Words of encouragement for women in science
11/14/07 ~ Christy Blandford
When she graduated from UIC 10 years ago, Veronica Arreola never expected to achieve her goals so quickly.
Impassioned by gender issues, she dreamed of someday directing a program that would encourage women to pursue careers in science and engineering.
That someday came two years ago, when she was named director of UIC’s Women in Science and Engineeringprogram (WISE).
“The job I have now, five years ago was on my 10-to-15-year list of things to accomplish,” she said.
Arreola has racked up another accomplishment she didn’t foresee. She was named this year’s Woman of the Year by the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women. She will be honored at a reception Dec. 10 from noon to 1:30 p.m. in the Illinois Room, Student Center East.
“I knew I was nominated, but I really didn’t expect this,” Arreola said.
Arreola’s career focuses on sending this message to women: you can find success in math and science.
“There’s still this societal view that women just don’t do science, they just don’t do math,” she said. “But women can do it.”
Arreola first became aware of the lack of role models for women in science and math when she was in high school. She really liked math, and she stuck out.
“Being a young girl and having an aptitude for math always made me a little odd,” she said. “Being a Latina girl who had an aptitude for math made me really odd.”
She decided to pursue her interests, focusing her UIC undergraduate education on biological sciences and women’s studies.
Almost all her science teachers were men, but she knew women belong in these fields, too.
“Being able to see someone who looks like you do something helps you envision yourself doing that,” said Arreola, who is also assistant director of the Center for Research on Women and Gender.
In her role as director of WISE, Arreola set out to help students like herself who didn’t have mentors in school. She oversees a tutoring program that sends UIC students to two Chicago Public Schools high schools each week to meet with a group of girls who like math and science.
On campus, Arreola serves as a mentor to students who often talk to her about their career ideas or seek guidance for their struggles, she said.
“Increasingly, students in this generation are under such intense pressure on so many different levels to succeed, and a lot of them really don’t know where they’re going,” she said. “Asking for help doesn’t mean you’re a failure; it just means you’re human.
“I feel that I’ve failed more times than succeeded, but I try to learn from each failure,” she said.
As a UIC graduate — she also received her master’s in public administration in 2003 — Arreola has experience that allows her to empathize, said Monica Rausa Williams, co-chairwoman of the award selection committee.
“She knows the challenges that women face in the sciences, and she’s able to tap into that experience and mentor those students,” Williams said.
Through talking with women at science conferences, Arreola pinpointed what she says is the biggest challenge for women interested in scientific research: “the convergence of the biological clock with the tenure clock.”
Some women want to wait until they have tenure at a university to have children, Arreola said, but tenure comes to most women when they are in their mid- to late 30s.
“That’s when the biological clock is really ticking,” she said.
Among researchers, a chasm between men and women is apparent, Arreola said.
“Studies show that women faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields often report that they have no children or fewer children than they wanted, but men don’t report that — they say they have the number they wanted,” she said.
Still, she said, men are concerned with balancing work and life, too.
“It might not become an issue until they get into the work force, but we see more and more men concerned about 80-hour weeks and accessible child care facilities,” she said.
For those who work at UIC and have children, Arreola has set up an online community. Over the summer, she started an e-mail forum through a listserv for parents to share ideas on parenting and child care issues.
Off-campus, her dedication to women’s issues hasn’t wavered. She works with the Chicago office of the National Organization for Women, the Chicago Abortion Fund and Women in Media and News. She also writes “mommy blogs” for Chicago Parent Magazine and Chicago Moms.
When she’s not volunteering or working, she can be found with her nose in a book — preferably feminist science fiction — or watching sports in her North Side home with her husband, Tony, and 4-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.
She’s surprised she’s come so far in 10 years, but she’s happy that she’s helping women see their potential.
“I’m really, really lucky,” she said.
“I get to work with amazingly smart women each day who really do what they want to do with their lives. They want to change the world.”