UT Austin Plan II Honors Student Is Making Biomedical History

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in a news update by the College of Liberal Arts at UT Austin….

A UT Austin undergraduate’s research could help change the way doctors diagnose diseases with known protein biomarkers like multiple sclerosis and leukemia.

Courtney Koepke, a Plan II and biomedical engineering junior, is an undergraduate research assistant at UT Austin’s Laboratory of Biomaterials, Drug Delivery and Bionanotechnology.

“As a freshman entering college, I didn’t know much about research or understand the important role it plays in the continual advancement of society,” Koepke says.

That changed when Nicholas Peppas, a biomedical engineering researcher at UT Austin, was a guest lecturer in one of Koepke’s classes. Intrigued by his presentation, Koepke looked into the research he and his lab were doing.

UT Plan II student Courney Koepke--"the rest, as they say, is history."

“As I read some of the recent publications from the lab, I realized I wanted to be a part of the research that was being conducted and a part of the group of individuals truly aspiring to change the world,” she says. “The rest, as they say, is history.”

Koepke began working in Peppas’ lab at the beginning of her sophomore year. The experience has not only served as a vehicle for intellectual discovery, but also self-discovery.

“The motivating idea behind research is the discovery of new knowledge, which drives innovation and improvement in all areas of society,” Koepke says. “Being a part of that societal improvement and something bigger than oneself is something every undergraduate student can benefit from. Furthermore, research can allow undergraduates to uncover their strengths and weaknesses as well as likes and dislikes at an early age.”

The research Koepke is conducting is focused on molecularly imprinted polymers, or plastic antibodies, which are created in a lab to mimic naturally occurring antibodies.

“My research focuses on plastic antibodies as a recognition element for disease because over time naturally occurring antibodies become unstable and useless for recognition,” she says. “The goal of my research is to create a diagnostic tool to recognize protein biomarkers for disease. Using plastic antibodies as the recognition element in a diagnostic tool would allow for quicker and easier diagnosis of diseases such as multiple sclerosis, meningitis and leukemia.”

The liberal arts component to Koepke’s education has made a big impact on the way she approaches her work. As a Plan II student, she’s worked closely with students from a variety of backgrounds, who have exposed her to diverse opinions that challenge and expand her worldview.

“Taking classes such as world literature and philosophy has helped me mature intellectually in ways my science and engineering classes never could have,” Koepke says. “Liberal arts classes have forced me to question society and how it’s structured, as well as humanity and what our duty to it is as individuals.”

Koepke serves as president of Texas Engineering World Health, an organization that aims to create more equitable global health through innovation in medical technology.

Last year, Koepke and her teammates designed an app called Audiometry Made Easy, which provides a free audiometry test to assess hearing loss. It’s an important resource, especially in developing countries where a normal audiometer is an expensive and widely unavailable tool. The app is currently available in the Google Play store, and has received feedback from people using it around the world.

Koepke is also an active member in Women in Biomedical Engineering and she recently joined Texas 4000, through which she will bike from Austin to Anchorage in the summer of 2016 to raise money and awareness for cancer research.

 

Women and STEM Careers: Nobody’s Business but Their Own

While doing research for an upcoming article on the positive impact that honors programs can have on the performance of women majoring in STEM subjects, we made some discoveries that were surprising (at least to us) about why young women who are fully capable of successful careers in engineering, computer science, etc., have chosen other demanding careers instead.

Experts point to a troublesome shortage in the STEM fields that, in addition to engineering and computer science, also include biological and physical sciences and mathematics.  The problem is expected to worsen.  Those who are most concerned about the shortage focus on its impact on the economy and on the nation’s competitive position in the world.

Now that about 57 percent of college students are women (more like 65 percent in honors), many observers argue that the nation needs increased numbers of them meet the need for STEM grads.  Yet at the same time,  women are not enrolling or persisting in most STEM majors in numbers thought to be sufficiently high, and scholars, advocates, and pundits have sounded multiple alarms, most of them having to do with the very real gender bias in the sciences, classroom climate, lack of role models, and, occasionally, the alleged deficiencies in math that have for decades been associated with women.

Those in the business and political world who are most concerned about competition and economics are often the very people who champion the role of individual freedom and choice, especially when money and careers are involved.  While we believe that gender bias, stereotypes, and role expectations, along with a paucity of mentors, are in fact some of the reasons that many young women do not major in STEM subjects, we also credit young women for exercising thoughtful, market-related choices about the best way to combine their interests and values to best effect, not only for themselves but for the larger society.  

