Notre Dame program searches for women scientists


Dawn Chambers wants to be a neurosurgeon -- and she is well aware of the statistical hurdles she will need to clear as a black female.

"When you have a double jeopardy, you have to work harder," says Ms. Chambers, who will be a senior at Northern High School in Baltimore this fall.

Meghan Davis, an aspiring veterinarian who is entering her senior year at Western High School, draws inspiration from other female scientists and science students.

"We're up against the men, and men are traditionally the leaders," says Ms. Davis. "Women have to take a stand."

And Donna Anderson, who enrolls as a chemistry major at the College of Notre Dame this fall, learned long ago about the "gender gap."

"I'm from Jamaica," says Ms. Anderson, and in that country, "it was mostly boys who were doing science."

All three women are taking part in a Baltimore program aimed at giving women and minorities a better shot at technical and scientific careers.

The program is called "Summer at Notre Dame: Academic and Leadership Skills," or SANDALS for short.

Based at Notre Dame's Northeast Baltimore campus for the past eight years, the program is funded through a $100,000 "Young Scholars" grant from the National Science Foundation.

Each year, it draws about 30 carefully selected young women for an intensive, eight-week program that combines science courses and field internships with a taste of college life.

The program puts a spotlight on science education at a time when there is nationwide concern about the number of students pursuing technical and scientific careers.

Historically, women and minorities have been underrepresented in those fields, according to Andrea Bowden, a science official with the Baltimore City schools and co-director of the SANDALS program.

"They are steered away -- consciously and unconsciously -- from the experiences and courses that prepare them," says Ms. Bowden.

According to the National Science Foundation, women accounted for 39.5 percent of all bachelor's degrees in the sciences in 1988. The total was even lower in engineering, where only 15.4 percent of the bachelor degrees went to women.

That pattern was much the same at the graduate level, where only 27.7 percent of the science and technical doctorates went to women. That includes just 8.5 percent of the engineering degrees, 17.7 percent of the mathematics degrees and 18.6 percent of the physical science degrees.

Those percentages all have increased steadily in the past decade, but they are far from ideal, in Ms. Bowden's view.

"There are doors of opportunity being opened," she says, "but we do have a problem getting the kids well motivated and prepared to go through those doors."

That's where the SANDALS program comes in.

"We have to make sure the kids can see a vision of success, that they can see themselves as mathematicians and engineers," she says.

The program is open to young women from public and parochial schools in Baltimore who meet a strict set of admissions criteria.

To be eligible, a student must have an academic average of at least 85, have taken courses in biology and algebra, have demonstrated an interest in science and been referred by a teacher or counselor.

Officials also try to select students who may benefit most from the program, "the kid who without us may fall through the cracks," says Ms. Bowden.

For five weeks, the students live on the Notre Dame campus, studying math, computers, chemistry, microbiology and biotechnology.

In addition, they take courses on study and research skills, and learn about scientific ethics and laboratory safety.

They also have some fun. For example, a cruise aboard the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's skipjack combined an environmental research cruise with a camping trip.

And at the end of five weeks, the students enter the program's second phase: a three-week internship in a laboratory or research facility that matches each one with a female scientist or engineer.

"We try to match the girl's interest with what the mentor has to offer," says Ms. Bowden. Internships have included work in electrical engineering, biophysics, immunology, astronomy and microbiology.

And, sometimes, that temporary internship turns into something more.

Last year, for example, Western High School student Melanie Smith was placed in a neuroscience laboratory at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. She wound up spending the year on original research that was later published in a professional journal.

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