Female scientists are being encouraged to advance in their field rather than be lost through the notorious “leaky pipeline” of higher education.

The Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) organization, founded in Spring 2001, is open to male and female undergraduate and graduate students, researchers and faculty members, with contributions from professionals in the Santa Barbara community. Its mailing list contains over 200 people.

“WISE’s goal is to network women scientists and engineers in the Santa Barbara area and to promote the advancement of women and girls in science/engineering careers,” WISE Events Co-organizer Tessa Hill said.

To achieve its goal, WISE offers career information for students, holds monthly meetings, raises funds to send WISE members to national conferences and provides a mentoring program.

“The goal of the mentoring program is to help undergraduate students in science/engineering majors by matching them with graduate student or postdoctoral researcher mentors in their field,” Hill said.

Once they are matched up, the mentors and their students talk about issues such as applying to graduate school and how to find summer internships or job positions in science and engineering fields.

“Mentors do not only answer questions, but they also serve as role models and show women that there is a place for women in science,” Mentoring Program Director Sophie Parker said.

One of the reasons WISE and its mentoring program exist is to address what Parker described as the “leaky pipeline problem,” the significant drop in the percentage of women in science and engineering in the higher echelons of academia.

In 1996, women held 37 percent of physical science bachelor’s degrees but only 21.9 percent of physical science Ph.D.s, Hill said.

“WISE asks itself, ‘Why does the leaky pipeline exist?'” Parker said. “WISE wants to encourage women to stay in science and engineering and wants to see equality in all levels of the scientific field.”

Mentors join the program for a variety of reasons, including cross-gender communication difficulties between teacher and student.

“When male students express frustration with the material, I often have a good idea from where their confusion stems,” said Kenneth Welch, an ecology, evolution and marine biology graduate student and WISE mentor. “I feel that [women] are not as comfortable asking questions or that I am not presenting answers in the way most suited to their learning styles.”

Welch said he hopes the program will help him learn to be a more effective teacher.

“I hope that my experience with WISE will allow me to learn new ways to relate to my female students and give me a broader appreciation of the particular difficulties they might face in taking science classes,” he said.

More about WISE and its mentoring program can be found at http://org.sa.ucsb.edu/wise.