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Women in Science Project
6201 Parker House
Hanover, NH 03755

Phone: 603-646-3690

Laura Hester '09

August 29, 2009

Before even stepping foot onto Dartmouth's campus, I knew that I wanted to be an epidemiologist. I had mapped out my four years so that I knew precisely which hard science classes would prepare me for this future career, and I had already set up a lab science research internship for the following summer. However, during my first term at Dartmouth, I was completely overwhelmed by my science courses and labs. I slowly revised my course schedule for future terms by scratching out science classes and replacing them with the humanities. I began to doubt that I would ever be a good scientist.

Before entirely giving up hope, I set up a meeting with WISP Director Mary Pavone to see if there was any way I could salvage my fading dream of being an epidemiologist. She told me that everyone struggles at some point in their science career. True researchers never give up; sometimes, they have to revise their plans and try again.

After digesting Mary's advice, I decided that I would amend my problem in two ways: first, I would continue to sharpen my research skills by signing up for a WISP first-year internship; second, I would look for other classes not part of the hard-sciences that were still applicable to epidemiology. I decided I would continue to pursue my dream, but I would follow a different route.

This new route turned out to be through geography, a subject that is part science and part social science. In Dartmouth's geography department, I began to take courses in geographical information systems (GIS). A GIS is software and hardware capable of capturing, storing, analyzing, and displaying data by geographic location. The more I read on GIS-based research, the more I realized that I could apply my knowledge of this tool towards public health and epidemiology.

As I was searching for a senior thesis topic in geography, I heard about mortality data that the New Hampshire medical examiner wanted analyzed. An analysis of these data would provide policy makers in New Hampshire with evidence that would help them better understand and respond to the increasing number of deaths related to the commonly-used group of painkillers known as prescription opioids. I saw this opportunity as a great way to use GIS and the scientific method to solve an epidemiological problem, and no hard science was required.

When my research was finished, Assistant WISP Director Kathy Weaver suggested that I present a poster in the Sigma Xi Christopher Reed competition at the Wetterhahn Science Symposium. I balked at first because I didn't think my GIS research would be considered science by the judges, who all came from the hard sciences. Despite my fears, I followed Kathy's advice, and to my dismay, received many compliments and an award for my research. Once again, the WISP office helped me overcome my fears of science with great results.

This week, I started my program to get an advanced degree in infectious disease epidemiology. Looking back, I would like to express my gratitude to Mary, Kathy and the WISP office. Without their guidance and help, I may have given up on scientific research and never have been able to see my dream come true.

Last Updated: 10/19/10