Saint Joseph’s University Magazine, Summer 2018

Down to a Science

As the McNulty Scholars program begins its 10th year of educating women in STEM fields, its first graduate has earned her Ph.D., another her M.D. — and others aren’t far behind.

science and math icon illustrations

By JoAnn Greco

Corinna Noel, Ph.D. ’13, can’t help but reflect on how an unlikely pairing of her teenage interests — numbers and nutrition — has merged, sending her on a career path she never imagined. As a high school senior and applicant, Noel’s proficiency in math quickly caught the attention of the McNulty Selection Committee at Saint Joseph’s, who were selecting candidates for the highly competitive inaugural cohort of the John P. McNulty Scholars Program. With the aim of propelling young women to positions of leadership in natural sciences, mathematics or computer science fields, the New Paltz, New York candidate was a young woman with tremendous potential.

Fast forward four years after she graduated from SJU with a B.S. in mathematics: Noel now holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University and is getting back to those teenage interests. As part of her post-doctoral research in epidemiology at the Brown University Center for Primary Care and Prevention, Noel is leading a team that is examining data — including food choices — collected over the course of several years from a large cohort of post-menopausal women. The study is an expansion of the work she did at Cornell to link weight gain and a weakened sense of taste.

“Our goal is to develop a predictive score for the correlation of lifestyle behaviors with heart failure,” explains Noel, the first McNulty Scholar to earn a doctorate. “Epidemiology is quite quantitative, so it’s rewarding for me to return to the applied statistics that I learned when I was a math major at Saint Joseph’s.”

Along with Kim Nguyen ’13, another McNulty Scholar from the first cohort, who graduated from the Drexel University College of Medicine and is currently a pediatric resident at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, these women capture the successes of the McNulty Program.

Although young women have for some time sought, and received, degrees in equal numbers to men in some STEM areas, the McNulty Scholars Program seeks to address a “gap in opportunities, achievement and recognition,” observes Anne Welsh McNulty, the program’s benefactor. Research has shown that on average women in STEM fields earn $16,000 less in annual salary and are 45 percent more likely to leave their jobs after one year.

McNulty adds, “The program is explicitly aimed at changing that by preparing women to become leaders and exemplars in STEM fields — to give them the opportunity to perform research, to present, and to confidently claim their place.” That top-tier jobs in these disciplines remain elusive is, she continues, a “networking problem, a skills problem and an implicit (and explicit) bias problem.”

Ten years ago, McNulty founded the program at SJU in honor of her late husband, John ’74, an active undergraduate student leader, a devoted alumnus and trustee, a successful Goldman-Sachs partner and an unparalleled mentor to young people, especially women. The program provides generous funding including full and partial scholarships and fellowships. Acting as an incubator, the program provides faculty and peer mentoring, leadership training and opportunities to attend professional conferences and to embark on research projects. Participants also read inspirational works by women in STEM fields, such as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, during the summer in an optional book club. The growing network of McNulty women ensures a strong pipeline of support as they graduate and go on to pursue advanced degrees and move into the academic arena and the private sector workforce.

“One of the coolest things was having a mentor who got to know me and my interests before I even arrived at Saint Joseph’s,” says Christina Freeman ’16, who, like Noel, was recruited as an incoming freshman. “She was really helpful in pushing me to explore my various interests.”

A biology major, she was placed in the lab of Edwin Li, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology who was studying the interactions of the Mucin 1 protein that is found in the membranes that line the outer layer of cells in mucous organs like the lungs, eyes, stomach and intestines, helping protect them from bacteria.

“This protein is also a really potent marker for breast cancer,” says Freeman, “and learning about that was really impactful for me since my grandmother, mother and aunt have all had [the disease]. Working with Mucin 1 gave me a personal motivation to understand the biophysics of the problem.” After completing a post-baccalaureate research position at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., followed by a post-baccalaureate fellowship at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, she will enter the Ph.D. program in biophysics at the University of Michigan this fall.

Clockwise from top left: Noel, Nguyen, Egan, Anne Welsh McNulty, Montoto, Freeman, Brutschea
Clockwise from top left: Noel, Nguyen, Egan, Anne Welsh McNulty, Montoto, Freeman, Brutschea

 

"The scholarship program is lifting barriers and accelerating the trajectory of these women."
Anne Welsh McNulty

 

Professor of Physics and Program Director Paul J. Angiolillo, Ph.D. ’78 has been there from the beginning. “As the program matures, we’re very interested in using the McNulty Scholars program as a model to influence other aspects of STEM growth on campus,” he says. “It’s new and wonderful to see that our incoming 2018 cohort includes mathematics and computer science majors, giving us a healthy diversity of disciplines. And last year’s freshman class of Scholars were all women of color. But this diversity of disciplines and backgrounds isn’t something we’ve specifically sought; it’s just happening — we’re attracting the best young talent. I think that’s a reflection of some positive changes in the fields themselves.”

Elena Montoto ’14 — who between her junior and senior years received a McNulty Fellowship, an initiative that identifies and rewards promising women scientists already enrolled at Saint Joseph’s — acknowledges that women in STEM face speculation and doubt. The McNulty Program, she says, taught her the “importance of building leadership skills and becoming part of a supportive community. It kicked off my research career — I’m not sure I would have stayed on track if I hadn’t met the cohort of McNulty women.”

As she completes her Ph.D. in materials chemistry at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she is fine-tuning polymers that can be used in the back-up batteries that power solar grids, this experienced researcher — one patent, six publications — is poised to apply her chemistry chops to making sustainable energy accessible and affordable. As with the other McNulty women, Montoto is embarking on real-world applications that, she says, “are significantly relatable to society and not just academic explorations. It’s exciting to know that I can make a difference in a very important project.” 

The achievements get more remarkable each year. One 2018 graduate, Marisa Egan, will leave with five publications under her belt and offers from the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University and Princeton University. The recipient of a coveted National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, she has chosen Penn and will pursue a Ph.D. in cellular and molecular biology. McNulty Scholar Elise Brutschea ’19, a rising senior and chemistry major, was selected as a 2018 Barry M. Goldwater Scholar and also won the 2018 American Chemical Society Student Leadership Award. Egan was also a Goldwater Scholar.

The success of the program and the young women it has supported are exactly what the family of John P. McNulty had in mind when they established the program at “the University that changed John’s life.” John entered SJU very shy, but quickly acquired leadership skills, served as student body president and went on to an accomplished career.

For Anne, the program carries on John’s legacy of leadership. “The scholarship program is lifting barriers and accelerating the trajectory of these women,” she says. “As we reach a decade of impact this year, we are inspired by these women, and even more so, how they have consistently and selflessly come back to stay involved and give encouragement to younger cohorts. It’s hard to convey just how meaningful it is.”