Women in STEM Mentoring female students

Breaking down barriers

At Loyola University Chicago, young women find the mentorship and camaraderie to bridge the gender gap in STEM fields.

Ariana Grymski knew from a young age that the hard sciences were for her. “I’ve always loved math,” she said. “In kindergarten, I’d ask my mom to get math books so we could play with them.”

Freshman year of high school, though, she got a B- in the subject. “I’m pretty sure I cried,” she said. “Math was kind of my thing.” After high school she decided to take a gap year, but didn’t want to go a full year without studying math so she signed up for a course online.

When she came to Loyola University Chicago, Grymski instantly felt a connection with Emily Peters, an assistant professor of mathematics and statistics. “She gets to know you on a personal level and makes you feel like you’re doing math with her,” said Grymski, a double math and physics major who expects to graduate in 2020. “I love going to her office hours because if you don’t understand something she’ll do whatever it takes to help you understand, like draw out notes or have you work on the board.”

It wasn’t until her sophomore year that Grymski discovered physics, and she took to it quickly. By the first month of her junior year, she knew she wanted to major in it. But her love of math has only grown under the guidance of Peters, and she’s come to enjoy the group work that Peters puts forward in class. “You really have to think about the problems she gives us and one person doesn’t dominate,” she said. “We all have to come up with ideas and help each other.”

A University-wide commitment

Grymski is one of many female students excelling in STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—at Loyola. On a national level, women tend to be underrepresented in these fields, as the U.S. Department of Commerce finds that women comprise 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce but hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs. And according to the National Center for Education Statistics, while women earn 57 percent of all undergraduate degrees they make up only 35 percent of undergraduate STEM degree recipients.

Loyola, however, is bucking that trend. A recent report by Emsi and The Wall Street Journal found that Loyola ranks seventh in the nation among colleges and universities for overall percentage of STEM graduates who are women. Using data from 2015-16, the report found that 344 of 706 STEM graduates at Loyola —or 48.7 percent—were women, putting the University well above the national average. The report also noted that Loyola has “had a constant presence at the top of the rankings in recent years.”

STEM programs at Loyola are incorporated in multiple schools and stretch across undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education programs, with nearly 30 undergraduate degrees and close to 40 graduate and continuing education programs focusing on STEM fields. Most recently, Loyola launched an engineering science program—with specializations in biomedical, computer, and environmental engineering—to round out the spectrum of STEM offerings.


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.

Meet six faculty members who help make Loyola one of the nation’s top schools for women in STEM. Read More

Loyola’s attention to STEM topics also extends to the Quinlan School of Business, where four graduate programs are now STEM designated—with many of those graduate students being women. Among the roughly 380 students in the Information Systems and Supply Chain Management majors and minors, for example, women actually outnumber men by a 51-49 percent ratio. That’s due in part to an effort to recruit undecided Quinlan freshman—many of whom are women—into those majors.

“Once we present to them the opportunities in these majors—the combination of STEM and social skills needed for success, and the great reputation of our department—the students become quite interested,” said Nenad Jukić, director of the Masters of Science in Information Systems Management and Graduate Certificate Programs in Business Data Analytics and Information Systems at Quinlan. “We always have special outreach to our female students to explain how these areas are available to them.”

The University’s commitment also extends to local grade schools, who participate in Science Sisters Day, a full-day event that brings middle-school girls from Maywood and Melrose Park to Loyola’s Health Sciences Campus for a day of educational science experiments and learning about women science pioneers. Immunology graduate students Abby Cannon and Anya Nikolai started the initiative as a project of the Women in Science group that they also founded.

Cannon explained that targeting middle-schoolers was a strategic move in helping young women shape their future careers. “Interest in science drops off at this age, so we wanted to target these girls and hopefully help keep up their interest in science as they get closer to high school and college,” she said.

On the Lake Shore Campus, Neha Goel took similar initiative in starting a group to support women interested in coding. Goel, a graduate student fellow in the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities, started Loyola’s first chapter of Girls Who Code. The group, which has chapters at schools around the country, provides a space for young women to learn, teach, and explore coding in an inclusive and supportive environment where they won’t be treated differently because of their gender.

Women should not feel alone in the STEM industry. They should never feel like they should quit because they’re the only woman in the room.”
— Neha Goel, founder of Loyola's chapter of Girls Who Code

Willetta Greene-Johnson, a professor in the physics and chemistry departments, agrees that Loyola is unique in both its numbers and inclusiveness towards women in STEM. She said that only about 20 percent of female students take an interest in the sciences in high school and that usually carries over to college, making the high numbers of women in STEM programs at Loyola particularly unusual. She credits a culture of distinct professionalism among faculty.

“I really want to give kudos to Loyola,” she said. “I’ve had four chairs and no issues over 25 years. They’ve been very respectful. It’s safe to say that’s not the typical experience.”

