International workshop aims to boost number, success of women in STEM

Elissa Schwartz.Elissa Schwartz, an associate professor with faculty appointments in both the School of Biological Sciences and the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and an affiliate faculty member of the Program in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS), is committed to increasing the participation and success of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

In addition to a number of domestic and international activities in recent years, Schwartz recently organized a three-part, interactive forum featuring live mentoring by women scientists, mathematicians and WGSS scholars, and a keynote presented by Seema Nanda, a mathematician and founder of the nonprofit Leora Trust, which promotes the empowerment of women in India through education.

“Remedying the Leaky Pipeline for Women in STEM” brought together mentors and trainees from across the globe in real time to identify the barriers women and other underrepresented groups face in pursuing STEM careers and to discuss ways of overcoming those hurdles.

“We aim to empower the participants by connecting them to mentors, sponsors, and role models in leadership positions who can help them advance their career ambitions, prospects and intellectual development in STEM fields,” Schwartz said. “Through breakout discussions and brainstorming, we’ll continue laying a course to mend the leaky pipeline.”

Schwartz proposed and won a grant to develop the workshop from the WSU Center for Arts and Humanities’ Douglas L. Epperson Social Justice Fund as a joint ventue with WGSS and the ADVANCE at WSU program. The fund was established by WSU alumni Laurie Johnson (’78 political science) and Dawn Smith (’82 botany) to help advance the education, equality and empowerment of underserved segments of society.

“The story of Dr. Nanda’s career journey and the obstacles she overcame to become a mathematician and start her educational nonprofit foundation is deeply inspiring,” said Schwartz.

In 2006, after attending college and living in the U.S. for many years, Nanda moved back to her homeland India and was struck by the heartbreaking gender inequality that persists within the patriarchal culture. Recognizing her own good fortune motivated her to set up education support for girls, Schwartz said.

The goal of Nanda’s presentation and the broader workshop is to connect women and other underrepresented STEM trainees at WSU and abroad – particularly in India and Nepal – with professional development opportunities, mentoring, and other types of support.

Expanding STEM education worldwide

A member of the board of directors of the Society for Mathematical Biology, Schwartz co-directs a mentoring program and organizes small working groups and training webinars for scholars in mathematical biology from undergraduate through postdoctoral and faculty levels.

In summer 2019, Professor Schwartz served as a lecturer and small-group research facilitator for a 10-day summer school on mathematical biology in Kathmandu. Her role included teaching the basics of mathematical epidemiology to about 50 doctoral and master’s degree students from Nepal, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines, and the U.S.

Schwartz also traveled to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town, South Africa, in spring 2017 where she organized workshops, panels, and group discussions on STEM careers to promote retention of women in mathematics. She matched mentor–mentee pairs between professionals and female graduate students in mathematics for informal career discussions. Participants hailed from more than a dozen African countries, from Egypt to Madagascar.

Her interdisciplinary research combines experimental, mathematical, and computational techniques to study the epidemiology of infectious diseases, including HIV and COVID-19. Her approach aims to advance basic understanding of disease mechanisms and to lead to new therapeutic strategies.

Top image: Elissa Schwartz

By Adriana Aumen, College of Arts and Sciences, for WSU Insider