Role Models and Research: A Conversation on Gender Representation in STEM

Seven RWU professors share their perspectives on the changing world of gender representation in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields

By Anna Cohen
Society of Women Engineers Conference
Chunyan Bai, Associate Professor of Computer Science (right,) and students at a Society of Women Engineers Conference in Kansas City, Missouri.

BRISTOL, R.I. – The face of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is changing.

We sat down with seven RWU professors to hear about their experiences working in the STEM fields as women and gender minorities. They agreed that the STEM fields are for everyone, and that they are supported by the strong community of women and gender minorities in STEM on the RWU campus. 

Read on to see what these seven professors had to share about important topics including community, identity, and belonging, and to hear the advice they have for people of underrepresented genders who are considering pursuing these fields. 

On Community

image of Yannie Bai
Chunyan Bai

“When we have students that need suggestions or tips, we sit down to talk to them. The good thing about this private school setting is you feel like you’re close to the students, which is very different from the huge school where I had my education. They can always find some help. It doesn’t have to be academic, it could be their personal life. I like to build these personal connections.” – Chunyan Bai, Associate Professor of Computer Science 

image of Pam Judge
Pamela Judge

“It’s a beautiful thing that I have female colleagues that I can text and I know they will be there to help me out. We are closing in on the gender gap at least in terms of numbers. I like being genuinely supported. I don’t feel like I was hired because we needed to check the quota of having a female engineer. It was out of genuine respect for my work and teaching methods.” – Pamela Judge, Assistant Professor of Engineering 

“I’ve had some beautiful, wonderful conversations with students around these topics. Usually by the time I see them, they have figured out we are a safe space for them to do this exploration and that a lot of the professors on campus really want them to do that. That’s what we feel like we’re here for. We’re a liberal arts college, meaning we are here for the entire student.”
Jennifer Pearce, Assistant Professor of Physics

On Progress

image of Nancy Breen
Nancy Breen

“When I was in graduate school, there were no female professors. The women took on support roles rather than the lead roles. But that has changed. I wouldn’t say it’s 50/50, but there are a lot of women faculty now. In the Chemistry Department, we have three women and three men.”
Nancy Breen, Associate Professor of Chemistry

“If you look at SECCM today, we have 50% female computer science faculty. We are already role models standing in front of the students. When I was in school, it was different. I was always one of the few, but today I feel the change.” – Chunyan Bai

“We are only one of three Physics departments in the country with no men. Chemistry is half women and Engineering is nearly half women. They’re doing a really good job hiring. When I went to graduate school, there were very few female faculty. People told me not to work with the women and they were ostracized. We really owe them a lot of gratitude for all the work they did to pave the way so the rest of us had a much easier path.” – Adria Updike, Assistant Professor of Physics

Gender diversity is increasing within these fields. At RWU, women make up 41% of tenured and tenure-track Natural Science, Computer Science, Engineering, and Mathematics professors, ahead of the national average of 36%*. 

On Identity

Avelina Espinosa
 Avelina Espinosa

“People ask how I define myself: ‘Do you define yourself as a woman or do you define yourself as a Hispanic?’ It’s part of who I am, but it doesn’t define me. I would like to see a more comprehensive human-rights type of approach in which anybody and everybody should have the same access and options.”
Avelina Espinosa, Associate Professor of Biology

On Getting Involved

“I took eight or ten students to the Society of Women Engineers conference. It was the best. There is a Society of Women Engineers student club with a faculty advisor who guides them on different projects and conferences. The school pays for a trip to participate in this conference, which provides job opportunities and they can present research. That was a really good experience for the students to feel like we aren’t a minority. We are real.”
Chunyan Bai 

“One of the things that was amazing to me on campus is just how open the queer community has been. We have a queer living learning community on campus and sometimes faculty are involved with mentoring. We went to dinner at the president’s house. In my last job, I had to stay undercover. Here, the attitude is, “Hey, would you like to mentor students, because that’s how much we like you.” – Jennifer Pearce 

On Image

Yajni Warnapala
Yajni Warnapala

“Sometimes I wear blue nail polish. I can do math and still be feminine. There are people who perceive that because you are a female, you won’t be as good as the male standing next to you. But I say you don’t have to be male or be masculine. You can be yourself and be good at what you do. That’s what I do in class every single day.”
Yajni Warnapala, Professor of Mathematics

