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Intelligent Women, Inspiring Futures

The College of New Jersey recently had the pleasure of welcoming high school students, TCNJ undergraduates, and alumni to visit the campus to celebrate the accomplishments of women in the fields of science and mathematics. The event was held on October 22, 2014.

“For the high school students that want to come here, they will find in today’s presentations and independent research studies that TCNJ is a very welcoming, collaborative, and supportive environment,” says the TCNJ School of Science’s dean, Jeffrey Osborn. “The school also positions students to be successful in whatever career paths they choose.”

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Dr. Tracy Kress provides welcome comments.

For this reason, all TCNJ faculty and staff, including biology professor, Dr. Tracy Kress, are avid supporters for students’ interests in the School of Science. “We want to encourage intelligent young women to enter science and math disciplines,” says Dr. Kress. “The purpose of the Women in Science program is for high school and TCNJ students to learn about the different career paths to pursue in the School of Science at this institution.” In the School of Science’s programs, the faculty and staff make it possible for students to accomplish seemingly unattainable goals in order to engage in the careers that exceed beyond their expectations.

Alumni panelist, Rachel (Sherman) Jones is a 2009 graduate, who has since become a high school physics teacher at Hunterdon Central. She was happy to announce her acceptance into NASA’s Zero Gravity flight program while she was an undergraduate physics major, and that she became one of the few who was chosen to fly NASA’s commercial parabolic aircraft.

The advantages of skillful women in science, in all disciplines and employment divisions, include working toward a positive change. TCNJ is driven to assure that all women in these fields are more than capable of achieving their sets of goals. “It really is a pleasure to see so many young ladies interested in science, because it takes so many different skills and so many people,” says TCNJ director of admissions, Grecia Montero. “We need scientists, so I’m glad that everyone here is thinking about that.”

TCNJ is a public, primarily undergraduate institution that draws attention to the residential experience and provides vast career opportunities for students. The faculty is committed to fostering and supporting a scholarly culture at TCNJ that is both grounded and engaging. Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary cooperation, undergraduate research, and internship opportunities are available for all students who are or want to become involved in these fields of study at this institution.

“The number of students at the School of Science conducting research is incredibly impressive. About 80% are doing research outside of their graduate years,” says Dr. Kress.

Montero, who has been with TCNJ for 14 years, believes that TCNJ is a fantastic school for numerous reasons, but particularly because the college lives up to its mission to make sure all students receive a “personalized and rigorous” education. “There are so many wonderful things happening at TCNJ,” she says. “We are always looking to see how we can improve and how we can get better. We celebrate what we do and then we ask, ‘what can we do differently? How can we get to the next level?’” At TCNJ, one of the faculty’s main ambitions is to guide their students to reach out to their instructors, advisors, and mentors, to help them get to where they need to be in the pursuit of their lifelong objectives no matter which field of study they decide to study.

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Alumni panel discussion.

Another panelist, Kayla Spector, is a 2013 graduate, and a clinical Laboratory Scientist at Mainline Health. She also values the idea that students should observe those who partake in the same science and math disciplines, because they are the people that should be sought after for guidance. “Stick by those who do what you think you want to do. It can be very inspirational,” says Spector. “It is important to find those types of connections with those who are in your field of interest, because they may have a significant impact on your future.”

The Celebration of Women in Science program highly emphasizes TCNJ’s mission, which is to provide a deeply engaging undergraduate education that will support all women students’ future endeavors, in addition to highlighting opportunities for mentored research, internships, as well as field experiences.

Taking a brief glance back at civil rights in U.S. history, women have struggled to overcome obstacles such as the right to having equal educational opportunities, in the hopes of ending gender-based prejudices.

Although it is hard to believe, gender bias is still prevalent for many women in the workforce. However, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) confirms that over the past few decades, the overall percentage of women earning degrees in science and math disciplines has increased substantially.

“These statistics are important,” states Dean Osborn, “and we at TCNJ have been addressing them in some pretty significant ways.” Dean Osborn adds that the faculty at the School of Science is made up of about 45% women.

Corresponding to TCNJ’s mission, Dean Osborn also emphasizes the importance of passion combined with knowledge. “Passion is what drives success,” he states. “The programs offered at TCNJ are designed for leadership development and collaboration, so that the courses are not solely based on lectures.”

The women scientists who participated in the panel discussion during the program, as well as the TCNJ alumni and faculty, each shared their incredible experiences in their disciplines while also stressing the importance of students following their aspirations in life.

Panelist, Rebecca (Gilbert) Gentile, a 1996 graduate, refused to let anything or anyone get in the way of her passion, despite negative third party perspectives from others in her field. “I chose to pursue chemistry mainly because a male teacher told me I couldn’t,” she stated. “I was told that I should live a more ‘domesticated’ life at home.” For the past 18 years, Gentile has been working as a specialist in vaccines and biological chemistry at Merck and Company.

Each of the program’s panelists validated that the belief in which women cannot balance their careers and their personal lives is a common misconception; one that can often hinder a woman’s full potential.

