Girls Talk Math – Engaging Girls through Math Media

Girls Talk Math is a non-traditional math camp in that students not only learn challenging Mathematics usually not encountered until college, but also research the life of female mathematicians who have worked on related topics. Campers share what they learned during the two-week day camp by writing a blog post about their Math topic and writing and recording a podcast about the mathematician they researched. Media created by the campers can be found on our website at

Girls Talk Math was founded in 2016 by Francesca Bernardi and Katrina Morgan, then Ph.D. candidates in Mathematics at UNC Chapel Hill. It was born of a desire to create a space for high-school students identifying as female or from an underrepresented gender who are interested in Mathematics. This summer, a sister camp at the University of Maryland at College Park had its first run thanks to Sarah Burnett and Cara Peters, Ph.D. candidates in Mathematics at UMD (

During two weeks of July 2018, 39 high schoolers came to the UNC Mathematics Department to participate in the 3rd year of Girls Talk Math. They were divided into groups of 4-5 campers, and each group completed a problem set focused on a different Math topic:

-Number Systems
-Network Science
-RSA Encryption Cryptography
-Elliptic Curve Cryptography
-Mathematical Epidemiology
-Quantum Mechanics
-Knot Theory
-Classification of Surfaces

Each group then wrote a blog post to share what they learned about their topic. Below are excerpts from each post written by the campers, and you can read the full blog posts here. 


Number Systems
Miranda Copenhaver, Nancy Hindman, Efiotu Jagun, and Gloria Su

The Number Systems problem set focuses on learning about number bases (in particular, base 2 and 16) to understand how data is stored in computers and how to translate information into a language readable by machines. This problem set included coding in Python.

“[…]  We count in the decimal – or base 10 – system. This means that we count using 10 basic numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. In base 10, each place value represents a power of 10.”

“[…]  The two most important bases in coding are binary (base two) and hexadecimal (base sixteen). Binary is quite simple to think about because it only has two numbers that you could possibly use: 1 and 0.”

“[…]  If we had the number 1101010, we would start by labeling each place value with what power of two it represents. Next, we would multiply each digit by its power of two and simplify:                           

                       1101010 = 1*26 + 1*25 + 0*24 + 1*23 + 0*22 + 1*21 + 0*20

                                       = 26 + 25 + 23 + 21

                                       = 64 + 32 + 8 + 2

                                       = 106

We see that the binary number 1101010 is the decimal number 106.”


Network Science
Myla James, Shania Johnson, Maya Mukerjee, and Savitha Saminathan

The Network Science problem set focuses on graph theory and how it is utilized for large data sets. Students learned about data storage in networks and how to analyze and study different data sets. This problem set included coding in Python.

“[…]  We were given a map of the city of Königsberg, Prussia that helped us learn about paths and circuits. Euler Paths and Circuits were named after Leonhard Euler, who asked the question: “Is there some route in this city wherein one would cross each of the seven bridges once and only once?”

“An Euler path must include two or less odd degree vertices. […]  In simplest form, an Euler path is a set of edges that is connected, and an Euler circuit is a set of edges that is connected and begins and ends at the same node. An analogy would be an electrical circuit. Electricity can flow in a closed circuit, but not an open path.”


RSA Encryption Cryptography
Camille Clark, Layke Jones, Isabella Lane, Aza McFadden, and Lizbeth Otero

The RSA Cryptography problem set introduces the field of Number Theory through modular arithmetic, prime numbers, and prime factorization. RSA cryptography is one of the most widespread methods to transmit codified information and has several applications in everyday technology.

“[…]  A common divisor is an integer that all the numbers in a given set can be divided into without a remainder. To calculate the of 2 numbers, you need to write out the prime factorization. (Camp directors’ note: the greatest common divisor (gcd) of two or more integers, not all zero, is the largest positive integer that divides each of the integers without a remainder.)

For example, let’s consider 8 and 12. The prime factorization of 8 is 23, while the prime factorization of 12 is 3*(22). Then, take the largest factor that overlaps in the two factorizations. Here, 22 is the largest factor in common between the prime factorizations of 8 and 12; then, 4 = gcd(8,12).

We say that two integers a and b are if gcd(a,b) = 1, where a and b don’t need to be prime themselves. For example, if a = 35 and b = 8, then gcd(a,b) = 1, but neither is a prime.”


