Obstacles, Opportunities, Optimism: The Journey of Women in Science

Chemistry student works alongside her professor in a lab.
Bianca Sculimbrene, professor of chemistry, works with a student in her lab.

Women scientists reflect on their journey in male-dominated STEM fields and their outlook for what the future holds for female students.

As a child, Gabriela Avila-Bront’s scientist father instilled in her a curiosity for the natural world. At age 5, he brought her to a museum for her birthday. There, she discovered twice Nobel Laureate Marie Curie and the fact that they shared a birthday. 

“That was it, I was sold. It was destiny,” said Avila-Bront, associate professor of chemistry.  

“I was definitely the weird one, the odd one, the one they asked, ‘Why are you here?’” she said of her early years of science education. This strengthened her resolve to pursue chemistry and encourage female scientists to own who they are — strengths and weaknesses, and how to feel comfortable in their own skin. “Once they have that, you can go anywhere and contribute pretty strongly,” she said.

Pursuing a career in majority male science fields is becoming more common for women. The National Science Foundation reports that more women are working in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields than a decade ago and earning more degrees at all levels. However, when compared with the overall U.S. population, the numbers still indicate a field in which the majority of STEM professionals are men. When broken down by scientific discipline — biology versus chemistry versus physics — there is greater disparity.

Today, Avila-Bront is more optimistic, noting there is a greater sense of comradery between the sexes and there seems to be more acceptance of science being an inclusive career path. 

“Every time I look out into my classroom, I realize this is not the classroom that I was in and not the one I even started teaching in at Holy Cross 10 years ago,” Avila-Bront said. “I still don’t see many female scientists in positions of power or at R1 [highly funded doctoral research] universities; however, if we’re seeing it in our classrooms, I’ve got to believe that it could be a game of numbers, and that we’re going to be able to push through and see that difference in 10 to 15 years down the line.”

Even slight increases in diverse voices in the sciences will invite more diversity and inclusivity.

Amber Hupp, associate professor of chemistry

Bianca Sculimbrene, professor of chemistry 

As an elementary school student, Bianca Sculimbrene was a book-smart student who always participated in class. “I always had my hand raised,” she said laughing.

Math made sense to her from an early age. When she got to high school chemistry, mixing compounds and chemicals came easy, it was just like growing up in her family’s kitchen. Her parents were phenomenal cooks and encouraged her to take risks with her recipes and be curious about the process: “I have always liked breaking things down to their smallest unit and studying their functions.”

When she entered college, Sculimbrene gravitated toward organic chemistry. She was guided by a female physical chemist whom she described as brilliant in quantum mechanics, and a young male organic chemist. It wasn’t long before Sculimbrene decided she wanted his job; she loved organic chemistry and wanted to teach.

“As a first-generation student, this wasn’t something that was ever talked about in my house. They were incredible mentors for me,” Sculimbrene said of the faculty. Throughout her collegiate journey — from undergrad through her postdoctoral fellowship — Sculimbrene said she benefited from strong mentors, male and female: “They all believed in me.”

While challenged by faculty and professional chemists, she doesn’t recall being discouraged from pursuing her career aspirations; however, there were indirect signs that reaching her goal of being a tenured faculty member in chemistry could be tough. The further she went in her academic training, the more she saw women leave academia, or at least those who had families. Working in chemical labs can be dangerous during pregnancy and it was clear that some of her female mentors had to make a choice between balancing their family lives with their scientific careers.

A female chemistry professor talks with a student in lab.
Bianca Sculimbrene, professor of chemistry, discusses an chemical experiment with a student in her lab.
Two female students work with a female professor in a chemistry lab.
Bianca Sculimbrene, professor of chemistry, works with two students in her lab.

