A FEW years ago, some members of the faculty and administration at Dartmouth College noticed that while 45 percent of incoming freshmen women indicated an interest in the sciences, only 15 percent ended up as science majors. This was typical of most institutions of higher education, says Carol Muller, an administrator with the school of engineering at Dartmouth.
She notes further that the attrition rate away from the sciences was twice as high for women as for men. Ms. Muller and others decided that young women needed some special encouragement to stick with their scientific inclinations. Their idea: a program called Women in Science (WIS), which immediately links freshmen women to faculty members and upper-division students in their areas of interest.
Muller points out that the program has been operating for just three years, so it's a little early to assess its long-term affect on graduates. But she sees some positive indicators, such as a jump in the proportion of incoming women, up to 55 percent, who express a preference for science. Muller says that may have something to do with the word getting out about Dartmouth's special effort to nurture scientific careers for women.
Amy Palmer, a junior, exemplifies the program's potential. She arrived at Dartmouth three years ago with an interest in chemistry, though her high school had not been particularly strong in that field. The WIS program enabled her to immediately get in touch with other women who were involved in chemistry. For one thing, the program offers freshmen a list of faculty members offering internships for women.
Ms. Palmer heard of the work on the carcinogenic effects of chromium being done by Karen Wetterhahn in the chemistry department and "blitzed" Professor Wetterhahn about it - she used the campus's ubiquitous electronic mail system to ask about the project. An internship was worked out for Palmer, and the result has been three years of painstaking, perhaps groundbreaking, research for her.
Palmer works in Wetterhahn's laboratory daily, often on weekends. During the current term, her hours in the lab sometimes total 60 to 80 a week, since this is her "leave" term that she can use as she chooses, an option open to all Dartmouth students.
Palmer has declared a major in biophysical chemistry, a step she might not have taken, she says, except for the substantial support she got through the WIS program.
Christina Ullrich, another junior, is a biology major. She also took advantage of the program in its first year. Like Palmer, she has spent three years on the same research project - in her case, an inquiry into herbicide resistance in plants, which has required her to grow mutant varieties and try to isolate the interaction of herbicides and enzymes in plant cells. She, too, has devoted a "leave" term to the work.
"Something really neat about the WIS," says Ms. Ullrich, "is that you could be researching something with a huge potential impact for the world."
Ullrich's work might contribute to the development of species-specific herbicides, for instance, and Palmer's could lead to better safety measures for workers who handle chromium.
Both young women say that without the encouragement offered by WIS, they - like others - could have been intimidated by the large, introductory science courses endured by freshmen. They had - and continue to have - other academic interests, such as Russian (Palmer) and French (Ullrich).
That sentiment is shared by engineering student Katharine Osborne. "Engineering would have intimidated me a lot more if it weren't for the WIS program," she says. "The first-year prerequisite courses are huge." Her interest was sustained, however, by intern work with a professor studying lasers.
In her freshman year, Ms. Osborne says, she had some concern that the WIS program was unfair to men, who weren't being offered the same internships. But she concluded that the program was justified in addressing the special problems facing women with an interest in science. Those problems are social as well as academic. "Definitely, when you're asked about your major and you say `engineering,' people cringe," she comments.
The rewards of pursuing the study of science may outweigh the negatives. "Now I have an idea about what life as a scientist would be like," says Ullrich, who is considering taking her interest in biology on to graduate school.
Ullrich smiles as she recalls the time in her freshman year when she overheated a growth chamber and accidentally "cooked" the mutants she had been carefully tending. That was a hard lesson in perseverance.
Professor Wetterhahn, who co-founded WIS with Muller, says students such as Palmer and Ullrich confirm the worth of the program: "They're really seasoned; I'm impressed."
But they are just two good examples among many, she adds. Wetterhahn sees "a wonderful response" from the faculty in offering internships to WIS participants. The number of internships - which include physics, math, engineering, and computer science as well as biology and chemistry - is up to 80 this year, from 40 when the program began. The goal, say Wetterhahn and Muller, is an internship for each young woman who wants one.
The internships are paid positions, notes Wetterhahn, which makes the WIS program more attractive to the 40 percent of Dartmouth students who are on financial aid. Funding for the WIS internships has come through various sources, including grants from the National Science Foundation and from corporations such as IBM, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard.