Daring to do more MINT

1 Mar 2021

MINT research is vital if challenges such as climate change and the energy transition are to be mastered. Yet we still find too few women opting for careers in MINT disciplines. Why is that? And what is LMU doing to remedy this situation?

© Jan Greune / LMU

How do you assemble an ion source? How do you make your own room scent? And where does the alcohol in beer come from? PhD student Yasemin Yoluç from the Faculty of Chemistry at LMU Munich answers these and many more questions on her Instagram channel snazzyscienceblogger. The 26-year-old aims especially to get young people excited about MINT topics. Her own interest in science dates back to early childhood. “Even if I didn’t grasp and understand everything back then, I always wanted to get to the bottom of all kinds of phenomena, like weather events and how medicines work,” she recalls. That is why Yoluc draws on everyday issues to bring laboratory work to life — with evident success. Many followers write to tell her how encouraging her blog entries are. “Those are the moments I enjoy the most,” she says, “because my aim is to demonstrate that everyone can achieve whatever they want to if they work hard enough and stay on the ball.”

Over at the Faculty of Physics, Linh Nguyen is likewise fighting for the MINT cause. When she is not working on her PhD, Nguyen moderates “Princess of Science”, a science magazine for young people on TV channel ZDF. Her program, too, revolves around MINT in everyday life: Can you use a sausage to operate a smartphone? How can chemistry help make a cake light and fluffy? And how does physics make a banana shot bend in football? Above all, the doctoral student wants to clear up the misconception that science is for men, and to capture young women’s enthusiasm for MINT topics. “Even when girls have got what it takes, they still often opt for a different subject,” she says. That, she believes, is because many people still cling to the old-fashioned view that women know nothing about technology. “It’s time we really started thinking in gender-neutral terms,” she asserts. Nguyen certainly has plenty of young fans: “I’ve even given autographs,” she laughs.

Prejudices are not confined to the classroom, however. They are also encountered in apprenticeship settings and at the workplace. “To tackle this problem, both female and male role models have an important part to play for schoolchildren, students and young scientists,” says Dr. Audine Laurian of LMU’s Meteorological Institute. Convinced of this, the Project Coordinator at the Waves to Weather (W2W) Transregional Collaborative Research Project recently interviewed eight MINT scientists, all of whom have made courageous decisions and refused to be deflected from their dreams. The interviews were then illustrated by a selection of artists for the comic Doch! (which could be translated as “Yes, I will!”). The comic’s aim is to encourage boys and, in particular, girls to target a career in science and, more generally, to change the way women and men think. Dr. Laurian wants to circulate the comic to schools, science museums and international conferences.

Head-hunted by industry

Self-doubt, prejudices and a lack of role models are also precipitating a shortage of young MINTers at our universities. The Wissenschaftsrat, WR (Scientific Council), Germany’s most senior body in this field, advises both federal and regional governments on scientific policy and, in its latest recommendation paper, speaks of an “alarm signal”: Over the past ten years, the proportion of female information technology students, for example, has increased by only 5 percent to 21 percent — even lower than the 24 percent share of women in the engineering sciences. A still lower figure is reported for the increase in female university lecturers, and a mere 12 percent of professorial chairs are occupied by women. Similarly, the number of PhDs awarded has plummeted in recent years. From a peak of around 1,100 doctoral theses submitted in 2015, the number had plunged to just 873 in 2018 — of which only 141 were from women. WR President Dorothea Wagner, herself an IT specialist, also bemoans the fact that more and more “high potentials” are being snapped up by industry before even completing their scientific qualifications at university. Public research is simply unable to match the lucrative offers tendered by private enterprise.

Fortunately, LMU’s MINT faculties are somewhat better placed. In a top business hub such as Munich, however, any number of companies naturally compete with higher education to attract talented youngsters. The low proportion of women studying MINT courses is another problem. That said, the Faculty of Informatics has been able to buck the national trend, more than doubling its share of female PhD graduations from 13 percent in 2015 to 38 percent in 2020. “LMU thus has one of the largest shares of women in informatics in the whole of Germany,” notes Professor Dirk Beyer, Chair of Software and Computational Systems. Twenty-nine of the 110 research associates are women, and three at least of those with PhDs are women. Beyer says that as a general rule, but especially in bioinformatics, many doctoral students are head-hunted by industry before completing their doctorates because they can earn more money that way.

LMU Professor of Informatics Claudia Linnhoff-Popien from the Chair of Mobile and Distributed Systems has for years been committed to promoting more young MINT talent. She would like to see improvements in early development of these subjects in schools – before youngsters decide what they want to study — and especially for girls. From personal experience, Linnhoff-Popien knows that many schoolchildren believe “programmers just sit in dark basements and program all day, or that university is so difficult and that they would never make it anyway.” The result? Many prefer to opt for applied science courses or vocational training. Schools, she argues, need to put more energy into new formats that combat these “horror stories”. They also need to develop partnerships with universities. Successful students, staff and professors in the MINT space could, for example, be sent out to schools to talk about their careers and the exciting work they do. She herself got into informatics after taking part in — and serially winning — mathematical Olympiad contests after fifth grade.

