Full Stem Ahead: $400,000+ Grant Funds Luce Scholarships for Undergraduate Women in Science

By Elizabeth Thompson Walker

In the past 35 years, the number of women in science at Holy Cross has accelerated from zero to many and growing—on the faculty and in majors among the STEM disciplines, today’s shorthand for “sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics.” Though the strength of science education at Holy Cross has long reflected proudly in its national standing and prominent alumni, the history of women in science at the College is relatively new. No women were teaching in the departments of chemistry, physics, mathematics or computer science just prior to coeducation arriving on the Hill in the early 1970s. Today, 39 percent of the science faculty and 54 percent of Holy Cross science graduates are women. In fact, the number of Holy Cross women graduating with majors in the natural sciences,  mathematics and computer science outpaces that of their male counterparts and, in some disciplines, greatly exceeds national norms.

Committed to attracting women to science

In recognition of the College’s solid record of leadership in encouraging undergraduate women to pursue studies in the sciences, graduate and go on to advanced degrees and careers in this area, the Henry Luce Foundation, Inc. invited Holy Cross to apply for—and recently awarded—a grant of $420,532 to provide Clare Boothe Luce Undergraduate Scholarships over four years to eight outstanding women, two each year (beginning in the 2010-2011 academic year), who are rising fourth-year students majoring in physics, chemistry, mathematics or computer science. The grant covers tuition, room and board and fees for each of the Clare Boothe Luce Scholars. In addition, the College has committed nearly $50,000 to provide them with paid research fellowships during the summer prior to the start of their senior year. The summer research program has grown since its inception a decade ago to offer sponsored opportunities for meaningful research for 60 students in each of the past five years. Students in the program have a budget for supplies and are eligible for travel funds to present at a scientific meeting.

Clare Boothe Luce Program Scholarships

Administered by the Henry Luce Foundation, Inc. the Clare Boothe Luce (CBL) Program makes grants to colleges and universities to support women in science at three distinct junctures in their education and careers: as undergraduates, as graduate students and as new tenure-track faculty. These grants are intended to “increase the participation of women in the sciences at every level in higher education and to serve as a catalyst for colleges and universities to be proactive in their efforts toward this goal,” according to the Foundation.

“Holy Cross has received a great deal of support from the Luce Foundation and the CBL Program,” says Charles “Chick” Weiss, director of the Office of Grants,  Foundation and Corporate Giving at Holy Cross. “In 1987, we were awarded a Clare Boothe Luce Professorship and, in the past decade, several CBL Program scholarships for undergraduate women in science.”

New Integrated Science Complex

The timing could not be better for the new CBL Scholarships, according to Weiss. In addition to the lively, contemporary, laboratory-centered science curricula Holy Cross provides its undergraduates, the College is nearing completion of a $60-million Integrated Science Complex. The project, which includes a 42,000-square-foot addition and a top-to-bottom renovation of classroom, laboratory, office and public space, centers on three interconnected buildings with a new four-story addition, constructed between Beaven Hall and the Swords Atrium, and a total renovation of Haberlin Hall. The complex offers new opportunities for collaborative faculty/student research, among many other benefits. (Be sure to see Page 22 for a photo tour of the newly opened Smith Labs.)

Working from the bottom up

Like the College and the Luce Foundation, Janine Shertzer, the Anthony and Renee Marlon Professor in the Sciences at Holy Cross, has long been a proponent of increasing the numbers of undergraduate women majoring in the STEM disciplines, particularly physics. The only woman on the physics faculty for the past 25 years, Shertzer believes that there won’t be more female physics faculty until there are more female physics undergraduates. “We need to work from the bottom up,” she says.

“We have a long way to go, particularly in chemistry and physics,” Shertzer continues. The number of physics majors fluctuates annually, as does the number of female physics majors. “This year, only one of our eight senior physics majors is female. In the class of 2002, it was 50/50, with six men and six women. Four of the women went on to graduate school in science, one got a job in a patent office and the sixth became a physics teacher. I don’t think it was a coincidence. You need a critical mass of women, otherwise it can be hard for them to assert themselves in class and work in study groups without that support.”

An early and crucial vote of confidence

The CBL Scholarships help to create that critical mass and circle of support. One of the six female physics majors Shertzer cited, CBL Scholar Caroline Berger ’02, a Nugent Medal recipient at Holy Cross, went on to complete a Ph.D. in physics at Duke University. Two of Berger’s classmates—also CBL Scholars—Amy Vashlishan ’02 and Alison McCarthy Robertson ’02, also went to graduate school in the sciences. Last year, Vashlishan defended her doctoral dissertation in the genetics department at Harvard Medical School; Robertson, Phi Beta Kappa mathematics major, earned her master’s degree in math at Stanford University and currently works in the financial software industry. The CBL Scholarships they received reduced their financial stress as undergraduates and freed them to pursue research activities year-round.

In addition to its commitment to increasing the number of women on the science faculty, Holy Cross also offers an array of institutional programming to support women majoring in science. Lectures and workshops by noted authors have been offered. The Women and Gender Studies Program presented a discussion for students on balancing work and family. This semester, the growing Holy Cross Women in Business Network will focus on women in the business of science and medicine. Also planned is a seminar series to bring prominent women in the physical sciences to campus to speak and interact with students.

The Clare Boothe Luce Scholarships are the centerpiece in the mix of strategies that Holy Cross now has in place to attract, retain and graduate women in science. The vision of Clare Boothe Luce regarding young women in science, and the generosity of the grants that support and secure her legacy, are creating life-changing opportunities for women attracted to science at Holy Cross—and beyond. “The Clare Boothe Luce Scholarship was an early and crucial vote of confidence in my capabilities,” explained one Holy Cross CBL Scholar. “It also inspired me to help others—particularly women—enter science and analytical fields.”

Elizabeth Thompson Walker is a freelance writer from Holden, Mass.