Southern’s Women in STEM are Rising Stars

Graduate students Rispar Githinji (left) and Therese Ziaks, ’21

Southern has a lot to celebrate this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, as we recognize the impactful role women and girls have in advancing the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

“Southern has done better than many institutions at hiring female faculty in departments that historically have a low percentage of female majors,” said Dr. Therese Bennett, associate dean for STEM. “Physics has two female faculty in a department of five, and the Computer Science department has five female faculty in a department of 12 full-time faculty — this is not usual.”

While there is still work to be done, Southern is trending in the right direction. Spring 2022 data shows that the university’s master’s programs in applied physics, biology, and chemistry all hold a majority female enrollment, along with baccalaureate degree programs in biology, biotechnology, and chemistry.

Here’s an interview with two current STEM students and a faculty member:

Therese Ziaks, ’21
Major: Chemistry | Minors: Biology, Honors Transdisciplinary, Psychology. 

Ziaks is currently pursuing her M.S. in chemistry and is in the process of completing her graduate thesis titled: “Synthesis and Determination of Stability of β-Ketoesters and β-Ketoamides Under Physiological Conditions.” The thesis addresses the antibiotic resistance crisis. Ziaks intends to pursue a career in the medical field, become a physician, and mentor young women in science.

Rispar Githinji
Major: Biochemistry

Githinji is in the midst of completing an accelerated M.S. degree in biochemistry and expects to graduate in the spring of 2023. Githinji is currently conducting research alongside Dr. Adiel Coca on the Suzuki-Miyaura Reaction through the Chemistry Department and hopes to pursue a career in the medical field. The Suzuki Miyaura Reaction is used to “create carbon-carbon bonds to produce conjugated systems of alkenes, styrenes, or biaryl compounds.”

Dr. Dana Casetti 
Associate Professor of Physics 

Casetti received her master’s degree in physics from the University of Bucharest in 1987 before receiving her doctorate in astronomy from Yale University in 1998. Casetti is a research scientist of astronomy at Yale University and joined Southern in 2013.

Q: What got you interested in science, and why did you choose to pursue it at Southern?

TZ: As an undergraduate, I knew Southern would provide me with an informative transdisciplinary education. During my undergraduate and now graduate studies, I’ve been able to conduct research through the Chemistry Department, work on my thesis, and publish a paper entitled “Is it possible to design a clinically viable heroin vaccine? The progress and pitfalls, exploring the dire need for effective treatments against opioid abuse.”

RG: I fell in love with biology, chemistry, and physics in high school. As I was looking for colleges, I knew nothing else I would study. Now that I have been at Southern for awhile, it is the best decision I could have made. Southern was not just the best of all the schools I applied to financially, but they have pushed me to advocate for myself, which has opened numerous doors for me.

DC: I got interested in astronomy in high school. I don’t know precisely why I chose astronomy, as it seemed to start as a teenage whim. Yet, this “whim” never left me as the years went by. I carried that with me to Southern, where I started to teach as a visiting faculty in the Physics Department, where a former colleague of mine, also an astronomer, taught. I found the experience at Southern to be so rewarding I’m now on a tenure-track position.

Q: What more needs to be done to help promote women in the sciences?

TZ: Many women are discouraged from pursuing science in college because they don’t have a female mentor or perceive the field as not being inclusive. I think there needs to be more outreach to young women intent on pursuing or may be interested in science, especially those in high school. There needs to be an emphasis on the opportunities for women in STEM and a promotion of inclusive classrooms where female students are respected.

RG: Hiring more female professors in the science field. Any school would benefit from more female professors in the STEM field. I currently look up to all my female professors, and I find it inspiring to hear everything they have done. They are all very well educated and do their best to pay it forward and create opportunities for their students. When someone has been down a specific path, helping others also walk down that path can make a huge difference.

DC: Young women need to be exposed to more women scientists and mentors to understand what such a career may entail. More women faculty doing research and being mentors is a direct way to attract young women.

Q: What advice do you have for young women entering the sciences?

TZ: When faced with adversity or a setback, move forward. Do not allow one comment or one challenge to discourage or stop you from achieving what you are capable of accomplishing.

RG: Stay curious and question everything; that’s how I learned. But most importantly, you need to own your curiosity. Just because your friends aren’t interested in the same things you are, doesn’t mean you need to hide it from them. Young women need to know that science isn’t just “a guy’s subject,” but that they too can be just as good and maybe even better in the field. I hope that this generation of women can enter the sciences and become the future generation of women who they can look up to.

DC: Perseverance and dedication. While enthusiasm and a positive mindset are good, they aren’t enough. You have to have a solid background. It is a must in this field. Young women need to be informed about what a career in science means and ask themselves seriously if they want to pursue it. This field requires a lot of work.