Correction to This Article
The article about girls and science in today's Magazine, which was printed in advance, misspells the first name of the magnet coordinator at Montgomery Blair High School. Her name is Eileen Steinkraus.

Aptitude Aplenty

By Kathy Lally
Sunday, July 31, 2005

Abigail Fraeman was rushing from play rehearsal to fencing practice, from overbearing queen in the Montgomery Blair High School production of "Once Upon a Mattress" to serious swordplay at the D.C. Fencers Club. It was 6 p.m., and just as she was thinking it would be nice to grab something to eat, her cell phone rang.

Abby, 17 and a senior at Blair, fumbled in her purse for the phone, then wondered at the unfamiliar number. She was confused when she heard a stranger's voice calling her by name. She caught something about a conference call from California. And then she heard the one word she truly hadn't expected: Intel.

Ohmygosh. She screamed and turned to her father, Martin Fraeman, who had picked her up at Blair in the family Toyota. I'm a finalist! A finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, the competition that might as well be a junior Nobel Prize. Abby called her mother and screamed again. The hundreds of hours she'd spent researching her astronomy project at Washington's Carnegie Institution had given her a shot at winning one of the nation's most coveted science awards.

Later that night at home in Olney, before plowing through hours of homework in AP physics, AP English, linear algebra and multivariable calculus, Abby called one of her closest friends and classmates, Sherri Geng. Abby wanted to tell her the news but felt a little nervous about it. What if Sherri, who had also entered Intel, wasn't a finalist? She didn't want to make Sherri feel bad. But there was something in Sherri's voice when she answered the phone at her home in Rockville.

"Are you having a good day?" Abby asked.

"Yes," Sherri answered, "a very good day. Are you?"

At Blair, the January 26 announcement that Abby and Sherri, along with Michael Forbes, Justin Kovac and Albert Tsao, who was spending a semester in Brookline, Mass., were among the 40 finalists in the 2005 Intel competition was cause for celebration. The Silver Spring high school's science, math and computer science magnet program takes pride in being an Intel powerhouse. Blair had more students in the last round of the competition than any other high school in the nation.

Though boys always outnumber girls in the Intel finals -- 25 to 15 this year -- Abby and Sherri didn't pay much attention to the disparity. Nor did they mind being in the minority in the program at Blair, where, according to magnet coordinator Eilenne Steinkraus, about 35 percent of the students are girls. They felt confident even in the toughest math and science classes. Eight girls and 20 boys in Abby's physics class? She didn't see that as intimidating. Five girls and 20 boys in Abby's optics class last year? "What does that matter?" Sherri asks.

They've grown up surrounded by women who are good at math and science. Half the teachers in Blair's magnet program are women, including Glenda Torrence, who has a PhD in chemistry and teaches the research class that helps students prepare Intel-worthy projects. Abby's mother went to MIT, Sherri's is an engineer. Female astronomers and neuroscientists running top-flight labs mentored them during their research projects.

Yet the girls were celebrating their Intel achievement less than two weeks after Harvard President Lawrence Summers questioned the "intrinsic aptitude" of women in science. His remarks at a conference in Boston provoked a furious reaction at his own university and across the country, particularly among established female scientists.

Abby and Sherri have heard the talk of discrimination, but for them it is so much theory. They say they have yet to encounter it and have trouble even imagining it.

"I've never felt there's something I can't do because I'm a girl," says Sherri, who co-edits Montgomery Blair's highly regarded student newspaper. "Our generation feels empowered to do things." She's been encouraged to think that way all her life. "My parents have always told me it's what's here that counts," says Sherri, motioning to her brain. And everything in her experience confirms that that's true.


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