Off the Cuff: Rebecca Whelan, Associate Professor of Chemistry

Rebecca Whelan is an associate professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Oberlin. She participated in the Women in STEM faculty panel that was held Thursday, Sept. 19 in Craig Lecture Hall. Whelan spoke with the Review about women in the sciences and her own decision to pursue chemistry.

Elizabeth Dobbins, Staff Writer

How did you get into your field?

When I was in high school I thought that I wanted to be a doctor because I thought, like a lot of young people, I wanted to help people. I had some experiences going to the pediatrician and not having a very fun experience because the doctor [was] not a lot of fun so I thought, I want to become the kind of pediatrician that kids want to go to see. In preparation for that medical career I started taking as many science classes as I could and in my sophomore year of high school I took my first chemistry class. The teacher was an absolutely brilliant explainer who clearly loved chemistry. And I remember one day he passed around a ball and stick model of sodium chloride, just a really simple model where green balls represent the sodium and silver balls represent the chloride, and passed it around and I remember holding it in my hands and looking at it from all these sides and seeing the symmetry of it and thinking this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. So I found that chemistry in particular spoke to me as being really beautiful and logical. It made sense to me. That was really the starting point and then I ended up taking Advanced Placement chemistry with the same teacher. He really brought a lot of interesting and challenging material into the class so I still give him a lot of credit for inspiring me.

You also majored in English. How does that background influence your current work?

That’s a great question. So yes when I was at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI I pursued a double major in Chemistry and English. At the time and to this present moment, I find that the two disciplines really enrich and enforce each other. The simplest way I can talk about it is that scientists need to be good communicators. If you conduct a scientific experiment and you hold the results to yourself without sharing them you may as well not have done that work at all. So at all levels of teaching that I do,  the 100-level all the way up to my senior seminar I try to emphasize the importance of clear communication in both verbal and written ways. And we’re also readers. Scientists have to be readers because the literature is where a lot of information is stored.

How do you feel being a woman has affected your career in STEM, if at all?

Going back to that question of being a double major and how it mattered, I was very fortunate as an undergraduate to have the only female chemistry professor at my school. I was mentored for pretty much my whole time as an undergraduate by Mary Blackwell. She’s the only female chemist at our school and I was so inspired and encouraged by her. Fast forward to my senior year and I’m deciding: do I want to pursue my English degree? Do I want to pursue a degree that follows off my English major or one that follows off of my Chemistry major? I thought about the importance [that] this mentoring relationship had provided to me. And I thought ‘we are really a long way from achieving gender equity in the sciences,’ as evidenced by the fact that this whole fine liberal arts institution where I was a student only had one female chemist out of a faculty of five or six. So I thought a really worthwhile thing I could do with my time would be to locate myself in a place where women are still underrepresented and to do everything I can to be a great mentor and a teacher of the next generation of scientists regardless of their gender identity.

And where do you see gender equity heading in the future in the STEM field?

We still have a long way to go. The American Chemical Society is the main professional organization for chemists and every year; they give out technical awards, basically awards for scientific achievement. And even though women comprise 20 percent of the ACS membership — we can say parenthetically that is already problematic because women represent around [half] of the population — they’re 20 percent of the members of this chemistry organization. They only represent seven percent of people who were nominated for awards and maybe one or two percent of the recipients of those awards. [Also,] a lot of these awards are self-nominations. So they require people to say ‘you know what, I think I deserve the award for the best analytical chemistry’ and then they put themselves forward and they ask their friends to support their application. So if more women were to think: ‘You know what, I am really doing great work. I’m going to put myself forward for this award that’s one thing that could be helpful.’ Fifty percent of bachelor level degrees in science are earned by women. Then if you go to the Ph.D. level, it’s about 30 percent. By the time you get to professors we’re talking fewer than 10 percent. So women are beginning to earn the degrees but they don’t persist through the profession all the way to the very highest levels. At every stage of education, women are paid less than men. That still is true. They have a harder time getting grants. They are often not getting the support and the resources … and I think there’s still work to be done there.

How do you feel more women could be encouraged to pursue a career in the sciences?

Good teaching and mentoring is a big part of it. I think there have been studies on classroom environments where teachers all the way to grade school level respond to boys and girls differently when they have questions or when they’re struggling. Just simply being aware that teachers and other sources of authority or information bring assumptions into interactions with boys and girls. It’s so simple and cliché, but boys like to play with blocks and girls like to play with dolls. You know, simple things like that are there. Do people enforce those stereotypes when they interact with young people? [Is there] anything that we can do to remain open to that? There’s going to be people [who] , with just a little bit of encouragement, really find strengths and achievement in areas that don’t fit into the stereotypes.

Is there anything you’d like to add to any of this?

The science faculty at Oberlin are a really terrific group of potential teachers and mentors and if anyone out there thinks they might have an interest in pursuing the science field but they’re maybe shying away from it for some reason, [they should] try to have a conversation with at least one or more faculty members or try to take an intro level science class and try it out. It’s a whole beautiful realm of human inquiry that everyone could benefit from.