But first let’s consider the alleged shortcomings of women in mastering the skills necessary for STEM work, beginning with the math issue.  Women now make up 44 percent of math majors and they earn 43.3 percent of math degrees.  It is true that 44 percent shows that they are under-represented in the field based on their total percentage of college enrollment, but the sizable percentage they do have in the math discipline and their persistence in obtaining math degrees argue that the perceived lack of math skills is at least questionable and that many women do in fact have the math skills to become engineers or computer professionals–if they choose to do so.

(Note: the numbers are from the National Center for Education Statistics .)

In the biological sciences, women earn 58.5 percent of the degrees; in the physical sciences, 40.7 percent.  It is true that in engineering they earn only 18.3 percent of the degrees and in computer science only 18.1 percent.  But wait, here is where the (very) rational choice comes in.

One reason that many women study the sciences and math is that, even though they may not pursue careers in those specific fields, they do make up a majority–or even super-majority–of health care professionals who need math and science preparation to meet their goals.  They frequently have the quantitative skills to become engineers and computer scientists, but their values and a keen job market assessment lead them elsewhere.

According to the NCES, the health professions include not only physicians and nurses (and their many specialty fields) but also audiology, speech therapy, physical therapy, and related sub-fields.

The nursing shortage hit the U.S. in 1998, before the STEM shortage.  In 2000, there were 72,986 nursing graduates; in 2010, that number had grown to 161,540.   Some 85.1 percent of health professions graduates are women, including just over 90 percent of registered nurses and 48.3 percent of physicians.

Even though STEM grads in a few fields make more money than most health professions graduates straight out of college, after ten years people working in health care often earn more, sometimes much more, especially when graduate and professional degrees are considered.  And the health-related careers are likely less vulnerable to sudden technological changes or market disruptions.

One may say that women have been acting according to their role expectations or their values by becoming nurses.  Recent research also shows that women, with higher verbal ability to go along with quantitative skills, simply have a broader range of choices  as a result.  But however significant these factors may be, it is a fact that women in nursing and allied health professions are also (1) meeting an urgent national priority and (2) making good salaries for themselves.   Sounds a lot like the argument for pursing STEM studies.

Even granting STEM a priority position, we must still ask, what would happen if, say, half the women who are going into health professions reversed course now and decided to become engineers?  Would the nation be better off, at a time when almost all health professions are understaffed?  And would far more pressure be placed on men to take up nursing and other health-related careers instead of business?

If we speak of stereotypes, many people would say that men are, or at least have been, more competitive in their natures than women because of the almost complete male dominance of sports in the last century, and long before.  Another stereotype often follows: this competitive nature is better suited to the business world, and that world is, after all, the one that really counts.

This makes us wonder if the current pressure on women to study STEM subjects, particularly the ones most related to the business world, is largely a product of what the still predominantly masculine realms of business and politics want to see.  True, many of the demands for more women in STEM come from women, especially in academe, and if women really want the typically more austere and less engaged corporate jobs  in engineering and computer science, or want to be professors in those fields, then they should certainly be able pursue those goals free from bias or stereotypical expectations.

But it may well be that most young women are already making choices that have less to do with being “winners” than with being true to themselves.

A New Endowment to Support Young Women at UT Austin

Editor’s Note: This post comes from the University of Texas at Austin.

With women making up more than half the nation’s population—51 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—the need for scientists, leaders in business and government, engineers, and doctors of both sexes is greater than ever. Fortunately for young women studying at UT Austin, the university increasingly provides both a social climate and an intellectual environment to encourage their ambitions.

INSPIRE Leadership is a three-year revolving program serving sophomores to seniors that helps women develop the skills they need to achieve the highest levels within their academic fields. Under the direction of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, which is part of the College of Liberal Arts, INSPIRE has served as UT’s signature leadership program for women undergraduates since 2009. About 90 percent of participants are young women of color, most are in underrepresented majors, and many are first-generation college students.

Mary Braunagel-Brown is committed to the establishment of an endowment supporting students selected for the program. Retired in Austin with her husband, Bruce Brown, following a successful career in business and higher education, Braunagel-Brown is an active community volunteer. She would like to see her INSPIRE fund grow quickly and support as many students as possible. She has therefore pledged to match new gifts to the fund dollar-for-dollar up to a total of $25,000.

