender.”

Created with the help of psychology professor Rebecca Bigler, and administered and analyzed by Bigler and her students, the survey looked at the entire “climate” of graduate student life in the department. It asked, for instance, not just about perceptions of gender equality and discrimination, but about students’ career goals, their relationships with their advisors, and their overall quality of life at the university.

Of particular interest, says Taylor, were reports from graduate students that they felt less committed to pursuing careers in research than they’d been when they first arrived at the university.

“There was data that showed there was a shift away from academic research, and it was really concerning to the faculty,” says Katie Walker, co-president of WIC. “It was just one year of data, though, and everyone realized we needed to track it over time. So what really came out of this, in a way, was the realization that we needed more data.”

WIC just conducted its second annual survey, and has a commitment from the department to fund at least one more year of the survey. The hope is that the more extensive dataset will allow the group to present some solid findings about what is and isn’t working for graduate students in the department, what issues of gender inequality still remain, and how best to move forward for everyone.

It’s a shift in orientation for the group, say Taylor and Walker, and a response, in part, to the fact that so much progress has been made. Being a woman and a chemist, for many graduate students and faculty, no longer feels like an embattled thing to be.

“We’ve talked about this a lot within the group,” says Walker. “I've never had anyone tell me I couldn’t do anything because I’m a woman, or felt treated differently because I'm a woman. My undergraduate and graduate professors have always been very encouraging. But I’ve heard stories about discrimination, and I believe them. So we’re trying to represent both perspectives.”

Outside of conducting surveys, which is a relatively new role for the organization, Women in Chemistry devotes a good amount of its time to reaching out to the community to promote science education. They do science demos every year at Explore UT, partner up with the American Chemical Society to participate in events like ScoutJam and National Chemistry Week, and even offered a class on “potions” and “divination” at a local Hogwarts Academy summer camp.

Women in Chemistry also, sometimes, just hang out with each other and have a good time.

“That was our original purpose,” says Taylor, “to create a community for women graduate students in the chemistry department. We still have movie nights and things like that, so it's not all work.”

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Comments 1

 
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