What is it About HPA That Fosters Success Among Women in Science and Technology?

By Kate Sensenig '16

In 1939, Lise Meitner calculated the energy released in a reaction she later named "nuclear fission." In 1944, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to her male partner, Otto Hahn. In 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell's discovery of pulsars (remnants of massive supernova stars) resulted in a Nobel Prize in Physics -- awarded to her supervisor, Anthony Hewish.

It is well known that a glass ceiling exists for women in science and technology. For centuries, women working in this field have had to endure double standards, discrimination and a general lack of appreciation for their work, simply because they are female.

In recent years, cracks have started to show in the glass ceiling as women have increasingly been recognized for achievements in STEM. HPA is no exception: in the last five years, the National Center for Women and Informational Technology (NCWIT) has given the Award for Aspirations in Computing to a female student at HPA. This success is the result of our students' curiosity and grit combined with the support and enthusiasm of our faculty.

In 2018 Zoe McGinnis '18 was awarded the NCWIT honor along with Nissi Ragland '21, Brianna Ryan '20, and Jacqueline Payne '19. A two-time award winner (she also won the award in 2017), Zoe credits her physics teacher, Mr. Bleckel. "His class completely changed my outlook on math and science; he sparked in me a fascination ... showing me how seemingly abstract mathematical concepts could be applied to the world around me. More importantly, he helped me to realize that I could excel." Two years later, McGinnis is thriving in AP Calculus, AP Statistics, Independent Science Research, and AP Physics C. She plans to pursue a career in computer engineering at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in the fall.

Another NCWIT award winner, Erin Evans '16, worked with Alice Patig '16, Sydney Cooper '16, and Savannah Cochran '16, partnering with the NASA habitat, a live Mars simulation on the slopes of Mauna Loa. They helped to organize the Mars habitat's sensors, creating dashboards that both the researchers in the habitat and NASA can use for simulating life on Mars, and working with scientists to study solar flares and develop habitat simulations.

"One of the things you are going to notice about the projects here is that the youth are basically fearless," says Energy Lab Director, Dr. Bill Wiecking. "They don't know they can't do something so they just persist and make it work."

Remarkably for HPA , McGinnis and another HPA student, Janelle Laros '17 were the 2017 NCWIT award recipients, they joined Evans '16, along with Erina Baudat '15, Hannah Twigg-Smith '14, and Mariko Thorbecke '13.

So what is it about HPA that fosters this kind of success among women in science and technology? The answer is, overwhelmingly, the HPA community and the incredible resources it provides.

One of these resources is HPA's newest, most innovative, and net energy positive sustainable building -- the Energy Lab. For many students, the Energy Lab is one of the most interesting and exciting places to be on campus. But for the students who spend a majority of their school day learning and working there, it's almost like a second home.

"It was the go-to place for me," says Baudat. "It was just like my house.

Discover Opportunities at the Energy Lab

But the Energy Lab is not the only place on campus where exciting things are happening for young women in science and technology. Hana Haitsuka '16, and Keanna Lundy '16 were hard at work in their independent biotechnology research courses. Haitsuka had worked on a project where she had isolated the DNA of the coqui frog in order to quantify a certain gene within its sequence. Lundy had been doing a similar project where she worked to sequence the DNA of a sweet potato.

And that glass ceiling everyone keeps talking about? At HPA, it just does not seem to be on people's minds. "We're not looking for it, so we're not creating it," says Stephanie McDowell, a biology teacher, and Haitsuka and Lundy's supervisor. "There never was one here and then...collaborating prevents a glass ceiling from ever being constructed in the first place."

Unfortunately, as Twigg-Smith has discovered as an Engineering and Computing major navigating Boston's computer programming hackathons, while there are some cracks, the glass ceiling is very much a reality outside of HPA.

"It's great that HPA and the school that I go to [Olin College], don't have this horrible gender ratio [in the sciences] that most places do, but it's not how the real world is, and I want that to change so much.