It used to be that men were the only ones allowed to call themselves scientists, in today’s world, gender structures are not so rigid. Even so, female scientists pursuing hard sciences has become a rarity, according to women and gender studies Professor Lucinda Cole.

That is the subject of “Women, Science and the Night Sky: A Panel Discussion,” which will be held Tues. Oct. 8 from 2:45 to 4:00 p.m. in the planetarium, accompanied by a slideshow in the dome, followed by a reception.

The panel resulted from a grant USM received from the National Science Foundation worth over $150,000 to fund the Southern Maine ADVANCE IT Catalyst project.

The grant funds a study to determine how USM can better recruit, retain and advance female faculty members in the sciences, technology, engineering, math and social and behavioral sciences. For students, it serves a different purpose.

“This grant gives us the funds to collect baseline data to see if there are any inequities in the way we’re teaching the sciences,” said Samantha Langley-Turnbaugh, associate vice president for academic affairs for research, scholarship, and creative activity.

Langley-Turnbaugh explained that “Women, Science and the Night Sky” came to be after she was approached by Associate Professor of theater Assunta Kent about the USM theatre department production she is directing, “Night Sky,” which features a female astronomer.

“[She] wants to build enthusiasm for the play,” said Langley-Turnbaugh. “I thought it was a great idea so I brought it to the faculty.” She said that the decision to make the planetarium the site of the panel was directly related to the fact that the play’s character is an astronomer.

The panel, like the grant, is concerned with difficulties women have faced in the sciences.

These subjects are very immediate to Kent, as well as to faculty members of science departments. “My first degree is a bachelors of science,” Kents said. “I’ve not forgotten that.”

“Historically women have been represented in scientific disciplines in smaller numbers than in other disciplines,” said Cole. “15 percent of astronomers worldwide are female, but there’s a lot of geographic diversity. So some countries will have no female astronomers and others will have 50 percent of their astronomers be women.”

Cole attributes the varied numbers to cultural differences in how women are being introduced to not just astronomy, but science in general.

In the United States, only 18 percent of astronomers are women, a significant difference from biological sciences, according to Cole.

“Sometimes the relationship between, like, groundwater and ending world hunger is not necessarily immediately apparent. So engineering might not be an immediate choice for a lot of women,” said Cole. “Women are given something to care about in the biological sciences; that is, they can see how animals and human health and environmental matters are ways of affecting the world.”

Cole, along with the other panel members, hope the discussion will elevate the conversation about women in hard sciences.

“[We want to] make it apparent that yes we do have a problem and it’s a problem that we can address we just have to find ways to talk about it,” said Cole. “I think that it takes historical knowledge, institutional knowledge, and a commitment.”


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