Grad Cohort Shows Surge in Women Chemists

By Wendy Plump
Monday, May. 18, 2020

The Department of Chemistry has admitted its highest percentage of women graduate students in at least a decade, at 60% of the incoming 2020-2021 class. The number reflects a particularly strong field of chemists, raising hopes that the presence of women in STEM in general and chemistry in particular has entered a new era.

Some of the women in the Department of Chemistry, Princeton University
The incoming women graduate students will join a strong cadre of women grad students and staffers already here at Frick Laboratory. Photo taken pre-lockdown on March 6, 2020 to mark International Women's Day.
Photo by C. Todd Reichart

Inclusivity staffers at the university and department levels say there has been a concerted effort to elevate marketing to diverse groups of students over the past few years. Yet they cannot pinpoint any single factor that accounts for the sudden uptick. In recent years, incoming women have comprised between just 33% and 38% of the Department’s graduate cohorts.

Recent data from the American Chemical Society indicates that female-identified chemists earn bachelor’s degrees at nearly the same rate as male-identified chemists, but that they are increasingly underrepresented at each subsequent degree stage. So this cohort sets a new high-water mark of incoming women grad students.

“Gender diversity is something we want to improve on, and it’s always part of our consideration,” said Director of Graduate Studies Robert Knowles, professor of chemistry. “But from my point of view, this year these were just the strongest applicants.

“It’s a complex decision these applicants make,” he added. “It’s scientific and geographic and personal, and a lot of it is having a positive interaction with a potential advisor. I would say that’s a major driver when students make these decisions, and that is what’s ultimately going to determine 99% of your graduate experience.”

Comments from several incoming women bear out his assessment. Angela Lin, an undergraduate from Yale University, said she was drawn to Princeton by the obvious sense of community she experienced during the visiting weekends the Department was able to hold this year.

“The professors I conversed with were amiable and supportive in that regard,” said Lin. “They seemed like they cared not only about research, but also my personal and professional development. It was also the only institution I visited in which I could picture myself working with multiple PIs.”

Lin, who attended several public high schools in Manhattan, said she had always been well supported as a young scientist. She found the inclusive atmosphere of her earlier years mirrored at Frick Laboratory.

Brianna Hoff, who hails from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, saw gender working both for women and against men during her undergraduate career, a reality she did not endorse. What she liked best about Princeton, she said, was that the focus during her visit was on the chemistry and the resources available to graduate students, and that diversity was not used as a selling point.

“The research was fascinating, and all the professors were passionate about what they did,” said Hoff. “Most importantly, the people at Princeton University were very welcoming and had only good things to say about their lab, their PIs, other PIs, and their research.”

Debra Keiser said she already feels at home in the Department, but that some of this has to do with the encouragement she received as a woman scientist at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

“Even at my undergraduate institution, there was a large emphasis placed on the advancement of gender equity, particularly through the ‘HeForShe’ campaign,” she said. “Reflecting on my time as an undergraduate, I have found that the unrelenting support of my professors and peers, both male and female, played a significant role in my choosing to confidently pursue research in chemistry.”

Cherish Nie, who earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, said she believes gender and ethnic diversity are likely to keep increasing in STEM fields because society has for years been pushing back against stereotypes and traditional gender roles.

“I honestly think every school I visited did a great job at being welcoming and friendly. I felt like I was treated equally with the rest of the prospective students and that in itself I find very encouraging,” said Nie.

“The professors I interacted with cared more about my interest in their chemistry and getting to know me than my gender,” she added, “which I think is how things should be.”