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woman-in-stem
Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

We first want to state that we fully respect Erika’s experiences and opinions. We know her article was not written out of malice or ill-will, but rather out of a desire to better the Biochemistry department and its students. Standing up to any perceived injustice requires courage, particularly when it involves standing up to those in positions of power. We admire her bravery and respect her perspective on the situation. But, in this case, we don’t agree with her.

It’s important to note here that Penn’s Biochemistry department, along with the broader Chemistry department, has many outstanding social issues. Discrimination on the basis of gender still runs rampant within STEM fields, and Penn Chemistry is no exception. This response is neither a suggestion that sexism does not exist in the department nor a suggestion that changes do not need to be made to improve it. We echo Erika’s call for the enhancement of Penn’s staff training program for diversity and inclusion. All of us are or were actively involved in improving mental health, student well-being, and student advocacy within both the department and Penn overall, and we can only hope these efforts continue. 

We are all recipients of the Helix Prize and have all held positions as coordinators for the Biological Chemistry Seminar Series over several years. The position is not assigned but rather extended to students with the input from the prior year’s coordinators. It is true that the vast majority of seminar coordinators have been women. That’s just a fact. However, we reject the premise that the position is comprised of “essentially performing an administrative task.” We consider the position to be a unique leadership role within the department. 

As seminar coordinators, we were routinely able to contact incredible scientists from universities across the country. We met with them for breakfast, hosted them for their day of meetings with Penn professors, attended their seminars, and then took them to dinner with a group of undergraduates in the department. Did this involve administrative work? Absolutely. But not more than that required by an executive position for any other club at Penn. We also have wonderful Biochemistry staff members to help with much of the organizational work, such as coordinating travel and hotel bookings for the visiting faculty. 

Students running the seminars also get significant one-on-one time with visiting speakers as well as with Penn faculty. These personal interactions are invaluable for students, providing them with the opportunity to learn how professors think about their science. Female visiting faculty have also regularly discussed their path to academia, providing perspective and mentorship to female science undergraduates at the seminars and dinners. The ability to regularly interact with visiting faculty builds confidence in oneself as a growing scientist and helps to develop a sense of belonging both within the department and in academia in general. This is particularly true because having such large seminars organized by undergraduates is not an opportunity we know of existing elsewhere, and visiting faculty regularly comment on how special the program is. 

Another aspect of organizing the seminars is introducing speakers before their talks. Regularly speaking in front of an auditorium full of people, including many faculty members from the department, is a task that builds confidence in public speaking abilities. It is also a task that students will regularly be called upon to perform as they continue their scientific careers in graduate school and beyond, thus providing valuable practice for the future. All things considered, we believe that this position empowers women to see themselves in an environment that has traditionally been dominated by men. 

For these reasons, and from our own experiences, we see the opportunity provided by the Biological Chemistry Seminar Coordinator position to be one that allows for both personal and professional growth, particularly for women, rather than one that is merely administrative. We consider the fact that women have held the majority of these roles over the last decade to be a strong sign of support for women by the Biochemistry department. We hope that this opportunity continues to be offered and that women in science leadership roles continue to be championed, rather than have their roles downplayed. 

Signed,

Kelsey Farenhem, Biological Chemistry Seminar Coordinator, 2019 College Graduate

Hope Merens, Biological Chemistry Seminar Coordinator, 2018 College Graduate

Adam Alghalith, Biological Chemistry Seminar Coordinator, C’20

Katherine Novak, Biological Chemistry Seminar Coordinator, C‘20 W’20

Olivia Wedig, Biological Chemistry Seminar Coordinator, C‘21

Edward Gomes, Biological Chemistry Seminar Coordinator, 2017 College Graduate

Abigail Lemmon, Biological Chemistry Seminar Coordinator, 2019 College Graduate

Olivia Zhou, Biological Chemistry Seminar Coordinator, 2018 College Graduate

Nikita Agarwal, Biological Chemistry Seminar Coordinator, 2017 College Graduate

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