Students Draw on Women in Science Fund to Foster a Sense of Community

June 6, 2015 – Chopsticks flashed and plates clattered as employees prepared for a busy afternoon at Yusho in Hyde Park. That afternoon, the cozy Japanese restaurant welcomed thirty young female scientists from the Physical Sciences Division (PSD) and the Institute for Molecular Engineering (IME) at the University of Chicago.

The dinner was organized to foster bonds among women from a range of roles in the sciences, including academic administration. “It was encouraging to meet other women in the sciences,” said Nicole James, a PhD candidate in the Chemistry Department. “It helped build a feeling of community in what can at times feel like an isolating environment. It really was a social: it was a well-planned, well-executed opportunity to meet and talk to people you didn’t know.”

Participants found their assigned seats—no one was allowed to sit next to someone she already knew. “The conversation opened up easily between us,” said Becca Thompson, a chemist in the second year of her PhD. “There is so much more to graduate school than just your time in a lab, so having a community of women to engage with on everything from favorite TV shows to career development is incredibly cool.”

Most participants were doctoral or master’s students who, like Thompson, regularly put in hours at a laboratory, but some members of the group came from careers outside of research. One of the event’s organizers - Emily Easton, Associate Dean of Students - in the PSD, brought a professional’s perspective to the table.

“You can’t overestimate the effect that an event like this can have on your career,” she said. “Making social connections with people in your field helps you to build a professional network, and that is essential, so we’re fortunate that the Bernstein Fund made it possible to host this kind of event.”

Easton referred to the Elaine K. Bernstein Fund for Women in Science that provided the funding for the dinner. In 2005, Carol Bernstein, an executive at Cabot Microelectronics, established the Fund in memory of her late mother Elaine. For a decade now, the Fund has created opportunities for women in the sciences at the University of Chicago. “The Bernstein Fund for Women in Science is our family's small way of aiding in the overall effort and honoring my mother,” explains Bernstein. “While my mother had mentors at various educational institutions along the way, both male and female, scientist and non-, we were confident that the University of Chicago's Physical Sciences Division was the optimal place for the Fund, and we look forward to continuing to grow it over time.” 

The Fund’s namesake, Elaine Katz Bernstein came to UChicago in 1942. When she joined the PhD program in biochemistry – at the age of 21 – she already had two Master’s degrees completed. During her graduate studies, she was recruited to participate in the Manhattan Project. Her work on the hemolytic effects of radiation established safety standards for human plutonium exposure in Metallurgical Laboratory, but like many of the women who worked at “Met Lab,” her contribution has been largely overlooked in official histories.

After World War II, Dr. Bernstein continued to research the effects of radiation at Argonne National Laboratory. Carol Bernstein remembers that her mother “had a close circle of female friends who were also scientists.” These women pursued careers that led them “with or without husbands, to various parts of academia and the national science constellation after the war—Berkeley, Livermore, Oak Ridge, Brookhaven. They remained her close friends throughout her life. They knew they had experienced a unique opportunity during this special period.”

Dr. Bernstein’s firsthand experience of inequality in the scientific community fostered within her a vision for a more inclusive future. According to the National Science Foundation, participation by underrepresented groups in STEM fields has been improving since the early 1990’s. However, in certain areas—math, statistics, and computer science—representation has fallen at some or all degree levels, and has fallen the most among women.

In the spirit of Dr. Bernstein, the Physical Sciences Division is working to improve those numbers. In 2015, the Bernstein Fund enabled the Division to offer the Elaine K. Bernstein Women in Science Award to recruit four top female scholars to the Chemistry and Statistics PhD programs. The Division is always working to ensure that none of its female graduate students is alone in challenging stereotypes and claiming space for women in science. A mealtime conversation – perhaps over a bowl of ramen – can go a long way in fostering a sense of community. Thanks to the generosity of the Bernstein family, Elaine K. Bernstein’s legacy will foster solidarity and friendship among female scientists at UChicago for many years to come.

To learn more about this important program, including opportunities for additional support for Women in Science, please contact: 

Bill Lynerd    
Director of Development