W&J Women in STEM: Getting to know Dr. Deborah Polvani

Created: April 11, 2018  |  Last Updated: January 31, 2020  |  Category:   |  Tagged:

WASHINGTON, PA (April 11, 2018)—While the world of STEM careers may have originally been a boys’ club, more and more women are pursuing their passions and making an impact in these fields, with many getting their education right here at Washington & Jefferson College (W&J)! In honor of the strong, intelligent women who are defying gender stereotypes in the workplace, we’re highlighting a few of our own in a new series on W&J Women in STEM.

Deborah Polvani, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the chemistry department. She is an inorganic chemist, with an interest in solid-state materials. She encourages student help with her research efforts in materials synthesis and study of their interesting structural, electronic, or magnetic properties. Dr. Polvani is currently the faculty advisor for the W&J chemistry club chapter (the Student Affiliates of the American Chemical Society.)

We asked Dr. Polvani about her work in chemistry and her path to W&J. Check out what she had to say!

How did you become interested/involved in your field of study?

My tenth grade chemistry teacher, Mrs. Russell, first sparked my interest in chemistry. She was a fantastic teacher who made chemistry fun and exciting. Ever since I had this class in high school, I knew I wanted to pursue chemistry in college and as a career. She prepared me very well for my college major in chemistry.

Who are some of your role models or inspirations in the field?

Despite the abundance of internationally distinguished chemistry leaders, role models for me tend to be people that I personally know as either friends, family, or colleagues. Within the field of chemistry specifically, I consider my chemistry department coworkers to be role models. I know each of them very well. They each bring creativity to the classroom and steadfast commitment to our science students, in addition to their dedication to serving W&J. They exemplify the ideals of teaching chemistry at a liberal arts institution. They serve as reinforcement for why I love to teach chemistry.

What challenges do women face in your field? What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?

I do not see the actual challenges and biases that women in STEM fields face as being any different from the challenges faced by women in any other discipline. Perhaps since males continue to outnumber females in STEM fields by approximately two to one, the adversity that women face in science or technology fields may be amplified or occur more frequently. I would say that the biggest challenges to overcome are the unconscious biases and stereotyping that both males and females bring with them to the workplace.

For example, scientists are viewed as rational, objective, and data-driven individuals. Men are stereotyped as having these same characteristics, while women, on the other hand, are generally described as more emotional and “people-oriented.” Assertive men may be regarded as strong and skillful leaders, while assertive women may be construed as belligerent. Men are considered to have strong mathematical and/or logical capabilities, while women may be perceived to be less competent in math. These biases can present problems for women in STEM fields!

A different challenge women can face is feeling isolated, or of being under a spotlight of constant scrutiny, particularly if they are the only woman in a work group of men. In addition, I would say that striving for a healthy work/family balance is a challenge still mostly faced by women, myself included, thanks to perceived gender roles. To be fair, men certainly do not escape the strain associated with balancing a career with a personal or family life.

I believe the best way to combat such difficulties for women in STEM fields is to educate everyone about unconscious bias. At least by realizing that both men and women bring to the table some tendency toward gender stereotypes, even unconsciously, there can then be ways of combating the negative effects from them.

What made you want to teach others about your field?

I actually came to the teaching side of chemistry a couple of years after working in industry.  After graduate school, I chose to work at a large plastics company. The work there was constant and challenging, but not as rewarding as I had hoped. After two years of working in industry, I decided to pursue a career as a professor, and I have been working as one ever since. I enjoy the creative side of teaching. I enjoy being able to design courses and thinking about ways to deliver the material that resonates with students. I love being a mentor. Moreover, I love constantly learning new things about chemistry myself, as a result of teaching it.

What advice do you have for young women interested in STEM studies?

I would wholeheartedly encourage them to pursue STEM fields if that is their passion.  Nevertheless, I would help to educate them on the biases that they may see. When searching for jobs, young women should pay attention to the dynamics observed in a group of people that could be their colleagues or supervisors. Places that already employ many women could be desirable. Young women preparing for a career in any discipline may encounter biases or challenges; however, that should not be reason to shy away. STEM fields, which have traditionally been male-dominated, are going through some growing pains as more women decide to pursue these careers. However, with time, education, and more women included in the fields, this has to get better.

This article is part of a larger series on W&J Women in STEM. Get to know some of our other professors: Dr. Alice Lee, Dr. Jennifer Bayline, Dr. Deborah PolvaniDr. Kelly WeixelDr. Jenny Kline, and Dr. Amanda Holland-Minkley.

About Washington & Jefferson College

Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a selective liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent study work. For more information about W&J, visit www.washjeff.edu, or call 888-W-AND-JAY.