SEAS Professor Among 100 ‘Inspiring Women in STEM’

Rachelle Heller recognized by INSIGHT Into Diversity Magazine for her programming and mentorship.

Rachelle Heller is a professor of computer science, the associate provost for academic affairs at the Mount Vernon Campus and director of the Elizabeth Somers Women’s Leadership Program.
August 25, 2015

By Lauren Ingeno

When George Washington University Professor Rachelle Heller interviewed for a position with the FBI in the 1960s, she was told that women were hired as secretaries, not chemists.

Since then, Dr. Heller went on to earn a Ph.D. in educational uses of computers and has dedicated much of her career to improving opportunities for women and underrepresented students in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.

This year, INSIGHT Into Diversity Magazine—the oldest and largest diversity magazine in higher education—named Dr. Heller one of its 100 Inspiring Women in STEM. The national award honors women who “inspire and encourage” a new generation of young women to consider STEM careers.

Dr. Heller has held positions at GW for the past 30 years. Currently she is a professor of computer science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), the associate provost for academic affairs at the Mount Vernon Campus and director of the Elizabeth Somers Women’s Leadership Program.

Soon after joining the SEAS faculty in 1985, Dr. Heller and Professor Dianne Martin received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to create a program that would motivate minority high school girls to continue studies in STEM fields. The program taught D.C. students computer skills, gave them the opportunity to interact with female scientists and helped them to develop a peer network of future STEM leaders.

“It has been at least 25 years since then. The good part is that some things are changing, and the sad thing is that a lot of things aren’t,” Dr. Heller said.

She noted that women in certain STEM disciplines still fall victim to unconscious bias and are in the minority in fields like physics and engineering. Though women make up half of the U.S. workforce, only one out of seven engineers is female, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce study. Female students, Dr. Heller said, often lose confidence in their ability to succeed in math and science classes by the end of their second year of college, due to male-dominated classrooms and a lack of role models.

“This is really a social issue, rather than an intellectual capability issue,” Dr. Heller said. “And so it’s imperative for us to attack it as well as we can. And if you raise everyone’s awareness, I think you’ll make progress.”

Dr. Heller’s current NSF-funded project, called PAY IT FORWARD, focuses on developing training and mentoring workshops to promote leadership development for women in academia. These workshops can then be tailored to fit diverse populations at colleges and universities around the country.

“My research asks, ‘What kind of structures do we need to put in place, and what kind of information and skills do we need to give—either girls or women faculty or graduate students—so we can move them forward on to an even playing field?’” Dr. Heller said.

As director of the Women’s Leadership Program at GW, Dr. Heller mentors bright, motivated young women, helping them to develop their own leadership styles. In this capacity, Dr. Heller has applied the best practices identified through her research to campus, to inspire future leaders who will help build diverse, supportive STEM environments wherever their academic journeys may take them.

Dr. Heller said she would encourage all women to pursue their own STEM careers, and she particularly recommends positions in academia, where women have “many opportunities to influence the lives of many people.”

“Going into science and math is as creative as choosing a career in the arts. You think of a problem, and you challenge yourself to think of a solution,” Dr. Heller said. “What could be more exciting than that?”

Dr. Heller will be recognized in the upcoming September STEM issue of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine.

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