Inspired by the Astronomy Department, Hopeful for the Future: An Interview with Sofia Rinaldi ‘25

Pictured: Sofia Rinaldi ’25 presenting at the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC) symposium.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sofia Rinaldi for Wesleyan’s Inclusion in STEM Initiative. She speaks about her experiences in various STEM classes at Wesleyan, astronomy research, and Wesleyan’s Doula Project. Through all of her experiences, she shares what it is like to be a white woman in STEM. This is an eye-opening interview about the importance of continuing discussions about the implicit biases that are created due to a lack of representation of women in STEM. The interview ends on an optimistic note, offering suggestions that would contribute to a more productive environment for women.

Sofia Rinaldi is currently a junior at Wesleyan from Charlotte, North Carolina. She is triple majoring in astronomy, physics, and the College of Integrative Sciences (CIS), on the pre-med track. Before enrolling at Wesleyan, she was always interested in all of the academic subjects. Nonetheless, she soon gravitated towards the sciences in college when she discovered that she “could get [her] brain to focus on problem-solving work” more enthusiastically and efficiently. Along these lines, Rinaldi describes her attraction to the sciences, specifically astronomy, as it has expanded and cultivated her “enthusiasm for the exploration portion of STEM.”

To someone who has no previous knowledge of the astronomy, physics, or CIS majors, Rinaldi describes each as follows. The astronomy major involves taking an extensive number of astronomy, physics, and math classes. The CIS major involves taking upper-level stem classes outside of your primary major(s), accompanied by conducting and learning about field-related research. The goal of the CIS major is to make a student’s primary major more interdisciplinary, crossing multiple subjects and fields of study. Physics is somewhat more self-explanatory. It has been manageable for Rinaldi to triple major as her three majors are subjects that often have the same requirements for courses.

After establishing the foundations, logistics, and intellectual appeal of Rinaldi’s academic career, she shares her ambitions for her career and the steps she has taken thus far to get there. Surprisingly, Rinaldi is not trying to pursue a career in physics or astronomy. While there is still a significant amount of time between now and when she will choose her specialty in the medical field, she is most interested in becoming an Obstetrician/Gynecologist (OB/GYN), as of right now. She has been studying astronomy because, “honestly, it is the science that is the most interesting to [her] outside of medicine.” It continuously gives her a sense of wonder. In addition, she loves studying physics because she loves math and problem-solving; it is her “little treat when she does not want to do other work.” Rinaldi poignantly adds that for her to be entirely sure that she wants to go into medicine as a career, she must explore her other interests as well

Before delving into her clinical work experience as a step towards medical school, it is noteworthy to discuss her astronomy research. This past summer Rinaldi worked for the CIS summer research program, which is a requirement for the CIS majors. She did theoretical astrophysics research and studied the kinematics and morphology of high redshift galaxies. Gratefully, she summarized this description — what seems like overwhelming STEM jargon to a non-STEM person — as the physics and shape of these early universe galaxies. Instead of using telescopes, what most people think the study of astronomy is, she used galaxy simulations. She enjoyed this simulation-based research and was invited to present her work at the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC) symposium at Wesleyan. She has also presented her research at the University of Connecticut, along with other peers. For the rest of the academic year and into this upcoming summer, Rinaldi is continuing her project focusing on galaxy kinematics and morphology. She is hoping that this work will then become the framework for her thesis and be written up for publication. Rinaldi has thoroughly enjoyed conducting astronomy-based research, and is equally, if not more, excited about her clinical work experiences.

It is impressive to think about how enthusiastic and committed Rinaldi is to her clinical work experiences, if she is this present and engaged in her astronomy research. In the next steps towards achieving her career, Rinaldi is a part of the Wesleyan Doula Project. This is a collective of abortion doulas who volunteer with various Planned Parenthood locations in the local area. As an abortion doula, Rinaldi provides non-clinical support to patients before, during, and after their procedure. She, literally, holds the patient’s hand, talks them through what is happening, answers questions to the best of her knowledge and ability, and helps them regulate their breathing. In addition, her exceptional people skills and outgoing nature help distract the patient with conversations. Most importantly, Rinaldi provides a listening ear and loves every second of it. She says that it is her favorite thing to do, to be there for her patients. While it can be emotionally draining at times, Rinaldi views her work as extremely rewarding and fulfilling. She tries to go as often as she can, which ends up being two to three times each month. When comparing the astronomy research to the clinical work experiences, Rinaldi expresses, “I like the people aspect of medicine more.” By this, she means that medicine, as a field, is people-oriented in comparison to more scientific research-based fields. For example, in medicine, one works face to face every day with people, whose job is to care for them. Astronomy research can vary more frequently between collaborative versus individually-based work. She is well on her way to becoming even more committed to the field of medicine and enthusiastic about her clinical work.

