The Road Less Traveled: Women Faculty Share Their Journey in STEM Fields

Posted: March 23, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Monique van Hoek with student Krupa Patel
Microbiologist Monique van Hoek with student Krupa Patel, who participated in Mason’s Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program last summer. Van Hoek is one of many Mason women faculty members in fields where women are in the minority.
Creative Services photo

Earlier this month — International Women’s Month — President Barack Obama signed an executive order establishing the White House Council on Women and Girls. At the time, the president noted that women make up a growing share of the U.S. workforce and the majority of students in colleges and law schools.

He said, “Women are breaking barriers in every field, from science and business to athletics and the armed forces.”

At Mason, a large number of women have already broken barriers in academic fields — science, technology, engineering, economics and math (STEM) — in which they are the minority. They are now members of Mason’s faculty and serve as role models for their students and for all young women who aspire to careers previously considered a male domain.

The Gazette would like to thank the Mason faculty members who shared their inspiring personal stories about their work and how they have succeeded in the traditionally male-dominated STEM fields. The following is only a small sample of the talented women who teach and conduct research at the university.

Kathleen Alligood, Mathematician

By Robin Herron

Kathleen Alligood
Kathleen Alligood

A combination of influences, along with the fact that “I liked it and was reasonably good at it,” led Professor of Mathematics Kathleen Alligood to her chosen field.

She grew up in Park Ridge, Ill., a Chicago suburb, and went to school with Hillary Clinton.

“I now understand what an important role the girls in my grade school and high school played in my education,” Alligood says. “Among my schoolmates were many intelligent, ambitious women who went on to become doctors, lawyers and PhDs.”

Alligood’s parents and teachers also had high expectations of her.

“I believe my experiences were unusual in that I had male math teachers who wanted me to excel,” she recalls.

“I remember my middle school math/science teacher who — at a time when girls took home economics and boys took shop — excused four or five of us girls from home ec to have our own mechanical drawing class. Very avant-garde for 1960!”

In high school the beginnings of the “new math” curriculum “really turned me on to math.”

Yet when she finished high school, Alligood pursued another long-time interest — the violin. She studied at a music conservatory for two years before deciding to attend college and major in math.

At the University of Maryland, where she earned master’s and doctoral degrees, she was the only woman in most of her classes.

“What I remember most, however, was excitement over the great theorems I was able to learn about. I don’t recall that feeling different — as a woman — was a problem for me.”

Alligood notes there are more women in academic math departments today than when she was beginning her career, but women are still in the minority.

“Discrimination is more subtle; it shows up in salary structures and other rankings,” she says, adding, “I have always been fortunate to work with colleagues who are sensitive even to the subtle forms of discrimination.”

Nadine Kabbani, Neuroscientist

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Nadine Kabbani
Nadine Kabbani

Nadine Kabbani first became interested in the brain and the study of mind as an undergraduate at Mason. She originally considered pursuing a degree in mathematics, but soon realized that the field of biological sciences was the place she needed to be. So it is no surprise that a woman with a double major in psychology and biology would end up becoming a neuroscientist.

Kabbani is one of the most recent hires at Mason’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, where she is an assistant professor in the new Molecular Neuroscience Department. Her research focuses on addiction and nicotinic receptors in the brain. The work takes place at the subcellular and molecular levels, focusing on the functions of specific proteins within neurons.

“Most of medicine right now is working on the protein level. For example, when you take an antihistamine drug you are affecting the histamine receptor, which is a protein.”

After earning her Mason degrees, Kabbani pursued a predoctoral fellowship at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/National Institutes of Health. The fellowship played a pivotal role in her career.

“Work in that lab focused on early brain development, including stem cell research,” she says. “My project entailed establishing a line of research aimed at examining neural stem cell differentiation under various experimental cell culture conditions. I was incredibly excited by this type of research.”

She went on to pursue at doctorate in pharmacology at Penn State. Prior to joining Mason’s faculty, she spent three years as a Phillip Morris Fellow at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

At Krasnow, she is in the good company of a number of Mason’s top neuroscientists who also happen to be women.

“Neuroscience is naturally an interdisciplinary field,” she says. “Its remarkable diversity lends itself to many types of scientists being represented.”

Merav Opher, Physicist

By Tara Laskowski

Merav Opher
Merav Opher

Science runs in Merav Opher’s family. She and her fraternal twin sister are both scientists — a physicist and an engineer, respectively — because their father is a physicist. Their mother, a successful painter, even switched career paths to go into science.

Like her mother, Opher also found herself with two different passions, the arts and the sciences. In college, she was torn between majoring in writing or filmmaking or majoring in science.

“I really loved the arts — I still do,” she says. “But my father always said, ‘Physics is good for the brain,’ and I guess that won out in the end.”

Physics has also been great for her career. Opher has published numerous papers on her theories about our solar system and has worked side-by-side with the most successful physicists in her field.

Last year she won a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER grant and was awarded the distinguished and highly competitive Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. She was presented with that award at a special White House ceremony hosted by President George W. Bush.

As one of the only women in her field — and by far one of the youngest scientists —working to calculate the flow of particles and magnetic fields of the area just outside our solar system, Opher has found that there are unique challenges to her profession.

Though she loves her work and the scientists she works with, she does admit that she’s had to think closely about the choices she makes as a woman in the field.

