AAAS Lecture Series on Women in Science and Engineering

Panama City, Panama ­ November 20-26 2002


Gabriela Chavarrķa, National Wildlife Federation
Lourdes Maurice, Federal Aviation Administration
Haydee Salmun, Hunter College of CUNY
AAAS Coordinator: Marina Ratchford
Host Organization: Panamanian Association for the Advancement of Science (APANAC)


  • Informal meeting with students from the Polytechnic University (Faculty of Engineering), and the University of Panama-UP (physicists, chemists, geographers, and biologists) and university laboratories
  • Visit to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute-STRI
  • Visit to the National Secretariat of Science and Technology-SENACYT (meeting with National Secretary Gonzalo Cordoba and tour of INDICASAT facilities)
  • Participation in the seminar "Evaluation of Knowledge", with school teachers and principals from the schools participating in program PEACYT-"Proyecto Esquemas de Aprendizaje Cientifico y Tecnologico" (modeled after AAAS’ Project 2061 of Science, Math and Technology Education Reform)
  • Visit to the City of Knowledge
  • Meeting with UP’s Vice Rector for Research and Graduate Studies
  • Participation at the VIII National Congress of Science and Technology, including:
    • Invited lectures on each of the scientists’ fields
    • Round table on Women in Science and Engineering (videotaped)
    • Panel with high school students and their teachers
    • Poster session featuring the work of the scientists
  • Visit to PEACYT schools including Escuela Fermin Naudeau; Escuela Haiti; and Escuela Brader
  • Meeting with Urania Ungo, director of UP’s Institute of the Woman
  • Informal meetings with individual scientists, to discuss potential collaboration
  • Social activities and dinners including invited scientists and policymakers
  • Site visits to the Panama Canal (VIP visit to Miraflores locks); Center of Marine Exhibits at Punta Culebra, Naos; Amador (site of the future Ecological Museum designed by Frank Gehry); and Old Panama City.

The intensive agenda of activities resulted in an extremely productive and positive experience for the U.S. scientists. The local organizers and hosts have also expressed their satisfaction in the outcome of these activities. Events were publicized in the local print and TV media, in order to attract a wide and mixed (women and men; professionals and students) audience. The three U.S. scientists and their stories were featured in La Prensa (Panama’s main newspaper) and El Mundo (Boston).

The participating U.S. scientists covered a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds (aerospace; physics/oceanography; and entomology) and professions (government chief scientist; university professor; and conservation lobbyist). The three scientists also came from very different socio-economic backgrounds and included urban and rural perspectives. They were all extremely enthusiastic about their participation in this program and devoted a significant amount of their time to prepare their presentations (both scientific and on the issue of women in science and engineering). Their inspirational words during round tables, informal discussions and interactions with various audiences emphasized the importance of perseverance, hard work, self-confidence, ability to change and adapt, and the value of education and knowledge. Given the diversity in their fields and work, some of them were rewarded by their employers for their participation in this project (including a promotion and bigger lab facilities, and a nomination for the Presidential Awards for mentoring in science and engineering ­an award usually for people who have worked to diversity the sciences), while others did not publicize their participation out of fear that it would have negative repercussions.

Participation at the National Congress was a very timely opportunity to meet the wide scientific society in Panama, including this year’s recipient of the National Science Award, the eminent demographer Dr. Carmen Miro. Scientific presentations by the three U.S. women scientists were very important to highlight the professional achievements and knowledge of these women, which later helped validate their contributions and recommendations at the round table on women in science.

The meetings with students and visits to schools were particularly insightful and, as some of the scientists pointed out, even transformational. It was evident from these meetings that both boys and girls can greatly benefit from positive female role models. These sessions provided the opportunity to hundreds of students to pose questions (see below a list of sample questions) that reflected their expectations of what it takes to pursue a scientific career and what influences their career choices. From these visits and the interactions with teachers, several factors were identified as important to promote the study of science, mathematics and technology, including: contact with nature; participation in hands-on activities; teachers who enjoy teaching science and pay attention to student interests; use of games and computers; and reading.

Interactions with university students were also productive and provided the opportunity for the U.S. scientists to present various career options (government, academia, non-profit, corporate sector) that are possible with a scientific background. This was important in a country like Panama, where scientists are generally limited to work at the universities once they complete their studies. University students generally expressed concern about their possibilities for work once they completed their degrees, and many seemed doubtful that there would be enough funding opportunities to conduct research as part of their professions. These interactions also provided important insights into the perceptions of male students towards their women colleagues. Even now, several male students expressed that they would never marry someone as successful as the visiting scientists and that they would not let their girlfriends or wives pursue a career that required time and discipline.

