Since my first biology class in middle school, I have known I wanted to pursue a career in STEM, and I’ve been more than well-informed of all the challenges that stand in my way. I was warned that every step, from the undergraduate coursework to getting hired, brings a unique set of challenges. I was told to prepare myself for being made to feel small. I was even discouraged by family members and told to choose a different field with a greater proportion of women in it. Yet here I am, as a sophomore biochemistry & molecular biology major, at a university where I feel encouraged and supported.
UMBC was founded in 1966 with the intention of creating a university where minorities were encouraged to pursue STEM majors. That initial goal led to the creation of scholarship programs like the Center for Women in Technology and the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. Programs like these, in conjunction with the general inclusive atmosphere at UMBC, have resulted in the university being a leading producer of STEM PhDs and MD/PhDs.
In addition to the scholarship programs, I’ve found that many of my STEM professors were women. I’ve had countless positive role models to look up to on campus, who motivate me to keep moving through my major.
A key aspect to a STEM major, especially a life science major, is sustained research. At UMBC, undergraduate students are encouraged to join faculty research labs and develop their scientific identity. The faculty researcher becomes a mentor to the student and really shapes the aspiring scientist.
When I began the search for my sustained lab last year, I was moved by the number of women doing research on campus. In life science especially, there were women doing interesting research in almost every field. In the end, I chose to join a lab in the biological sciences department where the principal investigator is a woman.
Unfortunately, my positive experience as a female STEM major is not common. Many women from different universities do not feel supported by their departments. Earning a STEM degree is an arduous task, even when only accounting for the coursework, and many students change their majors by their sophomore year. The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2017 that 35 percent of STEM majors change majors within three years of enrollment. Gender prejudices create a hostile environment for female students, making them less likely to succeed in their chosen major.
The discriminatory practices towards women and minorities that are so prevalent around the country need to be changed. By no stretch of the imagination is UMBC a haven for female and minority STEM majors, but the support and representation experienced by female students here puts UMBC miles ahead of other schools.