Indigenous Women in Science Network offers support to women in STEM careers

Babette Herrmann, Today correspondent
9/28/10

MISSOULA, Mont. – Nina Begay, a mechanical design professional, was the only woman in her college graduating class of 24 students. Placing her amongst the less than one percent of Native women in the fields of science and engineering according to studies.

Begay, Navajo, works in a male dominated field, but within the last few years she has built new friendships with like-minded Native women working in the science, technology, engineering and mathematic fields via the Indigenous Women in Science Network.

IWSN, a national organization, formed in 2008 which currently has about 30 members and no dues or membership fees.

Employed by Raytheon in Tucson, Ariz., Begay is one of 300 Native employees out of more than12,000, but she rarely gets the chance to interact with her Native female colleagues. Even though you don’t see them at work at least you know you have others you can reach out to, and you can share your thoughts and ideas with them, she said, referring to her IWSN peers.

From a young age Begay knew that she had a knack for math, and found her high school teachers supportive. And she was one of the lucky few, according to statistics.

A joint study conducted by scholars from Florida Gulf Coast University and University of Colorado at Boulder revealed that most women studying STEM subjects receive less attention and positive reinforcement in the classroom when compared to their male counterparts. It also noted that women looking to earn an undergraduate degree in science or engineering, experience a drop in confidence by the end of their first year.

This photo was taken during a symposium held at the Indigenous Women in Science Network's 2nd annual conference at the University of Montana.

Begay recalled that two other women in her field of study dropped out before earning their degrees, but was not sure of the reason.

Studies also show that a lack of role models and overall encouragement keep female students from taking advanced science classes beyond high school.

The fledgling organization has plans to organize an outreach program that targets Native youth. They are making long-term plans to organize activities that will generate childhood interest in science and related fields. You really need to get to them at a very young age to get them interested, she said.

Despite the dismal findings, the number of women, regardless of race, entering STEM fields has increased steadily in recent decades.

Considered a founding member, Begay worked with a team of two other women to write the organization’s bylaws. She was also instrumental in planning the 2nd annual conference, Women Bridging Science and Culture, at the University of Montana in August.

While IWSN attracts professional women, it also appeals to college students. Molecular and cellular biology doctoral student Skaruianewah Charlotte Logan joined in 2008, when the organization held its first meeting at the American Indian Science & Engineering Society conference. She currently attends Brandeis University in Boston.

Listening to the experiences of other indigenous women, their advice and worldviews really helped me see what I am doing through a different lens so to speak. I felt motivated and stronger afterward seeing others who have done it, but also knowing what to expect.”

Logan, Akwesasne Mohawk, agrees with Begay on the lack of role models and resources available to women. Even though she is single, Logan says her peers that have children are able to succeed in their studies thanks to a dedicated partner. Others rely on family to take care of their children while they work and study.

Those are the women I have seen being the most successful, she said.

By listening to other members share how they balance family, work and culture, she makes the extra effort to nurture her own relationships regardless of the 10-hour days she puts in at the college, in addition to several hours of studying. She often drives back to New York to spend time with her family and/or to engage in ceremonies on the weekends. I feel like this has given me incredible strength and balance, she said.

The group formed an interim board of directors at the last conference. Next year’s conference is pending, and contingent on the approval of grant money. Logan said they plan to schedule it near the date or in conjunction with the next AISES conference in Minneapolis, Minn.

Members currently donate their time to write grants. Begay said that IWSN may hire a grant writer in the future, just one of many long-term goals.

To find out more information, visit the active IWSN page on Facebook or visit http://stemrc.aihec.org/iwsn/default.aspx.

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