Category Archives: making new scientists

Allow Me To Mansplain…

In the wake of Rep. Akin’s egregious comments about rape and pregnancy, this blog post has started making the rounds.  My first reaction was, “Yeah, that’s terrible that that sort of thing happens to intelligent, capable women; I’m so glad I’ve never had to deal with something like that.”

Then I realized I have.  And I don’t think it’s entirely about being female.

See, I’m a grad student (for a couple weeks more, anyway), and I’m currently the only female grad student in my group.  I’m also the senior grad student in my group, so I have a fair amount of experience in the field.  When it comes to routine, annoying problems, I’ve seen a lot of it.  And I’ve thought about a lot of it.

Yet, for some reason, people in my group don’t always hear what I say.  On several occasions, I’ve made a suggestion to someone having a problem that was either discounted or flat-out ignored. No response. Like the person did not even hear that I had spoken.  And then, maybe later in the meeting, or later in the week, or even a couple weeks later, the same suggestion would be tossed out by one of the (male) principal investigators.  It bears mentioning here that the only female PI at the group meetings is also one of the youngest PIs in our institute.

When the PI brings up this suggestion, it’s considered and almost always agreed to be the best suggestion for the situation, and we’ll all reconvene when it’s been tested because it’s likely that this will fix the problem.  Wait… what?

I’m also not the only person who’s noticed this.  A couple of my friends in the group pointed it out to me after a particularly annoying group meeting where I actually repeated my suggestion a couple of times, only to have no one appear to hear me. I was glad to know someone had, even if they hadn’t made that known at the time. And even more irritating is the fact that at least one of the guys who brought up that “no one listens to Jenn” actually did just that after pointing out that no one listens to my good suggestions.

Okay, enough back story. Am I here to moan about how nobody listens to the poor little women?

Not at all. I will bet that, while this seems to happen to me a disproportionate amount, part of it is because I am a (mere) grad student and the PIs are (wise) PIs.  The thing about scientific discovery is that it is generally a collaboration, especially in experimental physics.  There is just so much going on that you often physically require at least one other person to run all the equipment.  At the very least, you always need to be training a new person for when the senior grad student graduates (or the post-doc finishes his or her appointment).  And often the one who knows the most about the specific experiment is a lowly grad student.

As I finish my graduate career and embark upon my first post doc, I’m trying to keep this in mind. I’ve had too many encounters with post docs who believe they know more than the senior grad student just because of that degree, when in fact, the grad student knows way more about the specific experiment than they do. Heck, at first, pretty much all the grad students know more about the specific experiment than a brand-new post doc. And it’s dangerous. At best, you end up with a post doc who waits for explanation from the PI for everything rather than accepting the word of a grad student; at worst, you have a post doc who breaks things because he or she disregards instructions from a grad student.

So it’s not just about women versus men. It’s about all situations in which one person goes in thinking he or she has more knowledge in an area and therefore doesn’t need to listen all that well to the lower orders. And it’s good that Solnit has put a voice to the phenomenon as it pertains to men correcting women incorrectly.  It’s just “the boring old gender wars.” It’s not you. But the same is true for people experiencing the same frustration due to their age. While it’s a good idea not to get a swelled head about your own importance (especially in grad school), sometimes you’ve been on an experiment for five [expletive] years and, yeah, you know more about the specific electronics used because you built them all (or oversaw them being built).

I guess my parting thought is that this kind of attitude affects the retention of grad students in the sciences.  And, yeah, it’s going to affect the retention of women in the sciences because they get the potential double-whammy of being ignored for gender as well as age. But regardless of either, be confident in your experience. Don’t be afraid to speak up loudly. And know that’s not always you; scientists are full of blind spots and biases just like everyone else.

Maybe It’s a… Female Thing.

One of the best distillations with the problems facing people trying to bring woman into technical fields.

from SMBC

I live in a bit of a cave while I’m writing my dissertation, and haven’t been listening to my radio (almost permanently tuned to NPR) as often as I should, so I missed this segment on The World last week.  But the internet serves me well, and I managed to find the video myself.  I wish the term “pinkwashing” wasn’t already taken because, seriously, the pink-i-fication of STEM fields is getting ridiculous.

First of all, it’s pretty obvious to most people that first view this video that it is ridiculous.  That, in and of itself, should have caused its makers to step back and think “Hmmm, maybe making something blatantly silly isn’t the best way to prompt serious consideration of the problems of gender diversity in the sciences.”  Apart from that, there is the obvious traditional-feminist angle: it objectifies women by associating them with traditionally-gendered things like lipstick, pink, and high heels.  Even making the man take off his glasses and gawk at them promotes objectification.

