The Women in Science Project (WiSP) met on the afternoon of Wednesday, October 31 for an informal lunch meeting with the organization’s faculty advisor and physics professor, Dr. Gayle Ratliff. Students were encouraged to share their own backgrounds and experiences, and President Grace Wischmeyer explained that she hoped the meeting could help foster more connection and communication between science students at Illinois Tech. This was something that the group of students who created WiSP found lacking, which is the reason why the organization was created.
Wischmeyer started off the conversation by first sharing a little bit about herself and her background. Wischmeyer is a chemistry and biology student that aims to be a veterinarian. Her interest in the veterinary sciences began when she got an internship at the zoo, where her responsibilities ranged from testing water quality to maintaining sensors. When she had the opportunity to shadow a veterinarian for a few days, she fell in love with it. “That was the coolest thing in the world,” she said. Wischmeyer now works at an animal hospital on the weekends, a job that she described as, “really sad, but very fun.”
During the conversation, Dr. Ratliff was able to share a lot about herself and her background as well as offer advice to the other young women in science that were present. She explained that she has been interested in physics since she was a little girl, digging in the dirt and trying to do science experiments in any way that she could. After completing her undergraduate degree in physics, she completed graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in engineering. After doing a lot of soul searching, however, Dr. Ratliff decided to return to Chicago and pursue physics again, graduating from Illinois Tech with a PhD in physics approximately six years later.
Although it is highly unusual for a graduate student to stay at the same institution after graduation, Dr. Ratliff enjoyed her time at Illinois Tech so much that she decided to stay. Dr. Ratliff has been teaching at Illinois Tech for about three years now, totalling an approximate 10 years on campus. “It’s a testament to how much I love the physics department that I stayed to teach here,” she explained. What made Illinois Tech special, she said, was that “you look around and everyone has such a different story.” She loved the diverse student population present here, the array of widely different backgrounds.
A student then asked Dr. Ratliff what challenges she’s faced and how she’s dealt with them. She explained that grad school was an extremely stressful time, and women have very specific challenges that they face. While she said it’s hard to describe to those who’ve never had to experience it, she has definitely had experiences in which she felt she was being treated differently as a woman. Specifically, she recalled classes in which she felt like she was being graded differently due to her gender.
“Tackling these issues is really hard,” she went on to say. Advocacy is difficult, exhausting work, and sometimes, as a student, you have so many other things on your plate that you let things slide that you know should be addressed. Dr. Ratliff herself explained that there have been times where she was too focused on getting a paper written or other schoolwork completed that she hadn’t been the best advocate that she could have been. But changing hearts and minds isn’t easy, and many times the bigotry that others possess comes from deep within.
One student then asked where to go with complaints concerning sexist comments, etc. from professors, to which the answer was the dean of students. There was then a brief discussion about how some students have noticed many people having similar complaints about the same professor, and why no one had reported it. “Why haven’t we told anyone?” one student asked. Some students responded to this question by expressing dissatisfaction with how complaints were handled, feeling like they were not taken as seriously as they should be, with little to nothing coming of it.
Dr. Ratliff was then asked if she had any advice to give to the students present. “Work very hard in your field,” she said. "When you’re very skilled at what you’re doing, there will be people who will want to work with you no matter what," she explained. “People will still have biases,” she said, “but once you [become very skilled], it changes a little bit.” It will take many, many hours to become an expert in your field, but that is why it is so important to do something that you’re passionate about. “Follow your passion,” she said, “and don’t let any of those subtle ways you’re discouraged prevent you from doing what you want to do.”
Her last piece of advice was very simple: be yourself. She described many instances in which she was encouraged to be more like the men in the field, like when she was told she needed to wear a suit when going to a conference. “I’m a woman, I’m African American, culturally I’m different,” she explained. This difference is a good thing, she stressed; different perspectives and backgrounds are things to be valued, especially in the sciences. “Having a different perspective does not mean you’re not as competent,” she said.
Looking to the future, the group hopes to restart the alumni mentorship program that ran during the summer of 2018. This program matches up undergraduate students with Illinois Tech alumni in the science field. Approximately 12 students participated during the summer, and WiSP received a great amount of positive feedback. In addition, the group plans to hold an alumni social in the spring as well.
Interested students can find the organization on Facebook, HawkLink, or contact the president directly at [email protected].