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Gast shares expertise at celebration of women in science

President Alice P. Gast, who serves on the NYAS Board of Governors, talked about the need to bring more young women into the STEM fields.

On the centennial of Marie Curie’s second Nobel Prize, Lehigh President Alice P. Gast joined an influential group of leaders in New York City to advance the role and participation of women in the sciences.

On Dec. 10, the same evening as the awarding of the 2011 Nobel Prizes, the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) hosted “Celebrating Women in Science” to derive meaningful outcomes from the centennial of one of the greatest achievements in science. NYAS, which aims to advance scientific research and knowledge, support scientific literacy, and promote the resolution of society’s challenges through science-based solutions, created the event to bring attention to the underrepresentation of women in the sciences and engineering.

In honor of Curie’s pioneering achievements in radioactivity, the event was attended by Her Royal Highness Princess Madeleine of Sweden. DuPont Chair of the Board and CEO Ellen Kullman provided the keynote address. Kullman delivered the 2010 Lehigh commencement address in May.

“This was a great opportunity to celebrate and talk about women in science,” says Gast, who serves on the NYAS Board of Governors. “We need to work on the pipeline of talent into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields at all levels. We need to support a K-16 STEM continuum from elementary school through college.”

“A very affirming endeavor”

Gast, an internationally renowned scholar, researcher and academic leader, served as part of a lively panel discussion entitled “Empowering & Mentoring the Next Generation of Women Scientists.” She was joined by Maria Freire, President of the Albert & Mary Lasker Foundation; Paul Greengard, Nobel Laureate and Professor of Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience at Rockefeller University; Toni Hoover, Senior Vice President, Global R&D at Pfizer Inc.; and Kelly Mack, Program Director of ADVANCE at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

During the panel discussion, Gast referenced some of the positive mentoring strategies in place at Lehigh, including the CHOICES program, which promotes interest in science, math and engineering among Lehigh Valley middle school girls.

“As a college student, being a mentor to a younger student can be a very affirming endeavor,” she said. “When you realize that you are the role model, it makes you think about your own aspirations from the perspective of somebody who might be inspired by them.” 

Gast also emphasized the importance women place in the social good that can come from engineering, illustrated by a Society of Women Engineers program that takes Lehigh students to Africa to help provide mobile technology solutions that connect women in the bush to doctors.

Mack and Gast also stressed the importance of the NSF’s ADVANCE program. Lehigh is one of seven  2010 recipients of an NSF ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Grant which allows the university to harness the strengths of interdisciplinarity to enhance recruitment, retention, and the advancement of women faculty in STEM fields.

Sibel Pamukcu, professor and chair of the civil and environmental engineering department, serves as Lehigh’s co-director of Lehigh ADVANCE and was in attendance Saturday evening.

“The event was very inspirational and motivational. Hearing and meeting exceptional women, including CEOs, vice presidents of major corporations and university presidents and provosts, reaffirmed for me the importance of our commitment to diversity and ensuring that young women have the opportunity to succeed in any field they choose,” Pamukcu says. “Because fewer women enter STEM fields, for a variety of reasons, it is vital for us to recognize and remove those barriers which discourage young women.”

Lehigh is the only school in Pennsylvania to be a member of the NYAS. As a result, Lehigh supports graduate student membership in NYAS so that they can participate in the organization’s scientific events and meetings. Currently, 100 Lehigh graduate students are enrolled as members. The many meetings and events are summarized on the NYAS web site.

In the fall, students from the physics department attended a condensed matter physics meeting and presented posters, while another group of students participated in a meeting to present alternative careers for doctoral students. Additional trips for graduate students to attend NYAS events will take place in the spring.

The Graduate Student Life Office will begin a new enrollment period for interested graduate students in the sciences in January 2012.

Story by Tricia Long

Posted on Wednesday, December 14, 2011

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