A recent Atlantic magazine story asked in its headline, "When Will the Gender Gap in Science Disappear?" This was not mere rhetoric. The story went on to discuss a recent study that estimates it will take 16 years before women are publishing an equal number of scientific papers as men. Some disciplines might reach parity in fewer years. And some, like physics, might take, say, 258 years to close the gap.
The story is one example of the increased scrutiny of the hurdles female scientists face in the field and reflects the larger systemic issues of bias in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math.) Over the last few years, this scrutiny has prompted a variety of positive changes: toy makers emphasizing science-related toys for girls, movements such as Girls Who Code, and an uptick in education opportunities.
Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Anna Llobet Megias heard the call and last year created a physics camp for young women, which is currently accepting applicants for its second season this summer. A scientist in the lab's Neutron Science and Technology group, Llobet Megias said the camp grew out of the awareness of the need to provide STEM education opportunities for young women combined with an assessment of what specific needs exist in Northern New Mexico.
"What is well known and well researched is, culturally, girls start losing interest in STEM early-on," she says. "Whether it's for play or the toys or society as a whole, they don't see themselves [as scientists] … or when they study science, very often the achievements of women have been misrepresented or not reported, so the role models are lacking." At LANL, she says, "we are working very hard to help change these perceptions. Many of us volunteer in the public schools, either as science judges … in science fairs, we volunteer in offering some specific classes to help build self confidence in these young women, so they can see women who are physicists or engineers and that we can do it all."
The camp is ambitious, providing a variety of activities, talks and opportunities. Last summer, Llobet Megias says, participants designed rockets, experimented with optics, and learned about electromagnetism from super conductors. They had lectures on everything from the Mars rover to coding. Attendees also visit LANL on a field trip.
Llobet Megias says organizers surveyed and analyzed last summer's 20 attendees' responses to the camp, and were encouraged to offer it again. The vast majority of the young women who attended—a diverse group from Santa Fe, Pojoaque, Española and Los Alamos—were enthusiastic, writing feedback such as "'the demonstration made things that are complicated and hard to understand into things that made me curious about physics,' or 'a wide range of topics from speakers made it very interesting' and 'the topics made me ask more questions about science and the intricacies that are required in research.'"
In addition to the science-centric talks and activities, the camp also provided talks on professional development, resume writing and LANL internship opportunities.
Most of the volunteers at the camp are women, Llobet Megias says, which leads to a comfortable environment in discussing issues such as how women can balance career and family. Moreover, the role models share the different paths they took to becoming scientists. "For some of us, it was early in life, others were late in life … some of us did community college and then went to college; others did a straight shot—college, post college, PhD and post-doc and then we had children. Some [through the GI bill] … went to the military service, served this country, and through that commitment they had the chance to go to college. There are many ways to get to that point, and we made an effort to show that there's not a right way or a wrong way."
Llobet Megias grew up in Spain and attended an all-girls school. "My role models were all women and I never questioned myself about going into STEM," she says. When she reached college, she began to realize the hurdles women face in the fields. That experience shapes her desire to provide young women in the area "a safe space to wonder, question and not be self-conscious."
YOUNG WOMEN CAN APPLY NOW
Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico Consortium, and Pojoaque Valley High School hosts a two-week Summer Physics Camp for Young Women in Northern New Mexico. The camp takes place June 11-22 at Pojoaque Valley High School. The camp is free to students and lunch will be provided. Participants who complete the program will be provided a stipend. Transportation from NM Park and Ride depot in Pojoaque (Cities of Gold parking area) can be arranged.
Requirements: Young women attending high school in Northern New Mexico. Must have completed Algebra I or high-level math course.
Application deadline: April 30
1. Send a letter expressing why you are interested in this program, how you believe this program will be useful to you and state your current career interests.
2. Ask a teacher from your school to send a letter supporting your participation.
3. Ask your school to send your high school transcript or equivalent that shows that you have completed Algebra I or higher-level math course.
Send all documents to firstname.lastname@example.org