Local high school students participated in Adelphi's Women in Science and Computing Conference in December 2019.

Adelphi is determined to advance women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. See how our mentoring approach, small class sizes and commitment to overcome a historic imbalance are yielding results.

Adelphi is finding answers to a question that has bedeviled universities around the world: how to get more women into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. It’s no secret that there’s a scarcity of women in STEM careers. Even though women make up 51 percent of the U.S. population, they account for just 28 percent of the workforce in STEM fields, according to the American Association of University Women. Men vastly outnumber women majoring in most STEM fields in college. The gender gap is particularly large in some of the highest-paid areas, like computer science and engineering.

Adelphi is adopting four key strategies: hiring women faculty in fields where they’re traditionally underrepresented, mentoring female students in STEM, setting up specific programs geared toward advancing their ambitions in STEM fields and encouraging research by female students. Together, these strategies are showing real success.

Seeing other women in STEM

A cornerstone of Adelphi’s efforts to correct the gender imbalance in STEM fields is its award-winning Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP), which was recently recognized as the best of all 50 CSTEP programs from around the state. CSTEP’s mission is to prepare undergraduate students from historically underrepresented minorities for careers in science, technology, mathematics and the health professions. Adelphi’s CSTEP program helps women in STEM majors meet one another. It then works with the University’s Mentoring Program to pair the women with working professionals in a STEM field.

“I owe them everything,” Monique Mohammed ’14, MS ’16, OD, said of Adelphi’s CSTEP and Mentoring Program. “I learned so much about myself.” Dr. Mohammed said she couldn’t have become a doctor without the support she received. “Being exposed to women already in the field helped me understand what’s possible.”

Female faculty in STEM

Another way Adelphi is addressing the gender imbalance in female students in STEM majors is by recruiting women faculty for positions in its math, computer science and technology departments. Nationwide, just 21 percent of full professors in science fields and just 5 percent in engineering are women, reports the National Science Foundation. “Having female professors [in STEM fields] goes a long way to helping retain female students,” said Eugenia Villa-Cuesta, PhD, associate professor of biology at Adelphi. She said female professors can be role models for their female students, just by virtue of being there. “When you see a woman doing a job, you can see yourself doing it as well.”

Dr. Villa-Cuesta even shows her students video lectures by women who teach STEM classes at other schools. “I want them to see women being successful in these fields,” she said. “They need to see what it looks like so they can get there themselves.”

Dr. Villa-Cuesta has worked with female students as an informal mentor, coaching them through job interviews and preparing them for the challenges they’ll face in a male-dominated field. “It’s important to show students success, but it’s also important for students to see what struggles look like,” she said.

In the lab: women researchers

Opening the doors to STEM research allows women to find new paths of discovery—while building their résumés. Established at Adelphi in 2011, the award-winning McDonell Science Research Fellowship program provides top students in biology, chemistry and physics the opportunity to spend 10 weeks conducting original research in Adelphi labs. Students receive a $4,000 stipend and work closely with a faculty mentor to gain state-of-the-art training. Since the program started, almost two-thirds of the fellowship winners have been women majoring in chemistry, biology or physics.

Adelphi’s female STEM standouts

Adelphi’s dedication to advancing women in the STEM fields has produced numerous standouts. Rebecca Gotterbarn ’18 earned a BS in computer science and now works as a member of an elite cybersecurity team at IBM. Gotterbarn was majoring in history when she took a computer class as an elective. Kees Leune, PhD, assistant professor of mathematics and computer science, saw her potential and urged her to change her major.

“I would walk into computer science classes and be one of the three women in there out of 30,” Gotterbarn said. “But Dr. Leune believed in my strengths and intelligence. He was always encouraging me, and having someone like that in your life makes a really big impact.”

Jennefer Maldonado ’20 earned a BS in mathematics and computer science after being told in high school not to major in math or computer science. She ignored the bad advice and by her sophomore year at Adelphi was accepted into the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Research Experiences for Undergradautes (REU) program and interned at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Melissa Emilcar ’19 got a BS in biology and spent the summer before her senior year on an internship at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research as part of Adelphi’s Jaggar Community Fellows Program. She’s now a first-year student in New York Institute of Technology’s osteopathic medicine program, on her way to becoming a doctor.

And Tracy Paltoo ’17 earned a BS in physics and a BS in engineering at Columbia University as part of Adelphi’s joint engineering degree program and is now working as a project analyst.

“It feels like we are turning a corner.”

Matthew Wright, PhD, associate professor and chair of Adelphi’s physics department, is optimistic about gender balance in STEM. In a recent blog post, he noted, “All of our physics club officers are women! Please let me say that again. All of our physics club officers are women! …It’s not just about the number of woman we have in our club; female Adelphi physics students are carving out the department and opportunities they want. There seems to be a shift in the activism and leadership.”

Assistant professor of chemistry Ivan Hyatt, PhD, agreed. “Same in the chemistry department from my perspective,” he wrote in a comment on Dr. Wright’s blog entry. “My organic chemistry course this semester is 44/48 women. Great to see!”

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