fyi: Chris Brus, Women in Science and Engineering

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

by Betsy Bates
Photo credit: Tim Schoon

Chris Brus may only have two biological daughters, but she has hundreds more in her extended family. As the director of Iowa’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) for the past 13 years, Brus has been a mentor and “mother” to hundreds of young women.

“It feels good to know that parents entrust me with their daughters,” Brus says.

One of her biggest accomplishments has been raising her daughters as a single parent, and seeing the fabulous human beings they have become. As director of WISE, she has implemented a lot of the positive experiences she had raising her daughters into the program.

Brus spoke with fyi about what piqued her interest in science and engineering, what she loves most about her job, and why she’s not afraid to take risks.

Why did you become involved in science and engineering?

After becoming a registered cytotechnologist—a lab tech that screens slides under a microscope to identify cancerous and precancerous cells—I worked in pathology labs for many years. I found what I really enjoyed doing was taking information from one discipline and being able to explain it to people in other disciplines. While working in pathology, I saw how easy is was to hide behind big words and make yourself feel superior or make others feel inferior. I have always believed, and it has been proven to me over and over, that most people can understand medical or scientific concepts if you take the time to define technical terms and provide examples.

I started hosting public information sessions demystifying pathology terms related to abnormal Pap smears while working with the Emma Goldman Clinic in the early 1980s. This led me to an interest in more of an educational or translational focus, and I went on to get my master’s in preventative medicine and environmental health at UI.

You’re the director of WISE—what is this program?

The purpose of WISE is to expand and improve opportunities for women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. WISE specifically aims to provide academic support and research opportunities; promote professional development; establish positive community; and encourage global cooperation. We have found that helping young women find a supportive academic and social community very early in their tenure at UI is one of the most effective strategies for retaining them in science and engineering majors.

Women also need to see connections between what they are doing in the classroom and how it will one day affect the quality of life for others. We try to make what they are doing in the classroom relevant in real life.

Why are science and engineering typically male-dominated fields?

I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs since I started working with WISE. The UI College of Engineering does a fabulous job recruiting academically-prepared women into engineering, but there is still a fairly small pool of women from which to recruit. A lot still needs to be done during pre-college years to have a significant effect on increasing the number of women in the pipeline.

While we definitely see more gender parity in some science departments than in the past, both at the student and professor level, we find that women aren’t receiving doctoral degrees or progressing to top administrative positions at the same rate as men. Some of that has to do with difficulty in finding a mentor. It’s important to have specific programs in place, like WISE, to give women the opportunity to connect with people like them. Women are still underrepresented in many science and engineering disciplines, and finding a mentor with whom they share both personal and professional characteristics can be very important.

What do you enjoy most about being the director of WISE?

I really love the population of students I get to work with. They are amazing. In fact, I struggle with the fact that the more women we have in the program, the more it pushes me into an administrative role, and the less I get to work one-on-one with students. I truly love my job and feel like I make the most impact when I am able to build personal connections with the young women in the program.

What would your colleagues be surprised to know about you?

Many of my colleagues don’t know a lot about my musical background. In my 20s, I was in a 10-piece horn band that toured the country and owned a recording studio in Michigan. I always loved music and science, so pursued music until I was about 30, then went back to school and started my science career by become a registered cytotechnologist.

What is the biggest risk you have taken and did it pay off?

I take risks all the time, and don’t shy away from them. I try to take calculated risks with WISE and in my personal life, and in general, those risks have generally worked out. I’ve learned not to be so afraid of failure or of displeasing someone else.