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. (Published 7/31/05)
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.
Abby and Sherri have known each other since fourth grade, when they met in the gifted program at Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary School in Rockville. Even back then, they excelled at math and science.
Abby played with Barbies, but also bought math books for fun. To her, they were wonderful puzzles waiting to be solved. She still remembers the day her father, an electrical engineer in the space unit at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, brought a telescope home from work. When Abby looked through it, she saw Saturn.
"It looks like this tiny skeleton," she says. "You can see the planet, and you can see the rings. I'm actually seeing it with my own eyes from my own back yard. I felt it was my planet." From then on, Abby knew she wanted to be an astronomer.
Sherri was 3 when she came to this country from mainland China. She spoke little English as a preschooler and remained uncomfortable with the language until second grade. At home, her grandmother was trying to teach her algebra by second or third grade. "It's a Chinese thing," says Sherri, whose mother, Jennifer Xie, has a PhD in engineering. "I remember once, probably in third grade, I wanted to go shopping with my mom. My dad said no. He wanted me to do math problems."
At Barnsley, neither child paid much attention to who was better -- girls or boys -- in math and science. "I knew who was good at jump-rope," Sherri says. "I didn't know who was good at math and science."
By the time Abby and Sherri went on to the math and science magnet at Takoma Park Middle School, they were part of a close-knit group of girls adept at solving equations and studying cell structure. "They're so amazing," Abby says of her friends. "In sixth grade, they were saying, 'Let's get straight A's.'" And they did.
Every year in middle school, Abby and Sherri teamed up and won a lunar bridge-building contest sponsored by the Maryland Space Business Roundtable, recalls Abby's mother, Kathy Fraeman. Together, they worked out how to build a model of the strongest, lightest bridge possible. The boys, most of whom entered individually, never picked up on how the two girls won every year: teamwork.
"Science is a very collaborative field," Kathy Fraeman says, "and the ability to work with others is very useful. When you have several minds working on the same problem, you'll get better results."
Fraeman, 49, has discussed Summers and his remarks with Abby. She was an undergraduate at MIT at the same time as Summers, when biology was being taught by Nancy Hopkins, the MIT professor who walked out in anger as the Harvard president explained why women are underrepresented on the science faculties of major universities. Besides wondering if women were innately inferior at math and science, he also cited 80-hour work weeks and the reluctance of many women with children to make that kind of sacrifice.
Fraeman knows just how daunting it can be for women in science to combine work and family. After she got a master's degree from Harvard in public health and environmental science, Fraeman worked as a computer programmer, then took 10 years off to care for Abby and her older sister, Dora, 20. She enjoyed that time immensely, she says, but couldn't command the salary she felt she deserved when she returned to the workforce in 1994. That rankled her. So eight years ago, she went into business with another woman, performing statistical analyses of medical trials from home.
"It's lucrative, it's flexible, and I'm independent," Fraeman says.
Once she got to Blair, Sherri couldn't wait to work in a real-world lab. As a sophomore, she applied to the highly competitive Science and Engineering Apprenticeship Program, sponsored by the Department of Defense, and she got in, assigned to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. For the next two summers, she would arrive each weekday at 8 a.m., show her badge to get through the gates and walk past soldiers in camouflage to a basement lab -- a summer without sunlight.
Sherri was assigned to Lucille Lumley, a neuroscientist who, along with colleagues, had collected vast amounts of electroencephalograph data recording seizures in mice and rats. EEGs measure electrical signals from the brain and are often used by doctors to diagnose epilepsy. But there were no computer programs to analyze what Lumley and others had collected. The neuroscientists gave piles of this digital EEG data to Sherri, who also downloaded human seizure data from the Web, acquiring the raw material she needed to see if she could find a way around what had been a tedious manual process.
It was hard, plodding work. Sherri had a computer on a cart, and math books piled around her. She taught herself the ins and outs of linear algebra as she went along. At 5:30 p.m., she would leave for home, often burning data onto a CD so she could fool around with it a little longer at night.
It could be really frustrating, Sherri says, but she refused to give up. Her work was so good that Lumley took her to a medical conference in Washington and arranged for Sherri to present a paper on her progress. The organizers listed her as Dr. Sherri Geng, much to Lumley's amusement. "She just got her driver's license," Lumley laughs.
