Schmittmann encourages women to join sciences

Danielle Ferguson

In the first of a six part lecture series put on by the Government of the Student Body, Beate Schmittmann, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, explained what she has experienced while thriving as a woman in the science world, a field dominated primarily by males. 

“Choosing science for me was a long road,” Schmittmann said. “I enjoyed math … but math was a little bit too far from the real world for me, so I took the next best corner of science, which was physics.”

Schmittmann saw physics as a challenge and wanted to do something a bit out of the usual for girls. While attending Heinrich, Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany, there were only six or seven women in a physics lecture of 125. A professor of Schmittmann’s, in fact, voiced a few female-oriented blonde jokes. These odds were no match for Schmittmann. She was the only woman in the graduate student prospects at the time and then later was the only female in the graduate program.

“There was typically only one woman per generation besides the secretaries,” Schmittmann said. “I decided I wasn’t going to worry about whether I was going to get a job in academia or not. I was [going to] go for it. … I was going to do whatever it takes.”

Schmittmann worked as a faculty member at Virginia Tech starting in 1991 and moved up to a position as a department chair in 2006. Through her efforts, Schmittmann increased the number of undergraduates from 112 to more than 200 from 2006 to 2011, also increasing the number of graduate students from 55 to 75.

Despite this vast advance in women participating in the sciences there is still a large gap difference in genders. Even last year, a large difference in the male-to-female ratio was noted.

“I walked into my physics lecture and there were only nine girls. There were about 200 people in the lecture hall,” said Erin Jackson, sophomore in meterology.

A first year peer mentor in the Women in Science and Engineering program at Iowa State, Jackson saw it as a challenge to “beat the boys.”

“It made me more determined to do well and do better,” Jackson said. “I like the intimidation factor.”

Schmittmann encourages women to give the sciences a try, despite the challenges that women may face.

“Just do it. You have to stick with it,” Schmittmann said. “Find a good community of people who are supportive and appreciate who you are and what you are trying to do.”