The Johns Hopkins Gazette: December 6, 1999
December 6, 1999
VOL. 29, NO. 15


Champions of Women Is Science

Undergraduates form a support group for networking, mentoring

By Michael Purdy

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Alexandra Surcel, a senior majoring in chemistry and public health, had been thinking of starting a support group for undergraduate women in the sciences when she saw something that helped jolt her into action.

"A female student raised her hand in chemistry class and asked a question that I didn't think was stupid--maybe because I had the same question," Surcel says with a laugh. "And the professor responded without answering her question, sort of brushed her off. Then about 10 minutes later, a guy raised his hand and asked the same question, and the professor responded.

"Maybe it just fit in better with the professor's lecture at that point," she muses, unwilling to blame the professor without a discussion. "I thought of it as perhaps a sex issue, though, and it got the ball rolling."

Alexandra Surcel, a senior majoring in chemistry and public health, and Melissa De Jesus, a junior majoring in biology, serve as president and co-vice president of the Society of Women in Science.

Last January, Surcel started the Society for Women in Science, putting up the fliers herself for the first organizational meeting. She worked with a group of 25 fellow students to create a constitution and submit it to the Student Activities Commission for approval.

SWIS was approved last spring for probationary status and in October held its first big event, a poster session for undergraduate researchers. The ambitious programs started or planned by SWIS, including a journal club, a mentoring program and a research "shadowing" program, are focused on encouraging undergraduate women and helping them make connections in the scientific community.

"I think that women science students don't have a strong network," Surcel explains, "and I'm not talking about the social network, where you go to parties or whatever with your girlfriends. I'm talking about being told, Yes, you can do this, you can solve this problem, your questions are as good as everyone else's."

Several factors also can discourage undergraduate women science students, according to Surcel and other SWIS members. They cite the predominance of male science faculty, subtle differences in the approaches professors and teaching assistants take in dealing with male and female students and women's reluctance to speak out in an "old-boy" network. Surcel, who is the group's president, encourages discussion of these and similar issues at SWIS meetings, held weekly on Tuesdays in Mudd Hall at 7 p.m.

However, she and others in the group are cautious about making battle with the "old-boy" network the focus of SWIS's activities.

"I received so many e-mails from people who attended the first organizational meetings who would spell 'women' with a 'y' instead of an 'e,' and who told me I should address freshmen as freshpeople," Surcel says. "And that sort of got me thinking that I wanted a support network for women, but I didn't want it to be anti-men."

"You have to work together to fix the problems, or otherwise you could create one," says Melissa De Jesus, co-vice president of SWIS and a junior majoring in biology. "Our poster session, for example, wasn't just for women to present research--it was for undergraduates to present research."

"In addition to announcing our presence on campus, we wanted to give people who had never done posters a chance to practice their skills--putting the poster together, explaining the work to others and answering their questions," says Surcel, who presented a poster on her work in the lab of David Sullivan, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the School of Public Health.

Other SWIS programs already in operation include peer advising, which matches freshmen and sophomores with junior and senior advisers. Adviser pairs are asked to meet once a month for an hour, offering the advisees help with course selection, tips on time management, assistance producing resumes and applications, suggestions for studying and advice on using resources like the campus writing or counseling centers. Women advisers from the same science major are preferred, but SWIS also has used men.

The advising program also provides a potentially important link between underclassmen hungry for a chance to get in a lab and do research and the upperclassmen who are already doing it.

"When I first came to Hopkins, everyone said to me, 'Do research!' And I would ask, 'How do I get a job?' They'd say, 'I just had some friends.' But I didn't really know anybody yet!" recalls De Jesus, now doing pineal gland research in neuroscientist Jimo Borjigin's lab at the Carnegie Institute.

In the future, SWIS leaders are hoping to open laboratory doors further by starting a "shadowing" program.

"We'd pair people with no laboratory experience with undergrads doing research," explains Surcel, who has been doing summer research work for seven years. "They'd follow them around for six to eight weeks and keep a laboratory notebook."

Surcel envisions the program as a way to help young science students become accustomed to the routine of a research lab, get experience for their resume and explore the possible types of work available to them.

"Sometimes it's easy for students to get a research job that they don't end up liking, but they'll stick with it for fear of being unable to find anything else," Surcel says. "Hopefully, the shadowing program will prevent people from being stuck where they don't want to be."

Enthusiastic ideas for new programs pour out of Surcel, who also edits the Hopkins student art and literary magazine Zeniada. She has a plan for publishing a softbound book of undergraduate research abstracts this spring (abstracts are due Jan. 14, 2000; guidelines are available on the SWIS Web page, She loves any activity that lets undergraduates share information about science, like the student research presentations that alternate with guest speakers at weekly SWIS meetings, or the journal club that meets the first Monday of every month at noon. She hopes to establish a SWIS alumni network.

She will, however, achieve the status of an alumna herself in December.

"It's going to be hard to lose Alexandra, but we've learned a lot and have a good group that will continue on," De Jesus says.

Among her other responsibilities, co-vice president De Jesus is in charge of SWIS Sweets, a fund-raising program that offers baked goods made to order, with door-to-door delivery. Offerings include "Black Hole" cakes, "Cosmic Coffee Cakes," muffins, cupcakes, cookies and more, which can be ordered by anyone on the Homewood campus.

"A lot of people in the group said, 'That's totally wrong for women in science to be baking," and that kind of bothered me," Surcel says. "It's not an either/or situation. It doesn't mean that we can't be mothers, sisters, all these other things that, as a woman, we can be."

To find out more about SWIS activities or to order SWIS Sweets, log onto the organization's Web site at