“If you’re passionate about something, you will do what it takes to learn the skills you need to pursue it. The Bryn Mawr science faculty believes that passion is contagious, so we are very open about our passion for science, and we communicate that to students from the very beginning. Students in my introductory general chemistry class may not be able to fully understand my research in quantum mechanics, but that doesn’t stop me from discussing it with them at a level they can grasp and sharing with them what makes it so fascinating and exciting for me. We are interested in developing students’ passion for science, not in screening out those who haven’t already been encouraged to recognize what is fascinating about science.
“There are so many subtle ways in which girls and women are repeatedly told that they don’t “fit in” to the world of science, from the masculine color coding of lab equipment and science toys to the sizes and heights of lab benches and classroom furnishings. Labs are often blue or green (try Googling images for “chemistry laboratory” and sorting by color!), and even two-year-olds know that blue is for boys. These examples might seem trivial, but chemists know that when you are separating two substances that are very similar, you don’t need to find some way in which they are very different and use that to sort them out: you simply run the separation based on the tiny difference over and over and over again. This is one way women may be filtered out of high-level science: the messages about women not belonging in science can be very subtle, but sending them over and over again has a cumulative effect.
“At Bryn Mawr, the science faculty tries to envision itself as a pump rather than a filter. We think about the students we are teaching and whether the learning environment, including the built environment, is hospitable to them. When we renovated the research-methodology laboratory here, I asked the architects if the height of the benches could be calibrated to fit the average woman instead of the average man. It turns out that building the benches to fit the characteristics of the student population for which they are primarily intended also makes them wheelchair-accessible. Our lab illustrates our teaching philosophy in concrete terms.”
Note: In 2004, the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the nation’s premier chemistry journal, identified an article co-authored by Michelle Francl as one of the 125 most-cited papers the journal had published in its 125-year history. As a columnist for Nature Chemistry, Francl recently published a commentary, “Sex and the Citadel of Science,” that details ways in which the built environment of science can diminish and discourage women. The commentary appeared in an issue celebrating the 100th anniversary of Marie Curie’s second Nobel Prize. Francl also suggested the cover image, a photo mosaic of Curie made up of photos of female scientists, many of them alumnae of Bryn Mawr.