Archive for Sunday, May 29, 2005

Try a little tenderness

KU department could teach Harvard president a thing or two about chemistry

May 29, 2005


Harvard's president recently tried to make amends for casting doubt on the "intrinsic aptitude" of women to become scientists and engineers.

President Lawrence Summers announced that Harvard would spend at least $50 million during the next decade to recruit and promote women and members of minority groups to the ranks of scientists and engineers.

But I've got a better suggestion than throwing money at the problem.

Come on out to Kansas, Dr. Summers. Yes, we have our little problems with evolution, and some of us regret that. But what the Kansas University chemistry department is doing to recruit women is pure magic.

Consider this: The department admitted 20 graduate students in 1999. Of the 10 who entered the analytical chemistry program that year, 10 were women. One got her doctorate last year. Seven just graduated. The other two will finish next academic year.

That's right, Dr. Summers: 10 for 10, all women, all overcoming their intrinsic aptitude issues.

So what's the secret to the chemistry department's success?

Well, for one, when prospects come to visit, they're welcomed by women faculty members. KU chemistry professor Kristin Bowman-James became chair in the 1990s. In the next few years, the department added four more women faculty members.

It's not just a woman-hires-her-cronies story, by the way.

The chemistry department here has a tradition.

"We've had between 35 and 60 percent women graduate students throughout the past two decades," professor Rich Givens says.

Professor George Wilson, for example, has had 20 master's and doctoral students since 1987, 14 of them women.

Raeann Gifford, who just got her doctorate, says she was attracted to KU because it's got one of the few highly ranked analytical chemistry departments in the Midwest.

But there was also a personal connection.

Before she enrolled here, she worked with Wilson for a year on a glucose monitoring device for diabetics. That helped her decide to go to graduate school here.

There were other personal connections to science for Gifford, too: a brother in chemistry, a husband in chemistry, a med tech cousin, an engineer dad.

Having role models, Dr. Summers, seems to be part of staving off the intrinsic aptitude virus.

Gifford also had a great high school chemistry teacher.

So did Laura Lucas, who finished her doctorate in May 2004.

Lucas remembers great science fair experiences and stresses how important it is for kids to have enthusiastic and qualified teachers.

But above all, Lucas says, what helped her at KU were chemistry professors, men and women alike, who "truly want to help the students succeed." A human touch helps.

Maybe, Dr. Summers, you should consider spending some of that $50 million on hiring a few of KU's new chemistry doctorates.

They'd know how to make your chemistry Ph.D. prospects feel welcome when they visit and later enroll - because that's how they were made to feel at KU.

If money doesn't solve your problem in the next decade, Dr. Summers, then there's another solution, if you think you have the aptitude for it.

It's embodied in a lyric sung by the late, great Otis Redding:

Try a little tenderness.

Roger Martin is publications and features editor for the KU Center for Research. His commentaries on research can be found at Martin's e-mail address is

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