Finding a Professional Voice

Many of the women STEM faculty who participated in the oral history project described different points in their life when they discovered (or rediscovered) how excited they were about science and math. It wasn’t just that they were good in those subjects in school, it was the fascination with the discovery and learning process in research, and even the frustration and long hours in the lab solving problems. For these women, finding a professional voice has been a process of constant discovery in their research, with translation of those discoveries into publications, patents, and solutions to real world problems that improve people’s lives.

Interviewees described a variety of transitions in their lives—from high school to college, college to graduate school, while in graduate school from student to researcher, and then to their first job. And the transitions continue as they move on in their careers. However, not all the interviewees went directly into academia after their doctoral degree. A number of the engineers, chemists, and biologists worked in private industry or government for many years before becoming professors. That transition to academia was often marked by a return to the gender norms and cultural assumptions about women in STEM they had faced in elementary school.

How can you use your voice to eradicate professional barriers and discrimination? Can finding your own professional voice help change the way that science is taught and presented to world? What—or who—has helped you find your professional voice?

“In 4th or 5th grade somebody came into the classroom with a map and started asking questions about where is this and that in the world. And I started answering the questions because my father, at night, would take the atlas and he would show us all this stuff. So I was the only one able to do it and the person said, ‘Wow, you are really smart’ and that had a big impact on me because I thought for the first time, ‘Wow, maybe I am smart. Maybe I can do things.’ I remember that one day; it changed the way I thought about myself.”

“I remember when I was 15 years old being asked to write a 15 page paper and getting so into it that I wrote 30 pages. And that’s when I realized I was really a scholar, I really loved getting into the texts and ideas and thinking them through.”

“I didn’t discover science again until I was in college and there was a distribution requirement so I realized, Oh, I actually like this stuff. Why didn’t I take more in high school?”

“Experiments are fabulous. Data are amazing. You think something and then you do something and you find out whether it goes one way or another and you think, ‘wow, that’s really cool.’ Then you decide if you want to follow it up or if you want to write it up and try and publish it. It is remarkably freeing.”

“I tell my grad students that once you’ve qualified, done all that nasty course work and exams and stuff, it’s really the sweetest part of your life, when you’re just doing research as a grad student because you’ve got nothing else to focus on and you’re’ just exploring science. So I loved that part of it.”

“I’ve been doing interdisciplinary projects on the side and trying to do science in the traditional way that’s expected, because that in itself was a fun challenge. But I need to take it to the next level, I need to do what I can envision and do uniquely. So that’s going to involve working in an interdisciplinary way, not sticking to these categories of ‘science is over here, this is over there, creativity is over here and that’s over there.’ It’s going to be synthesized and integrated in the ways that my interdisciplinary projects are.”

“I’m moving on to a more senior phase in my career where I’ve done so much research on my own already. I spend so much time now evaluating other people, as an editor and for tenure proposals and I’m on a lot of dissertation committees. It’s kind of nice to feel more senior and to be able to use all the things that you’ve built up to help with the changes that are going on in science now and what we ought to be doing. It’s a thing that feels good almost every day.”

“It’s just a good feeling of being accomplished. Making science. Getting the truth out there.”


Gendered Expectations | Finding a Professional Voice | Making a Life | Mentoring

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