These La Jolla teachers are striving to promote equality for women in science

Leigh Pierce teaches an elective science course for seventh- and eighth-graders at La Jolla Country Day School.
Leigh Pierce teaches an elective science course for seventh- and eighth-graders at La Jolla Country Day School after 30 years as a biotech scientist.

With Women’s History Month coming in March, the La Jolla Light interviewed several local female science teachers about their efforts to close the gender gap in science and why that’s important.

Lani Keller, The Bishop’s School

Lani Keller teaches biology at The Bishop's School and is co-director of its Center for Creative Sciences.

“I always knew I wanted to teach,” said Bishop’s School honors biology teacher Lani Keller.

Keller, who is co-director of the school’s Center for Creative Sciences, said her love of science was inspired by “having awesome science teachers. ... [I] want to bring that enthusiasm to the next generations.”

She said gender equality in science is something she is “always conscious and concerned about.” Keller, who holds a Ph.D. in cell biology from UC San Francisco, said she works to ensure her students “see females in a position of scientific authority. I do things like bring in female guest speakers, from forensics to genetic counseling to leaders in the biotech field.”

She said she encourages students to develop skill sets “that are so important in science, like ability to fail, having a growth mindset, creativity [and] communication. All these skills that make an amazing scientist are things that traditionally are kind of kept out of the classroom.”

Also important, Keller said, is to give her students a “role model that they feel they can come to and ask questions.”

Keller said the introductory biology classes she attended were split evenly between men and women. “As I went up, there were less and less females,” she said. “When I started my Ph.D. program, we were 50 and 50 again. As I looked at people that were pursuing science at a top level in either research or academics, it got filtered out again to mostly male. I see these entry points where everyone’s excited at the same level, and then they just kind of funnel out.

“A lot of people are blind to that, but I’m very cognizant of that. We need to make sure that we are aware and we’re asking important questions on why and how that’s happening.”

Rachel Lobato, La Jolla High School

Rachel Lobato, a chemistry teacher at La Jolla High School, says she was inspired by her female high school science teachers.

Rachel Lobato, in her first year of teaching chemistry at La Jolla High School, said the first step to promoting gender equality in her classes is “being a female teacher.”

Lobato said she focuses on “having imagery and stories and connections to scientific history that highlight the contributions that women have had, that people of color have had as well, so it’s not just a one gender, one race kind of story.”

She works at “finding ways to incorporate the students’ cultural backgrounds in order to build that connection to the sciences,” she said.

Lobato, who has a bachelor’s degree in human evolutionary biology from Harvard University and a master’s in education from UC San Diego, taught English in Spain for a year. She said her love of science came from two female science teachers she had in high school, one of whom “was very dedicated to biology and loved the subject.”

“If there’s an equal contribution to science from women, that translates to an accepting of the sciences at a wider level for all people,” Lobato said. “If you plan to be a contributing member of society that votes and makes informed decisions, it’s important to be able to understand the science that comes behind a lot of these decisions. It would be difficult to do that if you feel alienated, especially as a woman.”

Leigh Pierce, La Jolla Country Day School

Leigh Pierce has taught her seventh- and eighth-grade “How to Make a Medicine” elective science course for four years at La Jolla Country Day School after 30 years as a biotech scientist.

“I wanted to take the skills that I learned and share those with young students so they could develop that kind of love and excitement for the kind of advanced science that I did every day,” she said.

“Throughout my career, it wasn’t uncommon for people to underestimate you in comparison to males,” Pierce said of her experiences as a female scientist. “Having to work harder or longer than someone who’s at the same level became evident when I started consulting, as there was always a standard that I was held to that was different than males.”

Pierce said science manufacturing is a male-dominated field and that she encourages her female students by promoting a learning environment that employs a variety of techniques “that reaches everyone.”

“I do a lot of open-ended, verbal questions in class,” often asking everyone to answer in writing, she said.

Teachers need to adapt to students’ needs, she said. “There’s a way to reach them. One of the beauties of science is that it’s a lot of hands-on that gets students really excited and gives them more confidence.”

Rachel Tenenbaum, La Jolla High School

Rachel Tenenbaum teaches in and oversees the Biomedical Pathway at La Jolla High School.

Rachel Tenenbaum, who has taught in and overseen La Jolla High School’s Biomedical Pathway the past six years, said the COVID-19 pandemic has shed further light on the importance of women in science.

“COVID-19 has taught us that science is important and there will be a huge need for scientists and medical professionals,” said Tenenbaum, who has degrees in biochemistry and cell biology from UC San Diego. “We need diversity to help us study the nuances of how science works in our differing population.”

“Teaching in the pathway has been amazing, as we have had many girls enter the program,” she said. “They are given opportunities to hear from a wide variety of professionals and see what they actually do.”

Lori Trombley, Muirlands Middle School

Lori Trombley teaches sixth- and eighth-grade science at Muirlands Middle School.
Lori Trombley teaches sixth- and eighth-grade science at Muirlands Middle School and loves the hands-opportunities science provides.

Lori Trombley, who teaches sixth- and eighth-grade science at Muirlands Middle School, said she still has vivid memories of her chemistry and biology labs.

In her college science classes, she said, she “loved the hands-on opportunities to learn the content. I realized that being a teacher would be a great way to be able to enjoy those science opportunities still and share them with others.”

Trombley said “it’s important for girls to see female role models in science positions. It just makes it seem normal, as opposed to when I was younger and felt like I had to say I didn’t like science, because not a lot of girls did. I also try and make sure that if any kid expresses an interest in science that I encourage that as much as possible. You can see when a topic you are covering inspires a kid, and it’s nice to just run with that and keep that spark alive.”

Muirlands has a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) day when presenters from various fields share their work experiences. “It is very normal to see as many female presenters as males,” Trombley said. “I love it! I think this younger generation is getting opportunities to see more diversity in those fields, which helps normalize their interests.” ◆