Friday, November 09, 2007

Internationally-known Astronomers Encourage the Sciences at UIS

By Courtney Westlake

Dr. Roberta Humphreys has high hopes for the future of women in the sciences and encourages women to pursue their interests despite challenges, she said during a brown bag discussion that was part of two public presentations on Friday, November 9.

Humphreys' presentation was called "A Conversation on Being WISE: Women in Science and Engineering." Friday evening, at 7:30 p.m. in University Hall, room 2008, Dr. Kris Davidson will speak on "The Violent Supernova Impostor."

Davidson and Humphreys are both faculty members at the University of Minnesota, where Davidson is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Astronomy and Humphreys is Institute of Technology Distinguished Professor of Astronomy. Both collaborate with UIS Assistant Professor of Astronomy/Physics John Martin on ongoing research projects involving the Hubble Space Telescope and the Gemini Telescope in Chile.

Humphreys' seminar focused on how women can succeed professionally in scientific fields. She discussed her own experiences, as well as issues that women regularly encounter in academia and science, before opening the discussion to questions and comments from participants.

She also recommended several books, including "Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women" by Virginia Valian and "The Science Glass Ceiling" by Sue Rosser for further reading on the topic.

During her program, Humphreys offered a chart of numbers, showing a slow, but steady increase in the number of women pursuing their bachelor's, master's and Ph.D.'s in the sciences, including engineering, computer science, physics and more.

"When I got my Ph.D. in 1969, astronomy had the largest percentage of women, at 6 percent," Humphreys said. "Physics was at 2 percent, and math was non-existent."

Now, the culture is changing for the better, Humphreys said, and it seems every decade opens the door a little wider for women in all fields.

"Fields have become more family-friendly. But the question is, the numbers tell us things are changing, but is it a level playing field?" she asked. "I would say no, it isn't. But it will be someday. Eventually the numbers will rule."

Humphreys anticipates that women will begin to rise in leadership positions and change the policies. It all starts, however, with encouragement in the grade schools and high schools, she said.

"There is becoming a realization down through the grade schools, the middle schools and the high schools that they are going to need that preparation, not only for the sciences but to get into the best colleges," she said. "I think more and more that things are changing."