Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Undergraduate research redux

Subtitle: Building an "old girls" network

I've talked before, on this blog, about my struggles with figuring out how to most effectively mentor the female/minority students here (and the overwhelming need for me to do so). I've tried a few things, but they've been small, and to be honest I haven't been very good about sustaining anything. The main reason---and I hate to use it as an excuse---is time. These past few months have kicked my butt, and I've had to make some hard choices about what I do and what I let go. But I've continued to think about what I can and should be doing, and doing some "small scale" mentoring (chatting with women students one-on-one, etc) in the interim.

I am convinced, however, that when I do get complacent, the universe sends me little karmic messages that get my attention back onto the mentoring thing. The latest came over a discussion with a junior female scientist in another department. She was talking about what made her decide to major in science in college. What sealed the deal for her was when a senior faculty member (a woman) invited her to do research with her---when this student was fairly young, a sophomore. She was so impressed that a professor---a woman professor!---thought she was good enough to work with her, and then of course she fell in love with lab work, and the rest is history.

Brilliant!

Those of you who have read my blog for a while know that I already work with undergraduates fairly regularly in my research. But I never considered using research as a recruiting tool. (Duh!) I mean, I did, sort of, but I never really thought of tweaking the recruiting process to get a certain type of researcher. No, I did what my male colleagues told me to do: send out an email, wait for replies, pick the best student. Because, you know, that's the "fair" way to do it. And I've found some fabulous student researchers that way. But almost no women reply, ever, to these emails.

What if, instead, I go right to the female students, and ask them directly? And what if some of these students are younger, maybe not even majors yet? This strategy might not be "fair" in the conventional sense, in that I'm not giving everyone an equal opportunity to participate. But that "equal" opportunity sure wasn't yielding a diverse pool either. And perhaps one student this term will yield 2 students next term...and before you know it, a whole lab full of female undergraduates! (OK, I'm getting ahead of myself here.)

I've always thought of mentoring as primarily a social activity, not realizing the wonderful opportunity right in front of me to combine mentoring into my scholarship. So I'm going to give this a whirl. Let's see what happens!

8 comments:

Ianqui said...

Yes, I've thought about doing the same thing, although my reasons aren't so lofty as yours. I just need assistants, and they're not very forthcoming here. So I think I might ask my good students at the end of the semester, regardless of their gender.

Although, the two people who have worked with me in the past have been women...

~profgrrrrl~ said...

I think it is a great idea. I've found my assistants through shoulder-tapping, and it really does work.

dunsany said...

I've always been a big fan of mentoring. I'm from the corporate world, not the academic world (tho I am adjuct faculty at UW). If you're building a contact network, what better way to do it than to create the computer geniuses of tomorrow yourself? I mean, we give these kids the leg up they need and in a few years, they'll be offering you a job at their dot-com. It's how I've always grown my network. For at least the past ten years, I've taken a disproportion share of female techies under my wing simply because they were neglected talent just waited to be tapped. And I also found they worked harder, dealt with user issues better and didn't have ego issues like the boy techies. As a bonus, teaching them gave me the inspiration to write my geek girl story. So yeah, go for it. And yes ask them. They're usually shocked that someone would even care.

wolfangel said...

Fair is not defined as "treating everyone the exact same".

If you need enough students, though, and you feel it would be "fair", try sending out a large email for some, and asking specific students for others, or send out a large email and then email the other students and tell them you'd really like them to work with you on that job. Or ask people one on one, but ask some boys and some girls.

FemaleCSGradStudent said...

My department saw another decrease in our female population this year. The undergrads are at six percent. This is not a situation for "fair."

My women studies friend put it really well when she said, "You aren't asking for special treatment. You are just asking for the men not to get special treatment."

Jane said...

Dunsany, I've found the same reaction from women too (being shocked, that is). In fact, I had a strong female student in my office the other day who came in and announced right away that she didn't feel she was qualified to do research! (!!) I hope that you continue to actively mentor all fo that untapped talent!

Wolfangel, your point is well taken. I don't plan on totally excluding the boys :), but I do feel like there's this huge untapped group of women out there, and we just need to get them into the pool. and if that means the direct approach, that's what I'll use.

FCSGS, that 6% is totally appalling! Yikes. I think your women's studies friend hit the nail on the head with her statement.

As an update, I have two really strong candidates for research assistants, and both are at the very early stages (not yet majors), so we'll see if (a) they decide to take me up on the offer, and (b) what happens next. I am very excited about the opportunity to work with one or both of them!

bill said...

I really like the idea of the OGN. Its a wonderful idea.

ErinP said...

We need to start mentoring girls at the high-school level. My thesis team and I are working on this very important subject as we speak