Women in Science

Kathleen Cannon 275

In many nations including the United States, scientists are seeking to increase the number of women in science, both because women have talent, passion, and dedication and because women’s experiences and perspectives can add something new and exciting to the process of formulating questions and interpreting evidence. Our society’s success at solving vexing problems in health, energy, the environment, and other areas depends on the contributions all scientists, including women, will make.

In the United States, women account for about one-fourth of the professionals in STEM careers, including full professors in the academy. The College of Science

has exceeded this proportion with recent recruitment efforts, and we hope to improve even more. The Notre Dame faculty serve as models of possibility and accomplishment for young women who choose to join them in this field.

Here you'll learn about several women on the science faculty, who, in their own words, share their challenges, their joys, their achievements, and their advice as leaders in a community of discovery and innovation, an environment they hope to share with you.

--Sister Kathleen Cannon, O.P., D.Min
Associate Dean
College of Science

Ani Aprahamian

The Frank M. Freimann Professor of Physics

Ani Aprahamian

Science is exciting to me because it helps make sense of the world! Since early childhood, I was puzzled by how things worked. I was always in search of patterns that made sense. I love thinking about problems and finding solutions, and science shows the way. I fell in love with chemistry first and built my own lab when I was ten. It was very poor in equipment, but at university I fell in love with nuclear science. I dreamt of a greener world through nuclear energy, a more peaceful world unwilling to risk the unthinkable use of nuclear weapons, and a better way to help humanity through nuclear medicine. I thought that science and the passion for understanding common unsolved problems or challenges would be the great equalizer, making people forget their national and racial barriers for the common love of the science, especially physics.

What I appreciate about being a scientist at Notre Dame is the opportunity to work with clever students, both undergraduate and graduate. I love the continued learning and the constant challenge of new generations of students and new ways of thinking about everything. There is a lot of freedom at a university to collaborate internationally with people from all over the world and to shape science policy nationally as well as internationally by serving on advisory committees of all kinds, while staying close to the undergraduate student who is viewing relativity for the first time or the graduate student who learns to contribute to the basic understanding of how the universe works. Collectively, we work towards understanding our world. Also, Notre Dame is home to the Nuclear Science Laboratory. It was a major attraction that brought me here, and it has been a sustaining force as we have advanced from one of many laboratories to one of the best in the world.

Learn more about Prof. Aprahamian's research.

Crislyn D'Souza-Schorey

Chair, Department of Biological Sciences
Professor of Biological Sciences

Crislyn D'Souza-Schorey

Science is exciting to me because I delight in discovery. My research falls at the intersection of two exciting disciplines in the life sciences—cell biology and oncology. When our results make sense, I am excited. When that discovery has potential to solve problems for societal benefit, I am euphoric.

What I love about teaching is sharpening young minds. It’s not just about going through a curriculum but more what students derive after the fact. Some of them see the joy of discovery like I did, and that’s very rewarding. What’s more important is that all students connect what they’ve learned to real-world applications.

My advice to young women scientists would be: Stay task focused, don’t make assumptions, and do your homework. Speak your mind, but always be respectful. Stay true to your core values and make time to nurture those essential relationships with family and friends. It’s important to find and embrace that healthy balance between your personal and professional life.

Learn more about Prof. D'Souza-Schorey's research.

Mary Ann McDowell

Professor of Biological Sciences

Mary Ann Mcdowell

Science is exciting to me because of the diversity of questions and approaches. I like that once we think we have discovered something more questions arise.  There is always something new to think about and new challenges to tackle.

What I love about teaching is learning, learning new things, coming to a deeper understanding of a topic and, of course, the variety of opinions, knowledge, and personalities of my students. 

My advice to young women scientists would be to not let failure stand in your way of success. As an undergraduate student contemplating a research career, a professor advised me to make any other career choice and only go into scientific research if I just couldn’t stop myself. I don’t agree with this sentiment but is true, as scientists, we fail more than we succeed and it is actually the failures that advance research. All sorts of things go wrong, experiments don’t work, equipment fails, controls don’t work like expected, models are too simple, cultures are contaminated, sometimes we trip and spill a reagent that took us a year to make, grants aren’t funded, papers are rejected, bias (your own or that of others)…just about anything can go wrong. The scientific method itself has failure at its essence: observe, measure, hypothesize, and perform tests are set up to disprove the hypothesis. When a hypothesis is proven wrong, a new hypothesis is formed and the cycle begins. So it is actually all the failures that lead to success. I think this is true in science and more generally in life.

Learn more about Prof. McDowell's research.

