AMES, Iowa -- This fall, 4,911 women major in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines at Iowa State University. Those graduating Dec. 21 will hear commencement speaker Peggy Whitson, a biochemist-astronaut who trailblazed her way from small-town Iowa to record-setting space expeditions and NASA leadership.
Whitson was probably a departure from the norm when she graduated in biology/chemistry from Iowa Wesleyan College in 1981 and earned a doctorate in biochemistry from Rice University four years later. Today at Iowa State, women constitute about half of the majors in biology, chemistry and biochemistry. And earlier this year, U.S. News and World Report ranked Iowa State among the top universities for granting the largest proportion of bachelor's degrees in STEM disciplines.
"Iowa State's STEM graduates can be found in every corner of the world, conducting groundbreaking work that addresses the challenges facing society," said Senior Vice President and Provost Jonathan Wickert, who serves on the Governor's STEM Advisory Council.
"Our faculty and staff are helping maintain the state's momentum in STEM by offering K-12 programs through Extension and Outreach, teacher training programs specializing in STEM, and strong academic programs in the STEM fields, including the biosciences," he added.
It's not unusual
Among the female STEM seniors graduating next week, four are profiled here. Like Whitson, they come from small Iowa towns. And, like Whitson, they are bound for great things. They chose science and engineering majors as a means to help people, society and the environment.
Growing up in the four corners of the state, these four talented women found the inspiration and support to be girls in science from their families and teachers. Iowa State faculty and staff welcomed them with open arms and nurtured them along the way. All four are graduating in three-and-a-half years despite switching majors, working, interning, researching, volunteering, mentoring and even twirling. They see nothing the least bit unusual about pursuing careers in the sciences and engineering.
Chelsey Havick: She does science
Chelsey Havick's mom back in Harlan will tell anyone who asks that her daughter does science, and "although our family supports Chelsey’s desire to work in science, we don’t always understand the research she is working on."
As an undergraduate biochemistry major, Havick's research the past two years used analytical chemistry to study biological systems. She contributed to two papers based on her work in the W.M. Keck Metabolomics Research Laboratory. One is to be submitted to a metabolomics research journal in January. Havick also worked in biological mass spectrometry and with chemical characterization of small molecules in metabolism analysis. In other words, Havick does science.
And it's just a coincidence that her first college biochemistry lab experience (with Professor Mark Hargrove) was working with hemoglobin proteins similar to what captured her interest in 10th grade biology.
"In high school, we talked about sickle cell anemia — a disease that affects blood hemoglobin. That got me interested in protein science," she said.
"I really like the idea of using science to help people — especially to create better medicine through research."
Havick describes her department as "incredibly supportive," noting that the learning community "sets you up with friends for life who can really help you through those tougher classes."
She got hooked on research in Hargrove's laboratory, where she worked with corn hemoglobin.
"The idea of making a protein by putting a gene in a bacteria and purifying the expressed protein was remarkable," she said. "That first job was really influential for me."
Havick is taking time to gain more research laboratory experience before starting graduate school. She has no second thoughts about a research career. Despite challenges and failed experiments, she says, the end goal is worth it.
"It's a cool idea to find something that no one else has figured out — to solve a problem that can help a lot of people."
Allison Kimmer: Finding the joy
As an animal science major at Iowa State, Allison Kimmer volunteered at the Boone Humane Society and Kate Mitchell Elementary School. Although her childhood dream was to be a veterinarian and she enjoyed working with the animals in Boone, Kimmer found her true joy with the school children in Ames.
She mustered up the courage to tell her parents — who, back home in Clinton, "told everyone I would be a vet" — that she wanted to work with humans rather than animals. And she got their blessing to change her major to kinesiology and health: pre-health professions. Now she's graduating from Iowa State and planning to attend physician assistant school.
"My mom is a nurse and she said, based on the TV programs I watched as a kid, she knew human medicine was more for me," Kimmer said.
