WiSE WOMEN Providing support and inspiration for female scientists and engineers at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Three students in the WiSE program sitting on couches in the dorm studying


Providing support and inspiration for female scientists and engineers at the University of Nevada, Reno.
NOTE: Images and video in this article were taken before the pandemic and current social distancing and mask mandates

For 13 years, the Women in Science and Engineering program, also known by its acronym WiSE, has been offering support to female students pursuing a wide range of STEM-based disciplines at the University. To the new Director of the WiSE program and Associate Dean of the College of Science Melanie Duckworth, it is important to clarify what that offer of support really means.

“The support needed by women in pursuit of scientific discovery and creation of technology is around managing any barriers that exist,” Duckworth said. “It is not support that would suggest women to be less capable or less ready for the task. We are ready for the task. This was true for me, and it continues to be true now: the support that’s needed is an awareness of biases that exist around the potential women hold, potential that can only be realized through unfettered opportunity.”

With over half of the College of Science student body represented by women, that potential is readily apparent. What the WiSE program offers these students is an opportunity to build a community with fellow science-minded females, creating a network to help them best face the unique challenges of pursuing science, technology, mathematics and engineering (STEM) degrees and careers as women.

Melanie Duckworth
Melanie Duckworth is Associate Dean of the College of Science and Director of the WiSE program. Photo by Jennifer Kent

“I view higher education as the space to create models of a world that is inclusive, a world that appreciates differences in perspectives and lived experiences as enriching all that we do, as opposed to making things more challenging or less comfortable,” Duckworth said. “Across the STEM disciplines, and in the arena of scientific discovery in particular, we do not have time to indulge the impulse to stay comfortable. As scientists, we should always be in pursuit of that which is challenging and uncomfortable, but ultimately so rewarding.”

Building a community

The program was started in 2007 by then Dean of the College of Science, David Westfall, and was directed by Associate Dean Gina Tempel before Duckworth took on the role in 2019. Since its onset, it has been structured in a way that fosters strong relationships between the women from the start. In the early weeks of the semester, the incoming cohort participates in an overnight retreat at Grizzly Creek Ranch near Portola, California where they spend time getting to know one another while enjoying fun outdoor activities such as a challenge course, night hiking, s’mores roasting and stargazing with the University’s Astronomy Club. These same freshmen are then all housed together on the same floor of the Great Basin Residence Hall, the newest of the University’s student housing options.

“Community is so important to young students,” Duckworth said. “This is particularly true for young women who are pursuing some of the most challenging degrees at the University. The WiSE program offers a built-in support system from the very start.”

WiSE students also take two courses as a cohort, one in the fall and one in the spring, that strengthen the sense of community across living and learning environments. The SCI 110 course taught in the fall semester introduces students to the wide range of campus resources created to provide students with academic and sociocultural support. This class proved to be so successful within the WiSE program that the College recently decided to offer it to all College of Science freshmen.

“We want information about campus resources to be in the minds of every first-year student,” Duckworth said. “We want them to feel comfortable accessing these resources as part of ensuring their academic successful and personal growth.”

Lexi Robertson (left) with 3 cowokers from Wood Rogers volunteering at Tesla's "Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day" Feb. 2019.
Lexi Robertson (left) with 3 cowokers from Wood Rogers volunteering at Tesla's "Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day" Feb. 2019. Photo provided by Lexi Roberston

Unique to WiSE students and to students in the College of Science Living and Learning Community is the SCI 120 course students take in their first spring semester. In this class, WiSE students gain exposure to women with careers they’re likely to pursue. Female professionals working in a wide range of STEM fields, from climatology to psychology, medicine to engineering share their experiences and offer inspiration and advice. The students keep journals to reflect and share their thoughts throughout the course.

“Based on their report, WiSE students have benefitted most from the discussions of the ways these women balance different life priorities,” Duckworth said.  “They share with our WiSE students the effort required to balance the broader professional goals they have, the immediate professional pressures they manage, and the joys and challenges of their personal lives. Many of our speakers have partners and children. Through the open and respectful exchanges with these professional women, our WiSE students begin to understand that they can flourish in their professional careers and create those personal relationships that sustain us.” 

The visiting professionals and the exceptional female faculty members in the College of Science serve as invaluable and immediately accessible role models for WiSE students. Students engage with these women through faculty advising, research projects, office visits and even simple campus social events. Duckworth’s own experience speaks to the value of having role models that are representative of one’s own lived experiences.

The 2019 Freshman WiSE class pose for a photo in front of the Great Basin Residence Hall. Photo by Jennifer Kent

“We know that support is not gender specific. I cannot count the number of men who have been supportive of my professional success. Nevertheless, it is critical that students see women in positions that have been defined by male presence,” Duckworth said. “In my undergraduate program, there were a number of females that were of high academic rank and well-respected as scientists and teachers, but positions of authority and administrative power were held by males. While I was matriculating, a Black female was elected Chair of the Department of Psychology. She was one of the most passionate and demanding professors many of us had ever had. I remember being a bit in awe of her as a professor, and when I saw she had been elected to be Chair of the entire department, it was motivating to say the least. What I viewed as possible for my future career expanded dramatically.”

The program culminates each year at its spring graduation ceremony where graduating WiSE students and their families are invited to celebrate their accomplishments. It is an intimate ceremony, bringing together the tight-knit cohort of women who lived with one another during their freshman year.

WiSE students laughing in Great Basin Hall
WiSE students hanging our in Great Basin Hall. All first-year WiSE students are housed on fourth floor of the residence hall. From left to right: Jasmin Gaines, Olivia Tahti, Ellie Crossman and Alex Brown. Photo by Jennifer Kent

“No matter how far their paths have diverged over those four years, they come back together to celebrate their successful journeys,” Duckworth said.

Duckworth plans to enhance future WiSE graduations by not only bringing together the graduates and their families, but by inviting the current WiSE first-year class to the event as well as female faculty members nominated by the graduates as exceptional role models.

“Without exception, these students, all of whom are powerhouses in terms of academic prowess and career preparedness, are also utterly committed to changing our society and approaching humanity with humility and generosity,” Duckworth said. “I have been so moved by the truth of who our students are, and I would love our first-year students to also see our graduating WiSE students as models of civically engaged individuals.”

From a WiSE alum

Lexi Robertson, WiSE Class of 2016

Lexi Robertson

Robertson graduated with her degree in environmental engineering and a minor in Spanish in 2016. She continued on to receive her MBA from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2018.

Currently she works for Wood Rodgers, Inc. in Oakland, California as an Engineer in Training working toward Professional Engineer.

“That first year in a STEM degree is really difficult. Without WiSE, I would have been more likely to change my degree to something outside of STEM. After finishing that first year, I was really inspired. I knew I could do it.

The WiSE program also influenced me to look for a similarly supportive community in my career. When you walk in the door at Wood Rodgers, there are project managers and professional engineers and leaders of the company who are women. Wood Rodgers has even provided me with opportunities to go out into the community and support other women interested in STEM. WiSE has inspired a life-long passion to support women in the STEM industry.”