Fostering a community of women in STEM

Monday, November 5, 2018 - 3:30pm

WiSTEM program provides coaching and resources for female undergraduates

The Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Mentorship Program (WiSTEM) is a mentorship program for female undergraduates to learn from female graduate students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

To learn more about this program, attend a public lecture by Dr. Tasneem Zehra Husain on Nov. 13, 5:30 - 7 p.m. in Ticknor Lounge, hosted by WiSTEM, the Pakistani Students Association, and the South Asian Women’s Collective.

Heidi Wickersham (she/her), assistant director of the Harvard College Women's Center

Q.     How did WiSTEM begin? What was the motivation behind starting WiSTEM?

A. The Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Mentorship Program (WiSTEM), started out as the Harvard College Science Mentors Program of the Ann Radcliffe Trust in 2000. The program was created to foster a sense of community for women studying science at Harvard. The various components of the program are intended to link faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students, in order to create a network for women scientists.

In the spring of 2002, the Harvard College Science Mentors Program launched the graduate/undergraduate mentorship program. In the pilot program, female graduate students in biology, physics, and computer science were matched up with sophomore concentrators. By focusing on sophomores, the goal was to help students, upon entry to the concentrations, feel connected to their departments.

Upon the founding of The Harvard College Women’s Center in 2006, the Science Mentors Program was centralized under its mission. Since then, the program has expanded to include undergraduates from all class years. Each year the program features a variety of events and community-building activities to enhance participants’ experience, including meetings with faculty members, touring labs, attending departmental teas, and field trips to museums or movies with a STEM focus. Many of these activities and match-making are managed by a graduate coordinator, whose responsibilities include organizing kick-off and closing events, communicating with mentorship pairs, and collecting feedback on the program.

WiSTEM mentors and mentees get to know one another during the program's kick-off event in September. (Photo courtesy of WiSTEM)


Nicole Black, WiSTEM coordinator, Ph.D. candidate in the Lewis Lab, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and Harvard-MIT Minor Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology

Q. How many mentors/mentees have been involved? What has its impact been?

A. Over the 16 years undergraduates have been paired directly with graduate mentors, just under 2000 mentees and mentors have participated in the WiSTEM program. This year we have 78 graduate student mentors and 82 undergraduate mentees participating in the mentorship program. Of these, 34 are returning matches from last year, which speaks to the success of the program in matching students in mentoring relationships that they find beneficial. We had similar numbers for the past 2 years I have coordinated the program.

The desired impact for all participants is to support student confidence in professional growth and success, help them identify sources of information and support within the Harvard community, and to explore the importance of mentorship in overcoming challenges of identifying as women in male-dominated STEM fields.

Q. What are your hopes for WiSTEM in the future?

A. First, I hope that more people at Harvard, including faculty members, become familiar with the WiSTEM program. This will help them to direct students to the program if they sense a student could benefit from a mentoring relationship. I hope that this program helps students become more familiar with the Harvard College Women's Center and its other programming as well.

Second, I hope that WiSTEM fosters a close community between undergraduate and graduate women at Harvard in STEM fields. I often hear from many participants that one of their favorite parts of the program is meeting women from other fields at Harvard. We ask students to indicate what topics they are interested in discussing (academics, career goals, graduate school or fellowship applications, personal life) and how close they would like their match to be to their field or interests, but sometimes students have a question that may be best addressed by someone other than their match. We have created a database where WiSTEM participants can reach out to each other (and alumni) and host a variety of networking events, such as our WiSTea socials and career panel, to foster these connections. I want all women in STEM fields at Harvard to feel welcome and to know that they have a large community supporting them in their endeavors.

(From left) Harvard College Women's Center Assistant Director Heidi Wickersham, WiSTEM coordinator Nicole Black, last year's WiSTEM "Mentor of the Year" award recipient, Alyssa Hernandez, her mentee Laura Jenny, and Naisha Bradley, director of the Harvard College Women's Center. (Photo courtesy of WiSTEM)

Q. What has your experience been like as a coordinator for WiSTEM?

A. I love being the Graduate Coordinator for the WiSTEM program because I am able to meet and connect with women all across Harvard. As a Ph.D. student, you often don’t have the chance to meet people outside of your department or lab. Not only do I have a chance to meet the students during the events, but reading about their interests and hobbies during the matching process helps me feel connected to the diverse issues faced by women across STEM fields. I also enjoy finding aspects that students have in common during the matching process. At face value, it might make sense to just match student based on academic field and degree type. However, by taking a holistic approach and considering their background, career interests, strengths, and struggles, I often feel as though I have made a match that is long lasting. Finally, I have found that understanding the path that others are taking in their lived experience helps me to better consider my own path and aspirations.

Q. Would you like to share anything else about WiSTEM?

A. The WiSTEM program is particularly relevant in our current political climate. Academia, specifically STEM fields, are often seen as more competitive and cut-throat than other fields that are more female-dominated. Thus, unfortunately, many women tend to shy away from pursuing these fields long-term. I believe it is more important now than ever to create a community where women support other women and help elevate them in these fields. We need to let women know that there is plenty of room at the top for their skills and expertise. By creating not only a direct close mentoring relationship, but also exposing students to a large community of women in STEM at Harvard, we hope they will feel comfortable to continue pursuing their academic, career, and personal goals without feeling as though there is a glass ceiling based on their gender.