Princeton astrophysicist defies stereotypes

By Doris Rodriguez
Miami, Fla.

If there’s one thing Jenny Greene knew when she entered college it was that she did not want to be a scientist.

When Greene started at Yale she immersed herself in the humanities, but come March she was utterly bored. After taking an astronomy course, she was hooked. She realized that the philosophical questions of the world just weren’t for her. Nineteen years later, she is an assistant professor of astrophysics at Princeton University. Here, she studies “supermassive black holes and the universe they live in.”

In the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), men grossly outnumber women. Students are usually exposed to only male role models as scientists. According to the American Astronomical Society the male to female ratio in astronomy for those under 30 is 3:1 and for those over 40 it is 12:1. The result of this is that girls tend to picture scientists as males. This has discouraged them from considering STEM fields, not because they are less interested but because they don’t fit this image. Greene, on the other hand, is an exception to the rule, and her unique childhood may hold clues to overcoming what is known as “stereotype threat.”

She is one of two tenured female professors among the 15 in her department. Though she is 36 years old, Greene says she only relatively recently “noticed in an uncomfortable way that I was the only woman in the room.”

Perhaps that is because she was raised in a gender-blind household with two biologists as parents, Greene says she practically “grew up in the lab” and that “my parents basically raised me a scientist whether I liked it or not.”

After graduating from Yale, Greene worked for a short time in a museum in New York. She knew she wanted more, however. She earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy from Harvard because she “liked doing research.” Since then, she’s used astrophysics to empirically answer the questions she has about the universe.

Greene is a naturally curious person. She currently studies supermassive black holes that have millions of suns and are in the middle of the galaxy. The questions that plague her mind are: “Why are they so common in galaxies? Which came first — the galaxy or the hole? And how did they form in the first place?”

Many women start out with similar curiosities, and even though research illustrates that one’s competence in the sciences is not gender related, women continue to be underrepresented in STEM.

One reason for this may be the prevailing view that STEM professionals are typically men.

Coined in 1995, “stereotype threat” is a situation in which people risk confirming negative stereotypes about the social group to which they belong.

The Princeton Summer Journal asked young women about their image of a scientist. The answers overwhelmingly leaned male.

Adwoa Addo, 19, is a freshman at the Community College of Philadelphia. Her only real exposure to scientists is from the media. She never met a scientist, male or female, and said she imagined a “black male.” However, when asked about what she associates a scientist with she described someone who is “interested in the origin of things.”

“I think of a male, but I don’t really think of ethnicity,” said Alesha Bond, 17, a rising senior at El Camino High School in Oceanside, Calif. The only scientists she’s seen have been “mostly male.” Bond said that in middle school she wanted to be a scientist, but her plans changed as a freshman. “I didn’t really feel like I would be good in science because I was a girl and African-American,” she said.

But if someone asked Mofida Abdelmageed, a 19-year-old student of Behavioral Neuroscience at Connecticut College to draw a scientist, she’d draw herself.

Abdelmageed went to an all girls’ middle and high school. She “got to meet a lot of people in sciences,” including plenty of women so, like Greene, she had never experienced self doubt in her accelerated science courses. Abdelmageed pursued science simply because that is what interested her. She explained that it wasn’t until college that she noticed the disparities within STEM and that she believes that high schools like hers “can help it become more equal.”

A study from 40 years ago illustrated gender stereotypes in children by asking them to draw a “scientist.” Only one percent drew a female. More recently, a study published by the Journal of Educational Psychology in 2014 “found that these stereotypes prevail even in supposedly ‘gender-equal’ nations like Norway and Sweden.” These stereotypes matter because they can cause people to overlook female scientists and can result in biases that favor men in some contexts.

Greene has been surrounded by science her whole life. In fact she was a high achieving student at her STEM focused high school. Largely sheltered from gender stereotypes in the sciences, it is no surprise that she never had such fears.

When imagining a scientist she did not have to look far. She had both parents as examples. However, girls who aren’t exposed to viewing a scientist in a gender-neutral role did not feel the same way.

Greene’s life-long confidence came thorough when she first felt awkward as a female scientist at an annual dinner. She was invited with other faculty members to take out an advisory council filled with astronomy enthusiasts who were supposed to give them advice on how to run their department.

Dressed up in a gown and surrounded by “white old men,” she hid in an oversized blazer and called it a day. Soon after, she was back in the lab, working on black holes like that dinner never happened.

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