Growing up in Taiwan, Professor Meng-ju (Renee) Sher felt that she had two career paths to choose from: to be a doctor or to be an engineer. At present day, she is neither. Instead, she is a scientist researching renewable energy materials, and a tenure-track faculty member of Wesleyan’s Physics and College of Integrated Science departments.
Professor Sher’s journey toward her research today began at Wesleyan as an undergraduate student. For Sher, the liberal arts education was a different, explorative, and flexible world compared to the firm career expectations she experienced back home. Wesleyan at the time did not have an engineering-specific pathway, so Professor Sher started by exploring physics and was fascinated by it; while conducting research, she found that she particularly enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of physics.
From then on, in graduate school, when narrowing down what research in physics she would pursue, she had three main criteria in mind: experiments, having an impact, and being able to conduct her experiments within a room. Putting these three criteria together, researching solar cells was her answer!
During our interview, Sher described that her work looks at electron motions in solar cell materials (materials you see on the front of solar panels, for instance, at Wesleyan’s solar farm.) Particularly with solar cells, she also revealed that there exists an obstacle in their function: they are not very efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. In fact, “the most expensive silicon solar panels on the market only convert 22 percent of sunlight into electricity,” she remarked. “You can actually get higher efficiencies using a combination of materials, but they are currently too expensive and only found in space-exploration-type applications (like rovers on Mars) or not commercialized at a large scale.”
Considering these characteristics of solar cells, she explained that her research investigates, “if there is a way to increase these efficiencies,” and “What exactly happens to solar cell material the moment sunlight energy is absorbed into the material.”
As mentioned previously, Professor Sher conducts this research at Wesleyan as a tenure-track faculty member. When asked about her experience with diversity and inclusivity in her field as a woman in STEM who grew up internationally, she referenced how, similar to the rest of the world, gender stereotypes were heavily common in career industries in Taiwan. As an example, she explained that “In Taiwan, the word for physics (Wùlǐ) sounds very close to the word for nursing (Hùlǐ).” Consequently, when she told others that she was studying physics they would automatically assume nursing, demonstrating the gender roles associated with STEM careers.
Fast forward to when she came to the United States for university, she claimed that she felt she lived in her own “bubble”, working hard on her studies but not focusing too much on the realities of inclusivity and representation in STEM fields.
Now as a faculty member, there has been a shift in Sher’s mindset; she now wishes to be more cognizant of the learning environment that younger students and women in STEM are exposed to so they may feel more empowered in studying their STEM-oriented passions.
To promote inclusivity in STEM, Sher believes that role models are key. By letting people see others that they identify within the field, they can then see themselves in STEM. One way Professor Sher contributes to this objective is through the Girls in Science Summer Camp which she runs along with Professor Erika Taylor.
“We want to brainwash the kids,” says Sher; in the one-week Girls in Science program, female Wesleyan faculty organize a curriculum for fourth to sixth-grade girls to “brainwash” and heavily encourage them into seeing themselves as powerful scientists. Professor Sher specified that the program aims to target the fourth to sixth-grade age range especially because this is when things for the students change — they may begin to take science classes in school and in these classes, they may not find themselves in the company of as many female peers or even be taught by female teachers.
In this new environment, the Girls in Science Camp builds a community of friends and female role models ranging from high school students to undergraduate students to Wesleyan faculty.
“We also just want them to love science,” Sher admitted. The program is therefore designed to have many activities that are hands-on and they express scientific concepts tangibly. For instance, Professor Sher’s module teaches campers about energy in the sun and the properties of light. They then build solar-powered cars.
Additionally, an important feature of the Girls in Science Camp is that it aims to include students in need by welcoming half of the campers who qualify for full or partial scholarships. This further promotes inclusivity for families who might have otherwise not been able to see their budding scientist participate.
When asked about the challenges of running such a program, Professor Sher replied “It’s different, teaching a ten-year-old and teaching college kids.” Despite the challenge, Sher is motivated by the fun and community the program brings to the kids. As a mother, she says she would love for her children to participate in the program should they be interested in the sciences. As such, she is committed to playing a part in the program’s success year after year.
All things considered, perhaps the most special aspect of the program is that you can truly see the impact. This is made clear in the camp’s drawing exercise, where campers are asked to draw a scientist both at the start and conclusion of the week. At the start, many would draw “mad scientists,” and their depictions would be similar to a white male. When they were asked to draw a scientist once more at the end of the program, they would draw a scientist that would be similar to themselves attending to a bubbling beaker or calibrating intricate apparatus.
The program, therefore, is a triumphant success at “brainwashing” and gives us hope for a future in science populated with many of these young brilliant minds.
Professor Renee Sher both as a member of Wesleyan faculty and organizer of the Girls in Science Camp succeeds in her goal to make an impact — both with her research and in her important work making the camp possible.