Elliptic Curve Cryptography
Mukta Dharmapurikar, Anagha Jandhyala, Savanna Jones, and Ciara Renaud

In the Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) problem set students learn how to apply this fascinating method of encoding, transmitting, and deciphering information. Elliptic Curve Cryptography is an interesting application of very theoretical concepts from Algebraic Geometry and Abstract Algebra.

“[…]  While the road to understanding Elliptic Curve cryptography was interesting and exciting, there were many twists and turns along the way. Our greatest challenge was that ECC is extremely hard to conceptualize as most of the math differed from our previous understandings and was often very theoretical or abstract.

However, we thoroughly enjoyed learning about topics in math, typically not discussed in school. For example, on the first day, we were learning about modular arithmetic. It was a difficult concept to grasp because it was fundamentally different than what we had learned before. Over time, just by working through the problem set, we became more and more comfortable with the topic, even going as far as being able to explain how it works to other people.

This goes to show, that even when faced with a very difficult problem set, if you keep persevering, eventually you will understand the math. Girls Talk Math has really taught us to never give up, and increased our confidence in learning higher level math.”


Mathematical Epidemiology
Camilla Fratta, Ananya Jain, Sydney Mason, Gabby Matejowsky, and Nevaeh Pinkney

The Mathematical Epidemiology problem set introduces the concept of modeling as a whole and in particular focuses on modeling disease spreading in populations. In this problem set campers have used an applet in Python.

“[…]  A mathematical model is an equation used to predict or model the most likely results to occur in a real-world situation. We used these types of equations to model the spread of a disease in a population, tracking the flow of populations from susceptible to infected to recovered. In real life scenarios, there are too many variables to fully account for, so we only were able to place a few in our equations. This made the models less accurate, but at the same time very useful to us in our problem set. They gave us a good idea of how things worked in an actual epidemic and helped us to understand what mathematical modeling really is.”


Quantum Mechanics
Izzy Cox, Divya Iyer, Wgoud Mansour, Ashleigh Sico, and Elizabeth Whetzel

The Quantum Mechanics problem set starts by explaining why classical mechanics does not describe properly the behavior of subatomic particles. It then introduces the main concepts of quantum mechanics, in particular focusing on the wave-particle duality, i.e. the fact that mass can be described as both a particle and a wave. As part of their problem set, campers ran a physical experiment to measure Planck’s Constant.

“[…] Quantum Mechanics is the physics of molecular and microscopic particles. However, it has applications in everyday life as well. If someone asked you if a human was a particle or a wave, what would you think? What about a ball? What about light? Not so easy now, is it? It turns out that all of those things, and in fact, everything around us, can be expressed in physics as both a particle and a wave.”

“[…] The realm of physics gets much stranger when it gets smaller! […]  [Quantum mechanics] is arguably one of the most complicated fields of physics, where all traditional rules are wrong. There is much still being added, and so much more to be discovered.”


Knot Theory
Jillian Byrnes, Monique Dacanay, Kaycee DeArmey, Alana Drumgold, Ariyana Smith, and Wisdom Talley

The Knot Theory problem set discusses the fascinating field of Abstract Geometry that deals with knots. Maybe surprisingly, there is a Mathematical theory behind tying and untying knots which can be described formally with algebraic symbols. This problem set is a Mathematical approach to knots and how to study and classify them.

“[…]  The Reidemeister moves are the three possible manipulations of knots that are used to find out if two diagrams represent equivalent knots. None of them physically change the knot, because they don’t make any cuts or make the knot intersect itself, so if the two diagrams are equivalent, they are related through a sequence of these three moves:”

Three examples of Reidemeister moves: I, II, III


Classification of Surfaces
Ayanna Blake, Lisa Oommen, Myla Marve, Tamarr Moore, Caylah Vickers, and Lily Zeng

The Classification of Surfaces problem set deals with questions of shape, size, and the properties of space. Starting from a Mathematical definition of surfaces, students learn about aspects of a number of shapes, some of which they are already familiar with and some that do not exist in 3-dimensional space, with the aim of classifying them.

“[…]  Before we start off with explaining the basics, we give the definition of a surface, which is an example of a two-dimensional object. When talking about dimensions, basically it’s a way of classifying how many directions of travel an object has.

For example, a line on a piece of paper would be one dimensional because you can only go up or down on that line. A sheet of paper would be two dimensional because you can draw up or down and side to side. A room would be three dimensional because if you imagine throwing a ball in the air, it can move up or down, side to side, and forwards or backwards.”


* Girls Talk Math has been funded through the Mathematical Association of America Tensor Women and Mathematics grant which has supported the camp for the past three years. *


Peer edited by Rachel Cherney.

