Raising New Scientists: Kelsey Johnson and the Dark Skies, Bright Kids! Program

At my recent conference experience, I had the distinct privilege of meeting Kelsey Johnson, an associate professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia. Apart from her natural sense of humor and deep knowledge of astronomy and the early universe, Dr. Johnson is a writer in her spare time. She writes both fiction and non-fiction, and mentioned a current project of writing a non-fiction book to teach parents how to raise scientifically-literate, inquisitive children. We spent a fair amount of time one evening discussing the topic, and later I discovered that she has also started a non-profit program in Virginia to help bring more astronomy into children’s lives.

Dark Skies, Bright Kids! is a volunteer-run program founded to try to add to children’s existing science education in a way that both highlights astronomical concepts, and teaches them that learning science is fun. Dr. Johnson says it best in her interview with University of Virginia radio station WTJU’s Soundboard program: she hopes Dark Skies, Bright Kids! can teach kids that science isn’t about memorizing the textbook or taking tests; it’s about play. She touches on a really important phenomenon in science education, namely that kids start out in life curious, exploring their worlds, but later on often learn that science is boring, dry, or even scary.

This is something that I’ve mentioned before on this space and thought about on my own beyond that. So much of science outreach is aimed at “making science fun” for the target audience, but what if we could find a way to help developing minds maintain a mental association between their natural curiosity and scientific exploration? We wouldn’t need to correct the idea that science is boring because we wouldn’t let that idea take hold in the first place. To that end, Dark Skies, Bright Kids! offers after school programs, a summer camp, and even a website of resources for parents to create lesson plans or projects to do with their kids outside of school.

I’ve written before about how my first lesson on quantum mechanics came from a 10-year-old boy that I met as a counselor at a drama camp when I was in high school. Children are absolutely interested in science and want to explore, and having programs outside of classroom formalism is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to nurture this natural curiosity. And maybe by raising kids who don’t think science is scary or boring, we could find ourselves living in a world in the future where more people wanted to learn and understand scientific ideas from a multitude of disciplines.

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Physics Is Not Special

I recently had the privilege of attending an exclusive Symposium, attended by a group of top up-and-coming young scientists in a variety of fields. While the talks were fantastic and the conversations about research exciting, it was the philosophical conversations that really intrigued me. One of them lead from a thought I’d batted around in my own head for years now: that physics and math are somehow treated as superior to other sciences.

I’ve seen this in my professional life, on both sides. I’ve seen physicists think that their intelligence entitles them to be taken seriously in fields vastly different from their own without any actual background or context in them beyond their own interest. And I’ve seen scientists in other fields express the view that the physicists treat them like they’re less intelligent because they’re in a field other than physics. And it’s not only wrong, it’s detrimental to the field.

There’s this perception that physics and math are somehow hard in a way that other sciences aren’t. I suppose we interact with living things and chemicals on a daily basis, so perhaps by extension, we think that biology and chemistry are easier to understand. Physics can be a bit more abstract. And then there is the inherent link of physics and mathematics that some physicists use as a crutch. If you want to understand a physics concept, you work through the equations.

But not everyone can work through the equations. And it is possible to intuitively understand physics, even if it’s only at a superficial level. I heard a talk from Rush Holt last year where he questioned if it was even right to teach “watered-down” physics to laypeople and to that I say, “were you never a child?” We teach watered-down physics all the time. None of us were born understanding complex concepts of math and physics. We all had to learn in easily-digested chunks that were targeted at our level before we understood and could move on. And there is no reason we couldn’t apply that same logic to teaching non-scientists physics concepts outside of a classroom setting.

So I think it is hurting science to treat physics like something special, something that can’t be separated from its connection to mathematics. Something that can’t be understood by mere mortals. Part of the job of scientists is to take their knowledge and use it to know how to accurately distill into something understandable, by a variety of audiences. Research can never do anything for society if researchers continue to target their communications to less than one percent of the population.

