Role Models

For many women, gender inequalities in STEM fields have lowered the access they have to role models and mentors early in their education and careers. This reduces the number of connections that women have that enable their scientific pursuits, though many women scientists have established wonderful mentorship relationships with men.  Despite the importance of mentorship by male scientists, increasing numbers of women as role models and mentors is invaluable to the goal of improving gender equity in science (Science Magazine). In this section, these scientists talk about the impact of role models in their personal experiences.

Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones

Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones, M.D. 

Kirtly talks about how many of her professors and research mentors were male, as there were just not many women in higher up positions at that time. Many males mentors throughout her career opened doors for her, including the lab she was able to work in as well as getting her first job in a lab in medical school. She does however mention that although women were not in the lab or professor type positions often, there were supporting women in her life. She states that behind every successful woman is another woman. For her, this consisted of her nannies, administrative assistant, housekeeper, office cleaner, etc. Without their support, she states that her success would not have been possible.

"So the nature of mentoring someone was something that wasn't available. I wasn't looking for it either. I just didn't consider my gender as being an issue one way or the other until I got into medical school in college. And so there were men who lit the way for me, because there weren't really very women then. There were so many women though who helped light the way for me, helped me do my job. And I cannot thank them enough."

Cynthia Burrows and DNA

Dr. Cynthia Burrows posing next to a model of the DNA double helix. This is in connection with her current work in DNA. 

Dr. Cynthia Burrows, P.h.D.

In her experience, Cindy did not specify that she had any female role models. Given the time that she was getting her degrees, this was not such a big surprise seeing as there were very few women in science. Instead of role models, the interviewers found that there were experiences rather than people that awakened Cindy's interest in chemistry. 

The biggest influence that she stressed was her honors chemistry course that she took at Boulder High school in Colorado.  It's clear, from her description, that having a comfortable, friendly, and collegial atmosphere was a key aspect of this experience.


"And my senior year, there were two women in the class and 14 guys, and we were all best of friends. It was really pretty wonderful group of people. [During the class, our] teacher thought we should be conducting a research project. So we tested, you know, we did a scientific analysis, one teaspoon here, one and a half teaspoons in the next two, [we] added more and more sugar to these various bottles of beer and they still have yeast in them.  Oh, well, too bad, but sure enough, you know, the first or second day back from the holiday break and we're sitting there I don't know balancing redox equations or some horrible thing, and all of a sudden kaboom, that sounds off about four of them. They all exploded in the back of the room. Oh, it was spectacular. Anyway, so yeah. You know, at that point I was pretty sold on then I was a chemistry major when I went to college, the next year."


Dr. Burrows' experience was greatly affected by this class and referenced it all throughout the interview. From the friends she made, to what she learned about the college experience, it was very formative. 


Lisa Diamond, Ph.D

When studying at the University of Chicago from 1989 to 1992, Lisa found an interest in anthropology and psychology, but ultimately decided to major in psychology because, oddly enough, her best friend wanted to major in anthropology and she didn’t want to ruin their friendship.


“The psychology classes, that I was taking did not really light any sort of fire under me. They were very experimental and I didn't find them very interesting--they weren't nearly as intellectually challenging as the anthropology courses. But there were a number of faculty in anthropology who also view themselves sort of a psychologist or they would call themselves cultural psychologist and there was a little mini program at University of Chicago called the Committee on Human Development, which was basically like anthropological and psychologically oriented people”.


One of those people on the Committee on Human Development was Gilbert Herdt, who was known for doing studies in Indonesia relating to sexual development. After taking one of his classes, Diamond decided she would continue reading and studying his work. Around that same time, Herdt began doing another project on gay and lesbian youth in Chicago with some other faculty on the Committee on Human Development, researching sexual development and finding out that teenagers and other young people were coming out as queer. This led to her discovery that there was a whole area of academia related to sexual development of queer youth, which ultimately lead her to her mentor, Ritch Savin-Williams at Cornell Univeristy, whom she describes as “a dear dear friend, to this day, and who, you know, I have so much gratitude for.” For Diamond, her experience of working with Savin-Williams was more than engaging and positive. He played a big role in the development and continuation of Diamond’s career, as well as the field of queer youth development as a field.

“Savin Williams... would just bring me in he's like oh somebody asked me to write a chapter on this stuff so you know let's write it together...Ritch was so generous, he was always pushing me forward...So I got a lot more, toward the end of my graduate career, I just got a lot more kind of opportunities”.

Amy Sibul, M.S.

Growing up, Amy noted never having women as models of science throughout her early education. However, after Amy's undergraduate work at Colorado State University, studying wildlife ecology, she went to work at the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, which was a crucial moment in her scientific career.

"That was the first time (Volunteering at Colorado Natural Heritage Program) I had direct and  positive interactions with women in science. I was 22 before and didn’t have any access to a woman engaged in science. And so the lead botanist, the lead riparian ecologist, the co-director of the program were all women, amazing women. I continue to stay in touch with actually, who showed me that there's a way to be involved in science that’s not academia. That doesn't mean you have to give up or delay or deprioritize other aspects of your life like having kids… Also having access to the kinds of questions that I really was interested in pursuing if I were going to graduate school and then asking them also advice about graduate school. How do you go about it? My mom didn't even go to college, my dad went to medical school, didn't really apply to what I was doing. That was pivotal."

Page researched and written by Jacqueline Cockrell, Shaistah Din, Lydia Hall, and Jack Temme.

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