Ngoc Nguyen spent her summer learning how molecules known as surfactants in liquid soap interact with proteins on the human skin. The sophomore in the Medical Sciences Program in the College of Medicine was one of 23 students in the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) initiative at the University of Cincinnati.
"Oil doesn't wash very well with water,” says Nguyen. "However, it does when you add soap. Soap contains surfactant molecules. These molecules have unique structures that allow them to surround and solubilize the oil molecules. We have noticed that skin irritation can occur with different types of surfactants. Through this project, we hoped to study how surfactants interact with skin proteins to induce such irritation.”
Nguyen is interested in biomedical research, and finds studying the structure of the skin intriguing. She conducted her research on the interactions of skin proteins with surfactant mixtures in the laboratory of Harshita Kumari, PhD, assistant professor in the Division of Pharmaceutical Sciences in the College of Pharmacy, and worked closely with Ed Smith, a research fellow at Procter & Gamble. Nguyen presented her findings before an audience of students, faculty and other supporters, who offered real-time honest feedback.
WISE is part of a university effort to encourage the participation of talented young women in ongoing research. The goal of the program is to expose students to various aspects of scientific research, and to encourage the pursuit of advanced studies in science, math and engineering. Initiated in 1999, WISE pairs women pursuing undergraduate studies with a faculty mentor.
Each week participants meet as a group to discuss their projects and hear from guest speakers about a variety of topics including decisions about graduate studies, giving professional talks, reading scientific journals and developing leadership skills, explains Heather Norton, PhD, associate professor of anthropology and co-director of the WISE Program.
Faculty mentors are the backbone of the program, which also enjoys support from deans of colleges and department heads at UC, says Norton.
"Faculty spend a lot of time in the summer working with students to expose them to a research experience, teaching them analytical techniques in the lab, how to think critically and what to do when an experiment does not work the way you planned,” says Norton.
WISE celebrated its 20th anniversary during a special ceremony held Wednesday, July 25, 2018, in the African American Cultural & Resource Center. Bleuzette Marshall, PhD, vice president for equity, inclusion and community impact at UC, was mistress of ceremony, while Kristi Nelson, PhD, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, offered greetings at the event.
"The WISE program has introduced me to some of the most incredible people I have ever met,” says Nguyen. "The WISE committee is amazing, and the workshops I was able to attend offered me so many resources that I can use to look for my passion and to consider future career paths. The WISE fellows, my fellow students, are an incredible group of women, very talented and dedicated, and it was awesome to see their progress through the summer.
"It was also great for me to see what industrial science is like because I was curious about that. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted a career in an industrial setting or a hospital setting,” says Nguyen.
Yana Zavros, PhD, professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Systems Physiology and co-director of WISE, says students benefit from learning how to do scientific research, prepare a manuscript and then present their findings to a scientific audience. She said undergraduates also got a chance to interact with female executives in science as a part of luncheon with leaders from Procter & Gamble.
"Our class this year included a really diverse group of young women,” says Zavros. "They span disciplines from architectural engineering, cancer biology, chemistry, mathematics, pharmacy and nursing, to name just a few areas of study.”
Megan Urbanic, a junior biology major, says WISE was a confidence booster for participants. She worked in the laboratory of Tom Cunningham, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Cancer Biology.
"I definitely realized there was a lot more available to me than I originally thought, and no matter what path, I take I can do a lot with whatever degree I end up getting,” says Urbanic. "For instance, P&G came to talk to us at one of our workshops, and there was a range of individuals with master’s and PhD degrees. They all got to where they wanted to go in the company.”
"It was very interesting because most people think graduate school and medical school, and they think I have to be a researcher. I have this certain path and I must work in the laboratory. It is not at all true,” says Urbanic.
As part of Urbanic's research project, she utilized cutting-edge genome editing technologies to introduce precise changes in the DNA code to affect the expression levels of a critical factor required for producing nucleotides, the molecules that comprise our genetic material. Her research has potential implications for understanding or treating diseases caused by mutations in enzymes affecting cellular metabolism, and possibly cancer.
Urbanic says she learned sterile techniques for working in a laboratory, how to perform experiments independently and what to do when an experiment fails.
Urmila Ghia, PhD, professor emerita, mechanical engineering and director, Computational Fluid Dynamics Research Lab, was one of the pioneers of the WISE program. At the WISE 20th anniversary ceremony, she commented on the program’s strengths, and acknowledged the many individuals at UC who made it possible all these years.
However, Ghia says she would like to see better gender representation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. "Over three decades of wide-ranging efforts and vast human and financial capital investments to improve diversity in STEM have produced a number of pockets of excellence, but the national statistics have remained essentially unchanged.”
"If we are to achieve gender parity at the national level, we will need to do something very different,” says Ghia. "Possible paths to consider include engaging the institutional ranking organizations and accreditation agencies to integrate measures of diversity within their procedures. Diversity also matters to employers; they recognize it as an essential driver to disruptive innovation.”
Women are more than 50 percent of the U.S. population, but The Huffington Post reports that only 20 percent of engineering school graduates are women and yet women make up only 11 percent of practicing engineers. One in four female engineers leave the field after age 30, compared to only one in 10 male engineers, according to the Society of Women Engineers.
"If would be great if UC would envision a way for our WISE alumnae to serve as ambassadors, not just within our university, but for other institutions who could benefit from a program like this,” says Ghia.