2007 AWM Essay Contest:
Grades 9-12 Honorable Mention
by Haley Kossek
Mrs. Ann Weber currently teaches high school chemistry and algebra at a small, public high school called Elk Rapids High School. It is the same school in rural, northern Michigan from which she graduated at eighteen years old. In between that time, when she walked across the stage at high school graduation, and today, when she imparts the meaning of dimensional analysis and valence-electron arrangements to flocks of teenagers, she has seen, done and accomplished plenty; returning to Elk Rapids with a master’s degree and immense knowledge in the field of chemical engineering.
As a high school student, Ann knew that she needed to work hard to be successful. Academic ability, she says, did not come naturally and easily for her; she had to apply herself seriously to meet her own high personal standards. She loved and excelled in math and science classes, graduating third overall in her class (the only blemish on her transcript was a B+ in a sophomore social studies class). Ann was accepted as an out-of-state applicant to Appalachian State University, but instead chose to attend a community college in northern Michigan for a year on a complete scholarship. After freshman year, she transferred to Michigan State University and finished her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering in three years, graduating with honors. Even when she faced difficulty Ann remained diligent. She was put off by classmates who chose to change majors when their initial path became too demanding.
Ann was then admitted to the graduate program in chemical engineering at the University of Delaware. In her first year there Ann experienced something of a culture shock. “People on the east coast just aren’t as nice,” she alleges with a smile. In her hometown gas station attendants, high school students and grocery store cashiers all knew each other personally. The impersonality of her new surroundings was grating, especially while she missed her family across the long distance.
Equally difficult for her was being enrolled in a program with drastically fewer women than men. Ann recalls memories of a faculty member who was one of the only female professors in her department. On the occasion that this professor had to leave work when one of her children was sick, Ann says, some male colleagues would respond critically to her leaving. The atmosphere for female chemical engineers was not an entirely welcoming one, she says.
As these geographic and gender-based challenges confronted Ann during her first year, she struggled to adjust, enduring due to the resoluteness she forged in high school. In her master’s program she worked on developing hurricane resistant building materials using environmentally sustainable components. When she describes her final research project, Ann’s eyes still light up with excitement and enthusiasm, palpably passionate about the discipline she chose to study.
In her experience, the environment for women seeking careers in math and science is at times restrictive. She has seen other women pursuing careers in math and science related fields being effectively forced to choose between having family relationships or career success. Ann witnessed women hoping to advance as scientists and mathematicians being discouraged from becoming wives or mothers, a barrier not equally present for males in those areas. From one of her first freshman chemistry classes when she had a male professor who was rude toward female students, to her experience at the graduate level, Ann describes her tenacity in overcoming sexism like a seasoned veteran describing valiantly earned scars.
Her perseverance led to fruition even as she didn’t have access to certain advantages, like internships. She was on the path to earn a Ph.D., experiencing pressure from her parents to become the first “Dr. O’Donnell” (her maiden name) in her family. However while Ann was in graduate school she worked as a teacher’s assistant, and when students came into her office for tutoring she realized that helping other people learn was her true passion. At one breakthrough moment amidst the stress of her graduate program, she wailingly exclaimed, “I just want to teach!”
And that she did. After earning her master’s degree in chemical engineering at Delaware, Ann returned to Michigan State University to receive her teaching certificate. During this time she student taught at a high school that was more suburban and wealthier than the one she had attended. She noticed the discrepancy in the levels of funding-per-pupil at different schools and the resultant math and science resources. When she finished her teaching certificate, Ann became a teacher in Elk Rapids at the high school from whence she came.
Ann’s story exemplifies the strength and tenacity of women in math and science. She worked hard and flourished due to sheer aptitude and effort, entering the world of prestige and published research, only to realize that what she really wanted was to provide knowledge about pi bonds and pH levels to teenagers back home. Ann Weber provides a model for other women in math and science, beginning with her female high school students. Her daily interactions inspire them to work hard, succeed on merit, and stay true to themselves.
About the student: I'm Haley Kossek, an eleventh grade student at Elk Rapids High School and one of Mrs. Weber's AP Chemistry students. I am especially interested in applications of math and science topics to social issues, like environmental science and public health. I also identify as a feminist, and am grateful to those women in mathematics who have increased access and mobility in that field for teens like me.