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Minority Representation in STEM Fields

People immigrating to the United States of America brought with them different cultural identities and life experiences all come together like a melting pot

United States as a “Melting Pot”

Indigenous peoples inhabited the land, that is now known as the US, many generations before Christopher Columbus arrived. These people were culturally and linguistically diverse and since the founding of the US in 1776, the number of languages, customs, and lifestyles in this land has dramatically increased due to constant migration to the US from all corners of the globe. This diversity gave rise to the US being called a “Melting Pot” – a metaphor for the different populations coming together to form one country. With this diversity though, comes discrimination, creating an environment that has been adversarial, and hardly a united and representative nation.

To acknowledge the different contributions of diverse groups in this country, a calendar of months to recognize diversity has been established. For example, February is African-American History Month, March is Women’s History Month, May is Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, September 15th to October 15th is Hispanic Heritage Month, and November is Native American Heritage Month. The majority of people whose heritage, culture, and value to this country should be recognized during these months are often overlooked, underrepresented, and under-appreciated. In addition to highlighting their achievements for one month, it is important to continuously recognize their voices and contributions. This article aims to stress the importance of representation and intersectionality, particularly in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, and to celebrate those who have achieved success in their fields despite many obstacles.

Identity and Intersectionality

Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality is the concept of overlapping social identities leading to a more severe form of discrimination. As an example, look at the colored circles to the right. Each one could represent an element of discrimination such as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, class, age, etc. In the top left, there is one yellow circle. Imagine this circle represents women (gender). This represents one possible layer of discrimination. To the right, the overlapping yellow and pink circles represent increasing layers, or intersections, of identities. The yellow circle again represents women, and the pink circle may represent African-Americans. Women

Image Credit: Rachel Cherney

Diagram of Intersectionality where each colored circle represents different element of discrimination

encounter one dimension of discrimination (gender), as do African-Americans (race). However, being an African-American woman means their burden is now two-fold: they have two dimensions of discrimination, being a woman and being African-American. As a person has more dimensions (as seen in the two figures in the bottom) that do not fit with the dominant social norm, those dimensions add up to increasing amounts of discrimination. Identity and intersectionality can be especially challenging for people who have combined ancestry. Often, people don’t know with whom or how they should or can associate, leading to an increased identity anxiety and discrimination.

It is important to recognize and understand the concept of intersectionality to realize that discrimination is complex to rectify. However, it is crucial to try to eliminate the inequalities that come forth from discrimination and intersectionality since inequalities that lead to oppression can restrict the future and potential of underrepresented groups. The more we help each other, the better the world becomes for us.

*Race is used above because it is commonly used to discriminate, although race is a social construct and has no scientific basis. For a distinction between race and ethnicity, click here.*

The Lack of and Need for STEM Workers

STEM jobs drive the global economy by being one of the top sources of innovation and are growing faster than any other public or private sector in the US. Within the next 10 years, there will be over 1 million jobs in STEM available, however there are not and will not be enough scientists to fill all of the positions. Temporary residents (including international students) are immigrating to the US to fill this gap through various visas (F1, J, H1B, etc.), even though we have enough students who could someday fill the gap.

Underrepresented groups embody roughly 36% of the population in the US, yet represent less than 20% of the STEM workforce. Due to discrimination (particularly intersectionality) and lack of representation, support, and youth awareness, the potential of our minority peers in STEM has been largely untapped.

Proportions based on U.S. citizens and permanent residents with known race or ethnicity. Graph clearly depicts the gap between the percentage of Doctoral degrees in Science and Engineering earned by Whites and Minorities SOURCE: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, Early Career Doctorates Survey pilot study, 2015.

Aside from the lack of minority students earning STEM degrees, their path to success gets more challenging following graduation. They enter the workforce but don’t necessarily stay because of constant threats they face, may they be racial bias, stereotype threat, microaggressions from colleagues, or just lack of cultural knowledge among mentors and colleagues. Boosting diversity can help boost the status of underrepresented groups, and get rid of threats minorities face in the workforce. It is a lot easier to see yourself as a scientist if you see others that share your experiences or culture. Since there are so few underrepresented students in Master’s and PhD programs in STEM, the challenges are compounded. If no one shares a lifestyle like yours, how can you relate?

The general population has a particular proportion of women and minorities, but that proportion is underrepresented in STEM. Since STEM fields and the world we live in are multidimensional, the people working in those fields should represent that multidimensionality. It also brings us together as a community.

