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Photo of girls in classroomIgniting Youthful Curiosity
Young Women in Science

by Jeff Worley

From 1971 to 1991, 11,989 doctoral degrees were awarded in the natural sciences in this country. Only 3,122 (approximately 27 percent) were awarded to women. And though women in higher education are moving into science and engineering in greater numbers than in the past, there are still some significant gender disparities. Of the 49 undergraduates who declared physics as their major in the 1998 fall semester at the University of Kentucky, for example, only six were women.

A new program at UK is working to change this imbalance. Supported by a $1,292,096 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, UK's Center on Drug and Alcohol Research (CDAR) has developed the Young Women in Science Program to encourage young women from Appalachia to pursue scientific careers in drug abuse research.

"Very few opportunities exist for rural high school women to learn about the excitement of science and the related scientific career opportunities in drug abuse research," says Carl Leukefeld, professor of psychiatry and director of CDAR. "This project will provide scientific education and mentoring to attract more young women to the field."

"The possibility to apply for funding for this program came across our desks, and we thought this was a very good fit for us," says Alayne White, director of UK's Institute on Women and Substance Abuse. "So often what we do are one-time things," she says, "a four-week summer program, for instance. We wanted to design a program that brought the girls in at the beginning of high school and that would stay with them through their high school careers," White says.

This three-year, "year-round" initiative includes a three-week residential program each summer at UK for 26 young women entering ninth grade in 13 counties in southeastern Kentucky. In addition, five Saturday sessions are scheduled at both Hazard Community College and Prestonsburg Community College throughout the year.

Students are expected to participate in this program for the full three years. The on-campus sessions include seminars on alcohol and drug issues, wellness, personal growth and development, and self-esteem. Each student is matched with a mentor, a UK faculty member or a woman who is involved in science in the Lexington area. Each summer a new group of young women will begin the program.

"We also schedule field trips to various places of interest, hands-on science activities, time for fitness and recreation, and the opportunity to meet and interact with scientific mentors," says Caroline Reid, the director of this program. While the focus is on education, she says that they also want the students to have fun. "One of the first activities we had was a campus-wide scavenger hunt," Reid says. "We came up with a list of objects and items for the girls to find on campus, then turned them loose with maps. It was a fun way for them to get a bit oriented to the campus, and the students also felt encouraged to talk to people along the way who'd help them."

"My group had to find something called Ovid's, we had to find a Kentucky Kernel [the student newspaper], and meet a police officer and get his badge number," says Kristin Adams, from Johnson County. Ovid's, it turned out, is a new café in UK's year-old William T. Young Library. "This was a fun way to find ourselves in the library for one thing," she adds.

Photo of Caroline ReidCaroline Reid: "All of the mentors in the program are women. A mentor can reaffirm that society's pressures are real and also provide assurance that young women can conquer these obstacles."

The students took field trips in July to Raven Run, a local wildlife sanctuary, to Versailles for a train ride, to the Toyota Plant in Georgetown, to Shaker Village, to Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom, to the Louisville Science Center, and to the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Science, which Megan Howard from Magoffin County characterizes as "awesome."

"We want to emphasize a variety of 'life experiences,'" Leukefeld says, "along with the academic component." "What we are really trying to do is connect science to the real world," adds Reid.

The various field trips were scheduled for the afternoons, after morning sessions in which the young women attended classes and worked in different laboratories. The classes focused on human anatomy, the nervous system, drug use and the influence of peers, the effects of depressants and stimulants, the properties and effects of alcohol, and data collection.

Jessica Coleman from Pike County says a favorite session for her was with Don Frazier, professor of physics and biophysics, and director of UK's Outreach Center for Science and Health Career Opportunities. "We got to see—and handle—human lungs, hearts and kidneys," Jessica says, adding that all the students wore plastic gloves to do so. "I held a heart that had had bypass surgery," says Carter Florence of Hazard. "It was neat because you could see where they had stitched it up."

All of the mentors in the program are women. "It is important that the students make meaningful contacts with women who are succeeding in scientific and mathematically based careers that are traditionally dominated by males," Reid says. "A mentor can reaffirm that society's pressures are real and also provide assurance that young women can conquer these obstacles."

Reid says the young women in this program are well taken care of. "We cover the expense of room and board—the girls stay in a campus dorm—and give each student $30 a week for the three weeks. Upon completion of the three-week program, they are each given a small stipend, and upon completion of the three-year program each young woman is provided with a $1,000 scholarship for any college she chooses to attend."

And Leukefeld and Reid emphasize the importance of extending the program beyond this three-week campus session. Among the topics to be covered later at the Saturday sessions are research on drug abuse and brain function, the relationship between drug abuse and hormones, often abused medications, and drug abuse prevention.

Kristin Adams was already thinking about the October meeting of the group at one of these community colleges. "It'll be like a reunion," she says, adding that the girls won't be strangers since the group plans to keep in contact primarily through e-mail exchanges. Several of the ninth graders also plan to stay in touch with their mentors via e-mail.

How does Reid feel about the success of the program this first time through? "I think we can say we are successful when we see the students enjoying the classes and see that they are able to apply concepts. They definitely now have a greater appreciation of the interrelatedness among scientific endeavor, human relations and drug abuse research," Reid says.

"I can't imagine my life now without being involved in research," says Megan Howard, who plans to come to UK after high school graduation. "And right now, I feel I'm probably way ahead of the other kids in science."