But that’s not why it bothers me.  It is offensive to everyone.  Any woman should be offended that this is what the European Commission thinks it takes to get females interested in science.  Any man should be offended that the reaction of the sole male in the video is to stop working and gawk, as though men should be so floored by women in science that they can’t do anything.  Neither of these things bode well for the future of women in science.  First of all, if men are really going to be so distracted by females in the lab, that’s a problem.  That means we’ll have to have women’s labs and men’s labs.  Not really feasible, especially since it’s just a fact of life that the majority of established scientists are men and women need to be able to work with them if they want to progress in the field.  Second, if this kind of ad really does draw some girls into science, they are going to be sorely disappointed that there isn’t much pink, you probably don’t want to bring lipstick out in the lab (it gets on optics, or could get contaminated by chemicals), and those peep-toe stilettos will probably only bring stares from the safety officer before he cites you for inappropriate footwear.

And I say this as a woman who tries to embrace my femininity.  I dress nicely as often as I feel like, and even wore high heels in the lab regularly (closed toed).  I didn’t do this to attract a man, or even to provide a feminine role model to other females.  I did it because I liked feeling good about how I looked.  But the fact is, the people (the man included) in this video are not what the majority of scientists look like.  This also decreases the effectiveness of the video because no one is really going to identify with someone who’s obviously so far into the 1% of socially-desired physical attributes.  I mean, look at the Dove Real Women campaign — even beauty companies realize that using models does not necessarily convince consumers to buy your message.  People don’t want to know that Barbie can do science; they want to know that THEY can do science.

Also, do you want to know who might actually have fantasies of hot women doing science?  Men.  The idea of putting a hot woman in the lab is best exemplified by the controversial Edmund Optics “Red Hot Optics” campaign, which was obviously intended as a way to market optics to men they same way sports cars or repellent body spray might be marketed to men.  Unfortunately for Edmund Optics, scientists are smart and saw through this as the sexist drivel that it was.  They received a lot of backlash from all sides in the scientific community.  Too bad the European Commission didn’t know about this.  Ultimately, they produced a piece of [advertising] that would, at best, appeal to a narrow demographic of men who were too busy staring at leggy women in heels to consider the message of the piece, intended or otherwise.

The bottom line of closing the gender inequality gap in STEM fields comes down to, ultimately, de-gendering science.  Along the way, yes, it might make women feel better to have more female role models to whom to turn when facing a problem in the lab.  And we definitely need to address issues that specifically cause women problems in the research world (specifically, the disproportionate burden of starting a family on the time and energy a woman has available to otherwise pursue a research career).  But, ultimately, we need to teach young women that they can work with males, not because they have “girl power,” but because there isn’t a fundamental difference between a female with an inclination towards a technical field and a male with the same inclination.  We want to get to the point where, when asked, “How many women are in your program?,” we can honestly answer, “Hang on a second, I don’t really think about it that often.”

[yes, theatre nerds, the title is a reference to RENT]

Telling the Story of Science

I came to a realization yesterday: I love reading history books, even though I hated history class.  I love reading the stories of historical figures.  Let’s face it; the people who made history mostly did so because they led extraordinary lives.  It doesn’t mean that everyone in the history books is fascinating, but it’s generally possible to find an historical figure or period that has fascinating stories. Usually several figures or periods.  And the reason I hated history class?  It seemed like it was more about memorization of dates and events than the study of the stories of an era.

Science education and writing can be a lot like this.  Most non-physicists hate science class because they feel like they just have to memorize a lot of formulas.  As a teaching assistant, I was constantly frustrated by the fact that I could not convince students that all the specific formulas they were trying to memorize could be derived from one master equation or law — e.g.,  the ideal gas law, or PV=nRT, for thermodynamics.  For those who thought like scientists, the derivation of a specific case from a general law was like the story behind what others simply memorized.

In a different vein, I had a quantum mechanics professor who inserted little stories about various famous physicists into his lectures about the origins of quantum mechanics.  On our final, one of the questions asked us to identify this man:

Image from

That was the only problem I was absolutely certain I had gotten correct after finishing the exam, certainly because it was the only one that had a simple, black-and-white, correct answer, but also because I had really listened during those stories about famous physicists.  I found the context of physics almost as interesting as the actual physical concepts themselves.

While people like to think of science and math as pure fields, outside the influence of zeitgeist or prejudice, this simply isn’t true.  Learning the context of scientific discovery unveils a new level of understanding of the field itself.  When the laser was first invented, it was seen as a useless novelty; now they are ubiquitous in many fields of physics.  Some fields of physics stalled because the prejudice of the times simply wouldn’t allow for the strange new thought.

Popular science books do a good job of marrying history with technical detail to give a full contextual picture of a scientific discovery, and it is often something that science reporters must do.  Those writing about the supposed observation of neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light brought the story back to Einstein and how he might have felt about being “proven wrong.”  These historical tidbits give a sense of importance of an event to someone who is not an expert in the field in which the event has the most meaning, thereby broadening the impact of discovery.  In a similar way, adding historical context to classroom education about science might be a way to bring different kinds of students into a love of scientific discovery.  By mating the love of historical discovery with science in the student’s mind, it might be possible to bring different kinds of interest to the sciences.

