In 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched, the first web page was created, and the Women in Science Project was founded at Dartmouth. Science and engineering have come a long way since then.
On April 15 and 16, WISP alumnae celebrated the program’s 25th anniversary, which seeks to reach women in their first year at Dartmouth and give them the support and resources they need to succeed in science, engineering, and mathematics. Participants are placed in internships with faculty and given access to peer mentors and unique research opportunities.
An Innovative Approach
Carol Muller ’77, former associate dean for administration at Thayer School of Engineering and co-founder of WISP realized something needed to change to grow the ranks of women in science. A member of Dartmouth’s second coeducational class, Muller was surprised to find that the engineering school “had scarcely been impacted by the great social changes of the 1960s and 70s. All the faculty were men, the secretaries were women and called themselves ‘girls,’ and just a few of the students were women.”
When chemistry professor Karen Wetterhahn stepped into the role of associate dean of the arts and sciences, she named the inclusion of women in the sciences as a key goal. In Wetterhahn, Muller found a collaborator with “a common passion, not only for [their] goal but for results-oriented action.” Together, Muller and Wetterhahn, who passed away in 1997, outlined a program designed to address student needs, the structure of which remains essentially unchanged today.
“While my understanding of what we need to do to effect change has grown considerably more nuanced, I think we still pretty much got it right all those years ago,” Muller says.
In its quarter century, WISP has placed 1,707 student research interns with 331 faculty research mentors, and 4,400 students have participated in the peer mentor programs.
The program’s benefits are clear – while in 1990 only 45 women majored in the sciences, by 2015 that number increased to 114 women. Nearly half of Dartmouth engineering majors are now female, compared to an average of 19 percent nationally. Today more women than men major in biology at Dartmouth.
On Friday, April 15, a panel of alumnae in diverse fields of science and technology discussed their experiences at Dartmouth and beyond as part of the 25th anniversary celebration. A common theme among the four panelists was the ways in which Dartmouth provided a solid science education while building the confidence needed to succeed in male-dominated fields.
Dr. Jessica Rosenberg Brown ’83
Gynecologist and Board Certified Specialist in Reproductive Endocrinology/Infertility, Madison Women’s Health & Fertility and New York University
Jessica Rosenberg Brown was a woman in science at Dartmouth prior to WISP – and in fact, as a history major, her path into medicine was an unconventional one.
Rosenberg notes that Dartmouth’s liberal-arts emphasis serves scientists well. “As a physician, obviously I need to have a firm grasp of the science, but I’m also really responsible for communicating that to my patients, and for listening to them. My Dartmouth education really did prepare me well.”
For Rosenberg, WISP is particularly impressive because of the research opportunities it offers to students. “I think now there’s a higher expectation for med school admissions that you’ll have done research.”
Samantha Scollard Truex ’92, Th ’93, T’95
Chief Business Officer, Padlock Pharmaceuticals
Samantha Truex not only participated in WISP, but as Muller’s intern and advisee, she helped get the program off the ground. “I followed a circuitous path through engineering that might have been more direct if I’d had a WISP internship,” she notes. Growing up in the Detroit area, Truex had assumed she would become an engineer, but realized at Dartmouth that she “didn’t really know what an engineer did besides work in the auto industry,” and that she couldn’t see herself in that field.
Truex studied biology, but through classes at Thayer she learned about the intersection between biology and engineering. “These courses gave me what I call a ‘biomedical engineering major,’ even though that didn’t formally exist.” She went on to earn a BE and an MBA.
In the 20 years since, Truex has held business development leadership roles at biotechnology companies ranging from small startups to industry giants. “I didn’t have that path laid out. The good news is that you don’t have to figure out your entire path, you just need to figure out step one.”
Katherine Osborne Valdez ’94
Water Resources Engineer
Katherine Osborne Valdez has turned her Dartmouth education into a career in water resources engineering – a career that’s taken her from a Peace Corps post in the Dominican Republic to work with USAID in Washington, D.C., Peru, Indonesia, and now Mexico.
Valdez, who studied engineering modified with environmental studies, was among the first class of WISP participants to complete first-year internships, an experience she credits with keeping her in engineering while “slogging through physics and math classes.” Like Truex, she interned with Carol Muller and assisted in the expansion of WISP.
Valdez notes that her time in graduate school made her especially appreciative of Dartmouth’s supportive community. “The University of Texas was a wonderful opportunity for me for grad school, but I’m glad I didn’t have that experience as an undergraduate, because I’m not sure I would have stayed with engineering. It made me really appreciate what the Dartmouth engineering curriculum allowed.”
Lauren Alpeyrie ’10, Th’11, T’17
MBA Student, Tuck School of Business
Before returning to Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, Lauren Alpeyrie served as a data analyst at Google and a management consultant. She entered Dartmouth planning to study physics and engineering, and studied microrobotics through her first-year WISP internship.
At first, Alpeyrie was overwhelmed by physics, and she switched briefly to an English major. But she returned to engineering junior year, a decision she says was the right one. “I’m convinced I would not have had the opportunities I’ve had without the engineering major, so I’m grateful that Dartmouth has so many opportunities to switch majors, and that Thayer is so incredibly flexible and welcoming. I’ve always been amazed at how many more women study engineering at Thayer compared to other schools, and I think that’s part of the reason.”