She knows because she’s lived it. Greene-Johnson recalls gender discrimination as far back as high school, including a time when her 10th grade geometry instructor threw her exam at her and said loudly, “You got the highest grade. Girls aren’t supposed to be good at math.”

Graduate school was worse. Gender insensitive jokes were exchanged as though she wasn’t there, conversations among other graduate students or faculty would stop when she walked in the room. And the best internships and scholarships went to male students. But she persevered, becoming the first African American woman in the country to obtain a PhD in theoretical physics.

Now, Greene-Johnson has steadily seen more women entering—and thriving—in the STEM fields, noting that 30-35 percent of chemistry graduate students and nearly 50 percent of undergraduates in the physics department are women. “We have women now who are not afraid to take on chemistry or physics or coding,” she said.

Setting an example

Margaret Faut Callahan, Loyola’s acting provost and chief academic officer and provost of the Health Sciences Campus, observes that young faculty members are often drawn to the University after they observe the caliber of the current female STEM faculty. “They see these successful female scientists here who are then there to help them grow,” she said.

That hasn’t always been the case for women interested in STEM fields. Peters, for example, recalls feeling socially disconnected as a young woman studying mathematics—particularly in graduate school, where she was often the only woman in class. “I remember looking around and noticing the men were sitting next to each other talking about material,” said Peters. “Nobody was sitting next to me so I didn’t have anyone to talk to while the lecture was happening.”

Peters is part of a team that recently won a SEMINAL (Student Engagement in Mathematics through an Institutional Network for Active Learning) award—an initiative through the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities to revamp first-year mathematics curricula for STEM majors. She’s dedicated to changing perceptions about math, including the belief that its difficulty level makes it prohibitive. She urges female STEM students to be proactive about their own growth and expanding their knowledge base.

“Find a mentor early on, get to know your professors and don’t be afraid to ask questions,” she said. “Take responsibility for your learning because I guarantee your professor will be delighted and you will get more out of class.”

A culture of mentorship

Callahan notes that one of Loyola’s strengths is the fact that many faculty members embrace their roles as advisors to female students, who often regard them as role models. “We’re helping to develop a generation of women who really see their role as mentoring the next generation,” she said.

One such role model is Katherine Knight, chair of the immunology department and one of the nation's leading immune system researchers. Knight says her trajectory wasn’t stymied much thanks to support along the way, which was uncommon at the time. “I had mentors who always valued what I wanted to do,” she said. “I was one of the lucky ones.”

Knight now considers being a mentor one of the most enjoyable parts of her profession and estimates that she’s mentored 30 PhD students, 15 junior faculty members, and dozens of summer students, in addition to those who drop in informally to talk.

“You spend enormous amounts of time with them to help them become the best that they can be and want to be,” she said. “With PhD students, that can be over a period of five years, so you get to know them really well.”

Knight has found that some women don’t recognize their own capabilities. “They have confidence issues, especially [in STEM] where they may have been told, ‘This is really not for you,’” she said. “They never quite know for sure if they’re on the right track and if things are going well.”

Whatever their source of struggle, Knight works with students to help them overcome obstacles. She recalls one female student who struggled with public speaking. “She came in obviously very smart but had terrible difficulty giving oral presentations. She would be in tears before and after. So we worked with her so that by the time she left she could walk up to any podium in any place and give a speech if she needed to.”

As female students approach graduation, Knight reminds them they can have their pick of the best professional opportunities if they just keep the self-doubt at bay.

“They don’t have to take a second class position or career that’s not at the top of the ladder,” she said. “They can go where they want to go.”

Greene-Johnson also works with students on their sense of self-assurance. She encourages them to speak up, give more oral presentations, and attend gatherings at support groups, such as Girls Who Code, where they can talk about concerns they may have. She notes that this lack of confidence is often the result of biases they experienced in grade school.

“We pretty much see equal performance up until 5th or 6th grade between boys and girls (in STEM subjects),” she said. “But then societal expectations of women and peer pressure can be a detractor. So it’s those unspoken challenges they’re grappling with by the time they get to college.”

Knight concurs that while there are still societal challenges for women interested in STEM fields, the culture is shifting for the better overall.

“When I became chair, I was one of a very few women—but now there are quite a lot of women chairs,” she said. “So it’s definitely improving.”

As for Grymski, she is continuing to take the next steps on her career path by following in the footsteps of her mentor, Peters. They have partnered to work on a research project examining Knot Theory and the two hope to develop computer programs to find Jones polynomials for different knots. Long-term, she’s considering a PhD in physics or math.

“I’d like to do research and do something new—like discover a new equation, help develop a new formula, or solve a problem that hasn’t been solved yet,” Grymski said.

Whatever path she chooses, she’s looking to Peters as a guide. “I really want to grow up to be like Emily because she’s a cool person and a cool mathematician. And it’s important to have both.”

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