For centuries, women have fought for equality between the sexes. Inequality between women and men lurks in the shadows in seemingly small to egregiously large ways. From blue and pink baby shower themes to disparities in jobs, inequality exists in all aspects of society. Although society in the United States has made efforts to flatten the curve of inequality between the sexes, women today are still advocating for their rights in numerous ways.
Little girls are told to play with dolls and wear pink dresses. Whenever they do something that doesn’t fit this model, they’re told, “That’s for boys.” We tend to look up to people who look like us, and for many little girls, that means models, teachers, nurses and singers. Although those are amazing professions, we, as women, are shown that we cannot be the president of the United States, the surgeon that separates conjoined twins, a construction worker or a scientist.
The U.S. Department of Commerce released a 2017 report examining the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce breakdown. 48% of women in the United States have jobs supporting the efforts to close the gap between the sexes, but women hold only 24% of jobs in the STEM field.
In light of the disparities and in celebration of last month being Women’s History Month, this mini-series aims to highlight and celebrate Albion professors, alumni and students in the STEM field.
Albion Professors in STEM
From the department chair of kinesiology to the associate professor of geology Albion College has multiple women in the faculty for aspiring STEM majors to look up to.
Assistant biology professor Dr. Abigail Cahill is an invertebrate biologist, an ecologist, evolutionary biologist and marine biologist. She graduated as a double major in biology and French from Colgate College and received her PhD from Stony Brook University from the department of ecology and evolution.
Her interest in science sparked from a childhood spent reading science books and taking trips to museums. At first, she wanted to become a historian, but after quickly learning that reading and writing about history was not for her, she decided to pursue a career in biology.
Cahill was motivated to teach at a liberal arts college because she is able to work closely with students and work with undergraduates in the lab.
Growing up, a good support system was something Cahill did not lack, which is important in times of challenge. Cahill noticed that the challenges in her career were often mental, derived from an observation that scientific society awards for research would often be awarded to men while women received awards for service. Even today, she wonders how she is perceived in her teaching evaluations in comparison to her male colleagues.
“There’s a lot of research showing that women professors are rated lower than men for teaching the same class, particularly in science,” said Cahill. “There are studies that have been done on this, including online classes where the instructor was actually the same but students thought it was either a man or a woman based on the instructor’s name (which was different for two experimental groups).”
While Cahill serves her main duties at Albion, science has also taken her across the nation and the globe to present her work. Her favorite place to travel is France, where she worked in three different French labs and gained a humbling experience being an English speaker in science.
“Scientists in France need to become fluent in English in addition to gaining knowledge in their discipline, because science is all communicated in English these days. If you want anyone to read your work, it needs to be published in English,” said Cahill. “This experience has led me to develop an exercise where my classes at Albion work virtually with French students, so that my students get some experience with international collaboration.”
Cahill enjoys knitting, baking and reading during her leisure time. However, she said she still thinks about science and teaching outside of the lab.
“This job is like a gas,” said Cahill. “It expands to take all available space if you let it.”
Dr. Vanessa McCaffrey is a chemistry professor and an involved chemist. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from McNeese State University and received her PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
At first, McCaffrey wanted to be a veterinarian, but decided to change her major after she learned that she could not handle the sight of blood. During her undergraduate years, McCaffrey participated in a chemistry Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at Duke University, but it wasn’t until she found out that graduate school offers stipends to their students that she wanted to attend grad school. Although she learned to love grad school, she advises students to not choose graduate school for the same reasons she did.
While at grad school, she ended up being a joint student between a polymer chemistry lab and a physical organic chemistry lab. Her broad training in different areas of chemistry prepared her to teach at a liberal arts school.
Her entering class was half female and half male, and she joined a lab that, at the time, was 75% female. Her class would eventually become 100% female. While the amount of female representation was high, her motivation to join her lab was driven by her passion in the science conducted in the lab. With a full female lab, learning to trust and be willing to work with women as colleagues, not as technicians, was important for visiting professors to learn.
“The biggest challenge I have is getting people to take me seriously. I’m short, and I used to look much younger than I actually am,” said McCaffrey. “It’s gotten a little easier with more grey and a few more wrinkles, but I still have to remind people that my title is Dr. and not Ms. or Mrs.”
Being taken seriously was not McCaffrey’s only challenge. She also experienced sexual harassment early in her career. Unfortunately, for women, this is still not an uncommon experience.
“I cried in private a lot. I told people, and they either didn’t believe me or told me ‘I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way.’ It made for a lot of really awkward and uncomfortable situations, especially early in my career,” said McCaffrey. “Now? I try not to let it pass me by when I see it happening, either to me or other women. There is so much research showing that it is still happening. I work hard to pay attention and be a better advocate and champion for not just women, but everyone.”
McCaffrey did not let her challenges stop her. Rather, they made her stronger and work harder. An example of this is when she recruited five students instead of three after convincing her undergrad professor to teach an advanced organic chemistry course involving primary literature.
She also had the opportunity to attend conferences in Spain and Italy and present undergraduate research in Sweden and China. McCaffrey suggests that students become involved in academia if travelling is an interest.
One of her favorite memories involves her developing her confidence while defending her thesis. McCaffrey fought for her conclusions, and she had all of the data she needed to defend her thesis.
Outside of the lab, McCaffrey enjoys the feeling of running, of pushing her body to new limits. She also grows her own food during the warmer months, preserves it and eats it all winter long. Even though she did not become a veterinarian, her love for animals continues. McCaffrey leaves campus early on Wednesdays to volunteer at her local animal shelter and take a walk. She also loves to read.
Dr. Julie Cousins is an assistant kinesiology professor and an exercise psychologist. She graduated from Winona State University and received her PhD from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
Cousins is an avid endurance runner, and her curiosity in how running influenced the body led to her professor suggesting she take a course in exercise physiology. She swiftly fell in love about learning the physiological responses of the human body to physical activity. (One could even say she “runs” toward her passions.)
After participating in internships in cardiac rehabilitation and coaching endurance athletes, Cousins decided to attend grad school in order to learn more about how the human body functions. She did not want to keep her passions to herself and decided to share her knowledge of anatomy and physiology, nutrition and exercise physiology to others.
Cousins’ career allows her to attend ultramarathons to collect data. She is able to meet the runners and present her research at conferences, allowing her to stay up to date with kinesiology research.
Cousins has had positive experiences in her career by getting to do what she loves, researching and expanding her network of women in science. However, occasionally, she finds people will say insensitive statements because of their lack of understanding and knowledge.
“The discrimination that I experience from being in a kinesiology department comes from a lack of understanding of kinesiology,” said Cousins.
As an endurance runner, she loves to explore new trails and complete physical challenges. She recently completed an Ironman with her husband. The race challenged them in a new way, considering they had never ridden their bikes anywhere near 112 miles or didn’t know how to swim. Cousins also plans to complete a 100-mile running race at some point in her career. Besides running, Cousins also loves trying new recipes in the kitchen to satisfy her love to cook.