A Seat at the Table

From the President,

From the President

One of the great lessons I took from my career in academic medicine and public health is that when you are trying to solve large problems, it really matters who is around the table. If you omit women, people of color, and other minorities, important questions will probably not be asked. Insights will be missed in the data. Solutions will be incomplete or have unintended consequences.

When it comes to the great challenges in science, engineering, and medicine, the United States does not have enough women or underrepresented minorities at the table, and it certainly does not have them in positions of leadership.

At Wellesley College, we are proud to be a powerful countervailing force.

We have led in science education since our earliest days, when Pauline and Henry Durant insisted that laboratory courses be part of the curriculum for all students (see “Artifacts of Experiments Past”). Today we continue to lead in science education. Five of our seven most popular majors are in STEM, and our students often pair these majors with majors in the humanities or social sciences (see “Unraveling Family Ties”). We engage students from all majors in science through classes such as The Climate Crisis, which is team taught by professors in environmental studies, biology, English, peace and justice studies, and political science. Encouraging cross-disciplinary thinking is crucial—crises such as climate change and our current pandemic have both scientific and social dimensions.

Because we give our students ample opportunities for research, we have one of the highest undergraduate research publication rates among our peers. Our success in bringing Wellesley students into the culture of science and engineering often changes the course of their lives: Among U.S. liberal arts colleges, we rank first in the number of women graduates who go on to earn doctorates in the sciences. In fact, 80% of our STEM graduates attend graduate or professional schools within STEM fields.

Wellesley is a force for racial and ethnic diversity in the sciences, as well as gender diversity. Over the past 10 years, we have doubled the percentage of STEM degrees we award to underrepresented minority students, to 22%. Now, as we celebrate the completion of the largest capital project in Wellesley history—a 275,000-square-foot Science Complex—we are working toward truly inclusive excellence in STEM. The complex gives us the physical and technological resources to bring more students, from all backgrounds, into research and other forms of participatory learning (see “Science Made Visible”).

This is so important, again, because we need women, including women of color, at the table, since who you are influences what you see.

For example, one of the great struggles in medical research over the last 30 years has been ensuring that the biological variable of sex is considered in both clinical and preclinical studies. Given the fact that men and women differ in every single cell in their bodies, this is essential to good science and good medicine. Not surprisingly, women physician-scientists tend to think more about this variable than their male counterparts do: An analysis of millions of health sciences publications between 2008 and 2016 found that studies with a female first or last author were more likely to report research findings by sex.

Incorporating the perspectives of women is just as important in other STEM fields. Today, women’s lives are put at risk because everything from vehicles to combat gear to personal protective equipment are designed for men. The dearth of women and women of color in computing has led to dangerously biased products, including commercial facial recognition systems that had an error rate of under 1% when asked to identify the gender of light-skinned men, but as high as 35% for dark-skinned women. Not surprisingly, it was two Black women computer scientists who conducted this revelatory study.

When women are able to innovate, it is good for all women. I think of the MIT spinout Bloomer Tech, co-founded by three women, which addresses the fact that medical devices such as heart monitors designed for men are bulky and uncomfortable. Bloomer Tech has developed washable, flexible sensors to measure heart and lung function that can be embedded into a bra.

That’s why it is so disheartening that last year, just 2% of venture capital went to startups led by women. So, we need more women at the tables where the investment decisions are made, too!

At Wellesley, we are leaders in educating the next generation of women who will break new ground in discovery, innovation, research, and clinical care. This work is critical to our mission and essential for the betterment of society. The world cannot solve the many complex problems it faces without the perspectives of women physicians, scientists, and engineers.

Wellesley is answering the call—and making sure that brilliant young women from diverse backgrounds are ready to take on the greatest of challenges.

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