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Psychologist Debra Major Addresses House Policy Makers at STEM Exhibition

By Tom Robinson

Speaking before congressional lawmakers last week, Old Dominion University psychologist Debra Major shared her research into the national problem of retaining students and workers, especially women, in STEM fields - science, technology, engineering and math.

Major, a professor and Eminent Scholar, attended the Coalition for National Science Funding Capitol Hill Exhibition and presented her research in the Rayburn Building, home of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Major said California Rep. Jerry McNerney, an engineer, showed particular interest in the issue, asking her to send him more information, which he plans to use in addresses on the House floor.

Nearly half the college students initially seeking STEM degrees do not graduate with a STEM degree, Major said. And women are far more likely than men to drop out of the STEM and information technology workforce.

"It is so disheartening to see talented, qualified individuals leave STEM," Major said. "At the professional level, our need for science and technology workers is being outpaced by the number of undergrads we can produce in STEM disciplines."

Major is an industrial organizational psychologist who focuses her research on career development issues, especially barriers faced by women and minorities, developmental relationships at work, and work-family balance.

Major's poster presentation at the exhibition cited factors that encourage individuals to persist in STEM majors and careers. They include meaningful growth and development opportunities that can build identity and commitment in STEM.

For women in information technology, growth opportunities are what mainly drive commitment to the field, with work-family culture also a significant influence.

Major's future research will investigate how career identity helps keep men and women in STEM and how it develops over the college experience; what factors derail the development of STEM career identity; and whether lack of civility from faculty, staff and peers undermines STEM connection and subsequent career identity.

The exhibition, an annual event hosted by the Coalition for National Science Funding, demonstrates the value of investing in basic research which can, in turn, lead to unprecedented scientific, technological and economic opportunities in the United States.

Major was invited to participate in the exhibition through the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, of which she is a fellow. National Science Foundation officials, including director France Córdova, visited Major's poster display. Major's work has been funded by the National Science Foundation for nearly 15 years.

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