For women in science, ‘cheerleaders’ are essential | Duke Kunshan University

For women in science, ‘cheerleaders’ are essential

June 6, 2019


Marcia France, inaugural dean of undergraduate studies

In the 1940s, philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir released her seminal work “The Second Sex,” in which she described the obstacles facing women and girls in society. “Man’s gods are in such a faraway heaven that in truth, for him, there are no gods,” she wrote. “The little girl lives among gods with a human face.”

Duke Kunshan’s inspiring female scholars, who include Ph.D. holders, scientists and professors with years of dedicated research in medicine, physics, mathematics, the environment, history, materials science or economics, have achieved remarkable successes.

Yet there were no shortage of encounters with “gods with a human face” along the way. Each woman has faced prejudice from those who would dictate what women should learn, but they marched on and overcame the belittling comments and occasional self-doubt.

These scholars stress the importance of the “cheerleaders” who encouraged and supported them on their journey, and in turn, are determined to be cheerleaders for their own female students.

After studying with an “incredible” science teacher at high school, Marcia France, the inaugural dean of undergraduate studies at Duke Kunshan, set her heart on pursuing chemistry at college. In 1988, she joined a research program led by Barry Sharpless, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in chemistry, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

However, as one of only two women in the lab, she began to experience a crisis of confidence: “I’d ask myself, ‘Can I really do this? Is this a good choice?’” she said.

Her female classmate quickly helped change her mind. “She was very capable. I’d see her in the lab, getting things done and talking very confidently with male postgraduates and postdocs. Watching her made me think, ‘That’s what I want to be.’”

France, who went on to earn a master’s from Yale University and a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), said her parents were her biggest cheerleaders.

“When I wanted to go to MIT, it was certainly a challenge in terms of the financing,” she recalled. “But I remember sitting down with my father. We were looking at some schools that were less expensive and he said, ‘We know you worked so hard all through high school to have these opportunities. I can make this work. Just pick the right place for you.’

“My parents always joked that they never understood what I did. My mom said the only word in the title of my Ph.D. thesis that she understood was ‘of.’ But she still displayed a copy on her bookshelf at home.”


Haiyan Gao, inaugural vice chancellor for academic affairs

Haiyan Gao, Duke Kunshan’s inaugural vice chancellor for academic affairs, also considers herself lucky when she thinks of her childhood. She said no one ever made her feel inferior for being a girl or told her what she could or couldn’t study.

“My parents were both educated. My mother studied engineering and my father humanities. From their two daughters, I became a scientist and my sister is an engineer,” said Gao, who is also the Henry Newson Professor of Physics at Duke University. “My parents always encouraged me. They told me stories of two people, Chien-Shiung Wu and Marie Curie, and asked me to follow their example.”

Wu was a female Chinese-American physicist who made significant contributions to the field of nuclear physics, while Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize – and the first person to win twice.

Using these figures for inspiration, Gao received a bachelor’s in physics from Tsinghua University and got a Ph.D. at Caltech in 1994. She conducted postdoc research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before joining the Argonne National Laboratory and then taking up a tenure-track faculty position at MIT. She joined Duke’s Physics Department in 2002.

“Young people should be encouraged and nurtured to discover and pursue their academic passion, whether it’s in the sciences, humanities or social sciences,” she said.

However, even today, girls are still constrained by gender stereotypes and are often discouraged from pursuing an education in the sciences, she added. “By winning the 2018 Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry, Donna Strickland and Francis Arnold sent a powerful message to young women worldwide that they can do anything they put their heart and mind into.”

Katherine Robertson, director of faculty affairs and adjunct associate professor of biology at Duke Kunshan, knows exactly what it’s like to be discouraged at an early age.

Growing up in the English countryside, she developed an interest in animals and nature as a child. By the time she was choosing what to study at university, biology was her No. 1 choice. “I felt I was good at it, and I’d been encouraged by my biology teacher,” she said.

But it could have been a very different story. At high school, Robertson struggled in her physics class, so her mother arranged to meet with the teacher to discuss her problems. “Instead of offering me help, he said I should just quit physics,” she said.

She followed the advice and devoted more energy to biology, but “I don’t know what he was thinking. My difficulties in physics could have been conquered if I’d been encouraged to work harder. He gave up on me too quickly.”

Robertson, who has a master’s and a Ph.D. from the University of London, said she has found it quite common that girls are not strongly supported to study the sciences.

“If a girl is good at physics, she’ll probably be encouraged,” she said. “But if she is struggling a little bit, it’s easy for people around her to say, ‘Well, do something else.’ I don’t regret my decision to take biology, because I love it. But some other women who could have been good at physics may have given up their dream due to the type of discouragement I experienced. Sometimes people don’t excel in a particular field until they get to college. I think giving up at high school is too early.”

Building self-confidence

After making great strides in their own careers, the female scholars at Duke Kunshan feel it is their responsibility now to support other women.

Gao, who started giving lectures at her son’s school every year after he entered fifth grade, wants children to see from an early age that both men and women can be scientists.

Giving girls female role models can raise their expectations and reduce self-doubt, she said, adding that it is also important to point out that universities are now promoting diversity among their faculty by recruiting female academics.

Duke Kunshan boasts a wealth of outstanding female professors and Ph.D. holders. Youmei Feng, the university’s chancellor, is an experienced professor of health studies, while other leading female faculty include Lijing Yan, associate professor of global health; Binbin Li, assistant professor of environmental science; Yu Wang, assistant professor of sociology; Selina Lai-Henderson, assistant professor of American literature and history; and Titas Chakraborty, assistant professor of history.

The university staff also has many accomplished female administrators, such as Ph.D. holders Hui Li, senior adviser to the chancellors for partner and external relations; Helen Xu, the university librarian; Cindy Li, director of Chancellor’s Office; and Shuyi Wang, director of graduate programs and recruitment.

While at Washington and Lee University, where she served as associate provost before joining Duke Kunshan, France was part of a group of female science faculty who would regularly meet to discuss their female students and gender differences in the classroom. She said they spent a lot of time discussing how to help girls build self-confidence and excel in research.

Zhe Liu, associate professor of mathematics, used to teach at the University of Pennsylvania. During office hours, she said female students often came for advice on whether they should quit her class.


Katherine Robertson, director of faculty affairs and adjunct associate professor of biology

“My students came from a variety of majors including law, engineering, business and social sciences. Sometimes when I met them after they had completed my course, they would tell me how grateful they were that I advised them to take more math courses, even when they weren’t required for their major,” she said. “Once a student told me she found many questions in her Google interview were either related to mathematics or just straightforward math problems.

“I encourage students to learn more mathematics if time and conditions allow, not be put off by the so-called ‘math phobia’ myth. You don’t need to become a mastermind. Analysis, logic, space and models are everywhere in our lives. Don’t say goodbye to math too soon.”

Robertson added that good teachers stoke their students’ interest, not dampen them.

“I lived and taught in the U.S. for 20 years. In the U.S., there is a nationwide campaign to encourage girls in schools to do STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) and to encourage school teachers to be more positive toward girls,” she said. “At Duke Kunshan, we also encourage faculty to reach out to girls who might be interested in physics, math and engineering and computer science. It will bring them more opportunities in the future.”

Duke Kunshan’s female scientists are committed to busting the gender stereotypes and other obstacles that can often block a young woman’s chosen career path, to ensure she can learn and fulfill her full potential.

“It’s really important that all girls have someone to be their cheerleader,” France added. “Someone who can inspire them by saying, ‘You can be whatever you want to be. The sky is the limit.’”