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Associate dean recalls women’s science struggle

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When Elizabeth Tucker Gurney was an undergraduate student at a university, she fought against feelings that she was as unimportant as some part of the blackboard.

As the only woman in some courses, she felt "ignored by TA's (teaching assistants) and fellow students and some of the professors," she said.

This month, she became the first woman to hold a deanship in the University of Utah's College of Science. She is the new associate dean of the college, replacing George A. Williams in the position.

Gurney, an associate professor of biology, will assist the college's dean, Peter J. Stang. After a five-year term, Williams is returning to research and teaching in the physics department, said U. spokesman James DeGooyer.

Gurney earned her bachelor's degree in physics and her master's and Ph.D. in genetics. She arrived at the University of Utah as a postdoctoral fellow in 1975. At the U. she has been a research assistant professor and the associate director of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program.

Her work has been supported by the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.

The U.'s College of Science "actually has been very strong in encouraging women to get into science," she said. Gurney is impressed with the Access Scholarship for Young Women in Mathematics and the Sciences, a project launched in 1991 to start careers in these fields.

Administrators encourage women faculty members to participate in Science Day at the U., when high school students and their parents visit the campus for workshops, demonstrations and experiments.

For many years women have been underrepresented in math and science throughout the country.

Gurney thinks the roots of the problem are deeper than the university setting, involving "the socialization that happens for girls, telling them that that is not an appropriate activity for you," she said.

"This starts back in junior high school or even earlier, so I think it's very important for girls to be encouraged to explore nature, to explore machines and computers, and all the different things that we think of as science and engineering and math."

In her own life, she was lucky enough to be born into a family that encouraged her to explore science. "It was just by chance of personality and opportunity," Gurney said.

Her father was a historian. Her mother had a scientific background and had no qualms about tackling such household projects as fixing plumbing.

She attended a magnet school in Detroit that included science as a curriculum focus. "There were lots of other girls there."

But going to college as an undergraduate, she found she was the only girl in math and the only girl in physics. "That's where I felt it for the first time, that it was unnatural for me to be there. There was not the network of peer support."

A crucial time for many girls is the transition from general math to pre-algebra. "There's a drop-off in how many go on to more math in high school," she said.

Too many girls hear at that time that math is scary.

"I think there's a pressure against taking the algebra, the geometry, the pre-calculus and the calculus that would give a strong background for university education in science," she said.

That has ramifications at universities, where too few women are majoring in math and physics. The discrepancy won't be fixed anytime soon — not enough women are in the pipeline. "It still means there is a shortage," she said.

But for women who are interested in those fields, career opportunities are impressive, Gurney said.

"I have a niece who is just graduating with a Ph.D. in physics, and she's finding she's in great demand. It's an advantage to be a woman."

E-MAIL: bau@desnews.com