Chemistry major Therese Ziaks, a junior, says the decision to major in her field of interest was an easy one.
Ziaks initially declared a major in biology before she realized she was enjoying her general chemistry class more that her biology classes. She cites the “hands-on” approach of chemistry as what drew her to the field in the first place.
“I thought that chemistry was more of my thing, and I felt more comfortable in that setting,” Ziaks says.
“I think the best way to learn is to learn by doing,” she says. “Whether it’s drawing a structure, or doing a synthesis problem or a mechanism, or writing out your titration curve or something and doing the math for that, there’s always a way you can do a hands-on approach.”
Ziaks is one of 67 women majoring in chemistry at Southern. With 114 students in the program in total, women make up 59 percent of undergraduates.
“This [percentage] mirrors fairly closely [to] the percentage of women overall at the university,” says Chemistry Chairman Adiel Coca in an email interview, “which, I believe, is at 60 to 61 percent.”
Coca says that the number of women in chemistry at Southern is “considerably higher” than the national average, which is almost evenly split between genders—out of 16,133 bachelor’s degrees earned in 2017, 49 percent were obtained by women, according to the American Physical Society. Gender disparities become more apparent in graduate studies—42 percent of chemistry graduate students are women, and 36 percent of chemistry doctorate degrees are earned by women, according to the American Chemistry Society.
Far fewer women have been pursuing degrees in physics; out of 8,813 bachelor’s degrees in physics earned in 2017, 1,825—or 21 percent—were earned by women, according to the American Physical Society.
Physics Chairman Matthew Enjalran says that, while every year “hundreds of people” are taught physics at Southern, and while most people in introductory courses are women, few major in the program.
“Right now, for example, I’m teaching a Physics 103 class, which is primarily taken by people who are in the nursing program, or want to get in, or are in public health or something,” he says.
“There are 157 students in that class—the vast majority are women. A lot of that is driven by the fact, of course, that nursing is predominantly a female profession. Not exclusively—certainly, it’s changed a little bit, but it’s predominantly [female].”
There are seven women physics majors at Southern out of 64 in total, meaning that women compose 11 percent of physics undergraduate students. Enjalran attributed the low number of total majors to multiple factors, stating that the perception of physics being difficult turns away prospective majors.
“It is a hard topic in general, and most people find it harder than other areas,” he says, “and that’s because there’s a mathematic hurdle in a way; you have to be able to have some sort of grasp of calculus to be able to get through a major.”
Enjalran also said that “built in biases” can make physics an unappealing field for women specifically to break in to.
“Sometimes, they’re driven out—which is a sad statement to make, but it’s true—because they feel uncomfortable,” he says. “We’ve made improvements in certain areas, but we still have, as a community—I like to use that term generally for the physics community and the astrophysics community—we’ve made progress, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
Senior Keylea Brothers knew that she wanted to major in physics in high school because she’s “always been a science person,” even though being in that field as a woman meant facing adversity in her high school.
“I’m from Kentucky and my high school made a big ordeal about physics, and I wanted to take AP physics and they were like, ‘Oh, Keylea, [advanced placement] physics is extremely hard, it’s gonna be hard for you to pass it,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t wanna take it, that’s not what I want to do,’” says Brothers.
It wasn’t until she took physics courses at Southern that she realized she was still interested in pursuing physics even though it is a more difficult path.
“I think it also helped that the teachers here are very into you as a person, [rather] than teaching and leaving for their paycheck,” she says.
However, Brothers also said she has felt discouraged “in the sense of being a female” at Southern. While it is not always intentional, Brothers says there is still some stigma surrounding being a woman in physics that is so deep rooted that people often don’t realize what they are saying.
At Southern, Terri Bennett, math professor, is the new Associate Dean for STEM in the College of Arts & Sciences. Winnie Yu, computer science professor, is director Office of STEM Innovation and Leadership. Christine Broadbridge, physics professor, is executive director of Research and Innovation. In addition, she has been director of Connecticut State Colleges and Universities’ Center for Nanotechnology.