Another important interaction was the informal meeting with Urania Ungo, Director of the "Instituto de la Mujer" at the University of Panama. This Institute collects and analyzes data about the participation of women in various aspects of society, including the university and the workforce. Ms. Ungo pointed out that although women in Panama now comprise 66% of registered students at the university level, the participation of women in "hard science " or "hard technology" disciplines is still significantly lower than that of men’s. In particular, the career of engineering (civil, electrical, and mechanical) has the lowest percentages of women students (around 10%). And even though Panama is one of the most advanced countries in Latin America in terms of women’s movements, research and institutional management remains mostly dominated by men. The main problem for women in Panama is not related to access but rather to promotion, prestige and power. Women’s professions are generally characterized by low remuneration and lack of opportunities to reach the highest positions. Based on a 1997 study on women, science and technology, several recommendations were discussed during this meeting:

  • Actions to promote the participation of women in non-traditional careers such as engineering must be addressed to the general adult population and to both public and private schools.
  • One of the factors that influence women to pursue "hard science" studies is the perception of greater opportunities for employment. Therefore, public campaigns should emphasize the country’s need for professionals in those fields and the type of skills and aptitudes required in those careers, so that such skills can be developed from an early age.
  • It is important to realize that there may be subtle influences affecting study and career choices of young women. Educators, students and university administrative personnel should be made aware of actions that, intentionally or unintentionally, tend to establish differences between young women and men and can affect the way decisions are made.
  • Universities should play an important role in gender issues through the creation of permanent programs that encourage the participation of young women in non-traditional disciplines.
  • It is urgent to establish programs devoted to the "visibility" of successful role models of women with hard science and technology degrees, who can serve as examples for others.
  • Various programs of study and career orientation must be coordinated to provide a professional orientation that encourages women to pursue careers in these fields.
The three U.S. scientists that traveled to Panama made several recommendations for follow-up activities that could be undertaken by AAAS and other partner organizations:

  • Conduct workshops to provide students and professors with the tools they will need to become successful scientists. These include workshops on proposal writing, project management and science writing.
  • Establish a program of mini-grants (US$500) to provide support to university students in their thesis research. Ideally, these funds could be leveraged with other existing international funding for major research projects headed by some Panamanian professors. This would allow these professors to involve more students in their research projects. Students could then make presentations of their research both at scientific meetings and schools. Competitions for these grants should allocate a specific number of grants for female students.
  • Continue to provide lectures and presentations by women scientist role models who can inspire students of all ages. This would involve both local and foreign speakers and would not only serve as inspiration to others but also would lend prestige and visibility to local women scientists. These lectures could include speaking engagements and activities to promote institutional changes and create support networks for vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. Role models should also include graduate students.
  • Explore how various programs to promote the participation of women in science in the U.S. (e.g. the ADVANCE program) have helped to make advances in this issue, and use lessons learned in other countries.

Further Recommendations for Next Panels
  • Scientists should address how representative their experience is of other women in their field.
  • More students should be included in the visits to universities.
  • Include gender and women’s studies perspective in panels.
  • Provide a survey/ questionnaire at the end of each event to request comments and suggestions from audience about usefulness and things to change for next panel.
  • Add a list of relevant links and bibliography to project website.

Sample Questions

These are questions posed by students during meetings with U.S. women scientists and visits to schools:
  • How did science help you in your daily life?
  • What obstacles did you face to begin your career? How did you overcome them?
  • What have been your best and worst career experiences?
  • What is your biggest professional achievement? What recognition have you received?
  • What motivated you to pursue a scientific career and what keeps you motivated?
  • If you have children, how much time do you devote to them? How do you keep a balance between work and family?
  • What are your current goals?
  • How disciplined did you have to be to pursue a scientific career, how many hours did you devote to study? Did you ever feel overwhelmed?
  • Do you ever have time to have fun?

The students also had an unlimited amount of science related questions, particularly in the field of astronomy, triggered by the recent shower of meteors that caught children’s imagination across Panama. Students also had numerous ethical questions that reflected their uncertainty about issues such as evolution versus creationism, cloning, the relation between science and religion, the capacity to use science and technology in harmful ways, etc. The scientists provided some websites for reference information and encouraged students to talk to their teachers about these questions.



© 2002 American Association for the Advancement of Science. All rights reserved