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Blasting gender barriers: There aren't many, but more and more women are studying the stars at Pitt - The Pitt News

Blasting gender barriers: There aren’t many, but more and more women are studying the stars at Pitt

Bingjie Wang studies Physics and Astronomy at Pitt. Photo courtesy of Bingjie Wang and Caitlyn Hunter

Pitt graduate student Kara Ponder studies exploding stars to find critical distances in the universe, yet some people question why she didn’t pick a more “feminine profession.”

Once, when Ponder told a cab driver she was on her way to the observatory to use the telescope, the driver responded, “You seem like a smart girl, why aren’t you a nurse?”

“That is what society thinks if you are smart and you are a girl,” Ponder said. “It’s frustrating.”

The number of female astronomers at Pitt — both faculty and students — is slight compared to their male counterparts. Women like Vera Rubin, who helped discover invisible dark matter, have made significant contributions to the field, but female students at Pitt said studying high-level physics and math often feels like going where no woman has gone before.

“I barely have any girl friends because there are none here, and these [men] are all the people that I see,” Ponder said. “Not having girls around is kind of strange. I wish we could do something more to invite more girls in.”

Monica Silny, a freshman astronomy major with muscular dystrophy, said the lack of females in her desired career field makes it difficult to find someone to look up to.

Before coming to Pitt her freshmen year, Silny joined the Facebook page for her class. “I looked desperately for women in physics and astronomy, and I found two. There were two girls I know as freshmen that are this major,” Silny said. “I have never seen anybody like myself, especially as a woman who is disabled.”

At Pitt, Silny is one of four female astronomy majors out of 21 total astronomy undergraduate students, according to Michele Slogan, administrative assistant to the chair of the Physics and Astronomy Department.

Based on her experience, Ponder said she is one of two female graduate astronomy students. Of the eight tenure or tenure-stream faculty and six research and assistant research professors, there is only one female in each category.

According to a research survey by the American Astronomy Society, the number of female astronomy professors has been increasing but is still not comparable to men in the field. As of 2013, about 65 percent of astronomy graduate students and 75 percent of adjunct astronomy professors were male.

But for those women who do show an interest, Sandhya Rao, the only female research professor in the Astronomy department, said more and more of them are now in the top bracket of their class. 

“More girls nowadays find it acceptable to do astronomy than there were in the past, and they are doing very well,” Rao said. “They don’t shy away from being really good at physical science.”

Bingjie Wang, a senior physics and philosophy major applying to a theoretical cosmology graduate program, said her interest started with philosophical questions she could only answer through physical research.

“Perhaps everyone has wondered the origin of us — of the universe — at some point in her life. I just decided to pursue the question a step further,” Wang said. “I think without a concrete grasp of scientific achievement, philosophy alone does not suffice to the understanding of nature.”

Rao said it’s not a lack of talent that makes women veer away from math, but a societal misconception that makes them feel inadequate before they even try. She’s discovered that while many girls in middle school show strong interest in astronomy, enthusiasm wanes when they get to high school and college.

“A lot of girls come to me and say, ‘You know, I really enjoy astronomy, and I am really excited about it, but I don’t think I am good enough,’” Rao said.

Outside of the astronomy department, Corinne Hite founded the Space Exploration and Astronomy Club this year as a sophomore environmental geology major with a concentration in planetary science. She said learning about space helps us understand our planet like nothing else can.

Parity in space isn’t too many light-years away. For the first time, NASA selected a class of new astronauts that were equal in gender — four men and four women — in 2013. That same year, 282 NASA astronauts were male and 48 were female, according to the 2013 Astronaut Fact Book.

Organizations such as Sally Ride Science — a program created by Sally Ride, the first woman to fly in space — and Steminist — a blog that focuses on women in science, technology, engineering and math — work to encourage and inspire women to pursue science and math educations and careers.

Ponder, who has been interested in the universe from a young age, never needed the extra nudge to spark her interest in space.

“I watched all the documentaries about stars, planets and galaxies on TV when I was a child,” Ponder said. “What can be more exciting than learning about the world?”

To encourage girls to study astronomy, Rao visits middle and high schools to act as a role model. She stresses that, “There is nothing a girl cannot do if she enjoys it and she puts her mind to it.”

“I have a daughter who studies physics in CalTech and she said to me, ‘You being my mom, it never occurred to me that I can’t do physics,’” Rao said.

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