And then there are the social scientists. There is a sense of derision towards the social sciences from the other sciences, and I think this is also hurting science. You see, the people that actually study how societies move and grow and communicate are the social scientists. They are the ones who have the scientific expertise to help us make our findings reach a broader audience. And yet, social sciences routinely find them tacked onto grant applications (if they are considered at all) as a way to add appeal, without actually being consulted for their input on a project as a whole. No, they don’t know the advanced physics (or even biology or chemistry or geology, etc.) that is necessary to drive that part of the research, but they do have an idea of what kinds of data might be more appreciated by a group. And it’s time to start listening to their input and really collaborating with them to get all kinds of science seen and understood by a wider audience.

The first step to making the public believe in science again is to stop talking down to them and instead trying to meet them on a level where both parties can talk together. And the first step in doing that is to take physics off its pedestal.

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Research Nails: How the Lab Stays with You

The other day, I looked down at my hands and realized that, despite being out of laboratory research for over a year now, I still had “lab nails.” What are lab nails, you may ask. Well, when I was working in a lab, I had to keep my nails short and neat and generally unpolished. When I worked in optics, I would tend to use my finger nails as screwdrivers for tiny bolts, so I tended to keep them short to avoid this habit. Plus, I couldn’t have flaking nail polish. In my fabrication-heavy job, I needed nails that wouldn’t tear through gloves, and I wouldn’t bother with nail polish because I worked with solvents (which, yes, should stay off my hands if I’m properly PPE-ed, but things happen).

It’s these little ways that a lab environment stays with you. Physically, it took a little while before I felt fully comfortable dressing for my job without assuming I’d need to change pump oil during the day. Or wearing makeup on a regular basis. Or, yes, actually getting my nails done occasionally. But on a deeper level, I was coming from an environment where most of your coworkers treat their job, their research as one of their primary identities. They are Scientists, first and foremost. No one in my office now seems to think of themselves as primarily identified by their job. They have hobbies and outside interests. There’s the guy who’s really into baseball, or the woman who trains horses, or the guy who grows vegetables.

But in research, you are a Scientist. There are those who consider any serious outside hobby as somehow lessening your dedication to The Science. When I ran a marathon, I actually kept it a secret from my labmates for fear that they would assume I was somehow less dedicated to the research, even though I didn’t spend any less time actually in the lab. But just knowing that I was doing something with my time that wasn’t thinking about the research seemed taboo.

Even now, I look at D, who has finished his thesis and works much more manageable hours, and he spends so much of his time outside of work actually doing work. He’s reading papers. Or he’s hashing out plans for the lab while we’re chatting on our weekend run. Ironically, because I no longer work in a lab, I’m a bit more amenable to discussing lab things on the side. But that’s because all of a sudden, I get to leave my work at work.

And this was one of the ways that I decided to pursue work outside of the lab. To investigate ways to connect with science, to use my science knowledge, without working in a lab. This is how I decided to become a scientist instead of A Scientist. It never sat well with me, the idea that if you work in a lab, your life is the lab. I know there are people who can balance this, but it is largely implicitly expected, at least at the early stages of scientist pupation, that you are utterly devoted to your research. Any other interest takes a back seat. It’s one of the reasons I never tried to get back into community theater while in grad school, despite the fact that I had pretty flexible hours and didn’t tend to have to get to work early. I knew that if something came up, I’d have to prioritize the lab.

So now that I’ve moved out of grad school, and then out of research, I find myself opening myself to more new hobbies and interests. I can throw myself into acting projects without worrying that I might end up having to stay several hours later because something broke in the lab. I know my schedule because work is work and my time is my time. I am a scientist, yes, but I am also an actor and a writer. A baker. A crafter.

And yet, I still have stubby little nails, devoid of polish. Not because I don’t want to, but just because making them pretty isn’t a habit I got into. Because some thing stay with you.

