Confessions of a GU Woman in STEM

By Rachel Wishnie-Edwards

I recently declared as a math major, and am now officially a woman in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) field. When I was in middle school I absolutely hated math, but my parents pushed me to try my hardest in the hopes that someday I might enjoy it. I declared that once I got to college, I would never take a math class again. Yet in high school, the subject that used to have me in tears became easier, without me even noticing. Enjoying math crept up on me. In my freshman year calculus class at Georgetown, I realized just how many people still disliked the subject and only took it to fulfill a requirement. Many of the smart people around me labeled themselves as “not a math person.” I began to wonder if I was turning into one myself.

Whenever I called home during my first year, my dad would ask about how my classes, including physics and math, were going. Then he asked about the number of male and female students in the class. This didn’t make sense to me: weren’t we past the time where women felt academically inferior and were underrepresented in certain subjects? But as I went to class and looked around at my fellow students, I noticed that only five out of the twenty-something students in my physics class were women. Out of those five, three (myself included) dropped the physics major track after the first semester. My math class was relatively evenly divided, but there were still more male students. As people taking math classes to fulfill requirements have slipped away, the math classes I continue to take have a clearer male majority. Women have made amazing progress since the days that my grandmother was one of two female math majors in her University of Vermont graduating class of 1963, yet I’m increasingly seeing just how unbalanced many STEM subjects remain.

When two students in one of my current math classes announced the meeting of a club called Stemme, formerly GU Women in STEM, I was excited by the prospect of connecting with other women studying similar things. My roommate Kayla Schmittau, NHS ’17 and a pre-med Human Science major, went with me to the Stemme info session. She has had a very different Georgetown STEM experience than I have. All the students in her initial major, Nursing, were female students training for a care profession that has historically consisted predominantly of women. Within nursing, she says, more women are becoming nurse practitioners, a profession that requires several additional years of graduate school and broadens their scope of responsibilities in the medical field. Kayla says that the Human Science program, in which the majority of students are pre-med, is more evenly split between men and women. Given our different academic paths, we both had different hopes and expectations going into the meeting.

Stemme seems like an organization similar to GUWIL in many ways, but with a focus on STEM students. The president, Czarina Ramos ’16, described the group as a mixture of intellectual, professional, and social. Stemme members come from a variety of STEM subjects, but all had one thing in common: they faced the same gender inequality disparity in many of their classes. The purpose of Stemme is to serve as a safe space to help women advance in their STEM field. This can mean participating in a mentorship program, networking with alumni, attending career panels, workshops, and other events organized by the Stemme board. The group’s Spotlight Series gives students a chance to nominate inspiring undergrads, graduate students, and faculty members, and share the accomplishments of those women.

The part of the Stemme presentation I found most interesting was an explanation of a new CSJ program, STEM tutoring. The program aims to provide role models for young girls going to school in DC Ward 7 beginning to explore math and science subjects. These types of role models, women leading in STEM fields, are few and far between. I can’t imagine the way in which a similar outreach program might have changed my learning experiences, as a young student who hated math. It is important for the community of women in STEM to encourage girls’ budding interest in technological fields. Encouragement over time, not one radical event, helped me realize my interest in math. Young girls don’t need to experience a catalytic moment to force an interest in STEM, but instead to feel a confidence in themselves that will steadily give them the sense that they belong.