Women In Science Pilots Mentor Program for Freshman Entering STEM Fields

Elizabeth Fisher started a mentoring program through the College of Arts and Science's Women in Science initiative.

Attracting women to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields — and then subsequently retaining their participation in them — has been a persistent problem. Though some fields, such as biology, are reaching parity between the sexes, many faculty and teacher assistants remain predominantly male. As a result, there are hardly any role models for young women entering the STEM fields. According to the American Association of University Women, this lack of role models contributes to low retention rates among women in science.

To remedy this, biology major and CAS senior Elizabeth Fisher started a mentoring program through CAS’s Women in Science initiative. Fisher’s program pairs a senior or junior majoring in the field with a freshman considering STEM.

According to Fisher, the problem lies in keeping freshman motivated to continue with science despite the twofold affront they face: difficulty in the classroom and difficulty in underrepresentation.

“If you have someone like me saying ‘I did that too but look at where I am at now,’ you feel like you get through it,” said Fisher.

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Within WINS, the idea of a mentoring program had been discussed prior to Fisher’s initiative. According to Shara Bailey, professor of anthropology and the director of WINS, a mentoring program had been in the works with the previous Associate Dean of Students, Charles Upchurch. WINS’s goal is to mentor sophomores, juniors and seniors through their time at NYU. As a result, WINS faculty, such as Bailey, worry about how to reach freshman who are still undecided about pursuing STEM.

“We talked about how we wanted to reach out to freshman who are in these big classes,” Bailey said.

However, when Dean Upchurch left in 2014, the effort stalled. The outreach to freshman restarted last year when, while applying to WINS, Fisher proposed the mentoring program. WINS approach Fisher and asked her to lead the restart of the program.

“She had the time and the inclination to do it and she has done a fantastic job organizing it,” said Bailey. WINS provides Fisher the resources to start a 20-pair pilot program that ran last semester.

In the pilot program, mentors like CAS senior Michelle Sanches who is majoring in environmental science and biology, helped their mentees explore their options in STEM.

For CAS freshman Libuse Janska, it was an opportunity learn about career paths outside what her most of their classmates are doing.

“Almost everyone is pre-med, so if you want to do research you’re the odd one out,” Janska said.

The pilot had overwhelmingly positive feedback. According to Fisher, all the mentees reported  that the program made freshman year significantly easier for them. With the help of their mentors, two freshman mentees were accepted into research laboratories. Over the next semester, Fisher and Bailey both hope to expand the program well beyond the original 20 pairs.

Email Shiva Darshan at [email protected]

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