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Awesome Woman in STEM Highlight, Thanksgiving Edition: Mary G. Ross

In honor of both Thanksgiving Day in the US, and Native American Heritage Month, I thought I’d start a new series by kicking off with the first Native American woman engineer, Mary Golda Ross [1]. In 1958, she was a guest on the TV game show “What’s My Line?” where the panel failed to guess what she did for a living, though they got close, guessing that it had something to do with missiles [2]. At one point, one of the panel makes the comment that it’s not like she gets into the nose of these things, which, while technically true, probably steered him away from guessing that her mathematics background gave her the expertise to design them.

While her Native American heritage may have been downplayed at various points in her life, she credited it for her academic success, as her Cherokee upbringing stressed the importance of education for any sex [3]. Born in Oklahoma and the great-granddaughter of famous Cherokee Chief John Ross, Mary was identified as gifted from a young age and encouraged to pursue her education. She went on to receive a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1920 and a Master’s degree in 1938. She taught mathematics in Oklahoma during the Great Depression and then, in 1942, joined the Aerodynamics and Structures department at the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation as an engineer. Eventually, she was one of the core group of engineers who started the Lockheed Missiles and Space Co., now Lockheed Martin. Her notable accomplishments include preliminary design work on orbital space systems and early manned space exploration missions.

She retired in the 1970s, but continued to work in engaging young Native American women and encourage them to pursue careers in the sciences and engineering after rediscovering her connection to her Cherokee heritage. In 2004, at the age of 96, Ross donned traditional Cherokee dress and participated in the opening ceremonies of the National Museum of the American Indian [4]. In 2008, she passed away, just shy of her 100th birthday. She left a large endowment to the NMAI. She showed her mathematical mind once more in requesting that the gift be given as an endowment, rather than a single large scholarship to maximize returns [5].

Women like Mary Ross were trailblazers, not just for women in STEM, whose impact reaches further back in history, but for women of color in STEM, whose role models may be fewer and further between. Her example and her work to encourage young Native American women serve as an inspiration for all who want to extend the diversity of STEM fields.

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On Politics, Women in Science, and Being a White Woman in Science

There is a group who has gained some recognition recently, called 500 Women Scientists, which has published a pledge for all supporters of science and equality in the scientists to sign to show their support. I’ve signed it, along with over five thousand other people. And I recommend anyone else who supports science (woman or otherwise) sign the pledge.

But that is not what I’m here to talk about today. Because a new movement of equality founded and perpetuated largely by privileged white women has reminded me of another piece I read recently, one that has stayed with me longer, and one that I think deserves a larger voice. This piece, written by a black woman who has been through the trenches of graduate school, not just as a racial minority or as a woman, but as both, serves as a reminder that white feminism is not the only feminism and that white women are not just fighting for their representation in graduate school.

The author writes about her experience as the only woman of color in her mechanical engineering PhD program. The problem of not being able to find a woman to be your mentor? Well, you’re much less likely to find a woman of color. In fact, in my own graduate experience, I can’t remember one black student in my graduate class, and very few Latino students, plus a few South Asian. In fact, there was a black professor in our group who sent his white graduate student to a conference for Black and Hispanic Researchers as his representative because most of his students were white.

And while I would never want to minimize the struggles that face any minority group in STEM, it bears remembering that while my women colleagues may get together and think that things are getting better or not really notice that there’s any gender inequity in their research group, this is not the case for other minorities. The work still exists to be done and it needs to be inclusive. We need to commit ourselves to all diversity in STEM and not get lost in our specific struggle. I mean, if my undergraduate class thought I didn’t look like a physics grad student (and would say that to me face while I’m up there telling them how I’m going to be grading them), what would they have the nerve to say to someone who looks even more different than I do?

This is a bit of a short post for such an important subject. But that’s because it’s not really my topic to write about. Instead, I would welcome comments from those whose topic it is. Please educate me, and educate my readers, about what STEM is really like for all those who pursue it.