“We also have faculty that actively tries to encourage female students to get involved with research,” Coca says. “Students that are engaged in research generally tend to remain active in that field.”
Ziaks has been doing research with Southern for a year, and her second and current project has been done due in part to a fellowship with the Elm City Innovation Collaboration. Her first research project was anti-cancer research with her adviser, Candy Hwang.
“That was creating bismuth triazoles to see if they could exhibit cancer properties and be used either in conjugation with another chemotherapy or as a stand-alone chemotherapy,” she says.
Due to the length of the project, she shifted her focus and is currently working on creating an alternative form of treatment for people who can not take antibiotics to treat bacterial infections.
“We are currently working on synthesizing these compounds that’ll basically disrupt quorum sensing, which is the bacteria’s main form of communication,” she says. “So it’ll cut off communication between the cells, which prevents them from colonizing and infecting, and so that basically prevents them from gaining their properties and multiplying.”
Ziaks says that she’s currently in “phase one” of her research—phase two involves stabilizing the compounds and testing them on bacteria cell lines, which will be provided by the biology department.
“I wanted a project we could potentially have some really strong results for by the time I graduate,” she says. “At the rate we’re moving, which is really exciting, we could definitely go on to test them on bacteria hopefully within this year; maybe next semester, even by the end of this one.”
While Brothers is not currently pursuing any research, she has started looking into making a robot for her capstone project.
“We’re [Brothers and her partner] still trying to decide what we’re gonna make the robot do exactly,” she says, “but that’s what we’re headed towards.”
Brothers has also previously worked with Dana Incorporated, an automotive company that makes products such as drive shafts and axels. Two summers ago she worked with device representatives in the medical field to help design vices.
“I worked with [Dana Inc.] in the plant and we did more mechanical engineering and process engineering,” she says.
Brothers is leaning toward the medical field after both of her experiences, due in part to the fact that there are women in that area.
“It was like they had seen a ghost when I walked in [to Dana Inc.] and I entered a boy’s club I wasn’t invited to,” she says. “It wasn’t anything on them; it was different for them.”
Last year, Brothers attended the Conference for Women in Physics, which was held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The conference, which lasted for three days, focused not only on women in physics, but how to get more women involved in the field.
“I think it’s more seeing women working in the field and hearing what they do in the field; [it] makes it more interesting for me to want to do that kind of stuff,” she says.
Enjalran hopes that even though there are not specific programs in physics that are aimed at women, through general outreach and physics can grow to include more women in its department.
“We have been active in trying to encourage students who have been taking some of our classes who are not physics majors—individual faculty have made efforts to try and encourage them to join the research group,” he said. “You provide that mentorship in a way.”
Enjalran has also made it a point to visit several community colleges in the area. He has previously been to Gateway, Three Rivers, Housatonic and Norwalk, and he intends to visit Manchester Community College soon.
“And there I’m going to meet with students who are actually sitting in classes—physics classes, engineering classes, to tell them about our programs,” he says.
While he does not focus on any particular type of student, Enjalran has noticed that the representation within community college is “pretty good.”
“It’s more, what I would say, non-traditional students that you would see at a bigger university,” he says. “And that’s great.”
Despite the low number of women in the program, Brothers says that Southern is doing a good job at trying to recruit more women, and that more people need to “take the leap of faith” and join the program.
“This is actually kind of fun,” she says. “I mean, you learn a lot about what’s going on around you, but it helps you out in everyday life.”
Ziaks says that no matter who you are, there’s always an opportunity in the chemistry department, and she encourages any woman interested in the sciences to “go for it.”
“If [science is] what you love, then do it, because you should never be stifled, ever, and you should never settle for anything less than what you’re worth,” she says. “I think, especially here at Southern, there’s a place for everyone.”