Women's science forum weighs career cost


Tarsha Vice is hoping to turn a nearly lifelong love of science into a career as an obstetrician, but when you're 17 and faced with challenges unknown, a little encouragement can make a big difference.

She got something even better yesterday: a one-on-one chat with the chief of the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development's reproductive sciences branch.

Vice and about three dozen others gathered at Towson University for the annual Women in Science Forum, a chance for students to learn from those who have achieved -- and for female scientists to stop and talk about issues of gender that aren't often discussed.

In many ways, the outlook is good. Half of the undergraduate science and engineering degrees in 2000 were awarded to women, compared with a quarter in 1966, according to the National Science Foundation. Women earned just more than a third of the doctorates in those fields in 2000, up from 8 percent in 1966.

But Phyllis Leppert, the reproductive-sciences chief, surprised many at the forum yesterday with relatively new data showing the danger of waiting to have children, which has become a matter of course for those in demanding fields like science.

"Women in their 30s have problems not only in the outcome of the pregnancy but in the outcome of their own health," Leppert said. "The most optimal time to have a child is between the ages of 25 and 29."

She said that poses difficult questions for women in science, who are often just launching their careers during those years.

Leppert said that a woman who gives birth after age 35 is more likely to have problems later in life, from heart attacks to higher blood pressure. Meanwhile, as the average age of mothers has risen in the country, so has the number of pre-term births and underweight babies.

"It's important that you think about this," Leppert said. "The choices are hard. ... Society needs to come to grips with this and support women."

Right now the message to women pursuing a career is simply, "'Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry -- you can always have kids,'" she said. "Well, that's just not true."

Joy Watts, a research associate with the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, moved to the United States from England in 1999 and is frustrated by the difference in the way pregnancy is treated.

"The rest of the world -- the developed world -- you get a year off with pay," said Watts, 30, who has a 15-month-old son. "Here you get six weeks, no pay."

Alex Storrs, an assistant professor of astronomy at Towson, the lone man to stay through the forum, said he's equally concerned about the difficulty balancing a family and a demanding job. It seems to him that people would be better off if women and men knew they could start a career and a family at the same time "and still make it work."

Leppert's statistics are making Vice re-evaluate her life schedule, since she was planning to have children in her 30s after four years of college, four years of medical school and four years of residency.

But her commitment to science is unswerving. Her chat with Leppert about how to get where she wants to go was "a real emotional experience."

"It's motivated me even more," said Vice, a City College junior.

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