By the end of her second summer at Walter Reed, Sherri had accomplished what she wanted, developing a computerized detection algorithm based on principal and discriminate analyses. The paper that she submitted to the Intel competition was entitled: "Automated Seizure Detection Using Statistical Analysis of EEG Time-Domain Signals."
Abby's Intel research project, she says with some self-deprecation, came down to three squiggly lines. At the Carnegie Institution, she was put to work investigating a star called IRC+10216. A cloud of water, with an uneven distribution of vapor (the squiggly lines), had been discovered around the star, suggesting the presence of comets in the area. Carnegie astronomers hypothesized that the uneven distribution of comets could be caused by the gravitational pull of a planet the size of Jupiter. Abby's job was to run computer simulations that would show whether a planet could have that kind of effect.
"Could a planet make the system look the way we think it looks?" one of Abby's mentors, K.E. Saavik Ford, asked. Abby discovered that it could indeed.
In January, Abby presented her paper to the 205th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society, in San Diego, and she was grateful to Ford for spending hours with her, helping her edit it. "I learned a lot about what it takes to be a scientist," Abby says.
Many of the female scientists at Carnegie and Walter Reed watched Abby and Sherri work with a mixture of pride in their abilities and hope that the obstacles that had confronted earlier generations were disappearing.
Discrimination isn't overt, but it bubbles up, says Debra Yourick, a researcher in pharmacology and neuroscience at Walter Reed. It's persuasive enough that women don't like to draw attention to themselves as women. "You almost apologize for being pregnant," says Yourick, a mother of three girls ages 4 to 14, who has watched some colleagues return to work three weeks after giving birth. She says she still struggles to balance her work with her children, racing home to get to a soccer practice by 6. "I'm out of my mind," she says.
At Walter Reed, the female scientists all make their own coffee, so they won't be put in the position of having to make it for one of the men. Marti Jett, a research chemist and chief of the department of molecular pathology, goes a step further. "I don't drink it," she says, which allows her to say: "Coffee? Oh, I never drink coffee."
At Carnegie, Abby worked in the same building as Vera Rubin, a revered astronomer in the department of terrestrial magnetism who also happened to be one of the 12 Intel judges. The offices adjoining Abby's were filled with women with postdoctoral appointments, and to work among them would be to assume that being a female astronomer is completely unremarkable. That was not Vera Rubin's experience.
Rubin, 77, remembers being a lonely and uncomfortable girl in science class 60 years ago. "I certainly didn't like my high school physics class," she says. "My teacher didn't know how to treat a young woman." Rubin wanted to take mechanical drawing, but she didn't have the nerve to enter that male domain until she persuaded another girl to take the class with her.
Vassar rescued her. It was a women's college at that time, and Rubin found an atmosphere that encouraged women to pursue what interested them. She went on to a brilliant career. Rubin, who has been at Carnegie for 40 years, confirmed the existence of dark matter in the universe, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and received the National Medal of Science. She also married and had four children, including a daughter who is an astronomer.
When she was working on her PhD, Rubin says, she and her husband would put their children to bed, and she would work from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., getting up with the children in the morning. She has one tip in particular for aspiring woman scientists: Marry the right man, one who understands the importance of your career.
By the time she started judging the Intel competition, and saw girls like Abby and Sherri coming along, she thought the path had been cleared, and girls could go wherever they wanted in the world of science and math. Then came Summers, whose remarks dismayed and infuriated her.
"I think I've really been wrong on this," she says. "I really thought things were getting better. The fact that my generation could do it -- we thought it would change for others."
Though more and more women are getting doctorates, she says, they are not getting the academic jobs they deserve. "It's still possible to get a PhD never having studied under a woman," Rubin says. "Women don't have role models." In 2001, according to the National Science Foundation, 6,867 women received doctorates in science and engineering, compared with 9,395 men. That same year, there were only 9,490 women who were full professors in college science and engineering departments, compared with 60,470 men.
These are the numbers that Saavik Ford, one of Abby's mentors, fears. The blatant discrimination of 30 years ago has disappeared, says Ford, who is 27, and her own postdoctoral appointment at Carnegie testifies to this.