Diversity Enhances Innovation

Diversity allows for new interpretations and exchanges of ideas and data. This encourages innovative and diverse ways of thinking and tackling problems leading to a greater likelihood of coming up with real solutions. The different viewpoints (based, in part, through individual differences in experiences) that each individual brings to the table helps foster teamwork and collaborations. If all people are from the same background and same education, they might all look at a problem the same way. Diversity helps us solve a common problem by bringing different ideas into the dialogue. For example, women and men differ anatomically and physiologically and without taking this difference into account when designing products, a product may not be helpful or may even be harmful to the user. Women on average are shorter than men, so when driving, generally are physically closer to the steering wheel. When airbags were first designed, this height difference between men and women wasn’t taken into account, and women experienced a more forceful impact from sitting closer to the steering wheel. This resulted in more female deaths by airbags than accidents.

Another more serious example is the creation and production of drugs/medications. Clinical trials are often homogeneous and fail to include adequate numbers of women as they are primarily tested on men. Due to physiological differences between men and women, some of these drugs can be helpful to men, but not to women, or could be harmful. This is also relevant to ethnicity and ancestry. Certain groups of people are more prone to certain diseases or have different physiology from another group, and if a medication was cleared for one of those groups, it doesn’t mean it will work well for the other.  Considering the face of the US population is changing and by 2042 African-Americans and Latinos are predicted to be the majority minority (over 50% of the US population), it is critical to include underrepresented groups in clinical trials that lead to drug development and application.

Getting Minority Students into STEM Fields

To fill the available positions now and in the future, it is important to reach out to students of all backgrounds and abilities, starting at a young age, and to let them know what opportunities are available to them. It is also important to spark an interest and passion for science in these students, and to help and support them as they advance through their education. Allowing resources to be available to all students of all backgrounds is essential. Read a previous article about the divide between rural and urban areas in the US due to lack of internet access, highlighting the effect of inconsistent distribution of resources.

Resources and education play a critical role in the development of STEM students and statistics show that Americans in general don’t perform well in STEM fields and are consistently behind much of the world. Thus, the education of these fields needs to be reexamined. At the University of Maryland – Baltimore County (UMBC), president Dr. Freeman Hrabowski has created an environment that fosters excellence in STEM skills, guiding UMBC to be the leading university in the country to produce African-American students that earn PhD and MD-PhD degrees in STEM fields. He restructured the way STEM classes were taught and created four pillars of STEM education to “get underrepresented students to the top”. These pillars began as a way to help the most underrepresented students succeed in STEM, and by helping and redesigning education for the most underrepresented students, students of all backgrounds at UMBC are now more successful STEM fields.  Dr. Hraboski’s four pillars “empower students to take ownership of their education and love to learn,” while fostering a collaborative environment. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC was created to use the four pillars of STEM education with underrepresented groups and UNC has worked with UMBC to create a similar program, called Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program. Hopefully, more programs like these will arise around the country, and STEM diversity will increase, along with the number of successful students in STEM fields.

Attitudes Towards Minorities in STEM Fields

Dr. George M. Langford, a previous UNC faculty member and advocate for minorities in STEM fields, wrote about the very topic, asking educators to step up and recognize what needs to be done for underrepresented students:

“As the demographics in the United States evolve, we as educators must work to increase the number of minority students in these disciplines, disciplines where they remain underrepresented. Efforts have been underway to improve minority representation for several decades… and there has been improvement, just not as much as we’d like. Many are imminently qualified, but denied for discriminatory reasons.

Though there is much work to be done to attract minorities to and propel them in the STEM disciplines, I believe the silver bullet is a conscious effort on behalf of all educators to provide passionate mentorship to prospective scientists.

By comparison, the scientific community has made progress but much change is needed before we will see the numbers improve to the extent that will have real impact. Racial bias lingers and differences in the day-to-day experiences of minority scientists persist. Stereotype threat continues to derail careers and compromise performance. Even the best mentors fail to realize the need to provide culturally competent guidance to ensure minority postdoctoral fellows who leave their labs start their careers with the same level of productivity as their white counterparts. These challenges are urgent and must be addressed sooner rather than later to maintain our country’s competitive positioning in the global community.”

