1 of 3
Ravell Call, Deseret News
Marjan Javadi, a doctoral student in chemical engineering at BYU, hopes her research can help in fighting cancer.

PROVO — Marjan Javadi's father died when she was young, her mother never went to college, and her three sisters all got married or engaged instead of earning doctorate degrees. But that's not why Javadi is sitting at a computer in a lab at BYU on a Friday night.

The room smells like soap and chemicals, and there are beakers and little glass vials strewn all over the countertops. Javadi's pink cell phone keeps ringing — her friends are at a party and they wonder if she's coming — but she ignores it, concentrating instead on the particle size analyzer in front of her eyes.

Her experiment isn't working.

"I'm trying to get them small, like 100 nanometers, but they are 300," Javadi says disappointedly about the invisible particles in the vial of murky blue liquid that's been in the analyzer for the last three minutes. "Chemotherapy affects all of the body, so we're trying to attack just the cancerous cells so it won't kill or hurt other healthy cells."

This is the reason Javadi, a doctoral student in chemical engineering at BYU, comes to school at 8 in the morning and stays until 9 or 10 at night. It's the reason she won't see her family in Iran for the next four to eight years, and the reason the 28-year-old has sworn off marriage until she's at least earned her Ph.D. Education is her passion, her "No. 1 priority" and, maybe some day, she can help cure cancer, too.

Javadi is a part of a growing trend that is changing the makeup of colleges and universities across the country and the face of America's work force. Women have outpaced men in receiving bachelor's and master's degrees since the late 1980s, but in the 2008-09 school year, for the first time, more women than men earned doctorate degrees, according to a recent study by the U.S. Council of Graduate Schools. According to the study, 50.4 percent of doctorate degrees — and 60 percent of master's degrees — awarded in 2008-09 were given to women.

The margin of women earning Ph.D.s over men may be slim, but it is significant. Besides raising the eyebrows of a long-established, male-dominated faction of higher education, the shift also raises questions — and hopes, for some — about how a better-educated population of women might affect families, the economy and ultimately, all of society.

"It is a benefit to society to have roughly equal numbers of highly educated men and women," said Valerie Hudson, a political science professor at BYU who was named as one of Foreign Policy magazine's 100 Top Global Thinkers of 2009. "The female perspective may lead to new questions asked in research, new priorities for policy making, new ways of doing business, new standards of ethical behavior, and so forth. … Human collectives at all levels do best when run jointly by the two halves of humanity."

Utah lags behind the national average with still more men than women gaining a higher education. This fall, 55.6 percent of the student body at the University of Utah, including undergraduates and graduate students, are male. At BYU, 70 percent of the students enrolled in doctorate programs this year are male.

Nevertheless, "the percentage of women is always increasing," says Charles Wight, dean of the University of Utah's graduate school.

The trend for women to receive a higher education has been gradual, Wight says, but long lasting — long enough even to invalidate the current economic crisis as the reason for the shift.

"Universities in general tend to have bulges in enrollment in times of economic downturns, and that is the case right now," Wight said. "But this trend is not just something precipitated by an economic downturn. I don't think a bad economy plays favorites with men and women. Everybody hurts."

Still, men may be hurting more now economically, than women. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for men in September was 9.8 percent. Unemployment for women was 8 percent. On average, men have a life expectancy rate that is four years less than women, according to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report for 2010. And while men still make more money than women working similar jobs, it may be no coincidence that as more women receive more education, wage disparities in the U.S. narrowed to 87 percent. For every $40,000 in estimated income that a man makes, women make $34,996, according to the 2010 report. In 2006, that gap was 62 percent, or $29,017 for women while men made $46,456.

As more women pursue careers and higher education, that shift could redefine the role of masculinity in our society, says Kathryn Stockton, director of the gender studies program at the U.

"As things change for women and the codes of femininity, then by definition, because they're tied at the hip, definitions of masculinity are also changed and thrown off," Stockton says. "I think our very language of the man-woman binary creates difficulty, trauma and anxiety for people taking on new roles."

Trina Loos wasn't looking to disrupt feminine and masculine roles when she started her Ph.D. program in molecular biology at BYU. The thing is, she just really loved education and wanted to teach science on a college level, like many of her female colleagues.

Loos, 26, got her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, and if she'd simply gotten a masters in that field and started working, she'd have made a lot more money than she would teaching with a Ph.D. Maybe that's one reason why fewer men are getting doctorates, she muses from her home in Missouri. It doesn't pay off monetarily, she says.

"My husband always teases that getting a Ph.D. is dumb because you don't have a lot of options after," Loos says. "In the lab there were lots of guys there doing research, but they were going to medical school or dental school or all sorts of different vocations that would make more money than being a scientist."

Loos got married two years ago, after she was part of the way through earning her doctorate. Dating and the doctorate program didn't go so well together, she says. Men found it intimidating that she was working for a Ph.D. in molecular biology, so after awhile, she stopped talking about it.

"I would just say I was doing biology, and not mention grad school," she says.

Now that she's married, Loos says she plans to stay home once she has kids and maybe teach occasionally.

Having a career and raising a family are no longer exclusive of each other, Hudson says. More women may be realizing the potential of doing both, thus pursuing an education and career they might not have if they'd been born a generation earlier.

"Technology has made it possible to alter the time and location of the workplace," Hudson says. "Women feel they can do justice to more than one thing at a time in their lives: they can be a good mother and also an entrepreneur, for example. They do not see an either/or world anymore where they are either a mother or a working woman, but cannot do both well."

Javadi isn't quite convinced, though. She is wary of anything that might distract her from getting her education including marriage.

"I would like to do it, but I'm thinking, if I get married and have a child, can I do the same thing I'm doing right now? And sometimes the answer is no," she says, and then her phone rings one more time. She's decided to leave the lab early and join her friends, though she's quick to say this break says nothing of her ambitions.

"Friday nights are an exception," she says with a smile. Then it's off to the party.

e-mail: achoate@desnews.com