New Faces, New Futures


First published in AWIS Magazine, Volume 29, issue 3 (Summer 2000)

When Christine Hoffmann married at age 19, she expected to put her education on hold. But now, at 21, she is a chemistry major at the University of California-Davis, conducting independent research and planning to attend graduate school. Meenakshi Rao emigrated from India to the United States at age 6 and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A senior at Washington University in St. Louis, her independent research concentrates on neurobiology, and she expects to enter an M.D./Ph.D. program in autumn 2000. Andrea (Andi) Bill, a junior at Mount Holyoke College, is pursuing a double major in physics and Latin and is captain of the equestrian team. She plans to work as a civil engineer. The backgrounds and expectations of these three women are as diverse as the paths they are following. Despite these differences, however, they share a clear sense of what they want from their lives, and they all fit under the umbrella of science.

Hoffmann was first attracted to chemistry as a child in Hawaii, when her father, David Wood, explained the chemistry behind natural phenomena. "I remember him telling me how water could be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen. I always thought it would be cool to know so many different things, like my dad." When she was nine, Hoffmann's family moved to Garden Valley, California. At 16, she entered Sierra College, a junior college in Rocklin, California, and also worked part time at a variety of jobs. Hoffmann confirmed her interest in chemistry in Sierra's introductory course, realizing "This is what I want to do."

When Hoffmann married and moved to Sacramento, she initially anticipated that financial considerations might require her to suspend her education. But, she says, "my husband [Aran Hoffmann] encouraged me, and, through his work, made it possible for me to focus on school." Other people helped, too: Because Hoffmann is part Latina, one of her community college chemistry professors suggested she apply to the Minority Undergraduate Participation in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MURPPS) program at the University of California-Davis (UCD), which is intended to increase the number of minority students who pursue graduate studies. Hoffmann was accepted into the program and spent the summer of 1999 working in the laboratory of Dr. Susan Kauzlarich, an inorganic chemist at UCD whose research focuses on semiconductors.

From the start, Hoffmann loved the work, and she transferred to UCD in the fall of 1999 to continue her education as a junior with a major in chemistry. She has remained in Kauzlarich's lab, conducting independent research for which she receives both academic credit and pay (via the MURPPS program). Under Kauzlarich's tutelage, Hoffmann has taken on a comprehensive project synthesizing silicon nanoparticles. These tiny semiconductors, which range from 1-20 nanometers in diameter, have potential applications in high-energy lasers and in polymer science. In the past, nanoparticles were coated with alkyl groups for use in particular chemical reactions. To expand their range of applications, Hoffmann coats them with amino groups, which allow them to be used in distinct kinds of reactions. She is also experimenting with using different solvents to manufacture nanoparticles with a more uniform size distribution. "Not many people are working on this," says Hoffmann. "It's really cutting-edge." Hoffmann is especially appreciative of Kauzlarich's support and her willingness to involve Hoffmann in a substantive project, an unusual opportunity for an undergraduate. "I'm contributing my own part to the larger picture," she says, adding, "Susan [Kauzlarich] is really nice and helpful. I really appreciate that."

After attending graduate school in chemistry, Hoffmann hopes to work in industry. She views the future for women in chemistry quite positively: "What's exciting is that more and more women are getting into science. We'll be seeing things in textbooks named after women and not just men...Maybe someday something will be named after me."

At Washington University in St. Louis, Meenakshi Rao has been working for three years with Dr. David Gottlieb on the differentiation of embryonic stem cells into neurons. Specifically, she has been trying to entice the cells into differentiating into a type of neuron that makes a signaling molecule called dopamine. Cells like these die off as a result of Parkinson's disease, and if a steady source of such cells could be generated, they might be extremely useful clinically. Moreover, says Rao, "embryonic stem cells represent a useful system for studying the development of dopaminergic neurons."

Rao's interest in basic research was an extension of her initial desire to be a clinician. Because she had a long history of volunteerism, her freshman advisor encouraged her to participate in research, even though she "originally had little interest." Despite her reservations, Rao says, "David Gottlieb and I got along really well, and as I became more involved in the lab, I became increasingly attracted to studying problems at such a fundamental level-now I want to be a scientist." Because of the huge commitment involved, Rao chose carefully between applying for M.D. or for joint M.D./Ph.D. programs. Her love of research won out, and she has opted for training in both. "The goal for going through this dual degree process," she says, "is to have my own lab and spend part of my time seeing patients...which I believe is a powerful way to focus and motivate research."

As she looks toward the future, Rao worries most about "living up to my own expectations, because balancing everything I want to do will get harder and harder." Yet, Rao has been inspired by the willingness of female faculty to serve as mentors. "I think it's great that they have reached out to those of us who are starting out. Most of them probably had a much harder path up the mountain than I will." She adds, "As I've visited different institutions this past year, I have had the pleasure of meeting several female scientists who have managed to combine a career in research with having a family and other interests. Their example has given me a lot of confidence in pursuing my own goals for the future."

Andi Bill has unusually eclectic interests. She is attracted to the highly structured nature of physics and engineering, an attribute she also appreciates in her second major, Latin: "When you think about it, it is very structured. One ending can only mean one thing." Although Bill anticipates a career in civil engineering, she elected to attend Mount Holyoke, a small, liberal arts college for women in South Hadley, Massachusetts. "I came to Mount Holyoke," says Bill, "because I knew that I could major in physics and go on in civil engineering. It is a bit harder," she admits, "because I will need two more years to get a B.S. in civil engineering."

Bill's decision seems to have been right for her. She keenly appreciates the support she receives from the physics department for her professional and personal decisions--the entire faculty turned out for Bill's first home equestrian show as captain. While Bill has not been particularly interested in pursuing research in physics (an opportunity that is open to physics students at Mount Holyoke), she has been able to indulge her passion for teaching in several venues. As a teaching assistant for the Quantum Mechanical Phenomenon course, she helps set up experiments using gamma-ray spectroscopy. "There never used to be a lab for this course, so this is a first attempt," she says. She also has tutored in physics and Latin, and currently teaches riding. "As long as I have some teaching aspect in my life, I'm pretty content," says Bill.

Bill is applying to a program that would allow her to complete her education at the California Institute of Technology, where she would receive a B.S. in civil engineering in addition to her degree from Mount Holyoke. She would prefer, however, to pioneer a similar program at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst so that she can continue riding for Mount Holyoke's equestrian team.

Bill anticipates that she will continue to pursue her diverse interests in the future. After obtaining certification as a civil engineer, she would like to work in the private sector, either in structural design or in transportation and safety. She hopes that after a few years she will have the means "to start my own barn and to teach riding." If motivation counts for anything, she will succeed. Says Bill, "Because of being in a single-sex environment, I'm not wary of my ability. My self-confidence kind of rolls off and is catching to the people around me."

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