“Some people do not want a family, and that should be their choice, but you should not have to choose between the enriching part of your personal life and putting your career in peril,” Sculimbrene said. When she started teaching at Holy Cross in 2006, there were more women than men faculty members in the chemistry department. That changed soon after; none of the women who remained had children, she said. Sculimbrene and colleague Sarah Petty, associate professor of chemistry, worked to change that dynamic by partnering with colleagues and administrators to establish new policies that encouraged women faculty to remain and thrive at the College, she said. Since then, chemistry female faculty members who have wanted children have had them sooner and that makes Sculimbrene hope that they no longer feel pressure to choose between tenure and a family, she said. “They feel comfortable now making that choice. It’s a credit to the work this department has done, and to the College,” Sculimbrene said. 

Today, Sculimbrene said she feels less pushback from within the chemical society and more so from those on the “outside.” When asked what she does for work, she invariably says she teaches. If pushed, she reveals she’s an organic chemistry professor. “The look of either shock or disgust on their faces is almost immediate,” Sculimbrene said, unsure if it’s because the person had a bad experience in a chemistry class or because she doesn’t look like what they expect an organic chemist to be.

“Being a scientist is not about what you look like,” she said. “It’s about your curiosity, it’s about wanting to understand what things are made of and how those things are going to behave.”

Shreyashi Chakdar, assistant professor of physics

Physics has always been a male-dominated industry. Nationally, fewer than 25% of physics majors are women. The further one progresses in the field, the more women drop out. In physics, fewer than 5% of faculty are women. “That’s why the challenges are a little stark for women, especially being a woman of color and international,” Shreyashi Chakdar said. 

Born and raised in India and schooled under the British system, Chakdar had to declare her future career intent at 16 years old. She had no doubts: She wanted to be a physicist. “When I look back, I’d say my high school physics teacher was a huge influence on me and my decision,” she said. I didn’t come from a family in academia, so I needed a guide and was lucky enough to find that person in my high school teacher.”

Physics came naturally to Chakdar. It made sense. It was so logical: “I was attracted to it and could do it faster than anyone else.” She had unwavering support from her family and worked with researchers at the highest level in India. Yet, she still felt like the odd person out.

“I was always the only woman in the classroom my whole academic life,” she said. “As an undergrad at a 200-year-old Indian institution, the physics building had no women’s washroom. I had to walk two buildings over to the civil engineering building to find a women’s washroom. When you come from that amount of resistance, after that, nothing feels like resistance anymore.” 

Female physics professor stands at front of classroom.
Shreyashi Chakdar, assistant professor of physics, talks with students during a recent class.
Female physics professor points to equation on white board.
Shreyashi Chakdar, assistant professor of physics, is an expert in particle physics.

Chakdar was one of six women out of 70 people in her particle physics summer school. There were no other female students of color and she was the only international student. “It makes you a little harder, stronger,” she noted.

She asked a lot of questions of women faculty who had succeeded in their field, such as what path they took, and with whom they networked and partnered in their research. She networked with as many women in the field as she could find, giving 60 talks at various institutions, always seeking out the women faculty. “My experience is that women across my field have supported me,” she said. “They want other women to succeed.”

Woman in a hard hat standing in front of hundreds of electric cables.
Shreyashi Chakdar, assistant professor of physics, at the European Council for Nuclear Research. (Contributed)

Always focused on her end goal – to become a professor who balances research and the classroom – Chakdar chose to take a more direct path in her career journey: “This [academic research and teaching] is my calling and I understood it pretty well.”

She is proud of her teaching — she joined the Holy Cross faculty in 2019 — and her continued research with CERN, the European Council for Nuclear Research, which uses fundamental physics to better understand what the universe is made of and how it works. Specifically, she works with data from the largest-manmade experiment on Earth, which is located about 100 meters underground on the border of France and Switzerland. There, they test particle theories, work in dark matter and neutrinos and the constituents of the universe. Back in her classroom, she shares her experience with her students, an opportunity usually reserved for larger, heavily funded research institutions.  

“When I look back on my journey as a female student, I faced isolation because I was the only one or one of the only women in my group, which was pretty common for any particle physicist in my era,” she said. “But the curiosity gets me out of bed every day. You have to be excited about the way you do your job.

Julia Paxson, DVM, associate professor of biology and department Chair

Julia Paxson is quick to say that she recognizes that she had a privileged scientific journey, raised in England, the daughter of well-educated American parents and the granddaughter of a well-known chemist. “It was well-modeled in my family that academic pursuits were normal,” she said.

What made her journey a bit more challenging was her undiagnosed dyslexia: “When I was in Kindergarten, I was told I was very smart, but when we started reading and writing they [teachers] thought they made a mistake.” In high school, she became more interested in chemistry. “Science just logically made more sense,” she said.

Paxson continued to struggle in school, however. At age 14, she was fortunate to have a “powerhouse” female chemistry teacher who would not let her give up: “She told me that I needed to reevaluate my capabilities, that I was smart. She didn’t give me a choice. She told me that she knew I could do better. Having someone recognize my capabilities was enormous.”

Paxson took that to heart. She focused on developmental biology and stuck with her academic pursuits. Upon graduating from Yale, she realized that her research focus was too niche, so she enrolled in Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University to earn a veterinary degree. “I had wanted to become a vet when I was young and people said I couldn’t do that,” she noted.

She became board certified in large animal medicine, but her desire to conduct research and teach remained strong. Paxson decided to combine her two interests and established a developmental biology lab at Holy Cross: “It was a perfect fit.” 

Paxson said she feels lucky in not experiencing the same microaggressions throughout her career that many other women in science experience, noting the increased number of women in the biological sciences could have played a role. “There is something about the biological sciences that is much more diverse and broad thinking,” she said. “I think these approaches can be very appealing to women, but certainly many are still met with roadblocks throughout the course of their careers.”

Female biology professors laughs with students in her lab.
Julia Paxson, DVM, associate professor of biology and head of the department (seated) laughs with students (L-R) Gianna McPartland ’25, Erik Carlson ‘25, Brian Saville ’22, Heather Paglia ‘25 and Emily Bubonovich ’25.
Female biology professor talks with two students in her lab.
Julia Paxson, associate professor of biology, talks about upcoming experiments with two summer research students in her lab.

One of the challenges for women in the biological sciences can be the tenure track and promotion process, Paxson noted. Statistically, fewer women are promoted to full professor, which for many coincides with the years of creating families and raising children, according to research from Harvard University and the National Library of Medicine. “The current process does not give much consideration to external influences,” she said. Women also tend to engage in scholarship seen as more unusual, Paxson said, including in their research labs and authoring papers and books: “It can be hard to convince colleagues that there is value in some forms of this less traditional scholarship.”

Paxson noted the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light many of the deficiencies and inequities for women working in the scientific field: “Women ended up bearing the brunt of the home dynamic and, as a whole, we didn’t produce as much in terms of scholarship. This means women did not receive as many grants when compared to male counterparts. More often, women are left to balance their professional and personal lives. Some are not willing to sacrifice that life and work balance to go up another step.”

Amber Hupp, associate professor of chemistry and department chair

As a child, Amber Hupp loved doing puzzles and tracking the moon in the night sky. She talked about being an astronaut. Her supportive parents realized she was good at “sciency-things” and enrolled her in programs that encouraged her curiosity about science. Through middle and high school, she said she had good science role models, particularly her high school biology and chemistry teachers — two young, successful women who enjoyed being scientists. “I really thought I wanted to be them,” she said. 

Hupp said she struggled as a first-generation college student, but her interest in chemistry grew. A fan of the early 2000s popular TV show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” she was “passionate about forensic chemistry and really fascinated with solving crimes.” A professor encouraged her not to limit her scope, so she continued to graduate school to study the broader field of analytical chemistry. It was the first time she realized that for women in chemistry there was a pipeline problem  – the statistical trend that shows more women than men leave the sciences before obtaining tenure or a more senior position at a biotech company.

Women now represent a large part of the talent pool in the United States, but many data sources indicate that they are more likely than men to “leak” out of the science pipeline before obtaining tenure at a college or university. 

“I had women science teachers throughout middle and high school,” she said. “In undergrad, the chemistry department was small, but half were women. In graduate school, it changed. Of a faculty of about 50, only four were women. In my field there was one; in organic synthesis there were none. I didn’t realize it was such a big difference.” 

Hupp worked closely with her female primary investigator – the person in a lab who oversees grant funding and experimental research – in graduate school. There wasn’t a lot of grant money for the lab, so Hupp worked as a teaching assistant in general chemistry courses. In her second year, she was in one of the analytical labs interacting with students, working with instruments and collecting data. “That’s when it clicked with me,” Hupp said of her desire to conduct research and teach. 

Female chemistry professor stands in front of a smart board pointing to data sets.
Amber Hupp, associate professor of chemistry and department chair, talks about the chemical makeup of various bodies of water.
Female chemistry professor stands at front of class.
Amber Hupp, associate professor of chemistry and department chair, speaks to students in her class.

Upon graduation, she remained in education with the goal of continuing her research and simultaneously teaching the next generation of chemists. Over the past decade, she’s noticed that the movement to increase women in chemistry has picked up momentum and is working. Hupp said the Holy Cross chemistry department has been working to increase diversity within its student body. More women and diverse faculty teach introductory courses and they are retaining more women and students from historically marginalized backgrounds throughout the upper-level courses. At the end of the academic year, the women faculty host a lunch for female students as an opportunity to talk about what it is like to be a woman in the field and answer questions. Last year, no female students attended.

“The young women who are coming through now don’t recognize that there is an issue,” she said. “When you look around, it wasn’t that long ago that we had very few women in the sciences and saw a significant drop off at [third-year] courses. Now, we’re at about 70 percent women in the major.” 

Now, as scientists, we need to recognize that our own scholarship and view of science can be broader than we imagined it would be.

Julia Paxson, DVM, associate professor of biology

Encouraging future women in science

Chakdar, Paxson, Avila-Bront, Sculimbrene and Hupp are optimistic about the future for women in science and think it’s a profoundly exciting time.

“This is an extremely good time to come into science,” Chakdar said. “The generations of women before you have gone through and have helped to make a path. They will support you.” Chakdar added she is already seeing the change in her female students’ perspective: “More young women want to come into the field and they are bringing their creativity and brilliance.”

Female chemistry professor works with students at a computer in her lab.
Gabriela Avila-Bront, associate professor of chemistry, works with students in her lab.

As more women enter scientific fields, particularly those still lacking female representation, they bring diverse voices and will continue to influence scientific thought, approach and the basic structure of the fields, the women said. 

“Even slight increases in diverse voices in the sciences will invite more diversity and inclusivity,” Hupp said.

Paxson noted she is already seeing the changes in developmental biology: “Where I see science going now is really breaking out of those traditional Western dogma boundaries and recognizing that there are many different ways of doing science and seeing science. We are thinking more globally about who we listen to, who we embrace and who we consider to be scientists. Now, as scientists, we need to recognize that our own scholarship and view of science can be broader than we imagined it would be.”

Encouraging students through role modeling, allowing them to see strong female faculty, is part of inspiring future women in science, the women said. 

Two female biology students work on an experiment under a lab hood.
Heather Paglia ‘25 (front) works with Gianna McPartland ’25 on summer research in the lab of Julia Paxson, associate professor of biology.

“We are leaders, we are teachers, and we are scholars. I can role-model that for my students. I hope I do that in my classroom and feel it more strongly in my research lab,” Paxson said.  

The career path in science can be linear or full of zig-zags. Chakdar, Paxson, Sculimbrene and Hupp see part of their role as guides to help students figure out which is the best path for them.

“It feels amazing to finally be at a stage that I can support other women, give them confidence and share my life experiences with them,” said Chakdar, who advises the women in physics student organization at Holy Cross. For the past few years, she has brought a group of up to 10 female students with her to various American Physical Society national conferences to present research and interact with other physicists. 

“They want to do research and have that confidence to present at a national level. I am actively working to make the field more inclusive. The pipeline still leaks but it is becoming easier to navigate,” she said.