BOSTON - American physicist Sally Ride achieved lasting fame in June 1983 when she became the first American woman to travel in space as a crew member of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
After leaving NASA Ride became a physics professor at the University of California San Diego, and is now president of Sally Ride Science, a company dedicated to helping teachers raise students' interest in science.
Ride, 58, spoke to Reuters after appearing at a round-table discussion in Boston on gender equity and educating girls in the areas of math, science and engineering.
Q. Surveys show that about two-thirds of American girls in the fourth grade say they like science. But the numbers fall off steadily from there. What is going wrong?
A. There are a lot of very subtle -- and some not so subtle -- messages that make girls not want to go into science. There are rather important stereotypes that society implants in our children at a young age.
If you Google for pictures of scientists you get a page of geeky guys who look like Einstein. There's no 11-year-old girl who aspires to that.
The message that our culture sends to kids is that science isn't cool, that science is really hard. In 5th and 6th grade kids start to internalize that. Everyone wants to be normal at that age. It's very important to counter those messages, and to make the teachers aware of this too. Often teachers don't realize how pervasive the messages are.
Q. Since 1970 the percentage of women in medical school and law school has risen toward gender equity. But women are still a rarity in engineering and many scientific disciplines.
A. Role models are important, and medicine is a perfect example. There are female doctors on television. More young women were going through medical school and more people started having female doctors. The profession reached a critical mass, and expectations changed. Everyone accepts that women can be doctors, but that's not try about some other types of science professions.
Q. What kind of jobs in science are likely to lure young women -- and young men for that matter?
A. The generation growing up today is very interested in the issues of climate change and energy. Girls and boys, eight, 10, 12 years of age, are so interested. It's palpable; they're driving the rest of us along.
So far, we haven't done a good job at linking that interest to work in science, technology, and engineering, where kids could have a huge impact. It's a matter of making that connection -- that science can help solve those problems.
Q. When you studied physics at Stanford in the 1970s, did it bother you that you were one of the few women in the program? Empower you?
A. I honestly didn't think about it one way or another. I was oblivious to it. That negative peer pressure didn't really have an effect on me. It did on a lot of my friends, though, and it still happens.
Q. Do you consider yourself a feminist role model?
A. It's very, very important for girls and young women to have role models and to put female faces on any profession they choose.
There have been many women in space, but I'm the one that people remember. That gives me a major responsibility to talk to girls, to young women -- to help them appreciate that these are careers that are wide open for women.
(Reporting by Ros Krasny; Editing by Patricia Reaney)