Kimmer never doubted she would pursue a science-based career. She had always preferred playing outside and doing experiments to reading books. A senior high chemistry class sealed the deal.
"I had a chemistry teacher who made me fall in love with science in general," Kimmer said. "He made it fun and super interesting and was very encouraging to me to pursue the field."
While college courses in organic chemistry and biochemistry were not her favorites, Kimmer loved microbiology, human diseases and medical terminology. And her Iowa State journey empowered her to embrace her true passion.
"Helping people gives me a great sense of joy," Kimmer said. "I especially like working with kids and want to go into pediatrics."
Despite changing majors, working at Green Hills Retirement Community and earning her CNA, Kimmer will graduate a full semester ahead of her lifelong roommate, best friend and identical twin sister Mara, also a kinesiology and health major.
Kimberly Scherber: A role model in the making
Kimberly Scherber knows she's in the minority as a woman in engineering. ISU's engineering college has 15 percent women students, higher than the 13 percent of women in the engineering workforce. Yet Scherber is exactly where she wants to be.
As a sixth-grader in Clear Lake, she came to ISU for the Program for Women in Science and Engineering's (WISE) "Taking the Road Less Traveled" career conference. On the registration, Scherber listed civil engineering as her interest area. She has since broadened that to major in civil and environmental engineering.
Knowing she needed research experience before grad school, Scherber worked with William Simpkins, professor of geological and atmospheric sciences. As it turned out, he was already conducting research in Clear Lake. Using a combination of scientific and engineering methods, Scherber traced the groundwater and surface water exchange around the lake.
"People pollute rivers, streams and groundwater, and aren't held accountable," Scherber said. "I want to preserve the resources in the Midwest, which is a beautiful place. I want to do my part to make it the best environment possible, or even better, so future residents can enjoy it as much as I do today."
Scherber, who minors in women's and gender studies, is well aware that gender stereotypes about women's ability in science and engineering have affected how she works with peers on group projects. She says she "must excel to help break down the potential stereotypes." And Scherber knows she's likely to earn nearly 30 percent less than male engineers. So she appreciates all the support available to women in the college.
"Faculty are really supportive. We can network through WISE and SWE (Society of Women Engineers). That's where a lot of my friends came from. We work together as much as possible," she said.
When Scherber finishes grad school and is working as an environmental consulting engineer, she plans on being a role model to young women pursuing the field.
"I want to offer my services as a resource to advise girls about careers and class choices. I want them to be able to see me."
Tara Moellers: All in the genes
Growing up on a big farm near tiny Ridgeway (pop. 314), Tara Moellers milked cows, sorted hogs and tilled fields. She was aware of the controversy swirling around transgenic crops and bovine hormones.
Although Moellers didn't care much for English and history classes, she "got" math and science. Those subjects interested her enough to read books about chemistry and biology.
"I had a great science teacher in high school. We did simple experiments, but we didn't really have labs," Moellers said. "Most of my learning about science was from books."
By the time she enrolled at Iowa State, Moellers' childhood blend of likes, dislikes, dinner table conversation, extracurricular reading and just plain old farm kid stuff led her straight to a major in agricultural biochemistry.
As a research assistant for Robert Thornburg, professor of biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology, Moellers honed her lab skills using electrophoresis to analyze plant nectar proteins. Her hourly work in the lab of Distinguished Professor of Agronomy Walter Fehr led to a soybean breeding research internship. And it introduced Moellers to her future career as a plant breeder.
"I really like the study of genetics. It's interesting enough to me that it comes easily," she said.
And that's lucky for Cyclone football fans. Moellers had time to share her other passion as a leader in the Iowa State Marching Band Color Guard.
"I have no idea how I fit it in my schedule, but Color Guard was my fun time," said Moellers, who helped run practices and choreograph routines. "It was the chance to focus on something completely different than my studies."
Although Moellers' flag days are over, her time at Iowa State continues. She has been accepted into graduate school to study plant breeding.