Claudia Polini

Rev. John Cardinal O’Hara, C.S.C Professor of Mathematics
Director, Center for Mathematics

Claudia Polini

Research in mathematics is exciting to me because I feel I am discovering an underlying eternal truth. It is much more than the satisfaction that you can derive from solving a very difficult puzzle. It is more like discovering a new landscape, or being in a tunnel for a very long time and finally finding the light—everything makes sense, and everything has its proper place. The path to discovery makes you feel powerful. Mathematics has an appeal to me that is hard to describe. One of the attractions of mathematics is its connection with absolute truth, while another is the eternal validity of a mathematical statement. Mathematics has a beautiful simplicity, elegance, and structure that amazes me. As Galileo said, "Nature is written in that  great book which ever is before our eyes—I mean the universe—but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols in which it is written. The book is written in mathematical language without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth."

Mathematics is the universal language that we all should know. If another intelligent species from a different galaxy were to come in contact with us, it would most probably only be able to communicate with us through mathematics. The pleasure of doing mathematics—discovering a new theorem, creating a new theory, or proving a longstanding conjecture—is immeasurable. As Poincare said, "The scientist does not study Nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If Nature were not beautiful, it would be not worth knowing, and if Nature would not be worth knowing, life would not be worth living."

What I love about teaching is to transmit my love for mathematics to these young minds. Critical thinking can aid them in every decision they may have to take in life. Even if they are not going to be mathematicians, a solid mathematical background can help them no matter what career they decide to pursue. I enjoy seeing their intellectual growth. We can make a huge impact on these young lives and, for this reason, we have a great responsibility as educators.

Learn more about Prof. Polini's research.

Mei-Chi Shaw

Professor of Mathematics

Mei-Chi Shaw

Mathematics, the Queen of Science, is the absolute truth. No other subject can match its rigor.

My proudest moment was when Shing-Shen Chern wrote the preface of an article, “On Several Chinese Women Mathematicians” in the Chinese magazine Zhuan Ji Wen Xue (Biographical Literature) in 1995. In the preface, Chern called the six women mathematicians from National Taiwan University, including myself, “a miracle in Chinese history; the glory of the Chinese people.”

My advice to young women scientists would be: Love what you do and do what you love. You will not succeed or last long if you do not like what you do. The road to become a scientist is long and winding, but the journey is most rewarding.

Learn more about Prof. Shaw's research.

M. Sharon Stack

Ann F. Dunne and Elizabeth Riley Director, Harper Cancer Research Institute
Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry

Sharon Stack

I have spent my adult life as a woman in science, so I can’t say how it compares to being a woman in banking, law, pottery, or poetry. I do know that we owe a debt of gratitude to our fore-mothers who broke barriers for us so that we can include scientist among our career choices. Women in science still rank among the underrepresented, so it is important to know when and how to say no. As with most careers, fitting in family life is a serious challenge and is easier accomplished with a flexible partner.  Lastly, don’t forget to be curious, don’t take yourself too seriously, have confidence in your abilities, and realize that sleep is overrated and can wait until you’re eighty!

I strongly advise you as you take the plunge and give your heart to science: be sure it’s love and not an infatuation fling, because science will seduce you but will also break your heart—and often both in the same day. You will make mistakes, often expensive or dangerous or both. You will purify contaminants and artifacts instead of your target protein or compound. You will be unable to reproduce experiments that others have published because they left out one tiny but important tweak. You will work long hours, while your friends in other fields are out dancing, and you will sometimes miss important family events because your cells, mice, or your protein wasn’t ready when it was supposed to be. You will get frustrated trying to design experimental protocols, and yes, you may even cry. Balancing all of this and keeping in mind that you will eventually actually get paid to be curious and innovative is key. You will get to meet and work with a lot of very smart people, and you can be surrounded by students. The advantage of the latter is that students keep you smart by forcing you to remain constantly aware that you don’t actually know everything. This is humbling and important.

Learn more about Prof. Stack's research.

Jennifer Tank

Ludmilla, Stephen, & Robert Galla Professor of Biological Sciences

Jennifer Tank

What I appreciate about being a scientist at Notre Dame is that my research can contribute to the larger mission of the University. My research interests explore questions about the cycling of nitrogen and carbon in stream ecosystems and focus on how ecosystem function can contribute to improvements in water quality, which is essential for life and well-being on the planet. Using results from the research conducted in my lab, I am committed to outreach with a broader community of policymakers, NGOs, and agencies in order to improve the management of freshwater ecosystems. I am also part of the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative, which includes a group of more than forty affiliated faculty motivated by the motto of “Science Serving Society.” My goal is that my research on how human activities influence stream ecosystem function, especially in the context of the agricultural Midwest, will continue to contribute to the Notre Dame mission and serve both nature and humans alike.

As a woman in science, I am committed to the mentoring of junior faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students interested in an academic career in science. My educational background at large land-grant universities meant that these types of interactions were rare for me during my training. I feel that Notre Dame offers an opportunity to give the next generation of woman scientists a different experience. Taking the time to listen and offer advice (when asked) is a great privilege and hopefully helps to create a supportive environment, as woman make their way along their chosen career path.

Learn more about Prof. Tank's research.