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Jenn’s Journal Club: Quantifying Scientific Impact

So since my current job involves a lot of reading of various journals, I come across a wide range of interesting papers on a regular basis. I thought I’d start sharing my thoughts occasionally if one really jumped out at me and today I think I have a perfect inaugural subject for this series: the study of scientific impact [1]. Impact in scientific publishing is a fascinating topic, to scientists and publishers alike. But for me, questions of impact speak to a deeper sense of self as a scientist. We constantly ask ourselves how we are doing professionally. We don’t necessarily get raises, promotions, or new titles often, but our work is constantly moving and changing. We can look at how well each paper does, but how can we tell if we’re poised for greatness, past our prime, or just plain missed the boat?

There is a feeling in Western society, at least, that people who are going to be great tend to show greatness from a young age. We look up to hear stories about Mozart, Pascal, and Gauss showing remarkable talent at a young age and we feel inadequate by the time we’re in high school. We hear about Bill Gates becoming a technology pioneer after dropping out of college and we feel inadequate by the time we graduate college and haven’t had our big break. And yet, the truth is that most scientists don’t have that one big break. This paper looked at the ones who did have a big break: Nobel Laureates.

For years, it’s been accepted that any most-significant output of a creative or scientific mind will come earlier in the career rather than later. And if you create a plot of the probability of a highly-significant (i.e., cited) paper from a scientist versus the time since that scientist’s first publication, you will find that this holds true. However, this plot is skewed by two things: one is that most scientists have a dropoff in publication frequency after an initial early-career rush, and the second is that papers published early have a longer time to gain citations. In order to remove these from the calculation, the authors plotted a different probability.

The authors of this study looked at over 200,000 authors who had been publishing in Physical Review journals for at least 20 years. They looked at a random paper in a given sequence of papers and plotted the probability that a paper will be significant versus its relative position in a history. So basically, how likely a paper is to be significant based on where it is in line. And with this change, they found that the probability distribution flattened, suggesting that the probability of a significant paper over time is actually random. They go on to fully develop and support this random-impact model, as they call it.

And this is major. This means that no matter when in your career you publish a paper, there is a chance it could be your most significant paper, over time. Sure, the paper that’s been out for 20 years is more likely to have more citations than the paper that’s been out for five years, but over time, this will flatten. Significant papers are random events, like cosmic ray bursts of genius. Which means that we don’t need to spend our youth frantically trying to make our mark and our middle years bemoaning that it never came.

1. Barabasi, et al, Science354, aaf5239 (2016).

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How to Be Like Me: My seminar on alternative science careers

Last month, I was invited to Northwestern University to give a seminar at the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Each semester, they invite one speaker who talks on a topic that is “outside of the box,” as my host put it. I was invited to share my experience moving from a research position into a non-research position as a scientist. As some of you may know, about a year ago, I left my second postdoc position to take a job at a scientific journal. It was an interesting experience to speak to a room full of young scientists about my career path, how I got there, and what I wish I’d known, and I thought I’d give some highlights.

First of all, I had a slight leg up on the average postdoctoral researcher, but only because I’d done enough government interviews to have an outfit that was appropriate for an interview situation. I could dress myself, at least. Apart from that, I was entering new territory.

But let’s back up a bit. As I told the audience, my journey to a publishing job really started years ago when I was trying to decide on a college major and what I wanted to do with my degree. I very briefly considered becoming a high school science teacher because the idea of teaching science appealed to me more than the idea of working in a lab. Now, while I currently realize that I do not want to stand up in front of a high school class every day for the next thirty years and teach them about force and reactions and how to blow things up and call it a “classroom demonstration,” I think I might have been onto something. I find current research fascinating. But I don’t want to sit in a lab and perform it. And working in science publishing gives me the opportunity to do just that.

So I guess the point is, you need to first know yourself and know why you’re looking at a job outside of research. Are you frustrated with the low rate of pay that tends to come with pursuing an academic career? Don’t go into publishing. There are plenty of non-academic and non-research jobs that will provide a higher starting salary to recent PhDs or former postdocs, but publishing doesn’t really seem to be one of them. But are you interested in learning about a lot of different new research without having to turn knobs in the lab? Publishing is where a lot of that research goes.

