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Making WISE Choices About Career and Family

By Ioana Patringenaru | November 13, 2006

You’re building a career. You’re taking care of your family. And on top of that, you’re one of a handful of women in your profession or field of study.

Linda Zangwell
Linda Zangwill
Related Links:
UCSD WISE
GradWISE
Chancellor's Advisory Committee on the Status of Women

Women scientists and engineers face these challenges every day. At UCSD, Women in Science and Engineering, also known as WISE, is trying to help them.

The group’s goal is to create connections and a sense of identity, which will allow women to develop professionally and become fulfilled, said Jeanne Ferrante, associate dean at the Jacobs School of Engineering and a member of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women (CSW). WISE is a subcommittee of CSW. WISE also can provide answers to questions about balancing career and family life, Ferrante said.

 “The group will help build a community for women scientists and engineers on campus,” she said.

The organization also aims to provide role models, said Linda Zangwill, who co-chairs WISE this academic year and is a researcher at the Hamilton Glaucoma Center at UCSD.

WISE works hand in hand with similar local organizations. It puts on two events per quarter. One highlights a successful woman scientist who talks about her career path. This quarter, WISE will feature Tracy L. Johnson, a UCSD biologist who was awarded a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers this year. She will speak at noon Nov. 16 at the Women’s Center. The other event is a discussion panel. Past topics include juggling family and career, women in industry, and science writing.

While Ferrante and Zangwill’s life stories and career paths differ, both believe women have an important role to play in fields traditionally dominated by men.

“We do better science and engineering if we have diversity of thought, and diversity of thought means diversity of people,” Ferrante said.

Jeanne Ferrante
Jeanne Ferrante

She credits her father for her interest in science. He never went to college, but was an avid reader who loved science. Ferrante planned to be a teacher. She became interested in mathematics as an undergraduate. Then she went to MIT, where she started focusing on computing. There were three women in her year. “It was often very lonely,” she said. That feeling stayed with her during her years as a female computer scientist. The percentage of women in her field is low and keeps dropping, she pointed out. Ferrante chose to work in industry a few years after earning a doctorate and put in 16 years as a research staff member at IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center from 1978 to 1994. She then joined UCSD.

Zangwill came to UCSD a year earlier, in 1993. Her passion for science stems from her interest in health issues, she said. But she wasn’t interested in medical school. She chose to study epidemiology, a field where women are less scarce. She caught a few breaks when she was starting a family and studying abroad. She earned her doctorate and had two children in Israel. Then she did post-doc work and had a third child in Canada. Both countries allowed her to take paid maternity leave. She and her husband shared responsibilities and juggled night and weekend shifts as well as travel while raising their three children, now ages 13, 17 and 19. Zangwill, who like most faculty at UCSD's School of Medicine holds a non-tenure track position, said her experiences on campus have been positive.

She and Ferrante said conditions are improving for women scientists and engineers at UCSD.

Linda Zangwill
Zangwill at the Hamilton Glaucoma Center

For example, academics have a limited time to earn tenure after they’re hired. In the past, they needed to request that their tenure clock be stopped while they took maternity or family leave. Now, the clock stops automatically, Zangwill said.

The Jacobs School of Engineering has become more successful at hiring women faculty, Ferrante added. In the last three years, two women have joined the faculty each year, out of about eight to 12 openings. To cast a broader net, the school now states in every job posting that excellent candidates in all areas of a discipline will be considered. A narrow focus would only yield a small pool – and little diversity, Ferrante said.

WISE is helping support female faculty, staff and students because women can feel isolated if they don’t see people like themselves, she added.

Being part of WISE is very rewarding, said psychiatry researchers Christine Fennema-Notestine and Amanda Bischoff-Grethe. “You realize you’re not alone,” Bischoff-Grethe said.

Discussion panels provide precious advice that Fennema-Notestine said she wished she had when she started her career. Choosing the right mentor and the right program is key, she said. “You have to feel comfortable enough to decide what’s the right path for you,” she said. For example, she had the opportunity to do post-doctoral work in a respected program. But the group’s philosophy didn’t match her plans for balancing career and family. So she turned down the offer, to many of her colleagues’ dismay.  Setting priorities and boundaries also is important, the two women said.  “You have to realize you can’t do it all,” Bischoff-Grethe said. “I have to sleep too.”

After listening to panels and speakers and doing her own homework, graduate student Gina Nubile said she plans to teach, perhaps at a community college, at the beginning of her career. That will allow her to devote more time to her family, she added. Nubile leads GradWISE, which targets graduate students. The group meets the first Friday of every month at Porter’s Pub for lunch. Eventually, GradWISE would like to reach out to undergraduates, Nubile said.

“It’s hard to find mentors,” she said.

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