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Retaining women in the sciences: what Dartmouth is doing

Posted 09/05/00

Most college freshmen don't have the opportunity to pursue geophysics fieldwork in Greenland for the U.S. Army. However, thanks to a special internship program for first-year women sponsored by the Dartmouth College Women in Science Project (WISP), Trumbull, Conn., native Gina Luciano was able to do just that.

Luciano, now entering her junior year, is one of just over 700 Dartmouth women to participate in WISP's special first-year internship program since its inception in 1990. Students assist in ongoing research projects -- opportunities usually reserved for upper-class science majors to prepare them for graduate work -- with either science faculty members or researchers in nearby laboratories, such as the U.S. Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) where Luciano did her internship.

While most WISP programs are open to women of all ages, these internships are specifically geared to freshmen because studies have shown that attrition from the sciences is most prevalent during that year. Non-science majors as well as science majors are invited to participate.

Although nationally concern is rising about the lack of women in science and technology professions, the WISP internship program is part of a successful strategy for attracting women to the sciences at Dartmouth. A recent survey of the College's science alumnae who graduated between 1973 and 1996 revealed that 80 percent of respondents remained in the science and technology professions after graduation. Many of these alumnae reported that opportunities for substantive undergraduate research and the resulting mentor relationships with faculty members were the factors that most influenced their decision to stay in the sciences.

For Luciano, who came to college planning a career as a physician, the internship opened her eyes to career opportunities in the sciences besides medicine. Working with geophysicist Dr. Mary Albert at CRREL, she helped analyze snow cores to determine how air travels through snow with increasing depth. The research is part of a larger project that could provide information about long-term climate and atmosphere changes.

Luciano was so entranced with the research that she changed her major to earth sciences and is rethinking her future career in medicine. After completing her initial WISP internship, she arranged to continue her work at CRREL through a grant from Dartmouth¹s Arctic Institute, which funded her fieldwork in Greenland.

"This is probably the best thing I have done in college so far. It taught me not just about ice hydrology, but also about myself. It really made me examine what I wanted to be and why," she said.

Related Links:

WISP alumnae survey

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