I suppose the biggest thing I wish I’d known before starting my job search was about the blog The Scholarly Kitchen. This is a blog that covers topics about science publishing and from which my boss sends me posts relating to my work regularly. I also wish I’d took a bit of time to learn more about the more advance capabilities of MS Word. And I had a brief section in my presentation about science writing credentials. While I don’t currently

What I did find useful were blogs about corporate life. I started reading Ask A Manager to get advice about navigating a more corporate interview process, but I stayed for the stories about crazy coworkers and bosses. I also referred to corporate style blogs like Capitol Hill Style (now The Work Edit, which is not quite what it was when I found it useful) and Corporette. As a woman, it can be hard to figure out what to wear to an interview, particularly since your choices are not limited to the color of suit, tie, and Oxford shirt to choose.

I definitely don’t regret leaving research, and I highly encourage anyone who’s considering it to at least check out their options. And organizing my thoughts about my career path has not only helped me organize my resources, but also reminded me just why I’m where I am. If anyone has questions about alternative science careers, I’d be happy to discuss in the comments.

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Women in Science Movie Club: Ghostbusters

A couple weeks ago, D and I had a nice day-off date. Among other things, we went to go see the new Ghostbusters movie. Of course, plenty of my friends have asked what I think of it, and the short answer is “Awesome,” but I thought I’d give a little more detailed review of the movie, particularly from a women-in-science perspective.

First of all, anyone who didn’t already know: they’ve gender-flipped the main characters of the movie. And in the process, they upset a lot of people on the internet. But in addition to responding in the movie itself to those who objected to women as Ghostbusters, they’ve also hit on some of the subtle ways in which women are marginalized in both science and stories about science. From the very beginning, Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is a professor trying to get tenure at a highly-respected university. She’s pretty obsessed with her image, although that’s not really her fault, since her dean even makes an offhand comment “about her clothes.” While he doesn’t finish the comment, it’s definitely indicative of the things that male scientists don’t really worry about as much as the women.

From there, Gilbert reconnects with her old friend Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and her colleague Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), who are both much more at home with themselves and less concerned about what others think of them. Interestingly, they are still subject to the whims of a male college head, and end up kicked out of their labs as well. You just can’t win. From here, they set up their Ghostbusters agency and acquire a hot blond secretary (Chris Hemsworth), as well as a historically-brilliant former transit worker named Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones). Interestingly enough, despite her lack of formal scientific training, Tolan not only keeps the group informed about the historical significance of landmarks in the city, which proves vital to investigations, but also makes a scientific suggestion that turns out to impress the rest of the group.

I would say the best part about the movie is the way that the women are their own characters and only fall into stereotypes when they are calling out those stereotypes (such as Gilbert being uptight about her appearance). Holtz, in particular, was a masterful representation of an alternative science grrl — so much so that I wondered if the filmmakers gleaned more than just scientific knowledge and equipment from the labs of the science advisers they consulted. I’ve certainly known plenty of women like her in the lab, and love that they put her ambiguous self in this movie. That said, the other two scientist characters were excellent in their own ways, with Gilbert showing the neurosis of a woman obsessed with pleasing men in science, and Yates showing a woman so comfortable with herself that she doesn’t need to be anything more than herself. I found her a very calming influence in the cast.

But the most illuminating character would be Tolan, who plays the outside. The Penny to their Sheldons and Leonards. She’s the one that calls them on their rambling and exclusionary attitudes. She’s the one that points out the things that they didn’t see because they forgot that they don’t actually know everything. And that’s an important role in a movie about scientist. I’m glad she didn’t have to be a “hot blonde” to do it. I also found the complete gender flip, with the casting of a man in the role of the ditzy secretary, to be so faithful to the concept of the movie, and was impressed with how much fun Hemsworth seemed to be having playing the role.

