As we gear up for Hidden Figures Revealed: Realizing the Dream, a panel discussion and screening of the 20th Century Fox movie production Hidden Figures in the LSU Union Theater on March 17, we are bringing you the voices and faces of some of our most outstanding women scientists in the LSU College of Science! Over the next few weeks, you'll hear about what it's like to be a woman, and a woman of color, in STEM, and how women scientists here at LSU are overcoming obstacles and realizing dreams.
This week, we chatted with the LSU Women in Science (WIS) group to learn more about what it's like to be a woman in STEM and how women are being supported in STEM careers at our university. Current leadership members of the group include Julie Butler, a graduate student in the LSU Department of Biological Sciences, and Kelcee Smith, Cassandra Skaggs and Amie Settlecowski from the LSU School of Renewable Natural Resources.
LSU College of Science: What is the Women in Science group at LSU? What are your goals related to promoting women in STEM fields?
Julie Butler: We started this group informally last year (2016) to create an open community for female graduate students and postdocs in STEM disciplines. Since then the group has expanded to include students, postdocs and faculty from many departments across campus. Because of this growth and interest, we are currently in the process of becoming an official organization with the university with the hope of eventually affiliating with a national organization like AWIS.
We have three main goals with LSU WIS. First, we hope to provide an enriching environment to support female graduate students, postdocs and faculty. To do this, we curate and create professional development resources, serve as an open community, and connect female graduate students with mentors. Our second goal is to pursue outreach opportunities to encourage girls’ involvement in STEM-related fields. Our final goal is to encourage female undergraduate students to pursue research opportunities and STEM-related careers.
LSU College of Science: From your perspective, what issues, barriers or other challenges do women in STEM face today? How do you see these being addressed at LSU?
Julie Butler: More women than ever before are getting PhDs in STEM fields. In my opinion, the issues and barriers faced by women seem to be specific to career goals and vary by field. For me, as someone who hopes to go into academia, one of the biggest issues is the leaky pipeline. Even though women are getting their PhDs, fewer women than men go on to postdocs, and even fewer end up in tenure track faculty positions. There are many reasons for this, but one common theme is lack of support and infrastructure to encourage women into advanced STEM careers. Seeing women in high-ranking positions at LSU, like Dean Cynthia Peterson of the LSU College of Science, is very encouraging. It’s also amazing to see female faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences being successful.
Cassandra Skaggs: I agree with Julie! More women today are obtaining graduate degrees, but that is not translating into the workforce. For me personally, I want to go into resource management, but the gaps are very similar as in academia. How do you choose between personal relationships, starting a family, and maintain a demanding career? Do you have to choose? The answer to this question has continued to evolve with time and it is very encouraging to see women who are successful and also have life-work balance. Mentor programs are a bright spot for me because you not only interact with successful women in science but also have an opportunity to understand their success.
Kelcee Smith: I think a lot of women in STEM don’t realize the barriers they face. I know I didn’t at first, especially in the beginning at the undergraduate level. It’s not until you’re in the thick of things, as a graduate student or in a more senior position, that you realize some of the challenges facing women in STEM fields: unequal pay, sexual harassment, resume bias, etc. It’s not all terrible though. Women have a lot to offer the STEM disciplines. It’s my hope that the Women in Science group at LSU will provide inspiration and support so that all women can be successful in STEM.
LSU College of Science: What does being a woman in science mean for you personally? Have you faced any notable challenges, or opportunities, that you would ascribe at least partly to your gender? Is there anything you wish were different?
Julie Butler: I’ve actually been pretty lucky to not face many challenges due to my gender. As an undergraduate researcher, my faculty advisor was an older man. He wouldn’t let me work after dark in the lab, but allowed my male undergrad colleague to do so. Upon talking to him about it, I learned it was just him being protective of me because I reminded him of his daughter. He eventually came around to the idea. When applying to graduate schools, an older male faculty member told me he only took male graduate students. So there’s obviously still people out there with skewed opinions on women in science, but I’ve been lucky and like to think LSU is a little better than other places!
Kelcee Smith: I love being a woman in science. I love breaking the stereotype that scientists tend to be male. I love the camaraderie I have with other women in science, and I love the added challenge of being in the minority. As a former shark biologist with NOAA Fisheries, I’ve definitely experienced my fair share of shocked looks, demeaning comments, and general harassment because of my gender, not from my colleagues (who were mostly women), but from the public. But I try to look at all of those situations as an opportunity, an opportunity for education or a way to shift people's perspectives. The best part is, my success only solidifies my example.
Cassandra Skaggs: Personally, it means giving back to the science community in honor of those who helped me succeed. Whether that means doing well in my coursework, being a mentor, or publishing my work, I feel like I should give back in some way.
