Sunday, July 29, 2001

UK program gives teen girls exposure to science careers

By Steve Bailey
The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — When Jenna Patton entered the University of Kentucky's Young Women in Science project, she thought it might be a fun way to strengthen her background in science and mathematics.

        After three years in which she's learned to administer an electrocardiogram test, held a human brain in her hands and helped with a UK research project on Gypsy moths, she's found the program has given her something else as well — a vast array of career possibilities.

        “This program is one of a kind,” said Ms. Patton, who is from Garrett in Floyd County. “It's changed my life and my entire way of thinking.

        “I've learned so much about drug and alcohol abuse and so many other scientific fields. I've learned about careers that I think might suit me. And it's opened my mind to the fact that I can do anything I want with my life.”

        The program, funded by a $1.3 million federal grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is designed to encourage young Appalachian women to pursue careers in science, particularly drug-abuse research.

        Studies show that girls still take far fewer courses in computer science and physics than boys and are less likely than boys to take courses in the core scientific fields of biology, physics and chemistry.

        “Very few opportunities exist for rural high-school women to learn about the excitement of science and the related scientific career opportunities in drug abuse research,” said Carl Leukefeld, a professor in UK's Department of Psychiatry and the director of the school's Center on Drug and Alcohol Research.

        Two groups of 26 girls entering the ninth grade were chosen to participate. Program participants were selected from 13 counties in eastern Kentucky.

        The girls get training, education and mentoring over a three-year period. Each is given in-depth training and education in drug abuse research and other scientific areas at UK for three weeks each summer and during five one-day weekend sessions each year.

        The first group, which includes Ms. Patton, was chosen in 1999 and is finishing this summer. Each girl that completes the program will receive a $1,000 scholarship to the college of her choice.

        “The program is all about encouraging young women to become involved in science and mathematics,” said program coordinator Caroline Reid. “Those two areas are the basis for so many exciting careers, and I think a lot of times girls are sort of steered away from those areas if they show any interest.”

        Besides learning the complexities behind substance abuse, participants help UK researchers conduct studies and experiments. They also learn about dozens of other scientific fields.

        In the first year, the group focused on the body and wellness. In the second year, they moved on to the behavioral roots of substance abuse. The third term has been spent in lab settings with female scientists as mentors.

        During one recent class, the girls spent the morning launching air- and water-powered rockets made from empty plastic soda bottles.

        The idea was to learn about how propulsion works. After two successful launches, the air pump malfunctioned and cut the experiment short.

        “That's what happens in science,” said William Schneider, a math teacher from Simon Kenton High School. “Even after careful study and preparation, things happen that you don't expect and can't predict.”

        Laura Clevenger of Magoffin County said it has inspired her to see how many women already work in complex scientific fields.

        “We've had women come in who are engineers, women who are surgeons, women who are entomologists. ... When you get to talk to them and hear how they got to where they are, it gives you the confidence to try to do it yourself.”


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- UK program gives teen girls exposure to science careers