Sarah Kucenas / Biology

On undergraduate campuses across the country, it is impossible to deny the dominating presence of the basic sciences and engineering disciplines as pillars of the modern collegiate experience. Although new disciplines are created on what seems a yearly basis (i.e. Epigenetics and Connectomics), the core sciences have been a part of the human existence since the beginning. And although these fields have evolved at a pace that is nearly impossible to comprehend, there are still many aspects of the “hard” sciences that have remained unchanged. One of these is the presence of women as faculty and/or leaders within their respective fields, and it is here that my Dream Idea lies.

My parents tell me that I’ve been a scientist since the day they brought me home from the hospital. (Although they admit they have no idea where I got it from!) From the very beginning of my collegiate experience, the only mentors and role models I had were men, and this trend continued through graduate school. There were only four tenured female faculty in my department and only one had children. As a post-doctoral fellow, again, 99% of my mentors and role models were men. I had no female role models that were successfully balancing a family and their science, and when I would approach my male mentors, I was told that having a family is actually quite easy if I just compartmentalized my life efficiently.

I sometimes wonder how I got this far in my career without the guidance of women who had come before me. (My husband tells me it’s because I’m stubborn, which probably has a lot to do with it!) But until now, I haven’t had a strong female role model in the sciences that has been able to successfully balance a family, a life and her science. And even now, I have identified only one female faculty member in my department who is a Full Professor who is balancing a very successful scientific career with school age children at home. Now that I myself am a faculty member on the tenure track, it has become very obvious to me that our young female undergraduates in the sciences and engineering are lacking the role models they need desperately seek. This was amplified last fall when I taught my first course here in Biology. My class was more than half female, all with aspirations to either attend medical school or graduate school after graduation. My biggest surprise came during my office hours that semester when I would have female students from my class come to talk to me about life and family and love and how I had “made it.” I realized then that I was these young women’s role model, even though I had no experience from role models of my own to draw on. Over the course of the semester, I chatted with several young women about their fears of going away to professional school and leaving behind relationships, about starting families and about their fears that they would not be able to “have it all.” I hope that I was able to take away some of the fear for these women and give them the confidence they needed to believe they could do it all, and deserved it! So for my Dream Idea, I would like to take this informal chatting I did last fall and make it more formal and open it up to 8-10 young, female science/engineering majors on Grounds and provide them with an opportunity and venue to speak about their concerns, get advice from myself as well as other successful female faculty and form bonds with women like them. And I foresee that this forum will not only benefit the young women who choose to participate, but also myself, a young female faculty member who would desperately love to connect with other successful female faculty across Grounds and at the Medical School.

Therefore, I propose establishing a monthly dinner that brings together young women and me plus one other female faculty member. I envision that these dinners would be most beneficial if hosted every month at a faculty member’s house, thus letting everyone see that to be a successful scientist doesn’t mean you have to give up a happy home life. Also, the comfort and casualness of the setting will hopefully promote the feeling that any and all questions are open for discussion. I anticipate that hosting a dinner for 12 or so people would cost approximately $250 per month, and if we host a dinner for 8 months, the total cost would come to $2000.

I would be honored to receive funds from the Mead Endowment to complete this Dream Idea. However, if there are not enough funds, I will still follow through with this idea as I feel very passionately about providing our talented and amazing young female students with all of the tools necessary to allow them to go out into their own careers with confidence and a resource of role models that will remain long after they graduate and leave Grounds.