Skip to main content

The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The Young Professor Studying Why More Women and Minorities Don’t Pursue Science

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

When Rachael Robnett started college at the University of Northern Iowa, she thought she was going to be a Spanish teacher. Though she stuck with her Spanish major, she quickly decided that she didn’t want to teach high schoolers but thought counseling them might be fun. She tacked on a psychology degree.

The off-ramp into an academic career came into view while she was volunteering in a psychology lab on a project that examined gender development and stereotyping, topics that have always fascinated her.

“Growing up, I was always the person who would argue with friends and family members about sexism and gender stereotypes,” she recalls. During her childhood in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, she asked her parents why people use “mankindto refer to both men and women, and found it puzzling that her dad refused to wear pink. In high school, her senior paper lamented the lack of publicity for female athletes. “As someone who struggled to find her academic niche in high school,” she says, “I was delighted to realize that it could be my job to study gender.”

Until that point, Robnett didn’t know that conducting research is a part of a professor’s job: “Although I hadn’t been an academic standout in high school or early in college—I was always more focused on competitive swimming,” she says, “my newfound passion provided me with the motivation I needed to work toward a doctoral degree.”

"Many girls and ethnic minority students want to pursue science majors while they are in high school, but their career goals shift away from science once they begin college. I want to understand why."

She went on to get her Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the University of California-Santa Cruz in 2013 and, that same year, started working as an assistant professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

Robnett runs UNLV’s Social Development Research Lab, where she studies why women and minorities are under-represented in science-related fields.

One of her recent studies found that when undergraduates get involved with a research lab, they’re more likely to be able to envision themselves as scientists. “The implication is that it’s essential to get science students involved in authentic, hands-on research early,” she says. “The earlier, the better, particularly for women and members of under-represented ethnic groups, who sometimes struggle to see themselves as scientists.”

In another study, she found that women in math-intensive majors like physics and computer science experience high levels of sexism, especially from male peers.

Robnett’s second line of research examines gender roles. During graduate school, she published a study about why women don't propose, and why women are the ones who change their names. Despite collecting data at a university with a fairly progressive student body,” she says, “traditional preferences were the clear norm.”

Respondents said things like, "I would want to propose because I'm a man" or "I would want to change my last name because I'm a woman."

This was striking to Robnett because young people are reluctant to endorse stereotypical gender roles. Yet here were her results, indicating that certain aspects of male-female relationships are particularly resistant to change.

It was the first project that she had designed from start to finish, and it received some media coverage, “which facilitated rich discussions with friends, family, and people I hadn’t met before,” she says. “These discussions sparked a number of new research ideas.”

Robnett’s work has merited her speaking spots at conferences around the world, plus awards, including a dissertation fellowship from the American Psychological Association.

“Like many researchers, I want my research to have an impact on my subfield of psychology,” she says, “However, I also want it to have an impact at the societal level. This is particularly true of my work that focuses on educational inequities in science fields. I see firsthand the challenges that disenfranchised groups face in the U.S. education system, and I hope my research will help to correct these imbalances.”

Robnett also derives motivation from being able to guide younger researchers: “I know from personal experience that support from a mentor can push students toward careers and academic goals that they never would have considered otherwise. I have encountered some truly remarkable students here at UNLV. As a professor, I feel a responsibility to help them realize their potential.”

Last year, several undergraduates in Robnett’s lab won a prize for a research presentation. “That definitely never happened to me as an undergraduate,” she says. “I was so proud!”

Over the next few years, she hopes to carry out a large-scale project that tracks students across the transition from high school to college. “Many girls and ethnic minority students want to pursue science majors while they are in high school,” she says, “but their career goals shift away from science once they begin college. I want to understand why.”

In her free time, Robnett still gets in the pool a few times a week and trains for half marathons—“I’m really competitive and like to be well prepared going into races,” she says.

When she looks in the mirror, she says,I see someone who is determined, a little frazzled, and still trying figure out how to look more like a professor and less like a graduate student.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).