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Women in Science: Student mom finds balance in family, advocacy, patient care, female identity

December 3, 2012
Katie Seelinger and her husband, Dustin, at graduation in May 2012.

Katie Seelinger and her husband, Dustin, at graduation in May 2012.

When Katie Seelinger and her husband made the decision to study at NIU, she wanted to become a doctor.

As she began working toward this goal, her courses followed the expected path, touching on important aspects of biology, chemistry and anatomy. That trail was diverted the day Seelinger discovered the Women’s Studies Program.

While browsing the NIU course catalog, Seelinger came across a listing for an elective she hadn’t noticed before: Women in Science, a course offered by the Women’s Studies Program and taught by geography professor and associate dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences, Lesley Rigg.

Fascinated by the intersection of feminist and scientific studies, Seelinger enrolled in the class.

As the name suggests, the course (WOMS 324) highlights the role of women in science (and the role of science in women’s lives), both historically and within a modern context. It also explores ideas for bringing scientific fields into something cohesive in which both men and women can study and work.

The class was inspiring for Seelinger. After completing the course, she joined the Women’s Studies Program as the university’s first contract major in gender and science, which allowed her to work with faculty and advisers to create an individualized major.

“We treat medicine as if people live in a vacuum,” Seelinger said. “They have their illness, and that’s that, but it never works that way. There are always socio-economic, family and cultural differences that are going to influence that, and I think anyone in patient care needs to realize there’s a blending of those things.”

Katie Seelinger and her family at Take Back the Night 2010.

Katie Seelinger and her family at Take Back the Night 2010.

Life as an undergraduate wasn’t easy for Seelinger, a mother of two young children, both of whom she gave birth to while working on her degree.

The Campus Child Care Center was a big plus for us to come (to NIU), and any time we’ve been anywhere on campus, the people there were always nice and welcoming,” she said. “Thankfully, I was blessed with a lot of very awesome professors who understood my situation.”

Rigg agrees.

“NIU is very supportive of women faculty who are in sciences on campus, and that trickles down to students,” she said. “If you look at the numbers across the campus – geology, chemistry, physics, geography – the number of women majors are very low. As you move toward master’s and Ph.D. degrees, the proportion of women get lower and lower … and so it’s really important that women in those fields know that they’re not alone.”

Motherhood, particularly the Cesarean birth of her daughter, changed Seelinger’s perspective of maternal care. This shift allowed her to find a voice in advocacy work. “Mothers need to experience more empowerment, more compassion, and more patient-centered care instead of the industrialized maternal care that we’ve developed as a country,” Seelinger said.

She became involved with student groups and volunteer experiences, including the Women’s Rights Alliance, a student group dedicated to the status and well-being of women and girls along with improving the relations between the sexes. Seelinger also volunteered to work with the Women’s Resource Center, which provides a place on camps for faculty, staff, students and the community to become involved in issues of inclusiveness and activism.

Seelinger recently finished her bachelor’s degree work with a major in biology and women’s studies gender and science and a minor in chemistry.

Her work in women’s studies complimented her other classes; she’s learned the scientific, biological and chemical processes, along with the more abstract social and environmental conditions that shape a person’s health. This perspective helped prepare her for work as a graduate student; she is now pursuing a master of public health degree. She has also been certified as a birth doula, a trained labor support professional focused on mental, emotional and physical support of mothers from pregnancy through postpartum.

Seelinger advises incoming students to take advantage of the many opportunities NIU provides.

“Find a way to make your academics about you. Don’t feel like you have to conform to a certain major and certain requirements,” she said. “Electives are there for a reason. Make the most of them. Find classes that you’re really interested in and that you can be passionate about.”

by Cameron Orr