Whether it’s how she presents herself, the way she talks and thinks about science and even personal choices such as motherhood or family, Opher’s calculations go way beyond mathematical formulas and computer modeling.

“You have to work a little harder as a woman,” Opher says. “And you have to have tough skin. I tell my students that if the doors aren’t open enough, you have to shove them open.”

Shobita Satyapal, Physicist

By Leah Kerkman Fogarty

Shobita Satyapal
Shobita Satyapal

In the case of associate professor Shobita Satyapal, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Her mother, a professor for many years, had a PhD in theoretical particle physics, and her father had a doctorate in agricultural science.

“From very early on, I was exposed to math and science,” Satyapal says. “And I just found it very inspiring.”

Satyapal began her career working as an instrument scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, developing technologies for a mission called the James Webb Space Telescope, a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, that’s planned for a 2013 launch date.

In 1998, she received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the government to young scientists. Three years later, she joined Mason’s faculty.

Last fall, she was honored at Mason’s Celebration of Scholarship for her research and scholarly work. Currently, her work focuses on the connection and development of supermassive black holes and the galaxies in which they reside.

While attending high school at the prestigious United Nations International School in New York, she pursued higher-level science and math classes. It wasn’t until graduate school, where she was one of two women out of 32 students in her department, that she noticed the field of physics was predominantly male. Of the 40 full-time faculty members, only one of Satyapal’s professors was female.

But Mason’s a different story, Satyapal says.

“When I came here, it was a dramatic change,” she says. At that time, the chair of Mason’s Physics and Astronomy Department was a woman, Maria Dworzecka, now College of Science senior associate dean for facilities and special projects. According to Robert Ehrlich, current chair of the department, Mason has the highest percentage of female professors of any other similar department in the United States.

“I find it very inspiring being in a department with so many highly qualified women scientists,” says Satyapal.

Monique van Hoek, Microbiologist

By Marjorie Musick

Monique van Hoek
Monique van Hoek

Monique van Hoek, assistant professor in Mason’s National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases and the Department of Molecular and Microbiology, investigates the bacteria Francisella, which naturally causes the disease rabbit fever (also called tularemia) in rodents.

“Francisella can be aerosolized and used as a weapon – in that form, it takes less than 100 microorganisms to infect a human,” says van Hoek.

Along with center director Charles Bailey, she is studying how the body’s cells respond to Francisella infection.

Van Hoek, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Victoria in Canada and a doctorate from the University of Virginia’s Department of Microbiology, says, “I have always been fascinated by the ‘host-pathogen interaction.’”

“Who will win in the battle of infection – the host or the microbe? What tricky maneuvers will each side deploy in this fight? Will the host make antibodies, only to be destroyed by a bacterial enzyme? Will the bacteria infect the very cells that the host sends to combat the infection?

“I love the feeling of discovering something about this bacterium that no one has ever known before.”

Van Hoek and her team hope their work will help to protect people against this dangerous disease and others.

“By working to develop vaccines and new treatments for pneumonic tularemia, we feel that we are contributing to the nation’s health and security.”

In a field dominated by men, van Hoek acknowledges that being a woman may have presented some challenges along the way.

“Is it harder for women? Perhaps. As they say, ‘Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.’”

However, she adds, “I am fortunate to have many successful female scientists ahead of me, such as Barbara McClintock, Bonnie Bassler and Sarah Parsons, my graduate advisor.”

Van Hoek notes, “This field is very competitive, and research funding is difficult to get for everyone right now, men and women alike. I am deeply grateful for the support of Dr. Bailey, the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases, the Department of Molecular and Microbiology and the College of Science, which has been critical in allowing my research to go forward.”

Kathleen Wage, Electrical Engineer

By Jennifer Edgerly

Kathleen Wage
Kathleen Wage

For Kathleen Wage, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering in Mason’s Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering, the moment she knew she wanted to be an engineer was when she was in high school and read a book about careers in biomedical engineering.

“I was already very interested in math and science but until that moment had never considered a career in engineering,” says Wage. “In fact, I remember talking to a male friend in 10th grade who wanted to be an engineer. At the time I thought that was too boring. Now I’m an engineer, and he’s a music teacher.”

Although Wage entered the University of Tennessee to pursue biomedical engineering, she found herself more interested in electrical engineering and switched majors. As an undergraduate student she began a summer internship at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Connecting with people who were already working in engineering cemented her interest in becoming an engineer herself.

It was Wage’s experience working on a contract for the Navy while at Oak Ridge that led her to pursue a master’s degree and ultimately a doctorate from the MIT/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program. Focusing on signal processing and underwater acoustics, Wage has spent much of her career analyzing how sound propagates under water.

Encouraged by her parents from a young age, Wage also credits her high school physics teacher — a female — with encouraging her to pursue a career in science. While she recognizes that it’s not always easy being a woman in a male-dominated field, she also knows it’s probably easier than it once was.

“I haven’t faced the outright discrimination that I think women before me probably faced. In a lot of cases they would be the only woman in the room, and I’ve rarely been the only one,” says Wage.

“I’m sure it’s easier being one of a few but it can still be difficult. It’s not unusual to find yourself feeling as though you have to represent all women, which is a lot of pressure. ”

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