On Teaching

“It has been shown that the best way to learn physics is to try to teach it to someone else, so we do a lot of group work activities in all of our classes. If you watch my classes, it’s about half me talking and the rest of the time it’s the students talking to each other to try to solve a problem. It really tends to encourage a lot more women and minorities to stay in the field if they see it as more of a collaborative subject. Historically, people think of the lone physicist like Newton, but that is not the field today. A friend of mine was on a Nobel Prize-winning paper with 1,000 authors on it.” – Adria Updike 

Their Advice

“Go for it! Same as anyone else. Don’t give up. The reason I am where I am is because of my perseverance. You have to work very hard, but you get out what you put in. It doesn’t always come easy, especially if it is of value. Just keep trying. There are lots of venues out there to voice concerns if you have them. Speak up if you do. Be persistent and ask for help when you need it. There are loads of people around willing to help.” – Nancy Breen 

“Problem solving takes time. You don’t have to be an A student. People seem to think a B average means you can’t do math. That’s not true. You can still do it, and it’s fun. There is so much you can do with it.” – Yajni Warnapala 

“Use the resources. Get involved, find your group. I think the queer community has always been very welcoming. At RWU, we try to make the students as aware of and welcome at those spaces as much as possible.”
Jennifer Pearce 

“Be assertive. You won’t help yourself if you doubt. One of the problems I see in some students that I have worked with is that they’re intelligent and have the capacity, but they doubt themselves. That’s again part of the socialization. We should help anybody that is doubtful by saying, ‘You can do it, you are bright enough.’ You should be able to say, ‘I speak my mind, I can do it.’ ”
Avelina Espinosa 

image of RWU Professor Adria Updike
Adria Updike

“A bachelor’s degree in physics is extremely employable. There are jobs all over the place that will happily take a physicist and love the skills you get along the way. Do you know how to solve something you haven’t seen before and to how explain it to someone else? Those are incredibly useful skills. You can take a bachelor’s almost anywhere.” – Adria Updike 

“If you are considering getting into the field, do not hesitate. If it’s the stereotype that’s bothering you, there’s no need. Go for it. Today’s world is open and changing. Computer Science is such an exciting field. You get to learn new things every day. Even after 15 years, I’m still excited about looking for new things.” –  Chunyan Bai

“Be your own best friend. A lot of times, we come back to negative self-thought: ‘I don’t know if I’m smart enough, I don’t know if I’m prepared enough for this presentation, I don’t know if I’m going to get this job.’ I find the best way to get out of that negative headspace is to pretend it’s your sister, best friend or girlfriend who is going on that job interview or doing that presentation. What would you tell her? You’d say, ‘You’re great!’ Say that to yourself. We should treat ourselves with as much dignity, respect, and positivity as we treat our female friends and as men treat themselves.”
Pamela Judge 

Meet the Contributors

Nancy Breen is an Associate Professor of Chemistry specializing in analytical chemistry. She is working with students to stop the practice of cyanide fishing, which damages coral reef environments, by developing a method of testing fish for cyanide exposure. She has taught at RWU since 2002. 

Yajni Warnapala is a Professor of Mathematics and Chair of the Mathematics Department who has taught at RWU since 2000. Through her expertise in numerical analysis, she is currently working with students to model electromagnetic theory that could be used to find the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. 

Jennifer "Jenn" Pearce, Assistant Professor of Physics, is an expert in non-linear dynamics who came to RWU in 2012. She is working on a mathematical model for gender bias in science based on Johan Galtung’s theory of violence. 

Avelina Espinosa is a Professor of Biology who specializes in molecular microbiology, teaching at RWU since 2004. Her research involves preventing amebiasis, a disease caused by food and water contaminated by a parasite, Entamoeba histolytica. She is researching ways to inhibit Entamoeba histolytica by studying its metabolism.

Adria Updike, Assistant Professor of Physics, specializes in early universe cosmology. She came to RWU in 2012 and is currently working to build sensors that monitor waters for algal blooms in order to prevent oyster contamination. 

Chunyan “Yannie” Bai is an Associate Professor of Computer Science. Her area of expertise is computer and network security. An RWU faculty member since 2004, she is currently supervising undergraduate students researching electronic voting security and other security services. 

Pamela “Pam” Judge, Assistant Professor of Engineering, is a specialist in civil/geotechnical engineering. She is researching biopolymers that could help improve soil strength to prevent coastal erosion. She has taught at RWU since 2018. 

*Source: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2019. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2019. Special Report NSF 19-304. Alexandria, VA. Available at https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd.