Training the Next Generation of Women Scientists

In a small room on the sub-level of the Fisheries Teaching and Research Building, families and friends crowd together, not unlike the countless jars of fish that pack the nearby shelves. In the center of the room is a table arranged with colorful posters and a group of girls who are excitedly answering questions. The eager onlookers are here to support their students, daughters, and friends, who are taking part in the Burke Museum’s Girls in Science (GiS) program. This science-fair style celebration is an opportunity for this quarter’s group of high school girls to present their findings after a rigorous six-week course where they identified “new” species.

High school presenting their science posters
High school girls present their posters on the final day of the Girls in Science program

GiS places pre-teen and teen girls in labs and classrooms across the University of Washington campus, where they work side-by-side with each other and with female scientists and students in a number of STEM fields.

“Though we are still far from overcoming the gender gap in STEM fields, you wouldn’t know it by looking around the room,” says Andy Clark, Youth and Family Programs Manager at the Burke Museum. “That’s really the point of this program—to help expand students’ vision of what science can look like and to make sure that vision includes them.”

Throughout the program, the girls gain familiarity with scientific disciplines, processes, vocabulary, and equipment, while also building connections and mentorships with women in active research positions. GiS gives them an expanded sense of their intellectual and professional possibilities and begins to teach them the skills needed to make those possibilities a reality.

This quarter’s group explored the Burke Museum Ichthyology Collection with Katherine Maslenikov, the collection manager, and undergraduate and graduate students from the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (SAFS). The largest of its kind in North America, the collection provides a wealth of strange and fascinating specimens to examine and is an ideal place for scientific discovery.

“This is the third time we have taught the Girls in Science program in the Fish Collection, and it has been such a wonderful experience,” said Maslenikov. “I think the best part for me is watching our SAFS undergrad and graduate students mentoring the high school girls. Our undergrads are only a few years older than the students, so watching them get to share their knowledge and enthusiasm for our field is really inspiring.”

For their project this quarter, the girls were first assigned a preserved fish specimen at random, with all labels and markings removed from the jar. They were then tasked with analyzing it as if it was a newly discovered species, locating two similar fish within its genus from the collection, and even renaming their specimen based on their findings. SAFS students helped the girls throughout the process and showed them how to navigate the collection, handle the preserved fish, and use various scientific instruments.

One of the high school students carefully measuring her fish specimen
One of the high school students carefully measuring her fish specimen

Over the course of six sessions, the girls (divided into groups of three) collected their own data by examining the various features of their fishes. Using microscopes and digital calipers, they measured fin length and counted spines and rays. Based on their observations, the groups “renamed” their species after each fish’s distinguishing features. One group’s specimen was aptly “renamed” Pholis lunae or the crescent moon gumel. The girls were able to identify its correct genus (Pholis) and gave it the specific name lunae, which means “crescent moon” in Latin, due to the crescent moon shapes that run along its spine.

“It was awesome to see how every little intricate detail on a fish has meaning,” one girl said. “Every random idiosyncrasy has some evolutionary point to it, and fish are constantly keeping themselves up to date to survive in their oceanic or freshwater environments.”

When it came time to present their findings, the aspiring scientists made research posters, which included a full write-up—from introduction to acknowledgements. They even practiced their art skills by illustrating the key morphological differences between their species. Parents and friends in attendance were given a special tour of the Fish Collection by the program’s student instructors.

“We ask a lot of them in a short amount of time, but they were engaged, focused, and enthusiastic during every class session,” said Maslenikov. “I’m so proud of what they accomplished, and I hope this experience allows them to move forward with confidence as they pursue their interest in the sciences.”

Instructor Katherine Maslenikov  works with a high school girl who is holding a  preserved fish specimen
Katherine Maslenikov works with a student who is handling a preserved fish specimen.

The GiS program has proven to have a lasting impact on the high school girls who participate— they gain increased confidence, particularly in their ability to do science and speak publicly, and they often go on to [MOU3] pursue additional topics in STEM through volunteer and internship opportunities in fields like biology and medicine. Some girls have even enrolled multiple times in the program in order to experience different lessons and different scientific fields.

“Program alumnae often describe GiS with words like optimistic, ready, confident, and excited—which is exactly how I feel about the future of STEM with these capable young women at the helm,” says Clark.

At the end of the event, as the students broke down their displays, one girl shared what the GiS experience meant to her: “It was awesome to see women doing this exceptional work, and it made me think I can too—I want to be a marine biologist.”

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If you or someone you know would be interested in applying for the next Girls in Science session please visit our website at https://www.burkemuseum.org/programs/girls-in-science. To learn more about the Burke Museum Ichthyology Collection please visit http://www.burkemuseum.org/research-and-collections/ichthyology or contact Katherine Maslenikov at pearsonk@uw.edu

Special thanks to this quarter’s student instructors: Jennifer Gardner, Master’s student with the Tornabene Lab; Jena Barrett, SAFS senior; Katlyn Fuentes, SAFS graduate (fall quarter); and Sarah Yerrace, SAFS graduate (winter quarter).

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