12/07/2007 04:09 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Tweaking the Bell Curve - Young Women Dominate Siemens Science Competition

On Monday, the winners of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology were announced. For the first time, young women earned top honors. For the first year, young women outnumbered young men in the final round. The results of the Siemens contest should put to rest any lingering doubts about women's aptitude in the science fields.

Women have long been under-represented in the science fields although that trend has been shifting over the past decade. Statistics compiled by the National Science Foundation indicate that women constituted a greater percentage of graduate students in Science and Engineering in 2005 (43%) than in 1995 (38%). In 2005, women made up 76% of the graduate students in psychology, 56% in the biological sciences, and 54% in social sciences. Women accounted for 22% of graduate students in engineering and 25% of graduate students in computer sciences in 2005. Roughly 35%-45% of the graduate students in most other science fields were female.

There has been speculation about the reason for under-representation of women in the science fields. In 2005, Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard University, suggested that "innate differences between men and women might be one reason that fewer women than men succeed in math and science". Dr. Summers' comment sparked outrage and, notwithstanding his apology, he tendered his resignation thirteen months later amidst a maelstrom of protest.

The performance by winners in this year's Siemens Competition dispels any notion of "innate differences" and women's ability to succeed in science. In the team category, Janelle Schlossberger and Amanda Marinoff, both 17, shared first prize. They created a molecule that helps block the reproduction of drug-resistant tuberculosis bacteria.

In the individual category, Isha Himani Jain, 16, earned first prize. She studied bone growth in zebra fish whose tail fins grow in spurts, similar to children's bones. At the age of 10 or 11, Miss Jain co-published her first research paper with her father, a professor at Lehigh University.

In the individual category, Alicia Darnell, 17, won second place. Her research identified genetic defects that could play a role in the development of Lou Gehrig's disease.

Several weeks ago, Kathie L. Olson, Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation testified before the Congressional Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. According to Dr. Olson, increasing the number of women at all levels of the science and engineering academic workforce offers many benefits, including new and diversified perspectives to drive scientific research, as well as mentors and role models for undergraduate and graduate students that better represent the makeup of the student body.

The results of this year's Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology mark a significant shift in this generation of scientists. The Siemens Competition was first held in 1998. This year 1,600 students nationwide entered the competition from which 20 finalists were chosen. Of the 20 finalists, eleven were young women. As more and more young women are not only afforded the opportunity to enter the field of science, but also provided with adequate mentors, this trend will continue for generations to come.