To support your peers at UNC in STEM Fields, look to join or support:

  • BGPSA – UNC Black Graduate and Professional Student Association
  • FNGC – UNC First Nations Graduate Circle
  • IMSD – UNC Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity
  • MSC – UNC Minority Student Caucus
  • SACNAS – UNC Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics in Science
  • Stem Pride of the Triangle – Research Triangle STEM LGBTQ+ group
  • WINS – UNC Women in Science

Unsung Minority Heroes in STEM

To recognize the unsung minority heroes in STEM fields from the U.S. and around the world, below is a list of those heroes whose innovations and contributions have improved the world we live in. Most importantly, this list is to emphasize that everyone is capable of achieving greatness, if only given the opportunity. One characteristic to note about the unsung heroes is that, besides being successful citizens and scientists, a majority of them were also civil rights activists.

Notable Minority Women in STEM Fields

Former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson is seen after President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015 Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

  • Nita Ahuja – Indian surgeon; 1st female Surgeon in Chief at Yale
  • Lori Alvord – Native American surgeon
  • Farida Bedwei – Ghanian software engineer with cerebral palsy
  • Elizabeth Blackwell – English physician; 1st female Doctor of Medicine
  • Marie Curie – Polish physicist; 1st woman to win a Nobel Prize, 1st person to win two Nobel Prizes, and only woman to hold Nobel Prizes in two different fields (Physics and Chemistry)
  • Wanda Diaz Merced – Deaf Puerto Rican astronomer
  • Rosalind Franklin – English scientist; work led to elucidation of DNA structure
  • Temple Grandin – Autistic American animal behaviorist
  • Grace Hopper – American Naval Officer, mathematician, and computer scientist
  • Mae Carol Jemison – African-American engineer and astronaut; 1st female African-American astronaut
  • Katherine Johnson – African-American NASA mathematician
  • Hedy Lamarr – Austrian inventor; laid foundation for Bluetooth and GPS
  • Ada Lovelace – English mathematician; laid foundation for computer science
  • Jane Luu – Vietnamese-American astronomer; discovered and characterized the Kuiper Belt
  • Maryam Mirzakhani – Iranian mathematician; 1st woman and Iranian to win the Fields Medal
  • Florence Nightingale – English surse/statistician; laid foundation for the field of Nursing
  • Sally Ride – LGBTQ+ American astronaut; 1st American woman in space
  • Dorothy Vaughan – African-American NASA mathematician
  • Ada Yonath – Jewish-Israeli biochemist; pioneered the structure of the ribosome
  • Lydia Villa-Komaroff – Biochemist; 3rd Mexican-American woman in the US to receive her PhD in STEM

Notable Minority Men in STEM Fields

Carlos Juan Finlay



Peer edited by Nicole Smiddy and Gowri Natarajan.


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Finding Power in Discomfort: 5 Ways to Advocate for Yourself and Others in Science

Share your experiences, it might just empower others. Image: Parliamentary Copyright/Jessica Taylor

Three years ago, I moved from California to North Carolina for graduate school, an experience that pushed me out of my comfort zone in more ways than I expected. The most discomforting was feeling very different from my colleagues. For example, my identity as a woman of color became more salient when I realized there were fewer people who looked like me in the classes and meetings I attended. It wasn’t until recently that I found a community of like-minded, underrepresented students who told stories similar to mine. I felt empowered through this shared struggle to learn how to advocate for myself and others in order to increase visibility for underrepresented groups in science. Not sure how to do it (like me)? Try these tips!

Bring your personal identity into your work. Increase the visibility of your personal identity in the workplace so that you are not left out of the conversation. It can be uncomfortable to bring up your experiences and challenges related to gender, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc., but doing so may provide the opportunity for others to exhibit empathy. Regardless of the differences between people, everyone shares the mutual need for kindness and respect. It’s important and necessary to stay true to who you are in order to create more of a dialogue, so don’t hide it.

Empower others by sharing your story. Share your own stories of success or hardship because not only does it feel intrinsically rewarding to communicate your thoughts and feelings with others, but it can also validate the range of experiences that other underrepresented students face and often in silence. If you’re shy or nervous, try sharing your story on Akin, an anonymous digital storytelling platform created by my friend, Cassandra Lam, to empower people to connect through stories of shared experiences.

Step into a world you don’t know much about. Equally important is the ability to listen to others’ stories, as it can provide insight into the privileges you might not even realize you have. Be mindful that some people will face certain challenges that you might never have to face (e.g., gender identity, sexual orientation). Be open-minded, ask questions, and acknowledge others’ perspectives (try to avoid phrases like “at least you don’t have to deal with…” which might undercut what they’re sharing).

