Women in STEM: It’s a world still heavily dominated by men

Manhattan student calls for women scientists while juggling school and cancer


Growing up in Upstate New York, Rebecca Coglianese stayed away from math and science and instead focused on art, since she saw herself becoming a tattoo artist. But that all changed in a high school chemistry class.

“That class changed my perspective on what I wanted to do and now I’m here (Manhattan College) majoring in physics,” Coglianese said.

Physics was certainly not her first choice.

Since the science scholar was introduced to chemistry, she wanted to continue that path at Manhattan College. But at a point, she was starting to feel ambivalent about the subject. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be an “experimentalist” rather, her interest was “theory.”

The college’s Kakos School of Science requires its freshmen to take a one-credit orientation seminar to ensure students choose the right path whether it’s science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

There are different paths in the science world, and sometimes it can be difficult for some students find something that suits their needs and interests. Manhattan College aims to ensure each student understands and works towards their goal.

Farrukh Fattoyev, an assistant professor in physics, represented the department and his research to the freshmen.

What caught Coglianese’s eye was his research presentation on neutron stars.

She was already familiar with astronomy as she took two classes in high school when she did dual enrollment at a community college. She excelled in those classes to a point where she would help her classmates.

A neutron star is “an incredibly compact, dense object, because to be a neutron star, it needs to be a high mass star before that, and then supernova explosion will occur,” Coglianese said.

Scientists studying neutron stars are interested because they are born when a star dies.

In our galaxy, there are about 200 billion stars; out of those, about 50 billion at some point turn into a neutron star.

On average, a neutron star is 1.4 solar mass, and in comparison, our sun is 1 solar mass. Yet, only a teaspoon of its material is as dense as Mount Everest. To be such a star that we see in the sky it must be a high-mass star before a supernova explosion occurs to make the leftover remnants.

“Rebecca got interested in the research part of it and immediately after the seminar a day or two, she came to me and said she would really love to be working in this area,” Fattoyev said.

Coglianese switched majors from chemistry to physics and never looked back. Throughout her undergraduate years, she completed three projects on neutron stars and is currently working on her senior thesis, the speed of sound of the internal structure of neutron stars.

“It’s like learning another language,” she said.

Fattoyev has advised Coglianese on her research projects attempting to determine whether a mystery object twice as massive as the sun can be classified as either the biggest neutron star or the smallest black hole ever discovered.

Sometime ago in the late 20th century, an idea emerged from the string theory — perhaps our entire universe or three-dimensional space plus one-dimensional time is a membrane in a dimensional world. And, if that is true, we are living creatures and shadows in this higher dimensional four-dimensional world, Fattoyev explained.

Coglianese admitted that sometimes she does not understand it fully. However, one day “it can click,” or it can take her years to fully grasp it.

While completing her research, she wants to encourage and inspire women to pursue their degree in STEM as it is often stereotyped as male-dominated.

According to Manhattan College, she is one of three female physics majors in the small department. And she is also the only female graduating in her field this year.

While searching for graduate schools, she would look at the men-to-women ratio and one school in particular had less than 30 women of 100 graduate students.

“That made me really sit back in my chair — knowing that I’m going to be in a male-dominated field is daunting,” she said. “Just knowing there isn’t another woman in the room — I don’t know how to explain it.”

American Physical Society is one of the few regional conferences hosted for women studying physics as undergraduates every year. Coglianese has attended virtual conferences and one recently in person.

“Hearing other experiences for women, and that kind of lifts me up. I’ve only had two female physics teachers and one of them was just lab,” Coglianese said.

Its purpose? To help these women continue studying in the field by allowing them to experience a professional conference, information about graduate schools and various professions in physics. This includes other programs where women in physics of all ages share experiences, advice, and ideas.

For five decades, Manhattan College has graduated thousands of women in STEM. For the first time this year, they hosted a conference for these women on Jan. 28 organized by Benjamin Boivin, director of undergraduate admissions.

“A lot of engineering and science programs are known as male-dominated fields for college students, and I don’t really think (it) is a word we want to use in 2023,” Boivin said to the Quadrangle, the school newspaper. “Not only do we have very successful women that come out of Manhattan College for STEM, but they’re also some of the leaders in their fields.”

At the American Physical Society event there were 20 panelists, current students and alumni to celebrate the accomplishments of these women, including engineering graduate Maggie Brownson and Coglianese.

Brownson told The Riverdale Press that Manhattan College set her up for success. She left with a network of professors, students and alumni that helped her in the “real world.”

“They taught me all the principles of engineering that I needed to be successful, but they also gave me support in the community of the working world,” Brownson said.

Brownson works at Cosentini Associates as a mechanical engineer and designs commercial building heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

According to the HVACSchool, the industry is not fortunate, with women making up just 1.7 percent of the workforce.

While Brownson was in school, of around 50 students, she was one of four women in her mechanical engineering class, she said.

As Coglianese is graduating, she applied for graduate school. She plans on continuing her studies in astrophysics and work toward her doctorate. But she has a lot on her plate as health issues have surfaced.

Battle with cancer

Six days before Christmas in 2022, Coglianese was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare form of cancer that commonly develops in the salivary glands. She is recovering from a successful surgery and will be starting radiation in April.

Once she was diagnosed, she told The Press doctors conveyed to her that it was most likely stage three and she would need to accept the fact of a worst-case scenario.

“Rebecca had been actually coming to all classes, although it has been very tough on her side at first. Just this fall, she didn’t know whether or not this was a cancer,” Fattoyev said. “She had to go through lots of obstacles at the same time she had to study,”

Her boyfriend spotted a mass underneath her tongue and convinced her to go to the emergency room. And at first, she didn’t want to because she is “21 and there is no genetic history of cancer in my family,” she said.

She added that she cried every night because she couldn’t find a doctor who took her insurance for a proper biopsy.

While recovering for three weeks, she made a plan with all her professors. One professor will set up a video camera in the class and will record the lesson for her.

“I’m going to try to keep them in the loop because I know they probably don’t enjoy the disruption either,” she said. “I know it can probably be stressful for them too so trying to make it as easy as possible for the both of us.”

However, she won’t stop living her life as she aims to find employment in the American Museum of Natural History while conducting research.

She hopes to be the lead curator in the astrophysics department.

“I grew up thinking that I wasn’t good enough to be a scientist. And I don’t want younger children thinking that from a young age because we’re capable of anything,” Coglianese said. “And that can really change the way they go about school later on from an early age, I want to get in there and encourage them.”

Rebecca Coglianese, STEM, Manhattan College, physics, Kakos School of Science, Farrukh Fattoyev, Benjamin Boivin, Maggie Brownson