By Spencer White
On Thursday, April 17, Catherine Fontana, ’08 alumna, presented on the role of gender in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In a talk titled “Breaking the Glass Beaker- Promoting Gender Equality in STEM,” Fontana discussed the conditions of gender politics in her career in science communications.
Fontana currently serves as the senior editor and project manager at BioScience Communications, the medical affairs division of Edelman, the world’s largest independent public relations firm. According to Fontana, BioScience Communications helps pharmaceutical companies publish their data and assemble informational materials for doctors prescribing newly approved drugs. She described an aspect of the job as letting pharmaceutical companies know when they could or could not make claims about drugs depending on the drug’s approval status.
During her undergraduate years at Albion, Fontana majored in Biology and English and was a member of the Ford Institute for Public Policy, the honors program, and the Center for Sustainability and the Environment. Despite her current work in biochemistry, Fontana says she was actually more interested in studying sustainability while she was at Albion. She then pursued graduate work in Ireland after winning the prestigious Mitchell Scholarship, and entered a PhD program studying climate change at Yale. Fontana claims she encountered resistance from Yale for her interdisciplinary thinking.
“What I loved about Albion is that a lot of creativity is encouraged here, and there’s also a great amount of independent scholarship you can do. At an R1 institution [like Yale], that isn’t appreciated. When I was trying to do my research project, I was interacting with two departments which in my mind fit together seamlessly, biophysics and environmental studies. To Yale, that was a very new concept.”
Fontana’s studies focused on reworking a fundamental aspect of climate change models. According to Fontana, current climate change models don’t properly take into account the presence of microbes in the Earth’s soil. Fontana believes that climate change is an urgent issue that demands the most accurate scientific information possible to combat. She says she encountered resistance to her work on climate change because of the contentious nature of the climate change debate.
“It’s difficult to have to fight with your university about trying to justify your research,” Fontana said. “It’s difficult to consistently have conversations with people about why climate change matters. It’s part of the broader conversation of fighting for your research. I know a lot of people fight for their research, but a lot of the times, people fighting for research don’t have to convince you that cancer’s an issue, or that hunger’s an issue. Climate change is still more or less hotly contested.”
After encountering resistance at Yale, Fontana decided to take her research elsewhere. During a break from her studies, she began working at BioScience Communications. She also began to write for Under the Microscope, a blog dedicated to covering women’s issues in science. The site is funded by the National Science Foundation and hosted by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York.
Fontana said that writing came easily to her because of her many contacts from Yale.
“It was very easy to call women up who I thought were doing exceptional research. In that sense, I got to understand just how incredible the women of Yale really are. It’s still a very difficult environment in which be a woman.”
Fontana claimed that many well-informed female scientists face resistance from males when they are assertive. She says that there are often negative reactions to female scientists who assert statements rather than pose questions during scientific discussions.
Fontana also claimed that women are paradoxically also thought of as incompetent, and that gender stereotypes that enforce a sense of “modesty” often prevent women from making their voice heard.
“Modesty assumes that you are putting other people before yourself,” Fontana said. “There’s no way to be modest and also help yourself. People assume ‘Oh, she’s not applying herself because she doesn’t understand it, so she’s not competent.’”
Fontana credits her postgraduate success to the skills she gained studying at Albion, as well as the support structure Albion faculty create for alumni.
She credits Dean McCurdy, professor of biology, with inspiring her to pursue science. Initially, Fontana was only interested in studying English to eventually go into environmental law. However, McCurdy’s assistance in her introductory biology course and his insistence that she declare a biology major led her to continue to study science.
Fontana also pointed to her experiences in internships that pointed her towards studying science. The summer between her first year at Albion and her sophomore year, Fontana interned with the Sierra Club, the United States’ largest environmental advocacy group. Fontana worked on a campaign to prevent Wal-Mart from building on the last wetlands in Pinellas County, Florida.
“There was an incredible movement within the St. Petersburg area to make sure this didn’t happen,” Fontana said. “A reason I think [the Ford institute] is really great is because these decisions were made by everyday citizens who came to city council meetings. The community had rallied around some citizen scientists who had proved the land was wetlands. Wal-Mart had sent their environmental scientist out and they said that they hadn’t recorded any endangered species on that land. Our scientist said that she went out for just an hour and found almost fifteen or sixteen endangered species. You would literally have to be blind to not realize that these animals are living there. That changed the entire course of that decision, and the wetlands are preserved now.”
Two weeks after the Sierra Club campaign, Fontana traveled abroad to study the effects of eco-tourism on islands in tidal zones in Germany.
Fontana saw the contributions to the public good that the citizen scientists were able to make in the preservation of the environment, and came back to campus as a sophomore dedicated to studying the environment.
“Although I’ve done some cool things, I wouldn’t have done them without any of the support systems I’ve had here,” Fontana said. “That’s what’s so important about this place. Any time I go out in the world and do something, I’m proud to be a graduate of Albion.”