What do readers think?  Do you think that historical background could be interjected into the middle school or high school classroom to pique the interest of those students who haven’t already decided they want to be scientists or engineers?  How does the historical story of a scientific discovery relate cognitively to the scientific “story” told by a derivation?

Kids Are Smarter Than You Think

In a conversation with a colleague about teaching evolution in schools, an interesting point came up.  He brought up that teaching kids that “evolution is just a theory” and that other ideas have equal merit will confuse them and make them think that other ideas about the origins of the world have been explored scientifically when they have not.  My argument is that, while kids may not understand the political ramifications of a particular teaching, they will understand the difference between “Here’s this guy who came up with a theory and tested it in this way,” versus “This is what the Bible tells us.”

Children are, in general, a lot more perceptive than a lot of people give them credit for.  They tend to have a natural inquisitiveness and lack the predefined notions and biases that hold a lot of adults back.  If you are able to frame an idea in terms of something they already understand, it’s pretty easy to get them to grasp what you’re saying, especially if they haven’t already been taught that a certain topic is difficult or intimidating.  They may be bored, but they rarely are just too dumb to get it.

When I was doing a summer internship in the DC area several years ago, as a college student, my flatmates and I went down to the National Air and Space Museum for a day trip.  One of the exhibits, about the universe, had a lot to do with optical and atomic phenomena.  Each of us found something that pertained to our particular summer research topic and had a blast playing with the demos.  When kids were waiting to use the demo, we’d then engage with them, teaching them more about the demo than the display intended, because we had a good tool to introduce the topic.

This later became important when I was a grad student and volunteered to give demonstrations for my institute at Maryland Day, years later.  Not only did I volunteer to give demos, but I also helped brainstorm for demos that would be both interesting and informative.  We needed something accessible enough that a non-scientist could understand it, but relevant enough that we could connect it to the cutting-edge research that scientists at the institute do everyday.  I chose an emission-lamp demo, where we gave people a diffraction grating and let them look at the light from fluorescing gases.  We could show them that the diffraction grating bent different colors of light different amounts, so that when they looked at the light emitted by the excited gas, they would see a disjointed rainbow of sorts.  This showed that elements emit at only certain energies, instead of across the whole spectrum, and it helped visitors understand how spectroscopy and laser interaction with atoms works.

The trick is to wait until you see the confused look on a child’s face to simplify further.  Plenty of kids are able to understand more than you might think, especially if they’re into the sort of thing you’re explaining.  My first published short was a piece on how a 10-year-old taught me about quantum physics while I was his counselor in drama class.  Scientific knowledge and insight comes in different packages, and it’s important not to pre-judge your audience too harshly.

Young Minds, Alan Alda, and “The Flame Challenge”

My first published piece of writing about science and society will always be my Editor’s Query contribution to The Washington Post.  I wrote about the young man I met when I was a drama-camp counselor and how he opened my eyes to the desperate puzzlement of quantum mechanics, perhaps planting the first seeds that led to my current path.  He has definitely inspired my fascination with how the general public perceives science, and physics in particular.  And the incident taught me that relating to children is about relating to them as small people, with developed minds, who may not have the breadth of education and experience, but who inquire just the same.

It seems that I share this fascination with none other than Alan Alda.  I’m not going to pretend to be some huge connoisseur of his work, although I always find his acting enjoyable, but I am a huge fan of his recent Science magazine editorial.  There, he writes about a frustrating experience he had as a child and how it shaped his efforts to expand the awareness of the importance of communication in the field of science. In my personal blog, I’ve written about my issues with the various ways in which popular culture embraces the stereotypes of science and the scientists, most notably in the popular CBS show The Big Bang Theory.

I think the problem of explaining science to children hits on the key issue facing the perception of science today: Science is seen as apart from everyday life, when in fact it is everyday life.  By brushing off a child’s question, Alda’s teacher told him that it wasn’t worth her time to explain a scientific phenomenon to him.  It smacks of “you wouldn’t understand” along with “maybe when you’re older,” both phrases that have much less place in explaining science than people seem to think.  Sitting down and trying to explain science to a child shows the child that you value his intelligence.  He may not catch everything in your explanation, but he’ll appreciate that you consider him smart enough to try.  The very fact that Alda feels the need to issue “The Flame Challenge” should make 11-year-olds everywhere feel like the real winners of the challenge.

As a scientist with an expertise in something that most people could go their lives without encountering, I live my own version of the flame challenge, whenever anyone outside of my field asks what I do.  And my answer has to vary, based on what I know about my audience’s experiences and areas of interest.  I wouldn’t explain my research the same way to my dentist that I would to my engineer uncle.  But the idea is the same: I have to make an effort to make my research understandable to someone without a strong physics background, or else why should they care what I do?  And if I can’t make my own family care about what I do, how could someone like make a politician, who might be responsible for funding, care about it?