NJTL Editor’s note: With Women’s History Month approaching, we reached out to a very distinguished female educator and former professional chemist, to share her thoughts on the past and future of women in science. Maria DeBruin, NJ’s 2017-18 Milken Educator Award winner, responded with this very personal and very encouraging letter to her “next generation female scientists.” We hope that you find it to be as insightful and inspiring as we did. Enjoy.
“Dear Next Generation Female Scientist,
By all accounts, I should have given up my dream of being a scientist back in 1999. Let’s face it: I had just failed the high school AP Chemistry exam with a score of 1 out of 5. To put that in perspective, a 1 means that out of 160 points, I earned somewhere between 0-34 points (I would imagine I was closer to the bottom of that range.) That’s ridiculously bad… so bad, that I should have reconsidered my plan to become a bio-chemistry major that Fall. But I didn’t. Ultimately, I went on to be the valedictorian of the chemistry department, received every possible award all four years and had three different job offers from top pharmaceutical companies upon graduation (I took a job as an analytical chemist at Merck.) Best part of this story is that now I am a teacher. And guess what I teach? AP Chemistry. So, how did I go from being a complete AP Chem failure to pursuing my dreams of being a successful scientist? Read on Next Gen Science Girl!
BE DETERMINED – HAVE GRIT
Failure isn’t a permanent state for someone who has grit (just ask Angela Lee Duckworth whose “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” TED talk flooded our pages with over 13 million views.) I had been handed down a pretty powerful message from the College Board – “You don’t stand a chance! Take the next exit.” While I was disappointed, I knew deep down, that I hadn’t given it my best effort. I loved science, but my score wasn’t a reflection of what I knew I could do.
Maybe I was immature.
Maybe I had senioritis.
Whatever the reason, I wasn’t at my best.
You see, as a young child my dad had taught me grit. His constant insistence that I could do more or better, left me with a feeling that I could and should, in fact, do more. All. The. Time. I remember handing him a 95 on a test and him saying, “Good job, but why didn’t you get a 100?” While I knew my dad was proud of me, he knew that I could do more (or at least that’s what he was trying to teach me) and guess what? He was right. Don’t let one failure lead to your next. Assess why you failed and figure out how to succeed the next time.
THE SCIENCE COMMUNITY HAS YOUR BACK
While the statistics for female scientists were pretty horrendous a couple decades ago, the truth is that women ARE in science. Statistics show that women and men are equally represented in STEM related majors. In fact, the 2017 AP Chemistry exam hosted 78,803 males and 80,128 females (CollegeBoard 2017 Program Summary Report). (I actually have more girls in my own AP classes than boys!)
The unfortunate truth, however, is that those stats change dramatically once we measure the number of women actually working in the STEM industry. Women represent only 29% of the science and engineering workforce (NSF, Science & Engineering Indicators, 2016). The reasons for this huge difference? Well, there isn’t enough room in this blog… you’ll have to tune in for another read. So, why did I put the stats out there? Because if you are a female, the science community has your back! No one likes the statistics and industries are actively working to change them. Scholarships abound for women pursuing science related majors.
After a quick Google search, you will easily see that the number of scholarships and programs for girls pursuing STEM far outweigh the same opportunities for their male counterparts. My point is this– if you want to be a scientist, the odds are that the road will be paved for you. All you have to do is work your butt off – sounds pretty simple, right? This leads me to my next point.
FIND YOURSELF A CHEERLEADER – OR TWO
One of my favorite parts about being a teacher is the ability I have to literally shape someone else’s future. It’s quite an incredible feeling knowing that you are positively impacting a student and showing them how incredibly awesome they are – especially in science. If you ask any one of my students they will tell you that I teach them how to work hard, not that I teach them chemistry. I am their cheerleader on a daily basis because the truth is, the material is hard, life can be hard, and finding success, even harder. Ladies, what you really need is someone to cheer you on when the tears are rolling down your cheeks, to cheer you on when you feel like you can’t give any more, to cheer you on when you just earned a 1 on the AP Chemistry exam.
This is just the beginning for you. Don’t take the next exit. Instead, step on the gas, because at the end of the road… success will be there waiting for you.”