I started college as a chemistry student. I ended up in art history. A lot happened between the checked box on my college application and the degree that finally arrived in my mailbox last week. I remember why I left my program, but in retrospect, I sometimes have difficulty understanding what on earth I was thinking. This is what I do know: I felt excluded and out of place. 

Initially, I thought that I was exactly where I was meant to be, but during my freshman chemistry lab, I faced an unexpected sort of discrimination. After a couple of study sessions with my classmates, I realized that our teaching assistant gave all the women in the section perfect scores on lab reports regardless of how correct or well-written each was. All of the men in the section got points off for their mistakes. This discovery made me feel like my teaching assistant thought that we should be commended for simply trying, that we would probably never be any better, and that we weren’t to be taken seriously. And this wasn’t the last time that I would feel this way. 

Around the same time, many of my friends told me that I was far too creative to be a chemistry major. They said that it was a shame that I was pursuing something so “boring” and wasting my talent (as if my talent was limited to painting and as if the two were mutually exclusive). That’s almost exactly what my high school painting teacher was saying, too. I was really getting it from all sides. 

Girls dissect a snack during a Girls Inc. program

I’m ashamed to say that I became convinced that I would be true to myself by changing my major, regardless of my original intentions and high marks. I changed my major and eventually transferred to a different university. 

Thankfully, with age comes wisdom, and with hindsight comes clarity. I try to avoid regretting my decisions, and I accept that all of the choices were my own. I understand that I was trying to figure out my identity. I now know that many women in non-traditional fields fight the alienation that I felt. I plan on applying to medical school in the next couple of years, and I like to imagine that it all happened for a reason, that I took the exciting path less traveled, and that I know myself better because of it. 

With these experiences in mind, this post begins a three-part series on female involvement in STEM fields. In the upcoming posts, I will share the latest (and often surprising) research on women in nontraditional fields, and I hope that you will share your own experiences, both positive and negative.