“I am delighted to support INSPIRE,” Braunagel-Brown says. “I am impressed with the program’s efficient structure, which allows even a modest contribution such as mine to have a demonstrable impact.”

INSPIRE participants gain the confidence and knowledge to express their voice in the classroom, on campus, and in leadership roles in the community, making a difference by engaging in public service and working with other young women in supportive and interdisciplinary environments. They develop skills in areas such as critical thinking, public presentation, group motivation, and negotiation.

“The INSPIRE Leadership Program is unique and transformative,” says program facilitator Juan Portillo. “While we provide professional development workshops, take the students to conferences, and help them work on group and personal projects, the biggest impact that I feel this program provides is the space and time to take a step back and reflect on what it means to be a female student, more than likely a first-generation college student, and more often than not in a male-dominated field.”

Participant Bibha Suvedi, who is studying neurobiology and expects to graduate in 2014, says the program has helped her focus her ambitions. “Freshman year, before I was in INSPIRE, felt like a never-ending journey toward something that I didn’t quite have the idea of,” she says. “With so many students and their respective student organizations, it was surprisingly difficult to fit in. Joining INSPIRE and being able to interact regularly with an amazing group of diverse young women became the highlight of my week.”

In the academic environment, where what can seem most valued is the number of internships one has or the importance of competing and leaving others behind, INSPIRE teaches that becoming a leader requires many skills—originality, inspiration, imagination, resourcefulness, creativity, vision, and the power to influence. Moreover, students learn how to develop these skills directly from the experiences of successful female mentors drawn from both the academy and the community.

“I support this program,” says Braunagel-Brown, “because the world will simply be a better place when UT women—particularly first-generation college students, those from underrepresented groups, and those pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math-related fields—have the skills and confidence to reach their potential.”

AAUW Sponsors STEM Camps for Girls in Early Teens in Four States

Editor’s Note: This article is from the American Association of University Women.  It is the first post in a new category for us called Women in Honors.

Four Camps Launch Nationwide This Summer

By Katie Broendel, broendelk@aauw.org

WASHINGTON – The American Association of University Women (AAUW) will offer four Tech Trek camps across the country this month to encourage girls to explore their interests in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The camps will engage approximately 160 girls from Ohio, Oklahoma, Florida, and Washington state.

Tech Trek has grown from one camp in California in 1998 to 10 successful camps on eight college campuses throughout the state today, and AAUW is now expanding the program nationally. Campers, who are about to enter the eighth grade, stay on college campuses for a week and perform experiments and other hands-on activities and interact with women role models who work in STEM fields.

Attendees are nominated by their seventh grade math and science teachers, and many come from populations where STEM careers may not be an obvious choice. AAUW member volunteers fundraise to subsidize the cost of the camps for campers, and families pay just a nominal fee for girls to attend and participate. AAUW’s commitment ensures that girls will be able to have this empowering experience no matter their socioeconomic status.

The national expansion of Tech Trek camps was inspired by AAUW’s 2010 research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, which made recommendations for helping more girls develop an interest and persist in pursuing STEM careers.

“To be globally competitive, the United States needs more people going into STEM fields,” said AAUW Executive Director Linda D. Hallman. “As 50 percent of the overall workforce but less than 25 percent of the STEM workforce, women need to be the focus of efforts to increase STEM participation in the United States. Encouraging an early interest in STEM for girls makes all the difference. Eighth grade is when a girl’s interest can be either lost or enhanced for a lifetime. We want to make sure these girls know that they can be successful, and we hope that inspiring them leads to more women in the STEM pipeline.”

AAUW supports women and girls in STEM through research, funding, and programs like Tech Trek and Tech Savvy. Tech Savvy, a daylong program created eight years ago by the AAUW Buffalo (NY) Branch, works to expose young women to opportunities and careers in STEM fields though fun, hands-on activities. Like Tech Trek, Tech Savvy has seen great success, and it is expanding to 10 new cities.

AAUW will host an interactive exhibit at a STEM fair on July 17 on Capitol Hill. The event is co-hosted by Women’s Policy Inc. and the leadership of the congressional women’s caucus. The AAUW exhibit will highlight the findings and recommendations of our Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics research, which explores the environmental and social barriers to women’s participation in STEM.