Bridging the STEM Gender Gap

May 12 marks International Women in Mathematics Day—a celebration of women’s vital contributions to the field, and a reminder of the important work that still needs to be done in strengthening inclusivity and gender equity for women pursuing and working in STEM professions. The day is celebrated annually on the birthday of Iranian mathematician and professor Maryam Mirzakhani, the first and only woman to win the Fields Medal—the preeminent prize in the field of mathematics, which has been equated to the Nobel Prize and is awarded every four years to up to four mathematicians under the age of 40. Mirzakhani passed away from breast cancer in 2017 at 40 years of age, but her legacy continues to inspire women across the globe today.

While research may show that female students of all ages perform just as well—and often outperform—their male peers in science and mathematics, the cold, hard truth remains that women are grossly underrepresented in STEM fields. What researchers have also proven is that peer mentoring is an effective way to cultivate students’ sense of belonging and increase retention of women in STEM. To put this concept into action, assistant professors of mathematics Allison Lewis and Joy Zhou launched Lafayette’s Kovalevsky Society in fall 2019—a mentorship program designed to encourage and empower female-identifying and non-binary students pursuing STEM careers. 

Lewis and Zhou—who also work hand-in-hand with Lafayette’s Hanson Center for Inclusive STEM Education to analyze how participation in programs like the Kovalevsky Society helps bolster self-esteem and confidence in women in STEM—can offer the following expert insights: 

  • What the Kovalevsky Society is, and how it gives female-identifying and nonbinary students a greater sense of belonging in the mathematics space
  • Obstacles women are facing in mathematics and other STEM fields
  • How women can empower, and are empowering, each other to pursue fields in which they’ve been historically underrepresented
  • How the emerging generation of women in mathematics is taking charge and blazing the trail to a more equitable future

Helping journalists, scholars, and students better understand the politics of religion in Africa

Through a collaborative programming grant, Prof. Christopher J. Lee will co-lead a program involving journalists, scholars, and students to expand understanding of the politics of religion in Africa. Lee, associate professor of history, along with Sean Jacobs, associate professor of international affairs at The New School, and Daniel Magaziner, professor of history at Yale University, received a grant from the Luce/American Council of Learned Societies Program in Religion, Journalism & International Affairs to strengthen connections between American scholars and African journalists through the theme of religion and politics. “We are concerned with how the politics of Islam has been covered in West Africa, in places like Mali for example, but we’re also concerned with the politics of Christianity in places like Uganda, which have been very strident in terms of being anti-LGBTQ,” Lee says. “There’s an emergent, orthodox Christianity that’s been very intolerant. We are also committed to addressing indigenous religious belief systems that have received essentially no mainstream media coverage at all.”

The grant will help identify early-career journalists based in African countries and provide them with financial support and a platform for their investigative work through Africa Is a Countrya popular online magazine founded by Jacobs in 2009. Magaziner serves on the editorial board, and Lee is a contributing editor.

Learn more about Lee’s work.

Investigating how atmospheric aerosols impact climate change

Joe Woo, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, has received a National Science Foundation grant to study the properties of atmospheric aerosols, to better understand their effect on climate change. “My research looks at atmospheric aerosols, which are little particles in the atmosphere that can either grow to become clouds or they can absorb light,” Woo says. “So smoke, haze, fog—any sort of thing that is like a solid or liquid floating around in the atmosphere. Specifically, I look at water-based aerosols that are in the air and can react with other organic compounds that are emitted through various sources.”

Atmospheric aerosols contribute to public health and the warming of the atmosphere, he says, adding that the $200,000 NSF award will help him and his team of student research assistants understand the chemistry of the particles and how they react to sunlight. “In climate change models, the largest source of uncertainty is coming from atmospheric aerosols, because they can both warm up or cool down the atmosphere,” Woo says. “When aerosols react in sunlight they behave differently than when they’re reacting in the dark. And while we have a pretty good idea of what goes on in the dark, we don’t really know what happens in the sunlight. If we can get a better handle on aerosol properties in the atmosphere, we have a better understanding of the climate at large.

Learn more about Woo’s work.

Categorized in: In the Media, News and Features