Calina Copos, ’10, is one of only a handful of female physics majors at the University of Richmond. She says that during her junior year, she was often the only woman in her classes and wanted to connect with other female science students and professors.
Her solution: creating the Women in Math and Science (WIMS) group, an organization that brings together female students and professors for weekly discussions and lectures.
“We felt like it was important to get to know our female professors so we could feel comfortable asking for advice, in terms of graduate schools, careers or even general life questions,” Copos said.
Last winter she and math and computer science major Erin Brady, ’10, approached math professor Della Fenster and computer science professor Kelly Shaw with the idea. Both professors were eager to help the girls get started.
“Calina and Erin echoed discussions that had been taking place among various faculty for quite some time,” Fenster said. “The fact that they, as students, gave voice to this same idea brought a certain sense of urgency to the discussion.”
The group secured funding and started holding weekly lunch meetings. Fenster arranged to have a student, professor or outside professional speak at each gathering.
Topics ranged far beyond homework help or study tips.
“The students are learning about various career paths and opportunities, about graduate school and postdoctoral positions, about careers in and outside of academics in math and the sciences, and about administrative positions at the university that influence all of us,” Fenster said. “They are also learning about the myriad ways that women balance a family with a career in math and science. The students are always interested in this topic.”
Now in its second semester of operation, WIMS has more than doubled in size, with 25 students regularly attending sessions.
“Initially Professor Fenster asked me if I would talk about my summer research at one of the meetings,” said math major Jordan Cates, ’12. “I came in thinking it would be a one-time thing, but it was such a great group of girls that I started coming back every week.”
While the majority of the members are majoring in either math or the sciences, a few women studying in other disciplines joined after hearing about the variety of speakers the group attracts.
“I was drawn into the group by Dr. Fenster. She was my calculus professor last semester, and during office hours she would mention WIMS and invite me to attend their weekly meetings,” said political science major Mary Martha Scott. “One day last semester I finally went to a meeting, and I have been attending them ever since.”
Some students say that the relationships they’ve formed with other members have been just as valuable as the career guidance they’ve received.
“Having this group of women at school who are also science majors to talk with has been a great support system,” said Laura Zemcik, 12. “Having friends who are struggling with the same things has been really helpful.”
The group has taken several trips together. Last semester they went hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and in January 10 of the women spent a weekend in Washington D.C., meeting with female legislative assistants in Virginia Senator Mark Warner and Minnesota Senator Al Franken’s offices.
“It was great, said mathematical economics major Kosh Kempter, ’12. “We met up with the woman who worked in Al Franken’s office. She studied math, and we ended up having a two-hour long conversation about how to extend your career in the field.”
Fenster says she’s enjoyed working with students outside of the classroom and feels that the meetings have inspired both herself and the students to actively pursue their dreams.
“Two of the most salient points we have learned are about excellence and networking.” She said. “It seems so simple, delivering excellence and making as many friends as you can will help you professionally.”