Generally, I cannot think of a time my gender inhibited me in an academic lab setting. But in the field this comes up rather frequently. Yes, I can back up a trailer. Yes, I can drive a stick-shift. Yes, I can drive an airboat. Yes, I can shoot a gun. And yes, I can clean this Canada Goose and cook it faster than you. People ask me, "how can you drive across the country by yourself?" Simple. I get in my car and drive. While I say these statements in jest, I have actually been asked these questions before.
As long as you don’t question your own ability, there is nothing stopping you from succeeding!
LSU College of Science: What advice do you have for female students looking to go into STEM fields?
Julie Butler: Do it! There are definitely jerks out there, and the status of women in science may not be equal to that of men quite yet, but it’s getting better. Don’t let it discourage you! Passion and enthusiasm go a long way and make overcoming some of these obstacles a little bit easier.
Kelcee Smith: Don’t be afraid to get outside the box to gain new experiences or skills. Sometimes the best career moves don’t involve money. Gather a support system and keep these people close. Get ready to work hard. Remember that no one can steal your drive or passion. Set goals, make a plan, and write down the steps – where do you want to be in 5 years?
Cassandra Skaggs: Find a topic you enjoy, and then talk to someone who does exactly that! Ask them how they got to where they are and what opportunities exist. Ask them what classes you should take or how best to write a resume and cover letter for employers in that field. Ask and learn. The responsibility falls to you to be persistent. I once waited outside of a professor’s classroom because he was too busy to meet with me but I figured he could walk and talk. By that summer, he was my first mentor and I had a paid undergraduate research job in his lab.
LSU College of Science: How can we help women have positive experiences in STEM careers or scientific research?
Julie Butler: One of ideas that our group has really tried to push is that mentoring and support are key to promoting women in science. As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see. This is especially critical for young girls, who often look for examples of role models in the careers they want to pursue. The same thing happens to adult women too. For example, if a woman never sees another woman higher than her on the ladder in her field, she might think, subconsciously, that she can't get there. This often results in imposter syndrome, lack of confidence, and not asking for promotions, even among the most qualified women. The best way to remedy this situation is to keep women moving into higher, more leadership-oriented roles. It’s essential to have strong female role models in science and mentors and communities that are equally supportive, in order for women in STEM to be successful at all levels.
LSU College of Science: From your perspective, what can male colleagues do to help promote gender diversity in STEM?
Julie Butler: This has been a big focus of our organization over the last year. We are lucky enough to have great male colleagues interested in supporting and promoting women in science. I think one of the easiest things for male colleagues to do is to understand the issue and learn about their own implicit biases. The next step is doing something about it. We host an open meeting once a semester and encourage everyone to attend. Through these meetings we’ve had great conversations between male and female faculty members about what they can do to encourage and support their female graduate students and workers.
Kelcee Smith: Men in STEM are the closest allies for women in STEM and they can play a critical role in a variety of ways. They can support women at different stages of their careers, encourage them to pursue their own ideas and interests by giving them respect and honest feedback, and they can speak up for them outside of science. We’re all on the same team anyway – the STEM team – and we have to work together in order to be the best we can be.
LSU College of Science: What inspires you personally to continue your career in STEM / scientific research?
Julie Butler: For me personally, it’s the science. I love what I study, and I’m kind of addicted to the scientific process. Research is problem solving – sometimes it seems like a game to me. And I honestly just enjoy it. I’m lucky enough to have an incredibly supportive mentor and lab group, which makes it even more enjoyable.
Kelcee Smith: Two things: 1) The science. It’s too important for me not to pursue. I find so much fulfillment in my research that I couldn’t imagine letting anything get in the way, even a little thing like gender inequality. 2) The idea that someone younger than me is out there watching. A little girl might see me and say, “Wow, I can do that,” and a little boy right next to her might say, “Wow, girls can do that.”
Cassandra Skaggs: I have a passion for wildlife management, waterfowl, anurans, and wetlands. This trickles down into every decision I have made since chatting with that professor in the hallway. I enjoy learning. Everyone should do something they enjoy because the time is going to pass regardless.
LSU College of Science: Anything else you'd like to add about your group's activities?
Julie Butler: Join us! We have meetings the first Tuesday of every month during the semester and produce a monthly newsletter with information and news about the group and meeting locations. We are always interested in different perspectives and viewpoints. To be successful and accomplish all our goals, we need you! If you are interested in what we have discussed, please sign up for the newsletter by emailing us (Jbutl48@lsu.edu) or join the Facebook page. We would love to see you at our next meeting on March 7, 2017!
Join the College of Science on March 17th to watch Hidden Figures, with scientists! Showtime is 5 p.m. in the LSU Student Union Theater. RSVP here.
FRIDAY, MARCH 17 | LSU UNION THEATER
- 3:45 p.m. Meet and greet with panelists
- 4:30 p.m. Theater doors open
- 5 p.m. Movie Screening
- 7 p.m. Panel discussion
Open to the public!