This year, 23 female undergraduate students from across the University of Cincinnati spent their summers working alongside experienced mentors to learn everything from protocols for lab and fieldwork to tips for writing and presenting professional papers about their research.
They came from different colleges and varied disciplines; their ranks spanned generations and ethnicities. The impressive group became the 20th class of females studying in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields to turn summer learning into action through UC’s Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REWU).
UC’s long-running, award-winning program to expand opportunities for female researchers not only welcomed a new group of undergraduates, it also welcomed new co-directors from the East Campus—Yana Zavros, PhD, Professor of Physiology—and the West Campus—Heather Norton, PhD, Associate Professor of Anthropology and molecular anthropologist. While Norton had served as a mentor researcher to WISE students in the past, Zavros admired the program because of its reputation and longevity.
The first-time co-directors, who themselves exemplify the value of cross-campus collaborative efforts, made efforts to share that value with this summer’s WISE participants.
Problem-solving in a complicated world
“Today, very few people approach their research from one discipline,” says Zavros. “so to have students in a program where they're exposed to each other's approaches is critical for them to start thinking in an interdisciplinary way.”
“Sometimes pairing students with someone who's a little bit outside of their discipline helps to open up those doors for them,” says Norton. For example, a WISE research project that pairs a West Campus chemical engineering student with an East Campus cancer researcher in the College of Medicine can lead to a wide range of benefits.
“Students that are on the West Campus might not be thinking about a career in medicine, but there's so much awesome research that happens in the College of Medicine that they never see,” Norton says. “WISE is eye-opening for a lot of them. And that's so important.”
Norton, who says that 2018 marked a significant increase in WISE projects on East Campus, home to health and medicine colleges, credits Zavros for increasing awareness and participation among her colleagues.
“I think helps just so that they have mentors who know how it works on both campuses and also in different disciplines,” Norton says.
WISE’s research support takes many shapes
Both Norton and Zavros say that leading the program, including weekly group meetings with topics including harassment in the workplace and presenting at conferences, was inspirational. Along the way, they recognized multiple benefits for female undergraduate researchers.
“A major thing that the students get from this is a sense of belonging,” says Zavros, who saw participants transform by the end of the program. “They do belong to the scientific community, and they don't always get that message directly, whether it's because they don't see themselves represented in their professors or in the people doing the science. We really instilled a sense of community and a sense of confidence among these women.”
Norton says that serving as co-director allows her to see WISE’s broader impact. “In the past, I've worked one on one with my students and I know what it's done for them,” she says. “But now I can see all the different women that this helps and that it has an impact on so many different levels, whether it's career plans or confidence or making students realize there is a support network here—there are other people that they can talk to about doing this thing called science.”
That support network doesn’t end with the summer program, either. This year, Zavros and Norton added a workshop session focused on writing abstracts for conference papers, several WISE participants started working on abstracts about their summer research projects. At least three of this year’s participants plan to submit abstracts and attend conferences where they can present their work.
“Some of them didn’t know that this is a part of being a scientist,” Zavros says. “The fact that as an undergraduate, the work they were doing this summer was so significant that they could present it on an international stage—that can be life-changing for them.”
While WISE currently has only a small budget to support students to attend conferences, its co-directors are enthusiastically encouraging participants to share their research widely.
As Zavros says: “One thing that this program does is make these women realize just how extraordinary they are.”