While there are many more things I’d love to gush about this movie (like the fact that the bad guy was literally male privilege), I wouldn’t want to get into spoiler territory. Just know that it’s a great addition to the list of movies with strong positive representations of women in science. And that’s not a long list.

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How Men Can Help Women in STEM and Why They Need To

Last week I attended a conference, at which they had a special meeting on issues facing women in the sciences. It seems that a lot of STEM conferences have meetings like these, whether it’s a networking reception or a brainstorming session. And one of the results of this meeting was a fascinating conversation I had with two recent professors about the role of men in improving the experience of women in STEM fields. I was at lunch with a female professor and a male professor, basically swapping stories with the woman about insensitive comments we’ve gotten and discussing with the man what made them insensitive and what would have been a better thing to say.

The first thing that came up was the practice of pointing out “the only woman in the room.” The other woman and I swapped a few stories about having it pointed out to us that we were the only women in a class or seminar or room. The man was curious about what people should do in the situation where they notice someone is a minority. The answer? Don’t point out how someone is different. It doesn’t matter if they’re the only woman in the room or the only of any other underrepresented group. As I mentioned before, the blaring alarm of “You’re different, you’re different, you’re different” is going off in the head of pretty much anyone who’s at all an oddity in their environment. They already know they’re the only one of their group in the room. You’re not telling them something new, and you’re making them feel self-conscious.

The next thing that we discussed was how to refer to a group of women. The man asked if we were offended by being called “guys” in a mixed-gender group. We both said no, for us, but pointed out that it’s good to ask, and also that the one thing you want to avoid is calling females over the age of 18 “girls.” I am over 30. I am not a girl. And referring to me as a girl makes me feel like you’re diminishing me. The other woman agreed, with perhaps a bit more vehemence. While it’s an unfortunate truth that we live in a world where the English language requires the use of gendered words, at the very least try to avoid the ones that are diminutive or patronizing.

And that’s basically the biggest thing that reasonable people can do to help any underrepresented group in STEM: be sensitive about the way language diminishes minority groups and try not to make people feel weird just for being who they are. And that means that the people in the majority need to make this effort. The people in the majority are the ones that those in the minority encounter on a daily basis and that reinforce the negative stuff, so it’s the people in the majority, particularly men, who can make the biggest difference in the environment. Simply by sitting down, asking questions, and really listening when we answered, that one man was able to walk away with a better understanding of how to encourage underrepresented groups in STEM. And that’s one more person trying, which is never a bad thing.

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On Life Goals and Changes

It has been almost a year since I’ve posted in this space. I haven’t stopped doing science, I promise, but I have had some major changes in my life. As some of you may know, after getting my PhD, I took two postdocs that were both at government-run labs and discovered that I was required to get anything I wrote about my research reviewed before release. Obviously, this put a bit of a damper on my blogging activities because I wasn’t going to put in for approval for every blog post I wrote. In order to avoid this, I kept my blogging about my daily lab life far away from my blogging about actual scientific topics. I wrote a little about lab culture, but without discussing my current research.

And let’s be clear: when you are a laboratory researcher, a lot of your daily thinking about science energy is consumed with thinking about your own research. I found I just didn’t have the energy to learn about science outside of what I need to further my own project, but I didn’t want to write about that so that I didn’t inadvertently break rules at work.

In the meantime, I found myself becoming less and less enamored of laboratory research as a career. When you do laboratory research, you dive deep into one topic or field, and I found that I had broad interests, not deep ones. I loved going to conferences, because I knew just enough science to converse with a wide variety of presenters and understand a variety of presentations. And I started looking into science careers that didn’t involve just doing research.

Of course, my first thought was science writing, which I investigated, but ultimately ended up in a non-writing job in science publishing. It’s a very new experience, but part of my job is to learn about as much new science as I can. So given that, I now hope to keep this space updated a bit more often, and blog about not just social issues that affect scientists, but also new science that particularly catches me eye. And hopefully, it will work a bit more symbiotically than antagonistically with this new phase in my life.

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