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06/10/2005 07:00:00

All-Female Chemical Engineering Graduating Class at Caltech This Year

PASADENA, Calif.-"I am not a novelty. . . It is not amazing that girls are engineers-it's normal," says Victoria Loewer, a member of the class of 2005 at the California Institute of Technology. Loewer is referring to the fact that she is a member of the first all-female chemical engineering graduating class at Caltech, a significant milestone in the history of the Institute.

This graduating class reflects a change in today's scientific, technological, and academic environments. More than 30 percent of the undergraduate students now attending Caltech are female.

Loewer is joined by Maryam Ali, Michelle Giron, Haluna Gunterman, Shannon Lewis, and Joan Karen Sum Ping. And these graduates do not see their unprecedented accomplishment as anything special.

Gunterman, from Placerville, was a little put off by the attention placed on the students' gender. She says, "I doubt if any of us thought much about sitting in chemical engineering classes that were 100 percent female as opposed to 35 percent for most other courses; it felt no different. Ironically, this may have been true especially because we are at Caltech, where the gender stereotype of women not being in science fields is turned on its head; hence, there were no preconceived notions about what we-as students admitted by the same standards-could or could not do. And while we may think nothing of it, there is some fun in being able to see people's shocked expressions when they hear of a 100 percent female graduating class, in [chemical] engineering of all majors, at Caltech of all places." Gunterman intends to pursue a PhD in chemical engineering at UC Berkeley this fall.

Loewer, from Arlington, Virginia, who took the environmental engineering track as a Caltech chemical engineering undergraduate, is contemplating focusing on materials when she enters the chemical engineering PhD program at MIT in the fall.

Maryam Ali is from Islamabad, Pakistan. Her area of interest is biomaterials. She plans to attend graduate school in chemical engineering at Auburn University.

Michelle Giron, from Los Angeles, is particularly interested in materials. She plans on attending Cornell University to pursue a PhD in chemical engineering.

Hailing from Alexandria, Virginia, Shannon Lewis focused on materials while at Caltech. Lewis will enter the PhD program in materials science and engineering at the University of Texas at Austin in the coming year.

Joan Karen Sum Ping is from Tombeau Bay, Mauritius. At Caltech as a chemical engineering undergraduate, she took the environmental engineering track. She plans to pursue a JD at George Washington University Law School.

The executive officer for chemical engineering, McCollum-Corcoran Professor of Chemical Engineering and professor of environmental science and engineering Richard Flagan, says, "This is the first group of Caltech students to graduate under a revised chemical engineering curriculum that was designed to be more responsive to increasing job diversity in industry, and allowed students to emphasize one of the many different areas in which chemical engineers are now working. Today's chemical engineers are no longer just involved in fuels or chemicals processing; their jobs now include environmental engineering, materials, biochemistry, microelectronics, consulting on Wall Street, and working in corporate law firms. We broadened and diversified the chemical engineering curriculum at Caltech, and have attracted women into a profession that was previously male dominated; this group of graduates is significant in the sense that it shows that we are making progress and have finally turned the corner in bringing women into a discipline that, heretofore, has had relatively small numbers of women. We are extremely proud of these students."

And while the current number of women in science still may not be adequate, it is significantly increasing. According to the U.S. Department of Education, as of 2003, the U.S. population is 50.8 percent female, with more than 56 percent of all undergraduate students being women. And according to the same data, in 1970 the percentage of bachelor's degrees conferred on females in engineering was 1 percent; as of 2001, the percentage was 20 percent. In the physical sciences in 1970, 14 percent of bachelor's degrees were conferred on females; in 2001, the percentage increased to 41 percent. In 1970, 37 percent of mathematics degrees went to women; in 2001, 48 percent. And in computer and information science, women earned 13 percent of the degrees in 1970, and 28 percent in 2001. (Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2004.)

The Caltech Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering describes its discipline as "the science of change," and says that chemists and chemical engineers are involved not just in understanding, but in changing the material world around us. These words could also describe the impact of this graduating class

Written by Deborah Williams-Hedges