Shree Bose, who won the grand prize at this year's Google Global Science Fair, credits her love of science to her big brother, Pinaki. As a child, he had a habit of teaching her what he'd just learned in science class. How atoms work, for example.
"He'd spend an hour trying to explain the concept," she said. "He'd gesture wildly with his hands. He was trying to get my brain to wrap around the idea that everything we see and touch is made up of tiny, tiny parts. He had so much passion and enthusiasm for it." She was 6 then; he was 8.
Now 18 and a senior in Fort Worth Texas, Bose swept the prestigious national competition - and scored $50,000 -- for tackling ovarian cancer. She discovered a protein that keeps cells from growing resistant to the chemotherapy drug cisplatin. Among the five finalists in her age group, she was the only female.
Consider these numbers: In 2008, 41 percent of college freshman men planned to major in science and engineering, compared to 30 percent of women, according to the National Science Foundation's Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering report. Some areas of science do attract more women than men, such as biology and social and behavioral sciences. But computer science, physics and engineering are overwhelmingly male.
Nowhere is that disparity more pronounced than in engineering, with computer science close behind. More than twice as many men than women attend graduate school for computer science fields, and more than four times as many men are enrolled in engineering, according to the report.
(It should be noted that America as a whole has been outpaced by competitors for years now when it comes to science and math education. In a 2009 math and science exam given to students all over the world, U.S. students placed 25th in math and 17th in science, compared to other countries.)
It's not all bad news in engineering. While master's degrees awarded to women hovered at 22.6 percent in 2010, a slight dip from 2008 and 2009 levels, bachelor's degrees among women climbed to 18.1 percent, and more engineering doctorates - 22.9 percent - were awarded to women than any time in the past, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.
Angela Bielefeldt* is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. The percentage of women in her classes is dismal, she said. Of the 60 to 80 students that take her freshman civil engineering class, only 10 to 12 are generally women.
"In civil engineering, it's really pathetic," she said. "In environmental engineering, it's closer to 40 percent. Right off the bat, if you're a woman, you look around, and there aren't a lot of women who look like you."
Bielefeldt has been on the hunt to explain - and fix - this yawning gender gap. Inherent differences between the genders can explain some, but not all of it, she says. Every year, her students write personal essays on what engineering means to them, and she pays close attention to what her female students say. Some say they find the scarcity of women to be isolating; others cite subtle discrimination.
"Frequently, you see women relegated to very traditional roles - I'll build the robot, and you can be secretary for the group," she said. "Unless you're very assertive, men can take over the group."
And while female engineering majors grade just as well as men, they have a tendency to underrate their technical abilities, she said. "Women tend to leave engineering with higher grade point averages than the men... but they perceive that their technical skills are sometimes different. And they're not different, in reality."