Professor Lee Hei-sook (Mathematics) has been supporting women scientists for the past nine years as the founder and the current Executive Director of the Women Into Science and Engineering (WISE) center. Launched in 2001, the center has supported 140, 709 youth and women scientists, as of 2008, mainly through providing mentoring and laboratory programs, in which college students or graduate students visit middle school laboratories helping students’ experiments. WISE now has 14 regional branches across the nation.
Lee's determination to help female scientists grew stronger after seeing the unequal treatment received by women scientists in the early 1990s.
"When I introduced a competent student to a research institute, the recruiting person immediately turned down the offer after knowing she was a female," said Lee.
As a graduate of Ewha who studied in the States and Canada, the concept of sexual discrimination was not a familiar one for Lee. She said this was the first time she realized the prejudices and the social discrimination women have to bear. Ever since then, Lee has thought of ways to help female scientists in Korea, leading her to establish the WISE Center with government funding. The center runs based on the funding, where yearly amounts average to 270 million Korean won. The money covers all of WISE center’s basic costs, such as labor, office space, and public utilities.
Among other programs at the WISE centers, Lee prioritizes the mentoring program. The centers provide two different mentoring programs, E-Mentoring and Mentoring Fellow. The former is designed for middle and high school female students to meet women professional online who have backgrounds in the natural sciences and engineering. The latter is a more specified program in which 15 college female students with similar interests and a mentor from a relevant institute gather to form a group. Whereas the former meets primarily online via the center’s website, the latter one takes place off line, allowing students to visit the mentor’s institute.
Mentors are appointed by the center and mentees for E-Mentoring are chosen through online applications at the center’s homepage (www.wise.or.kr). Mentees for Mentoring Fellow are recruited during January and February, with announcements being made on the same website.
Once students are chosen to be mentees, the usually lasts from six months to a year. “As the mentors are non-paid volunteers sharing their professional knowledge and being spiritual mainstay of students’ careers, to make a closer relationship with the mentors solely depends on the mentees,” said Lee.
Lee, who strongly believes that ‘the luckiest people are those who met a good teacher,’ thinks that the future of the WISE center lies in strengthening the mentoring program.
“Lately, I have been so grateful and proud to see a former mentee of our center turned to become a mentor when she entered college.”
With only four more years until her retirement, Lee wishes to continue the project as long as she can.
“To learn from what has been done is not enough, knowing where and how to learn is crucial in becoming wise women,” said Lee.