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Meredith Holt, Published May 30 2012

Fargo women find success in male-dominated field of research and technology

FARGO - Jane Schuh keeps a picture of her 5-year-old daughter in her office at North Dakota State University for inspiration.

To the associate professor of microbiology, the little girl’s fearless cry says, “I am woman, hear me roar!”

Perhaps Samantha takes after her mother, a confident, outgoing asthma researcher and immunology professor.

As a woman, Schuh is in the minority in her field.

Yet she, along with fellow NDSU scientist Anne Denton, want girls to know research and technology isn’t just for men.

Schuh says she’s encountered little gender-specific resistance in her career, and she’s grateful for those who helped make that possible.

“I’m so thankful for the women who did what they had to do to be successful in science to blaze the trail for those of us who came after,” she says.

Her interest in math, science and medicine started as a youth growing up in the tiny town of Sheldon, N.D.

Schuh’s father was a farmer and high school science teacher, and the majority of her nine siblings work in medical-related fields.

The married Fargo mother of two always thought she’d be a doctor, but she credits a microbiology teacher for steering her toward research.

“One day, she took me aside and said, ‘You know, I think you should go into microbiology. You could work for the CDC or something like that,’ ” Schuh says.

She says research science fits her through and through, right down to her shoes – snake-print platform wedges on a recent Friday afternoon.

“What I’m interested in is the questions,” she says.

In her work, Schuh focuses on finding asthma candidate genes or targets and studies what initiates the disease process early and shows up later.

The AgriHealth Initiative she’s working on combines state resources with national programs to provide agriculture workers with health care, safety and disability.

She’s also been instrumental in securing funding for new top-of-the-line equipment for the university.

Now she helps guide her own students and provides them with opportunities to help further their own careers.

“It’s probably the most rewarding thing that you do as a professor,” she says.

This summer, three undergraduate students and three graduate students will be doing research in Schuh’s lab.

“For an undergraduate student to be able to do research, really good, hands-on, finding-the-answers-to-problems research, is a fantastic opportunity,” she says.

Schuh, who also attended NDSU as an undergraduate and graduate student, received tenure last year and was named an assistant dean a few months ago.

She continues to learn from her students’ fresh perspectives and inquisitive minds.

“Even though most of my job is research, I’ve found that every time I teach the basic immunology class, I think of things in a new way that affects my research, too,” she says.

GET WITH THE PROGRAM

A couple buildings over from Schuh, Denton teaches classes such as bioinformatics and comparative programming languages.

The associate professor of computer science says maybe 5 percent (at most) of her undergraduate students are women.

“I find that really disappointing,” she says. “I don’t know where it comes from.”

She says younger girls seem more open to math- and science-related fields but lose interest around middle school.

“If girls stick with it, I think it’s a very good environment to be in,” Denton says. The Fargo woman encourages her own children as well as her classroom “kids” to learn programming.

Her 14-year-old son recently earned the guitar he wanted by completing a programming book. Now her 11-year-old daughter is building Web pages with her sights set on an e-reader.

Denton, who grew up in Germany, started learning to program as a teenager.

“I was lucky I was exposed to computers fairly early on,” she says.

She originally went into physics – up to the Ph.D. level – but switched to computer science.

In 2003, she completed a master’s in computer science and was hired at NDSU, where her husband also teaches.

Why the change? In computer science, “it’s a lot easier to get jobs wherever you are or whatever your situation,” Denton says.

However, it wasn’t as much of a switch as it may seem.

“Even in physics, most of what I was doing was working with computers, programming computers,” she says.

Now she’s combining research and education to benefit her students.

“Professors are the ones who, by definition, have to be at the cutting edge,” she says.

Her data-driven work includes “smart farming” and plant genomics.

Essentially, she makes mountains of data useful in real applications.

She works with companies such as American Crystal Sugar, John Deere and RDO Equipment that rely on her findings.

“They want to be really sure if I tell them something, they can make decisions based on it,” she says.

During the summer, Denton gives students the opportunity to get real research experience.

Denton says there’s a misperception about technology jobs going abroad.

“The reality is that in this area, people are desperately looking for people who can do programming,” she says.

Even for those who aren’t interested in a career in IT, a programming background opens up so many doors, she says.

Denton says she’s never regretted going into a male-dominated field. For her, it’s never been an issue.

“If you can solve problems, you’ll get a job,” she says. “It’s as simple as that.”