USciences Student Studies Perceived Gender Gap in Science

By Jenna Pizzi

Published on January 8, 2019

Alexis SchirlingWomen account for only a small percentage of the world's researchers despite decades of focus on bridging increasing interest in science, technology, engineering and math among girls and women, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, yet females make up 60 percent of the USciences student body. To examine this gender gap, Alexis Schirling BMS’19 sought to take a deeper look at the question and why we have a perception that women prefer softer fields, even in STEM.

“I’m determined to show that I can go where I’d like to go. Females can do what males can do,” said Schirling, who in addition to her major in biomedical sciences is minoring in psychology and neuroscience.

What started as a group project in her psychology class assigned by professor Alysson Light PhD, Schirling adopted for continued research. Rather than just looking at the number of women involved in science fields, Schirling looked more specifically at the perceptions of gender representations in fields categorized as either “hard” science like physics, chemistry, and biology,  or “soft” science, like social sciences, for example, psychology and anthropology.

Schirling presented the research poster entitled “The Softer Sex in Science: Perceptions of Gender Representations in STEM Fields Influence Categorization of ‘Soft’ and ‘Hard’ Sciences” at the LaSalle Diversity Forum in November, taking home first prize. She has also been accepted to present at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Portland, Oregon in February 2019.

First, Schirling collected data from USciences students, then expanded the subjects to include those not just involved in science. Now, with the help of Dr. Light she is examining the mechanism as to why people have perceptions of gender representations and categorize them into hard and soft fields.

Schirling hopes to begin working in a lab studying gene mutations in psychiatric disorders before returning to academia to pursue her PhD in neuroscience and genetics.

“I’ve always had this interest in how a single mutation in your genes can have a huge impact,” said Schirling. “I’m interested in studying the genetic basis of psychiatric disorders.”

Schirling said studying at USciences gave her more opportunities to get involved in research outside of her major. Her research experience began during her first year when she participated in the SEA-Phages program.

“It was a great way for me to get into research and gain interest and ask questions,” said Schirling. She also gained experience presenting her research in subsequent years at the Philly Phage Festival.

“I’ve been trying to get experience in everything to see what I like and what I don’t like,” she said. For example, she had an opportunity to spend this past summer working with counseling Crisis Text line and previously with genetic counselors and discovered she didn’t enjoy counseling, so redirected her focus to other career options that focus on research and data analysis.

Originally from Doylestown, PA, she first heard about USciences from advertisements, but when she visited campus felt very comfortable and found a supportive environment.

“I’d encourage other students to talk to their professors because you’ll learn so much. Some people are intimidated by them, but they are willing to talk to you and talk about their research and it helps you get your foot in the door.”

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