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Qais Akbar Omar (GRS’16), a graduate student in the Creative Writing Program, has published a much-praised memoir, A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story. He recalls how the violence and tumult of civil war jolted his family, who, despite losing relatives, their home, and possessions, continued to nurture his wish to attend a university.

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Pushing Boundaries for Women in Science

May 2nd, 2013

By Jeremy Schwab

Five years in the work world doing software development and project management taught Danna Gurari the importance of having a good mentor. The third-year computer science Ph.D. candidate struggled to find a willing mentor with a sympatico personality—a challenge for anyone, but especially for a woman in a male-dominated field.

“I realized when working in the industry the importance of having a female mentor,” she says. “There were not a lot of women mentors. When you have a diversity of mentors, you can see different paths that you can take.”

She says she chose BU because GRS had a number of female computer science faculty members—something not every CS graduate program can say. “I feel very lucky to have found the mentor I did: Margrit Betke,” she says.

Not only did Gurari receive advice and encouragement from Professor Betke, but she also found at BU a group of women graduate students whose mission is to help each other prepare for science and engineering careers. The group is called Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GWISE), and it provides year-round advice, networking and social opportunities for female graduate students at BU in these fields.

Since learning about the group, Gurari has become heavily involved in GWISE, participating in a workshop on how to write fellowship applications, listening to visiting speakers talk about the challenges faced by women in science, and eventually becoming a program officer. “Basically, I think GWISE is just this young, really flexible framework where people can come in with an opinion and make something happen,” she says.

Photo from 2012 GWISE Fall Luncheon.  Top: Allison Squires, Limor Eger, Rachel Stewart, Michelle Stolzoff, Meredith Danowski, Dr. Karen Panetta (speaker), Christine Bassem.  Middle: Lauren Mangano, Elise Heiss, Kira Sullivan-Wiley.  Bottom: Theodora Brisimi, Danna Gurari, Liz Peruski

Photo from 2012 GWISE Fall Luncheon. Top: Allison Squires, Limor Eger, Rachel Stewart, Michelle Stolzoff, Meredith Danowski, Dr. Karen Panetta (speaker), Christine Bassem. Middle: Lauren Mangano, Elise Heiss, Kira Sullivan-Wiley. Bottom: Theodora Brisimi, Danna Gurari, Liz Peruski

GWISE President Lauren Mangano believes one of the biggest benefits of taking part in the four-year-old group is being exposed to women outside of one’s own narrow field. “It’s a way to connect with other grad students outside your lab or department,” says Mangano, a second-year biomedical engineering Ph.D. candidate. “You are often very focused within your department, so we host two-to-three social events per semester.”

These events include the book club, a workout group, a mothers’ group, an annual summer ice cream social, and other fun outings. The group—which has an annual budget of $25,000 provided by ENG, GRS, and the Provost’s office and is run by both GRS and ENG students—also hosts a wide range of professional development talks and workshops throughout the year. Recent events include a panel of BU professors discussing success strategies for beating the “grad school slump”; a series of career workshops run by GWISE advisory council member Sarah Cardozo Duncan; and a talk by Dr. Connie Chow, executive director of the Science Club for Girls, about how women must claim a seat at the table in order to be represented in important public discussions about science. Over 300 people came to GWISE events last year.

In addition to these events, GWISE members give back through a science club for girls that they run at a local afterschool program in Allston called the West End House. They also work with the University administration on policies related to graduate students and women at BU.

Faculty members and administrators give GWISE strong support through the group’s advisory council. CAS Professor of Astronomy Andrew West is GWISE’s main advisor, providing help and guidance. The group formed to meet the need felt by many BU women graduate students for career development and mutual support in science and math-related fields.

Mangano lists the challenges facing women entering math and science fields. First, the impostor syndrome: the idea that if you are successful in these male-dominated fields it is because you just got lucky, and you don’t belong. Second, the dearth of role models and mentors because there are not enough women in many scientific fields. Third, for graduate students and professionals who become mothers, leave time can be inadequate and affording childcare and maintaining work-life balance can be very difficult.

“I feel like there is a lot of support here for women in science,” she says. “We’ve developed a good community. And as our proportion increases in these fields, there will be more opportunities for women role models in the future.”

Past GWISE President Meredith Danowski says that the most important benefit of GWISE is the supportive community its members have built. “One of the key factors in my success thus far has been that when I have been the only woman on the team, or in my class, I have reached out to other women to form a supportive group,” Danowski, an astronomy Ph.D. candidate, told Women in Engineering magazine recently. “In undergrad, there wasn’t a group of women in my department—so a few of us got together and started one. In grad school, there wasn’t a group when I got here, but when I heard people talking about starting one, I jumped in to get involved. Being a part of these communities has enriched my time in school in a way I couldn’t have imagined. My fellow officers have become lifelong friends, and they support me through thick and thin. Getting together to celebrate each other’s successes makes everything that much sweeter.”

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