Laser-Focused: A Foundation's Effort to Boost Women in Physics


Physics and astronomy are two fields with some of the worst gender imbalances in science. They also happen to be two of the main fields funded by the science program of the Heising-Simons Foundation. 

When the relatively young foundation was formalizing its grantmaking, program director Cyndi Atherton identified this as a problem it could take on. One interesting approach it's currently trying out is sponsoring fellowships, not just to fund young researchers, but also to teach them how to secure more funding. 

A number of government, industry and philanthropic programs are working to tackle gender imbalances in STEM, but this is a big, systemic issue, and one of the major obstacles to a successful career is the highly competitive process of securing funding. Heising-Simons and MIT, with leadership from assistant professor of physics Lindley Winslow, are running a pilot program that focuses on women in physics navigating this challenge, as profiled by MIT News

It’s the kind of program that, by focusing on future funding sources, seeks to make an impact bigger than the size of its own grants. It’s also representative of this foundation’s approach of forming a leadership council of researchers to prototype new strategies for supporting women in science.  

With a $75,000 grant from the foundation, the fellowship just selected its first round of four beneficiaries. Grant amounts range from $5,000 to $15,000, and the core of the program is teaching the fellows how to design research projects and then create winning proposals in support of them, including a peer-review process in the style of the NSF. 

This is just one initiative of a foundation that is turning out to be a major player in the fields of K-12 education, science, climate and energy, and human rights. Heising-Simons gave about $75 million in 2017, $20 million of which went to science. In addition to physics and astronomy, the program also funds climate change science. 

In the past year or two, its work on women in physics and astronomy has picked up momentum, supporting work with AAAS and at individual universities. A big part of its strategy here is the formation of a Physics and Astronomy Leadership Council in 2017, an all-star group of women leaders in physics who advise the program and pilot new ideas with their universities. 

One of its members is Lindley Winslow at MIT, who saw the need to mentor young researchers on how to gain funding for their work. Applying for grants is something of a science unto itself, and she found that many students didn’t know much about it and were under-confident. Winslow credits her own mentors for success in this area. 

This is one example of philanthropy connecting certain communities to other, larger sources of funding. If existing flows of money are like water, it’s building an aqueduct to get it going in the right direction. At the same time, it’s looking to the power of mentorship and confidence-building—believed to be crucial elements in correcting imbalances we see in STEM.