With all of her first-hand experiences in all of her biology, chemistry, astronomy, and physics classes, research, and doula experience, she is a perfect candidate for speaking about the experience of being a woman in these fields. Rinaldi is the only woman in her year of astronomy majors, representing 16% of the major. She speaks highly about her experience with the astronomy department. Rinaldi shares that what works well in the astronomy department is that there are frequent equity and ethics meetings that aim to discuss crucial topics, such as gender, disability accessibility, and ethics of authorship. She partly credits this to having wonderful mentors who identify as women, who also make up about half of the astronomy faculty. As for her astronomy classes, Rinaldi says that in her experience, it feels like the breakdown of men to women is about equal, which is a good indication of the equal representation in the demographics of students the department is attracting.

However, Rinaldi offers a couple of insights and suggestions for the physics department, inspired by the model of the astronomy department. Beginning with unequal representation amongst the faculty of the physics department, it has apparent issues of gender equity. Rinaldi relays that currently, there are only two out of ten employed physics professors who identify as women.

Rinaldi has only ever had one physics professor who identifies as a woman. This lack of representation of women in the physics faculty directly correlates to a lack of mentors who are women for students. Subconsciously, this causes women in physics – granted not all women – to feel out of place and are more prone to second-guessing their ability to succeed. This inequality in the faculty is mimicked in the students who enroll in the physics classes. Rinaldi also conveys that men make up a very large portion of the class demographics that she has been enrolled in. This male-dominated student body, in addition to a male-dominated physics department faculty, often leads to the unintentional and subconscious cultivation of an environment that endorses men to feel and act superior to their peers who identify as women. Rinaldi emphasizes that her experiences with male-superior attitudes and behavior in her physics classes are not due to intentional misogyny or malicious actions. Rather, they are the inevitable result of a lack of representation of women in this field. She understands the previous point to manifest itself in observing in the Teaching Assistant’s sessions she attends, “incredibly smart and capable women be talked over, interrupted, questioned, or (incorrectly) corrected by their fellow peers who identify as men.”

While there is this apparent problem of gender inequality, Rinaldi optimistically says that the physics department has been taking steps toward remedying this issue. For starters, the physics department is in the process of hiring a new faculty member, with the position’s final two candidates identifying as women. In addition, in one of Rinaldi’s classes last semester, there was a faculty presentation on gender equity and how the environment in the physics classes can be improved. Prior to this, there was a survey that was sent out to the students asking about gender equity. There is a long journey ahead of the physics department, but little by little, there is encouraging work being done to address this issue of gender inequality.

Although Rinaldi can highlight the experiences of women in STEM, it is also important to acknowledge that there is plenty of variation between individual experiences. According to Rinaldi, some of the largest obstacles in pursuing a career in subjects of STEM are the challenging atmosphere and second-guessing one’s self. To reiterate, these obstacles are not a reflection of any individuals’ conscious or purposeful actions, but rather the implicit biases and attitudes that come from a lack of gender diversity. Her personal suggestions for remedying these problems are holding journal clubs or meetings aimed to discuss gender inequality, along with other prominent social issues that can hinder positive experiences. Rinaldi feels these are beneficial meetings that help acknowledge and understand the internal biases that are harmful to the conducive learning environment. In addition, Rinaldi also provides insight that the lack of representation of women could be improved by focusing efforts on recruiting more women as majors and graduate students. This would add more potential mentors who identify as women to the department.

Rinaldi has shared wonderful suggestions for improving the atmosphere in the physics world at Wesleyan, but has also expressed that the efforts and actions already being taken are exciting. Despite the lack of representation of women, Rinaldi has been able to cultivate wonderful relationships with all of the STEM professors she has had and found the mentors who identify as women that she was hoping for. One of Rinaldi’s favorite things about being a student at Wesleyan is that people are simultaneously, driven, passionate, and down-to-earth. Everyone is “excited to support each other in their successes” and “open to talking and learning from each other despite their differences.” While the problem of gender equity is present in both the Wesleyan community and in the “real world,” Rinaldi ends with this heartfelt, optimistic sentiment: “I am hopeful and confident that we can spark productive conversations to mitigate issues like these, and together, build a better learning environment for all students.”