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WiSE-FPP welcomes largest class of female STEM students

A graduate program for female STEM students recently welcomed its largest class yet.

Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) accepted 51 students into its Future Professionals Program (FPP), according to an SU News release. WiSE-FPP supports female graduate students in STEM fields at Syracuse University, who often face gender biases in their programs and career fields, said Sharon Alestalo, program director of WiSE-FPP.

The program began in fall 2007 with 13 associates; in fall 2014, the program welcomed 44 associates, according to a WiSE document.

Professors Laura VanderDrift and Laura Lautz, both faculty advisers for the program, said the significance of this year’s large class size is that the program is growing and word-of-mouth is strengthening.

WiSE-FPP is an interdisciplinary group that connects women from 15 different fields, including biology, electrical engineering and computer science and psychology, according to a WiSE-FPP document. Many female graduate students are often isolated or are one of few in their specific program, said Lautz, an associate professor of Earth science.

She added that by bringing these women — both students and faculty — together, WiSE-FPP shows STEM women that they are not alone.

“It can be challenging to find role models when you’re a woman in STEM,” Lautz said.

Jueun Kim, a clinical psychology student and alumna of WiSE-FPP, said she has benefited from WiSE-FPP and has recommended it to other colleagues. She said the mock interviews were one of the most helpful aspects of the program.

“They gave very specific input on what would be stronger to say, what would make us look stronger as a candidate for job market. It was really, really helpful,” Kim said.

Students often hear about the program from other students and ask to be nominated by faculty, which, in turn, brings the program to faculty members’ attention, said Lautz, who has been a faculty adviser since 2011.

“Students don’t do it to check a box. They really get something out of it, and so those programs grow,” Lautz said.

The 51 associates, who are nominated by faculty, are generally graduate students in or above their third year, which allows them to retain the full benefits of career preparation, Alestalo said.

Alestalo said there is a “leaky pipeline” for female students in STEM; while the number of women entering the fields in the K-12 and undergraduate levels is growing, the number of women who go on to complete a doctoral degree and take a STEM job post-doctorate is much lower.

“Undergraduate women don’t always pursue further a master’s degree, and their eligibility for STEM careers are limited because many STEM careers require further education,” Alestalo said.

Those STEM women that go on to graduate school and the work force are confronted with a culture that is not as friendly to women, Alestalo said. This culture includes gender biases, such as the maternal wall, or the traditional perception of a woman’s role to the family, and the balance between professionalism, likeability and competence, Alestalo said.

Kim said the group’s discussion of learning how to assert herself as a female in STEM, especially when negotiating salaries, was very important and beneficial.

Alestalo said helping women develop professional success and networking competencies while providing a safe support place is the goal of WiSE-FPP.

“Sometimes you’re just so isolated that you don’t see that you’ll ever get that grant or fellowship,” Alestalo said. “But if you’re in a room where four, five or six people have gotten one, you can say, ‘Well, my turn will come.’ It’s not feeling as hopeless.”

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