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Student Spotlight: Chaia Flegenheimer, Recipient of $10,000 CRF Dissertation Award, Hopes to Lessen Gender Disparities in STEM fields

Chaia Flegenheimer

The recipient of the 2017-18 CRF Graduate Family Research Dissertation Fellowship, Chaia Flegenheimer’s interest in the workings of the human brain began at a young age. Chaia struggled during her early school years with learning challenges, particularly related to understanding the mechanics of spelling and math. The differences in her learning experiences compared to that of her peers sparked her interest in how the brain processes information. Under the encouragement and guidance of her high school science teacher, she continued to develop her interest in neuroscience and took classes at Smith College while attending Northampton High School.

Chaia completed her Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience from Vassar College in 2013. While working in research laboratories as an undergraduate student, Chaia became interested in research and teaching.  A Pioneer Valley native, her career goals brought her back to western Massachusetts to join the PhD program in Neuroscience at UMass Amherst.

Under the mentorship of Dr. Jennifer McDermott, and with the guidance of Dr. Nilanjana Dasgupta, Chaia is currently working on her dissertation research. She studies the behavioral and neural effects of implicit stereotype threat on task performance and engagement in young women.

“From a young age, women are exposed to subtle and unconscious negative stereotypes that lead them to believe they will not be as successful as men in STEM fields,” says Chaia who hopes her work will help educators better understand stereotype threats and lessen gender disparities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields.

Chaia states that families unconsciously introduce children to gender-specific toys. Likewise, families’ and teachers’ academic expectations unintentionally vary for male and female students across different subject areas from a young age.

“This subtle stream of negative stereotyping leads women to take protective measures by unconsciously avoiding these threatening fields,” says Chaia whose research aims at exploring ways to reduce the gender gap in science.

Chaia’s dissertation research has three primary aims. First, she confirmed that she could induce stereotype threat in a laboratory setting. Second, she attempts to discern whether there are neural differences in individuals facing stereotype threat. Finally, she examines whether the neural differences can be lessened by introducing individuals to positive group role models.

“This semester I will be testing whether exposing women participants to female role models in STEM fields prior to the experiment will increase their test performance,” she explains.

The $10,000 CRF dissertation fellowship has allowed Chaia to focus more on her research by reducing her teaching workload.

“CRF’s dissertation fellowship has allowed me to cut down my teaching responsibilities, and allowed me to focus more on my research goals”, says Chaia. Chaia also participates in CRF’s Student Research Scholars seminar, where she joins seven other students who meet regularly with CRF faculty and methodologists to share their work, and to get feedback and support for their research.  Chaia is also looking forward to strengthening her methodological skills with the help of CRF’s Methodology Program.

This research also many real world implications.  As Chaia notes, “Increasing the number of women in STEM fields will increase revenues for the growing number of families who rely on the mother’s income.”  Looking ahead, Chaia plans to apply for postdoctoral positions this year, prior to applying for academic positions.

--Palista Kharel