Express your intellectual humility. It can be hard to say “I don’t know” to anything, but learning how to articulate exactly what you don’t know can be the engine for establishing new learning and networking opportunities. Seek knowledge from teachers and experts about topics you’re unfamiliar with, but are interested in learning. It’s also okay to ask for support from mentors and colleagues. You’ll be surprised at how many people want you to succeed and are willing to help.

Dive into more uncomfortable conversations about uncomfortable topics. When discussion of uncomfortable topics (e.g., lack of visibility for underrepresented groups) arises, I challenge you to speak up, even when it’s easier to stay silent to avoid causing rifts in conversation. Advocating for the importance of your/others’ needs lifts up the voices of those who are unable or are afraid to so themselves.

Peer edited by Mikayla Armstrong.

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What’s Your I.D.?

Some of my favorite TV shows as a kid didn’t involve cartoons or slapstick comedy.  They were educational shows – science and math shows to be more precise.  I watched Mr. Wizard set off volcanoes on Nickelodeon.  Bill Nye the Science Guy showed me how to make my own magnets.  I sang along with the cast of Square One about palindromes and negative numbers.  I sat amazed as The Bloodhound Gang solved mystery after mystery on 3-2-1 Contact.  I couldn’t wait to see another episode.  To have another opportunity to learn a shortcut to multiplying by 9.  Another chance to work up the courage to ask my mom if I could add vinegar to baking soda and just to see what happens.  To have one more moment to be in my element.  From the moment I saw these shows, I knew I wanted to participate.  I didn’t want to just watch someone else do cool experiments.  I wanted to do them too.

I took pride in putting together my science fair project on osmosis (i.e., put a celery stalk in a container of blue water, wait a few days, and see the blue liquid move up the stalk) all by myself.  I treasured my Fisher Price microscope set.  I was in heaven when I got the chance to test out an experimental touch screen in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (where my mom worked as an administrative assistant) during “Take Our Daughters and Sons To Work” Day.  Looking back, my identity as a scientist was shaped at an early age, mostly outside of the classroom.  I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to be or what question I wanted to solve.  I just knew that I liked science and math and I wanted to keep going.

Women of Color in Tech


As I got older, science enrichment programs reinforced my interests, placing me in a cohort of like-minded students – mostly people of color.  In high school, I spent my summers on the campuses of Syracuse University and Union College, conducting experiments on mice and learning proper pipetting technique.  Importantly, I made friends with peers from my hometown of Syracuse, NY and across the state who had similar interests and similar backgrounds.  We could go from talking about hypotheses to talking about Biggie Smalls.  We could talk about our favorite episode of “Martin” and then help each other balance chemical equations.  It was the perfect environment for an impressionable African American teenager to strengthen her scientific identity.  Much as television shows sparked my interest in elementary school, summer programs helped me realize that my dream could very much become an attainable reality.

I now recognize that all of these activities built upon my identity as a scientist.  The ways one perceives one’s self in science is considered a science identity.  It can be as weak as a vague interest in science or as strong as actively pursuing a scientific career.  The combination of informal experiences from television and formal educational opportunities via summer programs were  important, because it’s hard to become something you can’t see.  A recent study showed that science identity is a major factor in selecting a scientific occupation for minority students.  While this may seem obvious, we must continue to ask ourselves why there is such a lack of diversity and inclusion in STEM.  Perhaps early science identity development is a clue to improving STEM diversity.

Today, I have a strong identity as a scientist, actively pursuing a scientific career as a biomechanist and osteoarthritis researcher.  A number of factors may encourage or discourage individuals from moving towards science as a career; however, the value of early exposure and positive reinforcement should not be underestimated.  I am keenly aware that I am one of very few women of color in this position, and wonder how many more women like me might have pursued science if they thought they could do it.

Peer edited by Karen Setty.

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Is the GRE a Waste of Money?

Is the GRE really worth it? Some students are starting think it’s not.

Graduate schools generally utilize previous transcripts, Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores, personal statements from applicants, and letters of recommendation in order to assess whether candidates are suitably prepared for success in graduate school. However, how much do any of these individual components contribute to the success of a student in graduate school? Multiple published articles argue that there are no methods to precisely measure the success of graduate students, however that hasn’t stopped scientists from trying. In a recent study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers tackled this question by characterizing success in graduate school as the number of published first-author articles. They then compared this to more traditional parameters that are normally used to determine if students are prepared for graduate school. Students’ grades, GRE scores, and even impressions from admissions interviews with faculty members were each examined and found to have no correlation to success in graduate school. In fact the only predictive indicator of success was found to be letters of recommendation that stated that the student were among the top tier of students.

