Program has inspired women in science careers for last 25 years

By Eleanor TaylorApril 9, 2012

In 1987, Ronald Reagan shouted "tear down this wall!” urging Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to bring new opportunity, equality and freedom to millions. That same year, the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory started a program to help remove barriers that had prevented young women from starting careers in science and engineering. A quarter-century later, Argonne continues to strengthen its commitment to recruiting, retaining and promoting women researchers in every scientific and technical field.

On April 19, 2012, Argonne's Science Careers in Search of Women Conference (SCSW) will celebrate its 25th anniversary, as the laboratory continues to give young woman first-hand experience with a plethora of different career possibilities available to them.  The program welcomes approximately 350 high school students and their teachers or guidance counselors each year and has reached almost 7,500 young women since its inception.

“We are very proud of this milestone and the impact these events have in inspiring young women to become a meaningful part of our next generation of scientists and engineers," said Argonne director Eric Isaacs. “Every day at Argonne, women are making scientific discoveries and technological innovations that improve our world.”

Women at Argonne stand at the forefront of scientific discovery and engineering excellence. They lead and participate in multi-disciplinary research projects that range from curing diseases and improving human health to developing sustainable sources of energy while protecting our environment and combating climate change. They also design, build and operate world-class national scientific user facilities that enable researchers to conduct experiments that cannot be performed anywhere else in the world.

"Having these young women meet with successful female role models is an important way to break gender stereotypes," said Kawtar Hafidi, an Argonne physicist and conference co-chair who leads Argonne's Women in Science and Technology (WIST) program. "If no one shows these young women what it is like to be a scientist or engineer, it's harder for them to see themselves in those roles."

The event's keynote speaker will be Katarina Ruscic, a former SCSW student participant who is now working towards both an M.D. degree at Pritzker Medical School as well as a Ph.D. in Computational Neuroscience at the University of Chicago.  She attended SCSW in 2000 as a sophomore in high school and recalls how she was inspired by the great number of brilliant, vibrant female scientists she interacted with that day.

Ruscic was born in Zagreb, Croatia, and moved to Downers Grove, Ill., at the age of four. She is a graduate of Downers Grove South High School and the University of Chicago with honors in three majors: chemistry, biochemistry and biology, and has won numerous awards and scholarships.

Her talk will be titled "Hiking to the Top.….in Heels!."

"It wasn't long ago I was sitting exactly where these young women are now," said Ruscic.  "I want to show them they can do it. They can have fun, be themselves and change the world as science rock-stars."

Students spend the day participating in panel discussions with speakers from a variety of scientific and engineering disciplines, touring different laboratories at Argonne, as well as visiting career booths and meeting with mentors and role models.  At lunchtime, they are matched by their areas of interest with a scientist, providing an opportunity for more informal, one-on-one conversation.

 “Today’s technology-driven world offers amazing opportunities for women everywhere,” said conference co-chair Matthew Howard, director of Argonne's Communications, Education and Public Affairs Division.  "Women are still under-represented in scientific and engineering fields, and for the last 25 years we have been working to change that and will continue to do so in the future."

Besides reaching out to students, the conference has also benefited women researchers at Argonne.  SCSW provides opportunities for female researchers to interact with their peers and to mentor students.  The event led to the formation of the laboratory's Women in Science and Technology program, which helps encourage professional growth and development as it promotes diversity at all levels within the laboratory.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.