An Interview with Becca Walker

Gender issues such as the role of women in science and technology were brought to a head recently when Lawrence H. Summers, president of Harvard University, suggested at an academic conference that intrinsic differences between males and females may explain why there are fewer women in science, mathematics and engineering. Summers, according to his defenders, intended his statement as merely one of several hypotheses to explain this obvious and little researched discrepancy.

I recently interviewed Becca Walker, a geosciences graduate student at the University of Arizona, and I asked her why she thought gender is still even an issue. “You tell me,” she laughed while shaking her head. “I think one of the things that’s being investigated right now is why the gender ratio in graduate programs is essentially 50/50, and actually even leaning now more toward women, but when you look at who is getting these academic positions, women compose, you know, a very small minority.” While there seems to be no obvious answers, Walkers suggested further research might be helpful, such as surveys and interviews with faculty members, staff members and graduate students from various colleges and universities about their perception of these gender issues in academia. “I think there needs to be a lot more consideration of this issue.”

In the geosciences, Walker says she has not faced explicit sexism while a graduate student, although she knows of other women who have. She believes she was able to prove herself as a woman in geosciences by being physically fit and keeping up with “the guys.” She expects these issues to be more difficult for women graduate students as they attempt to enter the work force when their education is complete. “One of the major issues is, if you’re applying for a tenure-track position, what about children? […] Is it possible to do cutting-edge research, do excellent teaching, have a service component, and have a family? […] If you have a child, I mean, that is a major chunk of your time budget.”

Facing Challenges

If anyone is up to the challenges that these issues present, it is Becca Walker. In 2003 she was diagnosed with hepatitis, likely brought on by a soil microbe she caught during field work or other outdoor activities. “It’s probably a microbe that everyone in the population gets exposed to, but for some reason my immune system reacted really strangely to it.”

Although she was able to recover from the hepatitis quickly, her immune system also attacked and destroyed her own bone marrow. She was not a good candidate for a bone marrow transplant so doctors turned to immunosuppressive therapy. This therapy purposely killed her immune system in the hope of also killing off the particular cells that were attacking her bone marrow. After the therapy, her immune system and bone marrow needed time to grow back, but challenges remained. Becca had to protect herself from illness until her immune defenses returned. She took time off from school for treatment and recovery.

Walker is still in recovery, but she has returned to school with a vengeance. “I think that being back here and teaching and getting back into my research was one of the most important elements in my recovery.” It may be too dangerous for her to return to outdoor field work, but she has found a different environment to research: kindergarten through 12th grade classrooms.

Scientist/Teacher Partnerships

Many K-12 teachers instruct courses on subjects in which they have no formal training. To address this issue, several programs around the country partner scientists and other specialized experts with teachers to enhance the teachers’ abilities and knowledge in the natural sciences, technology, and mathematics. In return, scientists can come away with more effective teaching skills.

The “Collaboration to Advance Teaching Technology and Science” (CATTS) program is “a partnership between the University of Arizona and local school districts to improve science, mathematics and technology teaching at all levels” according to the CATTS website. This unique program brings CATTS fellows from the University of Arizona into K-12 classrooms. The working theory is that teachers will learn from the research experience of scientists, and scientists will learn from the pedagogical experience of teachers, benefiting school children in the process. While programs such as CATTS are created with the best intentions, not all scientist/teacher partnerships are successful.

Walker has been researching these partnerships to look for those factors that lead to success, and those that do not. She has spent time in K-12 classrooms observing scientist and teacher interactions. She also collected journals, conducted surveys, and interviewed the participants. In her research Walker has identified successful partnerships as being marked by specific shared goals, expectations, and labor; well-defined roles; equality; good communication, and an honest investment in learning from and teaching each other. She recently presented her results at GeoDaze 2005, an annual symposium at the University of Arizona of undergraduate and graduate research.

When partnerships failed, Walker found that negative factors such as intimidation and lack of communication were involved. For example, teachers were sometimes intimidated by the scientists, while poor communication regarding goals and roles led to confusion and conflict. Walker observed fellows that focused on teaching the students rather than the teacher. She also observed teachers who took breaks and conducted unrelated work while the fellow was left to lead class lessons alone.

Fortunately, even these ineffective partnerships could be turned around if negative factors were recognized and the partners invested their time and effort to resolving their differences. Sometimes it was as simple as someone finally speaking up. Walker described one situation in which the fellow approached the teacher and expressed his frustration with her lack of involvement and the need for them to plan their lessons outside of class. “He hadn’t communicated that need up until that point, and when this teacher realized ‘oh, […] I didn’t think this was one of the important criteria for us working together. Of course I’ll set aside time,’ the partnership evolved very successfully after that. So it’s definitely…it’s possible to overcome the majority of these barriers as long as there is honest communication about what needs to be changed.”

The work Walker has done is also applicable to the relationship between scientists and the general public. She hopes that her work will highlight these issues for scientists, teachers, and the public alike, leading to more effective partnerships in the future.

Looking Ahead

As for her own future, Walker will soon have a Masters degree and will eventually pursue a Ph.D. She plans to continue teaching and conducting research, including a possible return to outdoor field work. “I think that the further away I get from this illness, I might be a little bit more ballsy and decide, you know, I’m really going to have to be more careful, but I’m going to re-initiate doing field work.”

Which leads me back to my original question…why is gender still even an issue? With grace, intelligence, and passion, Becca Walker belies any suggestion that intrinsic differences between males and females explain why there are fewer women in academic positions.

RADIO Frontier Channel Podcast

Episode 07

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Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a writer and poet. His first published poem, "Roadside Freak Show," arrives on August 21, 2017 in Impossible Archetype.  His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey. Richard is also the Downlink Lead for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team at the University of Arizona. He monitors images of the Martian surface taken by the HiRISE camera located on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars and helps ensure they process successfully and are validated for quick release to the science community and public. Once upon a time, Richard wrote and edited the science and technology news and commentary website Frontier Channel, hosted the RADIO Frontier Channel podcast, and organized transhumanist clubs. Follow Richard on his website (richardleis.com), on Goodreads (richardleis), Twitter (@richardleisjr), and Facebook (richardleisjr).

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