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The Science of Shohini

Breaking Barriers

Shohini Ghose, Physics Feminista

Why you should care

Harassment and discrimination nearly made Shonini Ghose quit grad school — but now she’s doing cutting-edge physics and battling sexism in the name of science. 

Shohini Ghose cuts to the chase. “I don’t back off from a challenge,” said the Wilfrid Laurier University physicist. For most of her life, Ghose had been able to accomplish anything as long as she tried hard enough, from funding her own college education to mastering quantum physics.

So when she found herself one of a handful of women in her physics Ph.D. program, she told herself that as long as she proved herself a superstar, she’d fit right in as “one of the guys.” But the subtle ways classmates and professors made her feel excluded built up, and she began to doubt herself. And when a male co-worker harassed her, she nearly quit grad school altogether.

But she loved physics so much that she stayed. Today, the theoretical physicist and 2014 TED Fellow is conducting cutting-edge research that could one day be used to develop ultrafast, next-generation quantum computers.

Learn more about quantum computers: Click on the Why You Should Care box to reveal more.

That’s not to say that the sexism Ghose encountered no longer exists. Scientists are still more likely to offer a faculty position to a man than to a woman with the same qualifications. That bias could help explain why only 21 percent of senior science and engineering professors in the U.S are women. But so what?

Ghose argues that sexism hurts both women and science. Excluding half the potential workforce also excludes any insights they might have contributed. And without women to guide scientific inquiry and product development, their unique needs tend to be overlooked. Above all, women deserve the same access to high-paying STEM jobs and positive work environments as men. So in 2012, Ghose launched the Wilfrid Laurier Centre for Women in Science (WinS), which aims to build a strong community for women in STEM. For Ghose, it’s also a personal mission to prevent budding women scientists from feeling so lonely and insecure that they abandon their passion — just as she almost did.

STEM = science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The top 10 highest-paying college majors are STEM-related, led by petroleum engineering, which pays an average midcareer salary of $163,000.

Formula written by Shohini Ghose in black and white

But some experts say it’s impossible to close the gender gap, citing research suggesting that men are simply biologically hardwired to excel in STEM fields. Ghose disagrees. “The problem lies in our cultural perceptions and stereotypes,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that this can be addressed.”

Quantum physics is so so bizarre … but it applies to everything we’re made of. It’s like I’m solving the mysteries of the universe.

Although physicists can be a socially awkward bunch, Ghose speaks earnestly and laughs easily. Her hard-nosed persistence goes back to high school, when her family moved from Calcutta to Singapore. She wanted to attend a top university but found herself at a distinct disadvantage: Singaporean schools gave preference to national citizens, and schools in the U.S. and U.K. were far too expensive. She was advised to settle for a mediocre university in Singapore. Instead, she applied for a full-ride scholarship to Miami University in Ohio — and won.

An undergraduate project gave Ghose her first taste of quantum physics, which deals with atomic and subatomic particles. In the quantum realm, a particle can be in two places at once, and even pop into and out of existence. “It’s so bizarre… but it applies to everything we’re made of,” Ghose gushed. “It’s like I’m solving the mysteries of the universe.”

Meanwhile, she noticed a glaring trend. “[Each year], there were fewer and fewer women in my classes,” she said. But she refused to acknowlege it as a problem. “If I could prove I was really, really good, it shouldn’t matter.”

Then “the small things added up” — like how she wasn’t initially invited to study groups. Or how professors greeted the class with “Good morning, gentlemen” or asked her to operate the photocopier because they mistook her for a secretary. Do I even belong here? she wondered.

Then a co-worker in her research group harassed her. Suddenly, work no longer felt safe. She left the group even though she hadn’t settled on a project in another one — which was required in order for her to graduate. She felt uncomfortable telling her friends or professors, who were all men. Plus, she didn’t want to seem weak. The anxiety and loneliness caused her grades to slip, and she considered dropping out.

Women in STEM weren’t experts in gender studies and equity issues — yet they weren’t talking to the social scientists who were.

But even at her lowest point, Ghose searched for a reason to stay. “The one thing I hate is giving up,” she said. Plus, she still loved physics more than anything. So she decided to give it one more semester. If she couldn’t find a group with available space, or a research project she liked, she’d quit the program.

But Ghose found a supportive environment in professor Ivan Deutsch’s group, where she rebuilt her confidence. She studied an eerie phenomenon known as entanglement, which she still researches today. When two particles are entangled, any changes to one instantaneously affects the other, even if they’re far apart. Her findings could have applications in quantum computing.

In 2005, Ghose became a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. There, she felt empowered to attend women’s sessions at major physics conferences. After always hearing about how far women had come, she was shocked to learn about the huge gender gap in most STEM fields. She came to another realization, too: Women in STEM weren’t experts in gender studies and equity issues — yet they weren’t talking to the social scientists who were.

Female scientist looking at scientific results with male colleagues around her

Source: Getty

So Ghose founded WinS, which aims to build a community for women in STEM by supporting research by women in science, as well as research and initiatives aimed at addressing STEM’s gender bias. WinS also offers workshops, conferences, mentorship and networking opportunities. It also partners with industry, educational institutions and government. And just last fall, WinS opened Laurier’s first women-in-science themed dormitory floor — a safe space where it’s cool to geek out.

But even at her lowest point, Ghose searched for a reason to stay. “The one thing I hate is giving up,” she said.

Meanwhile, similar organizations have emerged at other schools — from Cambridge University to the National University of Singapore — reflecting growing global support to include more women in STEM.

But Wayne State University employment discrimination law professor Kingsley Browne argues that biological differences will continue to tip the balance; men consistently outperform women on tasks involving spatial orientation and visualization, which are considered important in STEM fields. “It’s doubtful that [WinS] … will have much influence,” he said.

More recent research suggests the opposite, Ghose says. A 2011 study found that girls who live in countries with greater gender equality tend to score better on math assessments, suggesting that culture — not biology — is responsible. And cultural factors, including stereotypes, can be changed.

It’s a daunting task. But Ghose is ready, now more than ever. “We need these women to be role models for the future,” she said. “We need to be able to say, ‘Let’s follow in these amazing women’s footsteps,’ not just these amazing men’s footsteps.” As we wait to reap the ultrafast computing results of Ghose’s research, we couldn’t agree more.

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Meet The Author Melissa Pandika

Melissa Pandika is a lab rat-turned-journalist with eye to all things science, medicine and more. Like? Distance running, snails, late-night Korean BBQ + R&B slow jams.

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