Although this study was only recently published and has yet to have significant impact on graduate student applications, it is hardly the first study of its kind. A researcher at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) utilized data collected from students over the course of a twenty-year period and found that grades and GRE scores were not predictive of the success of students. This UCSF study found that the only indicators of success were whether or not the students had completed a full two years of research prior to graduate school and the subject-specific GRE.


Another study conducted at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee essentially found that the only thing that the GRE predicts is the first semester GPA of graduate students. All other markers of success such as passage of qualifying examinations, time to defense, successful completion of a Ph.D., and the likelihood of first-author publications did not correlate with GRE scores. In fact, when the GRE was originally assessed for its ability to predict success of students, the only measurement utilized was to compare GRE scores to the GPA of graduate students.

Image by Lindsay Walton

GRE scores are a better indicator of Race and Gender than of success in Graduate School

So, if the GRE doesn’t predict success in school, what does it actually indicate? Many are questioning the utility of the GRE as a measure that is useful in selecting students. Multiple basic scientists have spoken out against the usefulness of the GRE, and have cited studies that indicate that the GRE is a better predictor of both sex and race than it is an indicator of success in graduate school. As one researcher put it, “The GRE is a proxy for asking ‘Are you rich?’ ‘Are you white?’ ‘Are you male?” For example, some minorities, such as black students typically score 200 points below their white counterparts in spite of being successfully prepared for graduate school. Graduate school is typically a white-predominated educational platform. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, white students represent approximately 64% of the total graduate student population. By continuing to require students to submit GRE scores, schools are eliminating underrepresented minorities as potentially successful candidates, when instead they should be creating additional opportunities to prepare minorities to succeed in graduate school.


Most directors of biomedical graduate programs are actually basic scientists. They understand that educational practices should be evidence-based. However, in spite of all this compelling data, few institutions are actually eliminating requirements for extraneous examinations such as the GRE, transcripts, and other requirements. In fact, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt University researchers, who published the articles on GRE scores not being a predictor of graduate school success, are involved in the admissions process of biomedical programs at their institutions. Nonetheless, these programs still require submission of GRE scores, transcripts, and statements of purpose in spite of the fact that none of these application materials indicated who would thrive in graduate school. So the only question remains: If scientists won’t follow their own advice, how will academic admissions advance in the future?

Update: The author has been contacted by the UNC BBSP admissions office and told that while admissions for the 2018-2019 still requires submission of GRE scores, the admissions committee for the program has been instructed to ignore GRE scores in their consideration of applicants for the upcoming year. Currently the UNC Graduate School requires all programs to request GRE score submission prior to admission. In the future, the UNC BBSP program plans to review the success of the admission process while ignoring the GRE scores and then consider petitioning the UNC Graduate School in order to drop the requirement. 

One of the authors of the UNC paper, and a member of the UNC BBSP team, Dr. Joshua Hall, maintains an active twitter presence and can be found at @jdhallphd. Dr. Hall keeps an active list on his twitter of all the programs that have either dropped or plan to drop the GRE from their admissions process for those interested.

Peer edited by Sam Honeycutt and Kelsey Miller.

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Getting the Whole Picture: Increasing Diversity in Medical Research

Doctor consults patients on healthcare. Photo credit: Rhoda Baer (Photographer)

Every medication for every ailment, from headaches to heart disease, goes through clinical trials before it becomes available to patients. Clinical research is necessary to determine whether potential new drugs are effective and safe to use, and those that are get the seal of approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). During a clinical trial, health care providers give the new drug to patient volunteers that ideally represent a sample of the larger treatable population. However, the underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in clinical trials has historically skewed the demographics.

Medications don’t have the same effect in all patients.

Why is it so important to have proper representation across all demographics? When the FDA approves a drug for a certain medical condition, it is approved for all patients with that condition. However, even for individuals with the same condition, the efficacy and side effects of certain medications may vary across demographics. Variation can occur due to socioeconomic, environmental, and genetic differences. If certain groups are underrepresented in clinical trials, then we have an incomplete picture of the particular health needs of those populations, potentially leading to inadequate treatment. For example, although white women are diagnosed more frequently with breast cancer, African-American women are more likely to die from the disease. This disparity indicates that there is an unmet need among African-Americans for effective breast cancer treatments.

