Bridging the gap

Queen’s alumnus speaks about women in science

Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University delivers a speech on women in science last Friday in Walter Light Hall.
Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University delivers a speech on women in science last Friday in Walter Light Hall.

Though women have come a long way, statistics indicate that men still dominate in many scientific and technological disciplines.

This includes full-time and part-time doctoral candidates in the following disciplines at Queen’s: 78 per cent of computer science students are male, 81 per cent of students in engineering, 88 per cent in mathematics and 72 per cent in the physical sciences, President of Princeton University Shirley Tilghman said during a public lecture last Friday.

Tilghman, a Queen’s BScH ’68, DSc ’02 graduate, came to Queen’s to present a public lecture on the need to increase women’s participation in science and technology. As a scientist, the first female president at Princeton University and the third female president in Ivy League history, she has been an advocate of women in science and technology.

She said although there have been many significant increases in women’s participation in post-graduate studies there is still a long way to go.

“In a highly symbolic development, women have for the first time earned a majority of doctorates awarded in the United States,” she said. “[Despite these changes] women still remain underrepresented in the sciences and engineering.

“The humanities have traditionally been more successful in their pursuit of greater gender parity.”

“I think my generation got too caught up in numerating in all the challenging and we didn’t spend enough time in numerating all the success,” she said, adding it’s important for Canadian educational institutions not only to provide opportunities in which women can engage in science and technology but also allow younger students to celebrate women scientists of the past.

“It’s important to know that they are there and that they have succeeded. I think that’s what we should be talking about.”

She said by increasing women in academic disciplines which currently see low numbers, the areas of research that may not otherwise appeal to men will broaden.

Tilghman came to Canada to receive the Henry G. Friesen International Prize in Ottawa. The award recognized her achievements in genetics research as well as her leadership amongst women in science and technology.

Queen’s approached Tilghman to present a public lecture in honour of her award.

She said throughout her career she has been asked by many if she had ever experienced victimization due to her professional field being so male dominated.

“Interestingly, I was convinced that one of the reasons that I believed I could or would be a scientist was that no one ever told me otherwise,” she said.

Tilgham, who is a molecular biologist, said she received support from her parents, professors at Queen’s and post-graduate mentors. She credits mentorship at Queen’s as an important factor of her success.

“[One professor] sat me down and told me that I was not destined to be a great chemist,” Tilghman said. “He was right and I knew it. This was one of the most courageous and generous things a teacher can do for a student.” She said that conversation helped her find her way into molecular biology, a field which was a much better fit for her.

That was only a part of her journey into the scientific world.

Tilghman said she was given a research project in her second year and by luck the experience turned into a significant discovery which led to her first scientific publication.

“After that experience I could not, not have been a scientist,” she said. “For every girl who dreams of becoming a scientist or an engineer we have an obligation to do everything we can so that her chances [are just] as good as her male counterpart.”

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