Drawing on her own difficult experiences, a staff member builds a community of women on campus and around the country succeeding in science, technology, engineering, and math fields.
Amid piles of paperwork and scholarly data in Chris Peterson Brus's office are photos of weddings and babies, award galas and graduations.
The photos mark milestones in young women's lives, and Brus takes special pride in the women's achievements.
As director of the University of Iowa's Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, Brus has helped build a community of women on campus and around the country succeeding in science, technology, engineering, and math fields.
"I keep in contact with many of these young women, and I can't tell you how many times I hear, "If it weren't for WISE, I wouldn't be where I am today,'" Brus says. "That's the result of a strong program. Everything we do is personalized."
Nationally, women are underrepresented in science and engineering fields, more likely to drop out of science and engineering majors in college, and often paid less than male counterparts when they enter the workforce. WISE strives to turn the tide by providing programming to retain undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral women in the sciences and engineering.
The Undergraduate Peer Mentoring Program, for example, gives academic and social support to about 200 UI students each year. Students in the program graduate in science and engineering fields at rates well above the national average. WISE also offers a living-learning community in the residence halls that features a variety of social, academic, and outreach opportunities for undergrads. In 2007-08, 100 percent of students in science majors and 92 percent of engineering students who lived on the floor continued with their majors their sophomore year.
For grad and post-doc students, WISE provides professional development and research travel grants. And WISE conducts its own research on experiences of women in science and engineering programs.
Underrepresented populations on a large campus need to feel invested in a community, Brus says, and WISE strives to build the supportive network they need. She's also a sounding board, available 24-7, to anyone who needs her.
Brus understands the needs of young women because she herself treaded a long and sometimes difficult path to reach her current role.
As a high school student, she had a dual love for science and music. But she wrestled with what she now knows is a developmental reading disability and attention deficit disorder.
"I remember people saying, 'Oh, you're so smart. If you'd just apply yourself more, you'd get better grades,'" Brus says. "I was working pretty hard and that stuck with me, that feeling of assumptions being made about me that were not accurate."
She chose a career in vocal music, earning a full-ride scholarship to college. But after three years in and out of school, she left to form and lead a 10-piece soul band, which recorded music and went on the road for the next three years. She found that the world of music was wrought with gender stereotypes—she was viewed as a sex object, she says, no matter how much talent she had as a musician.
She finally quit the band, married, and returned to school to pursue her other passion—science. She earned a master's degree in preventive medicine with an emphasis on epidemiology. But she quickly found that many of the same gender stereotypes that she experienced in music emerged in the sciences as well.
While working on a study looking at residential radon gas and female lung cancer, Brus discovered that the data collection instrument was skewed toward male subjects. Drawing on social science research about the ways that women remember events, she developed a gender-sensitive methodology for collecting spatial data, which resulted in a more accurate exposure model later used in a major National Cancer Institute study.
"A lot of damage is done when we don't take the time to look at things closely," Brus says. "We often just make assumptions and move on."
Years later, the research stuck with her when she accepted the job as WISE director in 1998. A big part of her role is advocating for women in a system designed by and built for men.
She also works to empower young women to get involved and give back—one of the best ways to help them feel invested in a community. WISE students are encouraged to organize their own outreach activities, such as blood drives and K-12 mentoring.
"These women amaze me," Brus says. "They have an innate need to give back. It's a fabulous quality, but sometimes you have to tell them to slow down and remember that successfully completing their studies has to take priority."
Ultimately, University of Iowa WISE women go on to become advocates and role models for younger generations of women in the sciences.
"That's another reason I know we're doing a good job—they feel connected after they leave," Brus says. "They continue being good citizens of the world."
Story by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith; photo by Tim Schoon.
Related link: Women in Science and Engineering
March 23, 2009