Proportion of women drops from postdoctoral level onward

Professor Dario Leister, Dean of LMU’s Faculty of Biology, cannot complain about a lack of up-and-coming female biologists. “Our student numbers have been exploding for years,” he affirms. In his faculty, the proportion of female undergraduates and doctoral students is over 50 percent. The problems do not begin until the postdoctoral level – a widespread phenomenon. “The share of women declines noticeably when it comes to Habilitation, or postdoctoral lecturing qualifications,” he says. Only 36 percent of women complete their Habilitation, and the proportion of female professors stands at 20 percent. Leister says that the share of women at least reaches 44 percent among private lecturers. The faculty has come up with several creative ways to promote gender equality. For example, since safety considerations prevent women from conducting experiments when they are pregnant, LMU’s Graduate School of Systemic Neurosciences ensures that colleagues provide laboratory support to them during this period. The same goes for students who are unable to conduct research due to family commitments.

Dr. Andreas Brachmann, an LMU biologist, is another source of innovative ideas to cultivate more young MINT talent – ideas that have already won him the Bavarian government’s Preis für gute Lehre (Good Tuition Award). Nearly five years ago, Brachmann and Thomas Rübig, Ministerial Commissioner for High Schools in the Oberbayern-Ost constituency, together launched the “Youth Science Club” as a MINT youth academy. Dr. Arno Riffeser, a physicist at LMU, has since also signed up. On a voluntary basis, 8th to 10th grade schoolchildren can spend three years learning how scientific activities work, for example by submitting their own research questions and conducting their own experiments. The principal topic right now — surprise, surprise – is virology. “Almost everyone sticks with it, which speaks volumes about the program,” says a clearly happy Brachmann. A deliberate choice was taken to back those who are motivated rather than those who are gifted. Making participation voluntary ensures that the children are much more passionate about what they do than if it were a compulsory course, Brachmann says.

LMU’s Faculty of Physics has seen a sharp jump in the number of PhD graduates in the past ten years. And although this subject is still predominantly a “man’s world”, the share of women earning doctorates has risen from about 20 to about 30 percent in the same time. That puts the faculty among the front-runners in the whole of Germany as far as both the total number of earned doctorates and the proportion of women are concerned. But why? Across the nation, the proportion of female doctoral candidates with a migration background is higher than that for male doctoral candidates. It may be, then, that more women from abroad have earned their doctorates at the faculty in recent years. To further boost the numbers, the faculty is also backing the Girls’ Day campaign and a Physics Club in which female postdoctoral, doctoral and undergraduate students conduct experiments together with 5th and 6th grade schoolgirls. “At this age, girls still have a natural inclination to experiment,” says Dr. Cecilia Scorza, Public Relations and School Contact Coordinator at the faculty. In addition, individual support is being given to girls in the 10th and 11th grades with a liking for physics. “Later on, many more of them are keen to go on and study physics.”

Not enough contact hours in MINT subjects

The Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy, too, has no reason to be ashamed of its numbers. In the summer semester 2020, 58 percent of its enrolled students were female, a figure that edged above 60 percent in the current winter semester. The proportion of female doctoral students stands at 44 percent; the share of female postdoctoral students is slightly higher. “Especially for women, having support available during the closing stages of doctoral and postdoctoral studies makes it possible to reconcile career ambitions to family planning,” says Dr. Kristina Hock, who oversees didactics in chemistry at LMU. This support takes the form of special development and mentoring programs — including a “mentoring retreat” on the Fraueninsel Island in the middle of Lake Chiemsee — as well as mentoring tandems involving internal and external professionals. Hock nevertheless complains that science subjects are occupying ever fewer slots on high school timetables, and that the number of school leavers majoring in chemistry in their Abitur (high-school final exam certificate) is dwindling accordingly. To change this situation, the faculty hosts events such as information days for schoolchildren. In the days before Covid-19, these events attracted up to 1,600 pupils. Research internships and school labs are also organized, allowing those in attendance to develop ecofriendly sparklers, for example.

Alongside mathematics, for which 16 of the 62 junior research associates at LMU are women, other MINT subjects include astronomy, nanoscience, geology and geography. LMU’s Department of Geography likewise has a virtually equal share of women and men among its student and postdoctoral populations. On scholarships, women are actually in the majority. Once again, it is at the professorship level where ground is lost, although even here women account for 33 percent. “Young female scientists are accompanied on the career trajectory by the mentoring program, within which at least 50 percent of mentees are women,” in the words of Professor Julia Pongratz, Head of Department, and Dr. Monika Popp, Private Lecturer and Women’s Empowerment Officer. Especially here in Munich, where geography focuses on issues of sustainable development in the context of global change, the two believe it is crucially important to achieve parity on all levels of the hierarchy. Why? “Because then, women will be instrumental in shaping and making decisions affecting the future in key areas such as the sustainability debate, climate change mitigation, food, mobility, energy and tourism.”

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