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Leveling the Field for Women in Science

By Theresa Kuhlmann

"Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, 'She doesn't have what it takes.' They will say, 'Women don't have what it takes.'" -- Clare Boothe Luce, 1903-1987

A playwright, journalist, U.S. Ambassador to Italy, and the first woman elected to Congress from Connecticut, Clare Boothe Luce was one of the most influential women of the mid-20th century. Beyond her own accomplishments, she campaigned for women's rights and was actively involved in expanding the boundaries that define a "woman's place."

Luce's vision for women's equality today reaches beyond her lifetime to support women through the Clare Boothe Luce Program, established by Luce in her will and administered through the Henry Luce Foundation, a philanthropic organization created by her husband, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time, Inc. The program provides support to institutions with strong science programs committed to fostering access to women interested in pursuing scientific careers.

In 2005, Knox College was invited to apply for a grant from the Clare Boothe Luce Program and received more than $200,000. The grant will provide full-tuition scholarships to four female students majoring in computer science and physics during their junior and senior years. The first pair of Luce Scholars was chosen in 2006; the second will be selected in 2007.

An Excellent Track Record
Knox's strong record of support for women in the sciences was the crucial factor in securing this highly competitive grant from the Clare Boothe Luce Program.

"This scholarship is a very strong endorsement of Knox's excellent track record in educating women in the sciences and encouraging them in the pursuit of scientific careers," says David Amor, director of corporate and foundation relations.

This record includes women as science faculty, science majors, and science alumnae. One-third of all tenure-track appointments in the sciences over the past decade have been women, and women have been promoted and received tenure at the same rate as their male colleagues. A woman (Linda Dybas '64) holds one of two named professorships in the sciences, and women have chaired the biology, biochemistry, computer science, mathematics, and psychology departments. Women currently make up more than 50 percent of all Knox science majors, and, between 1993-2002, comprised 49 percent of all Knox graduates receiving Ph.D.s in the sciences.

The Luce Program's Undergraduate Scholarships are intended specifically to support women in fields where they are still underrepresented nationally, and Knox has two disciplines where this is the case -- computer science and physics. Knox women planning to major in these two fields are encouraged to apply for the high-profile, full-tuition awards, and the Luce Scholars are selected by a committee of faculty, based upon their academic performance, letters of recommendation, personal statements, and personal interviews.

Electrical Coils & a Yellow Brick Road
Juniors Emily Jackson and Yvonne Ramirez are Knox's first Clare Boothe Luce Scholars. Jackson, from Palatine, Illinois, is working on a degree in physics, and Ramirez, from Belle Harbor, New York, is pursuing studies in computer science. Both are passionate about the research they do with their professors and hope to become college professors themselves.

"Physics was my most enjoyable subject in high school," Emily Jackson says. Although her original plan was to attend medical school, Jackson realized her true passion was physics. "I found out I liked the experiments. I get to see science at work," she says.

Jackson is currently working as a research assistant with Professor of Physics Mark Shroyer. Her summer research project involved the re-assembly of a prototype of a nuclear quadropole double resonance spectrometer. According to Shroyer, the instrument is an important piece of equipment which measures the interaction of a non-spherical nucleus with its impurities in semiconductors.

"I really enjoy the challenges of the projects and the research I am doing -- the thrill of learning something new and seeing what I can do with it," Jackson says.

Jackson also had the opportunity to work with junior high school girls interested in physics during summer 2006. She was a student mentor at the Knox Summer Science Camp. Jackson says she truly enjoyed her experience. "The girls and I had a common thread -- faculty recognized our potential and our interest in science," she says.

Yvonne Ramirez originally planned to pursue a career in creative writing. Now, as a computer science major, she has combined her interest in science and literature. Her current research project on The Royal Book of Oz by L. Frank Baum uses computer algorithms to help determine literary authorship. Speculative theories credit Ruth Plumly Thompson as the authentic author of the Oz book.

"I want to see if a content analysis can determine which author had more influence on the work, instead of just looking at syntactical style," she says. "My research results strongly favor Thompson, but indicated Baum's presence in some of the key plot lines."

Researching literature is not the last chapter for Ramirez, and she remains pleased with the results of her creativity. "The idea of teaching computer science is exciting. It would allow me to reach many students who may not have before considered computer science as an interest."

Leveling the Playing Field
The Clare Boothe Luce Program has had more than an academic impact on Jackson and Ramirez. It has personally inspired them.

"Clare Boothe Luce recognized a lack of opportunities for women and thought it wasn't right. This scholarship -- levels the playing field," Jackson says.

Ramirez adds, "If I can have more knowledge and teach people about computer science or make life easier -- make the world better for the people in it -- then I will have done well."

This is the effect Knox hoped the program would have on its participants.

"The Clare Boothe Luce Program is the single most significant source of private support for women in science, math, and engineering at Knox," says Lawrence Breitborde, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College. "We are committed to doing what we can to help women and other underrepresented groups advance in the science fields. We hope, and the Luce Foundation expects, that this program will encourage other Knox women to consider majoring in these fields."

A Supportive Environment
To bolster the effectiveness of the Luce Scholarships, Knox has also created a support program to help female students maintain their enthusiasm through the crucial introductory-level courses in computer science and physics where, nationally, many women may lose interest in these fields.

"At Knox, we do a good job of commanding and building support for women in some sciences, and often that's all that's needed. But studies show that if the girls don't feel like they fit in, they lose interest," says Professor Mary Armon '85, chair of the mathematics department and coordinator of the support program.

The program works with faculty to identify women at the early stages of study; to help them feel welcome; to provide appropriate praise, encouragement, and support; and to steer them to other supportive resources, such as tutors and mentors, where needed.

"There is no substitute for a role model or mentor," Armon says. "When students meet with a speaker or professor one-on-one -- when they become familiar with real-world challenges and the tools and teamwork needed for the job?that's more than a pep talk, that gives them proactive and practical ways to navigate their own future."