Ford is pursuing an academic research career along a path that Abby might one day tread as well. First there's the PhD, then a series of short-term, postdoctoral appointments of two or three years. "Typically, you spend five to 10 years leading a nomadic life, moving from short-term appointment to short-term appointment," Ford says, building toward a tenure-track job. But there aren't enough tenure-track science jobs out there, so two out of three of today's postdocs will have to go elsewhere, she says. "They won't end up sleeping on the street in a cardboard box," she says, but taking jobs in industry, government or policymaking. Others will teach high school.
Even when women reach the point of being considered for a tenure-track job, Ford says, it's difficult to break through that final barrier. Most hiring is done by white male faculty members, who got there first and are still running things. "They're interviewing six to eight people, deciding if they want to spend 30 years with one of these people," she says. "You feel comfortable around the people who are like you. You choose a man."
And if a woman in academia marries a man in academia, as Ford has, she's really asking for trouble. Trying to get post-doctoral appointments and tenure-track jobs in the same cities can be nearly impossible. More often than not, it's the woman who ends up leaving the field. Which is just what Ford is doing. Her astronomer husband, better positioned for a tenure-track opportunity because he is a little farther along in the pipeline than she is, has an offer in North Carolina. They're packing up and moving on. Ford is giving up her dreams of becoming a tenured professor. Perhaps, she says, she can get into science writing.
Some teachers in Blair's science and math magnet say that girls and boys behave differently in class. Adolescent boys call out answers, not caring whether they're right or wrong. Though Abby says she feels no reluctance to raise her hand in class, many of her female classmates are quieter, her teachers say, waiting until they're sure they're right. More girls wait to ask questions after class. But when it comes time for a test, the girls at Blair score as well as the boys.
Speaking up -- Elizabeth Mann still wrestles with that. She graduated from the Blair magnet program in 1993. Like Abby and Sherri, she was a finalist in what was then called the Westinghouse science contest. She went to Harvard, got her doctorate at Oxford and now is at MIT, about to begin the final year of a three-year post-doctoral appointment. She's teaching multi-variable calculus and a version of theoretical calculus, not bad for someone who never liked to speak up.
Her teachers at Blair remember Mann as a brilliant student. She remembers herself as hesitant. She used to think her reticence didn't matter. It didn't keep her from soaring right to the top on tests. Now, as a teacher herself, she sees it differently.
The woman who sits there silently, too timid to ask, waiting until the end of class, loses half the lecture, Mann says. The boy in the front row, peppering the teacher with questions, gets more response, and more out of the lecture.
"I wish I could learn that style now," she says. "Even now, I try to force myself to ask questions when I don't understand. It depends very much on who else is in that room. I'm still too hesitant in questioning."
That's how girls are socialized, she says, which doesn't matter quite as much in high school as it does later. Those high test scores have saved many a girl, she says. But later it does matter, and very much.
"Math is a very social activity," Mann says. "You might not think of it as an oral culture, but there's a lot of stuff that is known but not written down. Maybe it's people traveling and giving seminars on last month's results, or it's three people having lunch and one is explaining something to the other two. That's how it's learned."
This, she says, as if speaking directly to Summers, is not biology. It's culture.
The lobby of the St. Regis Hotel at 16th and K streets NW is replete with crystal chandeliers and an elaborately carved ceiling, decorous and hushed. It's a Saturday in March, and the 40 Intel finalists have gathered here for the final round of judging -- an excruciating examination of their work and intellect by a group of eminent U.S. scientists.
The 25 boys and 15 girls have been winnowed from 1,600 competitors from across the country. They are, by any measure, an extraordinary group of students: 10 have perfect scores on their SATs; 15 are first in their class; all are sought after by the nation's most selective colleges.
When Abby learned she was an Intel finalist, she called the Harvard admissions personnel to add that to her application. They already knew. Within a few weeks of the Intel competition, Abby will be weighing admissions offers from Yale, Brown, Cornell, Harvard and MIT, among others. But today, dressed in a dark pantsuit with a violet blouse, Abby looks subdued. She had to give up her role as the villainous queen in "Once Upon a Mattress" during its second weekend run. An understudy took her place so she could compete in Intel, which is proving a lot more stressful than she expected.
