Women Excel in STEM Fields at CUI

A group of female professors and students gather around symbols of math and science

Traditionally, in higher education, fewer women than men have gone into the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

But not at CUI.

Women are a strong part of the science and mathematics faculties and three of four full-time mathematics faculty members are women. Not only that, but the number of women majoring in these fields at CUI continues to rise.

“It’s not normal to have three of four full-time mathematics faculty be women,” says Dr. Amanda Croll, assistant professor of mathematics, who just completed her first semester teaching at CUI after finishing her PhD in mathematics at the University of Nebraska. “A lot of departments in mathematics have many more men than women.”

As an undergraduate, Croll participated annually in the Carleton College Summer Mathematics Program for Women, which encourages women who are gifted in mathematics to pursue higher degrees, “partly because there are so few women in STEM fields,” Croll says.

“Through that program I’ve come to know an amazing network of women in mathematics which has been really helpful.”

Croll says in her experience, “I never felt a barrier because I was a woman, but I did meet women who actually felt put down by the fact that there weren’t other women and that it wasn’t okay for them to be there [in a mathematics field]. There are actually some women who feel they can’t do math because of the environment they’re in with so few women. It made me more aware that for some people that is still an issue."

As a professor, I encourage all of my students equally who are gifted in math about opportunities that are out there.

CUI mathematics professor Dr. Melinda Schulteis ’95 says she never felt discriminated against, but did “always feel people’s surprise: ‘Oh, you’re a woman in mathematics.’ It was a good motivator to continue doing what I loved already.”

She credits retired CUI professor Ken Mangels for encouraging her to be a mathematics major, which has become her field of expertise.

“I felt very motivated when I came back to Concordia [to teach],” she says. “I didn’t care if students were male or female. What I wanted was to connect students to local and national mathematics conferences so they could get research experiences as undergraduates.”

She is proud that CUI now regularly takes students to mathematics conferences as participants and speakers.

“We’ve gone from not having any presence in that community — ‘Who is Concordia?’ — to regularly engaging with other colleges and their graduates. It’s fun to see,” she says.

Women in STEM

One of those opportunities is the Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics at the University of Nebraska, where each year 250 undergraduate women in mathematics present research. This year CUI students senior Michelle Schoon and junior Kelsey Swerdfeger, both mathematics majors, will present projects they have been working on with Dr. Croll.

“I’m really excited to have this opportunity because I’ve never done something like this before,” says Schoon, who is presenting research on how computers use linear algebra to create facial recognition technology (like the kind used on social network sites). “It has definitely helped to have female professors at Concordia. Most of my math teachers in high school and grade school were males, but in college they’ve been all females except for Professors Taylor and Meyer. It’s definitely nice to have females leading the way.”

Another CUI student, Megan Sorenson ’15, recently presented research about fractals at the Pacific Coast Undergraduate Mathematics Conference, explaining how imaginary numbers allow one to create computer screen backgrounds with intricate designs that repeat endlessly and never lose their intricacy. Sorenson came to CUI from Boise to play volleyball and fell in love with mathematics through Schulteis’ “contagious” influence, she says. “I had always liked math, but now I absolutely love math which I didn’t really see coming,”

Sorenson says. “The professors are really good. I love the problem-solving aspect of it and how there is always an answer. Math applies to almost everything in your life: music, art and so on. You can see math in everything once you get into it.”

Sorenson is now spending a semester at Oxford with the Oxford study abroad program and is taking a full slate of mathematics courses. She hopes one day to work as an actuary for an insurance company.

Julie Melberg, who has taught at CUI for seven years, believes a transition has taken place in the STEM fields in the last decade. Her sister studied veterinary medicine at UC Davis. In the hallway are photos of each graduating class by year. In the 1970s the photos contain mostly men. Today, of 110 students at the vet school, 105 are women, she says.

“It almost completely transitioned from a male-dominated field to a female-dominated field,” Melberg says. “It really was very stark.”

Melberg says that by the time students are in college “it’s a pretty fair field.” She has had some female CUI students tell her that in middle school and high school they were discouraged by a teacher who told them they couldn’t do math but “as a faculty at Concordia I don’t think there’s any prejudice either way.”

Lindsay Kane-Barnese ’05, a CUI alum with degrees in biology and chemistry and a PhD from UCLA, says she never experienced any barriers at CUI or elsewhere.

“I was always encouraged by my parents and elementary and high school teachers, and especially in college,” she says. “I don’t think it matters that there are fewer or more women in a department."

I think it’s important that our faculty encourage everyone alike to do the best they can do and that all students consider a career in the STEM fields.

"We need to motivate them to take on these challenging areas. They are our future.”

Sarah Karam ’04, a newly hired assistant professor of biology, teaches Core biology, ecology and ocean science at CUI. She just completed her master’s degree and PhD work at the University of Nevada at Reno. As an undergraduate she transferred from Harvey Mudd College to CUI, where she earned her degree in biology.

Karam says she hasn’t experienced direct discrimination and “never saw myself needing women to emulate,” but is concerned about the so-called “leaky pipeline” in which women, feeling forced to choose between career and family, leave the field before reaching the higher echelons of research.

“I didn’t choose the research path because it’s less compatible with life and having a family,” Karam says. “It’s a pervasive view in most higher education that research comes to the forefront and teaching is secondary. That’s not my personal view. I’ve had a lot of colleagues choose to come to institutions like Concordia rather than [top tier research] schools for similar reasons: balance of life and balance within scientific pursuits and teaching.”

But she feels that women more often than men are expected to balance home and work responsibilities.

“Many of the reasons women feel so constrained is because of historical assumptions of who takes care of the home,” she says. “If women are expected to fully contribute to the workplace it needs to go both ways. Men need to be expected to fully contribute to the home.”

Concordia appreciates “the whole person and all the other aspects of their lives,” Karam says. “I think it could be part of women being on the faculty. It’s a reason for anyone to be attracted to Concordia Irvine.”

Whatever the complex reasons, there are plenty of women and men in the STEM fields at CUI, and no lack of encouragement for all students.

“It’s one of the really nice things for our students here that we have both female and male role models, people they can look up to and say, ‘Hey, that could be me,’” says Croll.

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