The Tuskegee experiment is just one cause of bad blood between minorities and the medical community.

Although racial and ethnic minorities make up about 30% of the U.S. population, collectively they only make up about 20% of clinical trial participants. While this is an improvement from previous years, there’s still progress to be made. Unfortunately, there are numerous barriers to increasing minority inclusion in medical research, including lack of access to healthcare and education. Additionally, there have been unethical medical practices that have targeted minority populations in the past. This includes the Tuskegee experiment, a 4 decade-long study during which African-American men were intentionally denied treatment for syphilis in favor of studying the disease. Such offenses have caused many minority communities to distrust healthcare officials. Overcoming these obstacles requires effort on the part of healthcare officials to improve communication and build connections with those communities.

Though clinical research is crucial for patients to benefit from new and more effective treatments, not all populations have benefited to the same degree. Improving representation of minorities in clinical trials is an important task that requires a change in perspective from healthcare providers and patients alike. Ultimately having diverse patient groups representative of the population will allow clinical research to yield more effective medications and improve the health of the broader population.


Peer edited by Christina Marvin.

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Defying Regression Towards the Mean

As a young woman in pursuit of a career in academia, I find the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers, and specifically scientific research, to be a daunting statistic to face. In STEM fields, the percentage of tenure-line faculty positions held by women has merely increased from 19% in 2004 to 23% in 2012. In comparison, women composed 44% of non-STEM, academic positions in 2012.  STEM fields are failing to matriculate women into faculty positions in equal numbers to men, and it is difficult to uncover the forces that create unfavorable and, at times, inhospitable environments for women in academia. Antiquated gender biases, intrinsically male-centric tenure track pressures, and deeply institutionalized chauvinistic attitudes do perpetuate inequality in academia, but what accounts for the discrepancy in STEM fields? Amid the institutional struggle to unravel the cryptic barriers impeding the advancement of women in STEM careers, I offer only my own struggle with gender bias and how it has shaped my career goals, and in turn what it means to me to be a woman in science.

When I began my graduate program at The University of California, Riverside (UCR), an institution renowned for its diversity, I did not expect to encounter resistance based on my identity as a woman in science. During my first year of graduate level courses, a professor requested that I meet with her to discuss my future. I assumed she wanted to discuss my academic progress or perhaps inquire about my research topic of interest. Instead, she cautioned me that despite being an intelligent woman, I would need to change my personality to be respected as a scientist in academia, as I was too outwardly feminine. She impressed upon me that I would never be accepted by peers, be taken seriously by male faculty, or advance in the ranks of academia since it was still a “boys club.” Alternatively, she suggested that it could be in my best interest to refocus my career goals on positions at institutions with a higher emphasis on teaching rather than research. My perceived femininity would be a liability as I sought to climb the ranks of research institutions, and possessing effeminate qualities meant I was ill-equipped to undertake the rigors of a research career. Her message was equal parts pejorative and subliminal: I was the wrong kind of woman to be a researcher. In limiting my aspirations, she believed she was advising me. I was devastated; and yet, throughout my graduate work I struggled to escape echoes supporting her warning.

Three years into my doctoral research, I developed a body of evidence that won funding for an international research collaboration. During the first collaborative meeting, a foreign PI glibly remarked that the inclusion of women on research proposals was simply for appearances. He complimented my contribution, expressing more gratitude for my name than for my research, and he subsequently refused to share significant experimental responsibilities with women on the team. Not only was he disinterested in including women, he promoted the use of women as pawns to advance his own success, appealing to the image of gender equality without subscribing to it. My thoughts wandered back to the meeting with my past professor, and I wondered if she had possibly endured any similar experiences over her career? I imagined how discriminatory attitudes could have misshaped her own gender perceptions, misleading her to marginalize another woman’s potential under the veil of guidance, as perhaps she had limited herself.Image Credit: Carly Sjogren

I hope for a future where any semblance of gender bias is relegated to anecdotes of the past, but for now – though it is still very much a reality – I choose to persevere. The only thing that truly matters is that I am a woman who loves science. I will not become less feminine simply because it may be perceived as a weakness to some, and I have absolutely no intention to pursue an alternate career. I aspire to become a professor at a Research I institution, and my training at UNC will propel my development as an independent researcher to become a competitive professorial candidate. As such, I will be more than just a female STEM professor – I strive to become a woman with a superb record of research who serves as a positive and inclusive mentor, educator, and role model for my community and for other women striving to reach their greatest potential.

Peer edited by Salma Azam.

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