The 12 judges -- computer scientists, mathematicians, engineers, physicians, chemists and physicists -- have divided into groups of three and take turns quizzing the kids in second-floor rooms of the hotel. There were two sessions for each student on Friday, and there are two more scheduled for today. The judges aren't asking them about their research projects yet. Instead they grill them on their overall knowledge. Where did the carbon in your bodies come from? What is the latitude of your city? What's the most ingenious invention in history?
"We try to push them but not upset them," Vera Rubin explains. "It's not a question of knowing an answer. We want to know how they think. We're trying to identify the people who will be the leaders in the next generation of scientists."
Abby is trying to enjoy herself, she says, but she's not sure she's doing well. "I don't want to look stupid," she says. "I wish there were more astronomy questions. I haven't had biology for two years."
Sherri arrives in the lobby, somber in her light-brown pantsuit. She's already finished her four sessions with the judges. She calls the first round a minor disaster. She had questions about physics, which she hadn't taken since freshman year, and about photographic processes. "I thought it would be more philosophical, not actual science," she says. "Half of me wishes I could go back. By the end I was like . . . I want to stay so you can ask me more biology questions. I wanted to redeem myself for the physics question."
Meeting so many brilliant students and struggling to answer so many difficult questions has been the most humbling experience of her life, she says. At one particularly low point, she called home. "Daddy," she says she told her father, "I'm not sure I belong here."
Zheng Geng, an engineer, tried to reassure her that she did. "You're just as able to handle this as anyone else," she remembers him telling her.
Soon she and the other finalists pile into vans to the National Academy of Sciences to set up their projects. In the morning the judges will finally ask about them. Then they will spend four hours on their feet Sunday and Monday afternoons, answering a steady stream of questions from the public. "Tell me about your project." Or, "How did you get the idea for your project?" Or, "What's a seizure?"
By the end of the two public sessions, they're exhausted, hardly having had time to take a gulp of water from the bottles tucked behind their display boards. "My feet hurt," Sherri says. "I have to sit down," declares her Blair classmate Michael Forbes.
And still they have to do it again, now dressed in evening gowns and tuxedos, gathered with 700 scientists, parents, teachers and mentors for the awards dinner at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. Once more, Abby and Sherri, glamorous in clouds of blue and strapless red, stand at their boards, explaining the intricacies of seizures and stars.
After everyone eats dinner, it's finally time to announce the winners. Abby, Sherri and the others bravely line up on the grandiose stage, which looks like a high-tech Greek temple with its four stately columns and two huge television screens. Craig Barrett, Intel's CEO, takes the microphone to anoint 10 winners.
All along, Abby and Sherri have been telling themselves they won't be among those 10, though it's hard not to hope that they're wrong. The announcement begins with the 10th-place winner. When Abby and Sherri hear the name Po-Ling Loh, from Madison, Wis., for her project, "Closure Properties of D2p in Finite Groups," whatever hopes they still have fade. The bar is really high, if that's No. 10, Sherri remembers thinking.
If they are disappointed, they don't have time to show it because the seventh-place winner is announced, and it's their friend and classmate Justin Kovac, who did research on hurricanes. For Abby and Sherri, standing next to each other on stage, it's a big YESSS! They're still beaming when David Bauer, a New Yorker they've come to admire over the last few days for his sharp mind, genial personality and research on biochemical agents, gets first prize amid an explosion of confetti. Of the 10 winners, three are girls.
When they leave the stage, their parents are there with hugs. The winners are rushed off for interviews. Slowly, the hubbub subsides, and the buses pull up to take the kids back to the hotel. There isn't much time for regret. Tomorrow the 40 will part, amid damp eyes and embraces. For Abby and Sherri, AP tests await, along with prom and graduation.
Abby decides she will go to Yale. Sherri is headed for Harvard, where, in May, Summers announces plans to spend at least $50 million over 10 years to recruit and promote female scientists and engineers on his faculty.
"Universities like Harvard," he tells reporters during a conference call, "were designed a long time ago, in many respects, by men and for men." It's time to start changing that, he says. Time to make sure girls like Abby Fraeman and Sherri Geng don't encounter the same roadblocks as the women who have come before them.
Kathy Lally is an editor in The Post's Business section. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.