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New summer program encourages more women to pursue science

Release Date: 
Jul 14 2014

Among the books, papers and other materials that cover the desk of a busy faculty member at the IU School of Medicine, Teresa Zimmers, Ph.D., keeps a more unusual memento: a small plastic superhero.

Crystal Goodwin
Crystal Goodwin, a senior chemistry major at IUPUI, works in the lab of Teresa Zimmers, Ph.D., as part of the Women in Science Summer Internship Program. Andrea Bonetto, Ph.D., center, is a reseacher in the lab. | Photo By Kevin Fryling

"For a while I pretty much had my daughter convinced I was Wonder Woman," Dr. Zimmers said of the red-white-and-blue figurine. "She just accepted that maybe when I was away from home, I was out flying around." 

In reality, the associate professor of surgery manages a bustling lab on the third floor of Walther Hall investigating the physiological pathways that cause muscle wasting in individuals with cancer and burn injury. She is also one of the 11 female faculty members trying to inspire the next generation of female scientists by mentoring undergraduates in a new summer internship program between the IU School of Medicine Biomedical Gateway Program and the IUPUI Women in Science Program.

The internship, which runs from May 19 to July 14, aims to encourage more women to pursue careers in the sciences, especially academic research and medicine.

"A great number of women are coming into the sciences at the graduate level, but most don't choose to stay in academia after earning their doctorates; they tend to go into industry or other career fields," said Tara Hobson-Prater, director of the IU School of Medicine Biomedical Gateway Program and co-founder of the program. "What we're trying to do with the Women in Science Internship is cultivate a robust environment that fosters the growth of these women at the undergraduate level, informs them of their vast career options, inclusive and beyond academia, and encourages them to pursue science as professionals at every level.”

The program aims to patch a "leaky" education pipeline, in which women frequently choose to opt out of the sciences in the stages between high school, college, graduate and professional school, by fostering strong student-faculty mentorships, providing the chance to work in a lab and providing weekly enrichment workshops.

The workshops, a key aspect of the program, include a luncheon with current graduate students at the School of Medicine, including all nine Ph.D. programs, the M.D./Ph.D. program and master's programs; a career counseling session with the Science Prep Office at the School of Science at IUPUI; a career panel with representatives from non-Ph.D. careers in medicine, such as lab managers, technicians and genetic councilors; and a networking session with the IU Chapter of the American Medical Women's Association and the IUSM Women's Council.

"I think the session that impacted me the most was when they had representatives from the different Ph.D. programs and M.S. programs talk to us about their program and why they chose to pursue those paths," said Crystal Goodwin, a senior chemistry major at IUPUI and a Women in Science intern in Dr. Zimmers' lab. "Coming into this internship, I really didn't know where I wanted to go in my professional career; but now I feel very certain that I want to continue my education and get a Ph.D. or an M.D., that they're not out of reach. "

The opportunity to work in a lab has also been a "hugely" educational experience, said Goodwin, who conducts tests to identify the activation of specific chemical pathways in a protein related to cancer metabolism.

"I ask a lot of questions," added Goodwin, who works under the supervision of Andrea Bonetto, Ph.D., an assistant research professor of surgery. "I've been doing lab work in chemistry since my sophomore year in high school, but working in a biochemistry lab is a whole new world. It's definitely something that's changed my outlook quite a bit, and I'm really enjoying it. 

"I also love that it’s hands-on work; I'm not just sitting in front of a computer screen all day."

Nor does the research disappear after students finish their time in the lab, Dr. Zimmers said. At least four medical, undergraduate or high school students who have participated in summer research experiences in her lab over the years have had their names appear in academic journals, she said. 

"It's really wonderful to hear that Crystal's figured out that graduate and medical school aren't out of reach," she added. "I think it’s critical that students understand what they can achieve. It may be the most important aspect of the whole program."

Dr. Zimmers also notes she was "absolutely" attracted to the program's mission to encourage young women to enter science -- both as a scientist who's seen the number of women earning degrees in life science surpass men over the course of her career, as well as one who's seen a frustratingly persistent "lack of representation at the highest levels" of academic medicine.

Britt Reese, director of the IUPUI Women in Science Program and co-founder of the internship program, agrees. 

"Equal representation of women with Ph.D.s to men in academia won't be achieved for another 100 years at the current rate of change, according to a study recently published in the journal Science," said Reese, also an academic specialist in biology at the School of Science at IUPUI. "This program is one more step in accelerating that timeline."

The Women in Science Internship Program is supported by the Central Indiana STEP, a part of the National Science Foundation's STEM Talent Expansion Program. The primary investigators on the grant are Jeffrey X. Watt, Ph.D., associate dean for student affairs and outreach and associate chair and professor of mathematical sciences in the School of Science at IUPUI; and Kathleen A. Mars, Ph.D., associate dean for academic affair and associate professor of biology at the School of Science at IUPUI. Dr. Watt also serves as university director of Project Lead the Way.

(Story by by Kevin Fryling, INScope)