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International Workshop on the Success of Women in STEM

Photo of Elissa Schwartz

In November, 2020, faculty member Elissa Schwartz organized an online meeting “Remedying the Leaky Pipeline for Women in STEM” that brought together mentors and trainees from across the globe. Participants in this workshop, mentoring, and networking event discussed the barriers women and other underrepresented groups face in pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers and ways of overcoming these hurdles.

The three-part, three-hour interactive forum featured live mentoring by women scientists and mathematicians as well as scholars in WSU’s Program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS). The keynote address was presented by Professor Seema Nanda, a mathematician and founder of the nonprofit Leora Trust, which promotes the empowerment of women in India through education.

“The story of Professor Nanda’s career journey and the obstacles she overcame to become a mathematician and start her educational nonprofit foundation is deeply inspiring,” said Schwartz, an associate professor in both the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and the School of Biological Sciences.

In 2006, after attending college and living in the U.S. for many years, Professor Nanda moved back to her homeland India and was struck by the heartbreaking gender inequality that persists within the patriarchal culture. Recognizing her own good fortune motivated her to set up educational support for girls, Schwartz said.

The goal of Nanda’s presentation and the broader workshop was to connect women and other underrepresented STEM trainees at WSU and abroad – particularly in India and Nepal – with professional development opportunities, mentoring, and other types of support.

“We wanted to empower the participants by connecting them to mentors, sponsors and role models in leadership positions who can help them advance their career ambitions, prospects and intellectual development in STEM fields,” Schwartz said. “Through breakout discussions and brainstorming, we continued laying a course to mend the leaky pipeline.”

Schwartz proposed and won a grant to develop the workshop from the WSU Center for Arts and Humanities Douglas L. Epperson Social Justice Fund as a joint venture with WGSS and the ADVANCE at WSU program. The fund was established by WSU alumni Laurie Johnson (’78, political science) and Dawn Smith (’82, botany) to help advance the education, equality, and empowerment of underserved segments of society.

Expanding STEM Education Worldwide

Schwartz has demonstrated her commitment to increasing the number of women in STEM fields through a number of domestic and international activities in recent years.

In spring 2017, she traveled to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town, South Africa, where she organized workshops, panels and group discussions on STEM careers to promote retention of women in mathematics. She matched mentor–mentee pairs between professionals and female graduate students in mathematics for informal career discussions. Participants hailed from more than a dozen African countries from Egypt to Madagascar.

In summer 2019, Schwartz served as a lecturer and small-group research facilitator for a 10-day summer school on mathematical biology in Kathmandu. Her role included teaching the basics of mathematical epidemiology to about 50 doctoral and master’s degree students from Nepal, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines, and the U.S.

A member of the board of directors of the Society for Mathematical Biology, Schwartz co-directs a mentoring program and organizes small working groups and training webinars for scholars in mathematical biology from undergraduate through postdoctoral and faculty levels.

Her interdisciplinary research combines experimental, mathematical and computational techniques to study the epidemiology of infectious diseases, including HIV and COVID-19. Her approach aims to advance basic understanding of disease mechanisms and to lead to new therapeutic strategies.

The Department of Mathematics and Statistics wishes to acknowledge that much of the content of this article was taken from an article in the WSU Insider authored by Adriana Aumen.

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