Women in STEM Rebecca Silton, neuroscience and clinical psychology

Minding the gender gap

Rebecca Silton, PhD, has been passionate about women working in STEM fields ever since she was in graduate school. While serving on a committee to promote student interest, she found that women were noticeably absent from the Society for Psychophysiological Research. Even though there were plenty of women studying science in school, they seemed to disappear from the field after graduation. To combat this exodus, Silton and a few other graduate students started an annual luncheon, which has since grown into a standing committee to encourage women to pursue careers in science.

Now Silton, a professor of neuroscience and clinical psychology, chairs the Women in Science Education Committee. She currently teaches both undergraduate and graduate students at Loyola, leads laboratory studies on the neural correlates of well-being and positive emotion, and mentors students—all while balancing a family life. And she was more than happy to find the time to discuss her passion for women in STEM and how she navigates a career in a male-dominated field.

You’re very passionate about women in science. Who or what inspired you to get involved in your field?

I went to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and my sophomore year I had an instructor by the name of Jaine Strauss. I just wanted to be her when I grew up. She was very inspirational and was a great mentor.

During that time, I fell in love with psychology and went to graduate school at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. While there, Wendy Heller was my mentor and she was instrumental in my career. Having a female mentor and seeing that it’s possible to be female and brilliant, and have all of these other identities such as being a mother and daughter, was really important. I found that all of those identities really come together and inform our work as scientists. I’m still in contact with both Jaine and Wendy, which is so nice because they’re lifelong contacts that continue to make me feel inspired. Having role models who look like you in science is really important.

How has Loyola influenced or supported you throughout your career?

I’ve been at Loyola for nearly eight years—the longest I’ve been at any higher education institution—and I think I’ve been shaped positively by my colleagues in clinical psychology and in the Department of Psychology as a whole. Loyola’s lens of social justice and working towards a just society has really helped me think about how neuroscience can inform and develop a just society in a way that I maybe wouldn’t have thought about had I been at a different institution. It’s this concept that our education isn’t really for us—we’re doing this to better our society. It’s really made me think about how I can apply that to the research I’m doing in neuroscience, teaching, and mentoring students.


Loyola ranks among the top schools in the country for graduating women in STEM majors.


of Loyola's STEM degree recipients in 2015-16 were women.


of undergraduate STEM degrees nationwide are earned by women.


of STEM jobs nationwide are held by women.

How do you think you’ve made a difference as a woman in your field?

I hope I've been as inspirational to my students as my mentors were to me. I love working side-by-side with my students in the lab, and I encourage my undergraduate students to have a first-hand experience of working together. I learn just as much from them as they do from me, and I really value that kind of bi-directional sharing of co-created knowledge. And I think they've benefited a lot from that experience of collaborating in the lab.

That’s how our influence builds. I think of it as this tree—you're setting these roots and your students go out to build their own experiences. They take what I'm teaching them and make it their own. It’s a very dialectical experience that's incredible to see.

“There’s a lot of barriers and gender bias women experience, from comments on clothing to women being judged on their looks rather than intelligence and merit... We need to address that and encourage more women to be in the field.”
— Rebecca Silton, PhD

Why is it important to encourage more women to enter the STEM fields?

Women bring unique perspectives to the field, and we would be in trouble without those contributions. We can look back over time and see all of the amazing contributions women have made—from philosophy to science to computers. It’s obvious to me that of course women should be involved. In order to move science forward, we absolutely need to have a collaborative approach, especially as science becomes more interdisciplinary.

There’s a lot about this embodied experience of being a woman that is a nice skillset to help with communication. Women should be in leadership positions. There’s a lot of barriers and gender bias women experience, from comments on clothing to women being judged on their looks rather than intelligence and merit, which puts a lot of emotional burden on women. And we need to address that and encourage more women to be in the field.

What do you envision for the future of women in STEM at Loyola and beyond?

I think we've done a really good job getting women involved in our various STEM fields, but there are still some areas that can be improved. I have an undergraduate student who's in physics and she's one of the only female students in physics and math. I’d like to see more women in those fields. I think we need to work to try and improve the gender balance across all of the STEM fields, and I also think we need to focus on broader issues of inclusivity as well. We have a lot of work to do.


Meet six of the faculty who help make Loyola a leader for women in STEM.
Click the images to read their stories.