“As women, we have to think about what we want or need, and then base our work schedules around that,” says Gentile. “You can always change the balance if necessary.”

Alexa Beshera, a 2008 graduate who works as the Associate Dean of Research and Planning at Hudson County Community College, had been planning a wedding while also following a strict work schedule. She explains how vital communication is in terms of professional facilitation, and emphasizes the benefits of honesty and dialogue between members of the same fields. “It’s important to always have open communication if you need assistance with anything,” says Beshara. “If you need help meeting deadlines, or anything else, always take a step back to figure out what you need to do and then go from there.”

Heather McGowan, who is also a 2008 graduate, agrees that communication is key to most, if not all, roadblocks in a person’s career field. She uses her own personal account as an example, stating that having a reassuring bond with partners and employers is certainly ideal. “You must be communicative,” she says. “To women, for example, finding out you’re expecting can be a pretty nerve-racking situation, but I was happy to find that my boss was very supportive and understanding. So, it’s very important to know who’s in your corner.” McGowan is currently balancing motherhood and her career at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, in addition to being a combined M.D. and Ph.D. student at Rutgers University.

In most science and math disciplines, there are also opportunities to travel to destinations around the world. Furthermore, in some institutions, particularly in the medical fields, there is plenty of global outreach work to be done.

“The bonus about doing science is that you get to travel a lot,” says 2011 graduate, Yi-Hsuan (Cindy) Lin. “Prior to having the job I have now, I’ve never traveled as much as I have for business.” Lin graduated with a degree in physics, then worked at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, then went on to Drexel University, where she is currently pursuing her doctoral degree. She noted how her experiences at TCNJ led her to the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL) and then Drexel, through which she has met scientists from Brazil, Spain, Scotland, and Italy.

The most rewarding part of Lin’s career is what also signifies the core role she plays as a scientist. “What I love most about my job is that I learn about the most fundamental properties of our nature. The very things that make up our universe.”

Although identifying one’s passion is essential to being successful, searching for it can be a stressful process. TCNJ mathematics professor, Dr. Jana Gevertz, knows exactly how difficult it can be to figure out academic strengths and weaknesses. Professor Gevertz originally went to school to become a medical doctor, but the profession did not suit her career preferences. “My hands shook and things usually spilled everywhere,” she laughed. “I ruled out biology and medicine, so I really didn’t know what I wanted to major in.” Then, she discovered that she could combine her interests and passions in biology and mathematics, by pursing her Ph.D. in the interdisciplinary field of mathematical biology.

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Student research presentations.

Panelist, Jennifer Urban, who graduated in 2012, recalls approaching her first year at TCNJ with the same degree of uncertainty. She was caught between her two favorite subjects, math and chemistry. “I know I liked them, but I didn’t know how to target a career that involved both,” she says; so, she decided to double-major in both fields. “My internship made me realize how open the possibilities are, which also solidified my decision to go to grad school at the University of Rochester. Now, I get to do pretty much everything I wanted.”

Two of the most recent TCNJ graduates Leighanne Hsu, and Alexa Cain, both of whom earned their degrees in computer science in May 2014, entered the college with the same mindset when it came to planning their futures.

“I came to TCNJ without even the slightest idea of what I wanted to do,” says Hsu. “My father is a statistician, and encouraged me to become one too, but I thought it was too boring. Well…that was until I took my first statistics course at school.”

“I enjoyed so many things, so it was hard to figure out what I wanted,” Cain stated. “I’ve always been interested in computer science, but in high school I also wanted to quit multiple times because I was usually the only girl in the courses, so it was very isolating.”

Hsu and Cain were both invited to attend the annual Grace Hopper Conference, which recognized and celebrates women in the field of computer science. Hsu is currently in pursuit of her Master’s from Columbia University and Cain works as a computer software developer in Investment Management Systems at Vanguard.

As indicated by the program’s attendees, uncertainty about your major and a career path is not an uncommon feeling for new or incoming students. The underlying message for all students (women and men) who are considering studying science and math disciplines at the college is that it is okay to be unsure, because most of the faculty and students understand the pressure and confusion that comes along with this kind of decision-making.

For this reason, the TCNJ faculty members and peers are highly committed to assisting students in any way possible. Therefore, the Celebration of Women in Science event served as a reminder for all women high school students, undergraduates, and alumni, to set their goals and if they feel like they are on the path of doing something great, then they should not hesitate to follow that track.

“Figure out your passion. Whether it’s computer science, physics, or astronomy,” says Dr. Kress. “Decide what your passion is, and then pursue it, and make sure that you find and identify people who can serve as mentors and role models to you on your journey to becoming excellent scientists in the future.”

The School of Science seeks to provide exceptional and inspiring educational opportunities for all hardworking undergraduate students. There is a wide range of programs offered at the institution that are intended to provide all students with some incentive to study and succeed. TCNJ faculty members strongly encourage students to take what they can out of the classroom and apply this knowledge beyond the College in order to become a leading example for national and global change.

– Allison Graves

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