During her recent six-year stint as chairman of the biology department, Marcia O’Connell presided over an exciting period of transformation and growth: the adoption of new curriculum standards, an influx of faculty, and a push to increase research opportunities for undergraduates.
But her administrative duties left her little time for what she calls “the deep, quiet, strategic thinking” needed to translate laboratory experiments into a “good publishable story.” And so when O’Connell stepped down from her post a year ago, she seized upon the opportunity to jump-start an academic journal article on her research—gene regulation in the early-stage embryos of zebrafish—by consulting with one of the most active and prominent scholars in her field.
Just 10 miles away at Princeton University, Rebecca Burdine has spent the past several years running a large laboratory, supported by graduate and post-doctoral students, that focuses on embryonic development in the same species. In their meetings over the past year, the Princeton researcher not only reviewed a manuscript O’Connell is preparing, but shared the protocols and supplies for a series of experiments.
What made their connection possible was TCNJ’s Advancement Program, known as TAP, which promotes the careers of women professors in fields such as math, science and engineering, where they are still vastly underrepresented, according to numerous national studies. The program is supported by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation that provides funding for professional development initiatives ranging from travel grants to mentorships. O’Connell, who benefitted from the latter, called the grant’s timing “perfect.”
“This is a fast-moving field and I’m the only person here at TCNJ who specializes in it. So it’s very important to stay connected to other scientists in my research area,” she says.
The mentorship grants have allowed O’Connell and others at the College to consult with—and compensate—scholars at top research institutions who provide intensive and practical input on everything from research projects to academic publications. In some cases, they may even present co-authoring opportunities. O’Connell said her sessions with Burdine helped her to establish immediate, clear goals that put her journal article on track.
“Scientific isolation can hamper professional development. The point of the external mentorships is to pair researchers with counterparts in larger institutions and to bring that research model back,” said Diane Bates, an environmental sociologist who chairs TCNJ’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology and is a principal investigator for the NSF grant with Lisa Grega, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.
The zebrafish, a tiny freshwater fish related to the minnow, is known in developmental biology circles as the “the drosophila of the invertebrates,” because, as the much-studied fruit fly, its genetic code is fully sequenced, many interesting mutations that affect development have been generated, and its reproductive cycle is sufficiently quick and prolific that researchers can easily trace the genetic effects of their experiments.
O’Connell is particularly intrigued by a group of zebrafish genes that also appear in the fruit fly, and thus appear to have been “evolutionarily conserved,” as she put it.
“One of the interesting questions we have about these genes is whether they perform a similar function in both species or whether their role became different,” she says. “Answers to these questions could ultimately shed light on the common fundamental processes that are required for embryonic patterning.”
O’Connell’s intensive focus on basic scientific research reflects its growing importance at TCNJ, which has itself evolved from a primarily teaching-focused college to an ambitious liberal arts institution infused with a teaching mission.
“Teaching is still quite important here and we are known and valued for spending a lot of time with our students, but we now juggle that with significant research expectations,” said Karen Clark, an associate professor of mathematics and a co-director of TAP’s professional development initiative.
But the program also addresses broader national concerns about challenges women professors face in fields still dominated by men, including their comparative lack of mentors. Studies show they are less likely than their male colleagues, for example, to have role models or mentors and therefore receive limited advice on navigating the workplace and advancing their careers.
“There is plenty of research demonstrating that it is more difficult for women to publish. If you look at the scholarship on this topic, it is clear the battle to be recognized as scientists is still being waged,” said O’Connell, adding, “So it’s important for women researchers to seek out mentors—and not just men—but women who have been successful in promoting their work.”
National studies show the repercussions are multi-dimensional. A much-cited 2010 report on women’s progress in STEM fields by the American Association for University Women presented research showing that a female postdoctoral applicant had to be significantly more productive than a male applicant to receive the same peer review score. “This meant that she either had to publish at least three more papers in a prestigious science journal or an additional 20 papers in lesser-known specialty journals to be judged as productive as a male applicant,” the report found.
The AAUW study, “Why So Few?” also documented substantial gender gaps in STEM departments. While 40 percent of the full-time faculty in degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States in 2005 were women, women’s representation in STEM disciplines was significantly lower. Women made up less than one-quarter of the faculty in computer and information sciences (22 percent), math (19 percent), the physical sciences (18 percent), and engineering (12 percent). It went on to show that in the life sciences, “an area in which many people assume that women have achieved parity,” women made up only one-third (34 percent) of the faculty.
The study cited the persistence of social and environmental factors that contribute to the continuing underrepresentation of women in these fields, as girls continue to make well-documented academic strides in them.
“The rapid increase in the number of girls achieving very high scores on mathematics tests once thought to measure innate ability suggests that cultural factors are at work. Thirty years ago there were 13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the SAT math exam at age 13; today that ratio has shrunk to about 3:1,” the study authors noted.
It has been more than a decade since officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology acknowledged that women professors there experienced discrimination, following a report initiated by women faculty that showed bias in areas ranging from hiring, awards, promotions, and inclusion on important committees, among others.
The issue became front-and-center again in 2005 when Lawrence Summers, then the president of Harvard University, suggested that innate differences in “intrinsic aptitude” between the sexes may explain, along with “lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination,” why fewer women succeed in science and math careers.
At TCNJ, the TAP program is being used to develop a comprehensive career development model for women faculty members to ensure they are not lost to what is called “the leaky pipeline.” Initiatives include external mentorships, travel grants, brown bag lunches, and the development of family-friendly policies, among others.
“The preliminary analysis is that we’re looking better than the broader ‘leaky pipeline’ would suggest,” Bates said. “We’re arguing that that the environment at TCNJ is conducive to women in science. We are keeping and tenuring women, although we’re a little slower in promoting them to full professorship.”
Another way to advance women’s careers, TAP directors believe, is to increase their attendance at academic conferences, where they can meet other researchers in their field, including the scholars who may one day review their journal submissions. The program provides travel grants of $1,000 to faculty to attend important conferences, even if they’re not presenting at them.
“Travel grants open up doors, particularly to researchers who might not be quite at the stage to give a presentation on their project. It’s really important to foster professional networks,” said Clark.
Amanda Norvell, an associate professor of biology, is working with the College’s human resources office on developing family-friendly policies that will support women professors.
“Studies have shown that the balance between work and family, as well as the timing for having children, matter for the success of men’s and women’s academic careers,” Norvell said. “The goals of the TAP grant are to design programs that will enable female faculty to access the resources and support necessary for achieving tenure and promotion to higher academic ranks. Importantly, the benefits of college-wide family friendly policies should extend to all faculty members, male and female.”
Women professors at the College say they are confident that the program will have lasting and positive effects, even after the grant money has run out.
“The TAP program was written by a group of women who are not full professors. The idea was, ‘let’s help each other.’ A lot of us didn’t grow up with female mentors,” said Suriza van der Sandt, an associate professor of mathematics and statistics. “But as we move up to full professorships, the assistant professors will have people to consult on issues that particularly affect women. It becomes a supportive, productive cycle and that speaks to the spirit of TCNJ. This is a great working environment for women and this only helps us attract talented women.”