Category Archives: personal bias

#Shirtstorm: How To Be Classy

So, I’m not going to touch most of the controversy surrounding #Shirtstorm with a ten-foot pole. But. I do have something to say about it. This Friday, I happened to catch the coverage of project scientist Matt Taylor’s response to the whole controversy, and I have to say, I was impressed. Honestly, to me, his response is the most important thing coming out of this because it was exactly what the situation called for. He was sincere and didn’t try to rationalize or offer a false apology. He apologized, briefly and honestly, and didn’t try to deflect.

And that’s what we need. Because, seriously, I’m sick of being treated like I’m in the wrong when someone does something that makes me feel uncomfortable for something I can’t control: the fact that I am female.

Yes, this has happened. I’ve been incredibly lucky in most respects, but even I have experienced the darker side of being a woman in physics. And I know what it’s like to feel like I need to acquiesce to something that makes me uncomfortable to avoid being labeled a harpy.

When I was in grad school, the company Edmund Optics came out with their Red Hot Optics campaign. And, yeah, I was not entirely on board with the idea that the sale of lab equipment needs to be promoted by objectifying women. I was not the only one, even in my own group. The senior grad student was pissed, to the point that at the next trade show we attended, she decided she wanted to give the owner of Edmund a piece of her mind in person, and I was going to come along for moral support.

The problem is that the rest of our group were guys who thought that the campaign was awesome, and thought this female student’s anger was hilarious. So here I was, a young grad student, the most junior person in the lab, torn between acting in solidarity for beliefs that I generally support and being the “cool girl” who didn’t get all up in arms at every little thing, right? It’s not a big deal, right?

But that’s thing. That’s what I’ve realized is the insidious part of objectifying women: it pressures women to accept it. And that same pressure to accept is what is used to excuse the “boys will be boys” argument for a whole host of permissive attitudes.

And that’s why it means so much to me that Matt Taylor didn’t take the easy way out, and instead chose to actually feel bad about contributing to the casual objectification of women, and apologize for it. Because it’s likely that if he’s worn that shirt in the past to work, someone has felt offended by it, but decided to keep quiet so she wouldn’t be ostracized.

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Science and Babies

A new study about women in the sciences has come out and it suggests that women don’t have it so bad. I find the language used particularly interesting. The takeaway message is that women who choose to pursue upper-level science careers don’t face any discrimination that their male counterparts escape. This statement is interesting for two reasons: one, it suggests that the societal pressures that prevent a female from pursuing upper-level sciences mysteriously evaporate once she reaches a certain level, and two, it ignores the experiential differences between being a male and being a female.

This topic has been on my mind lately anyway as I near another birthday over the age of 30. Thirty is an interesting milestone for a woman because it’s the number that tends to get thrown around when people talk about declining fertility. Thirty-five is sometimes quoted by those who are feeling more generous. Either way, the baby clock, it seems, is ticking. So I have to ask myself: Do I want a baby?

And this is an important and relevant question because having children is a biologically different experience for a man versus a woman. Beyond societal constructs that pressure women disproportionately to stay home with children, there is a physical cost. Even before the actual birth, pregnancy seems to be no picnic, and even the healthiest woman can end up with a complication that puts her on bed rest. And then, once the baby comes, there is wear and tear on the body, as well as the dilemma of breast feeding. Sure, a woman can pump, but even that requires more breaks than the researchers I know tend to take. And rather than socializing and batting around ideas, the new mother would be secluded in an area where her breasts and associated machinery won’t offend delicate sensibilities. That is, you’re not going to be pumping in the lab or coffee room. So not only are you taking more breaks, but those you do take aren’t community-oriented. This could lead to a perception that the woman is less invested in her work.

That’s where this research gets tricky. There are a whole lot of ways in which women can experience discrimination that defy quantification. It goes back to my post about a woman being described as “not aggressive enough.” Is this code for “too feminine” or a legitimate critique?

This is why, during a conversation about future babies with D the other day, I lamented, “All the experimental physicists I know with children are men!” I’m glad to have an impending exception to that rule, but the exceptions are few and far between. Perhaps because it’s easier to abandon research when it becomes complicated with an infant’s demand on a woman.

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The Culture of a Physics Group

One of the most striking things I’ve learned in the past couple of years of post-doctoral work has nothing to do with the lab. I’ve been learning about the cultural differences between different groups, as well as between different disciplines in physics. I spent seven years in graduate school, for most of which I was a research assistant in an atomic physics group. Then, I graduated and started a postdoc in a condensed matter group. And now, I’m back in atomic physics. And one of the major things I noticed was how different the scientific and investigative culture is between atomic and condensed matter. I’ve also had to adjust to specific differences particular to each group.

The first group I worked in was as a graduate student. The group was mostly graduate students with the advisor (a professor at the university) and an occasional handful of postdocs. I joined the group when the senior grad student had been there only for a few years, so we had several years together to bond as a group. We were a bit of a gang. We showed up to events at the department together, usually early so we were the first in line for food. We were generally social and outgoing. When we went to conferences, we were the ones bar-hopping and bringing beer back to someone’s room to play XBOX till the wee hours. And I don’t think it was just the students. When a new professor joined the group, I fielded a phone call from someone looking for my adviser because they were heading out to the bar. It calmed down a bit as certain key instigators left the group, but we always had an outgoing mindset in the group. We went out to lunch in a group (a herd of sorts) every Friday. We tried to institute a tradition in which when someone graduated, they had to go out to the bar after and have a drink for every year they spent in grad school.

After grad school, I slowly lost touch with a lot of the guys who had gotten out before I did. And then I joined another group. A quieter group. Culturally, we went out to lunch maybe once a year, usually to celebrate someone starting or leaving. When we went out to lunch on my first day, the other postdoc told me it was the first time he’d ever seen our boss eat out. We would occasionally go to a happy hour during a conference, but it was lower-key. And generally consisted of one drink each.

In my current position, I haven’t quite figured out the culture. Yes, we have a weekly group lunch, and I’ve already been invited to a social gathering in the first month of living there. But all the other postdocs have young children, so it seems unlikely we’ll be doing boilermakers or shotgunning beers.

Even more intriguing is the fact that atomic physicists and condensed matter physicists seem to approach physics differently. Moving from one to the other and back again showed me that. I spent the last two years in a very device-driven field. Conference talks and conversations tend to be about the current device, how you designed it, how you think you could do better. One group spent a year trying to replicate a particularly good device. Two groups square off against each other when one accuses the other of only showing data from “hero” devices — i.e., those that work the best — and ignoring the rest. While that is the general thrust of the field, to implement the best of a certain type of device, exploration of basic physics concepts seems to take a back seat to the product.

Then, a year and a half into this position, I started writing a proposal to get another postdoc in an atomic physics group. All of a sudden, I’m back to thinking about the Bloch sphere, and abstract concepts in quantum mechanics. It’s no longer just about the stuff you can do with your hands in the lab. The day-to-day involves a lot more conversations about fundamental concepts of quantum physics because that’s something atomic physicists aim to study. But apart from that, there’s a sense that you want to learn more than just what you do daily in the lab. You read papers about anything remotely related to quantum, not just papers about your specific project. It’s an attitude that I like a lot, which is why I returned.

But it was intimidating to realize that I’d have to go back to being as well-versed in the theory as the theorists. And that might give me a hangover more than all those Bud Lights at conferences.

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When the Doubt is Not Presumed

One of my favorite blogs, for both style and substance, is Capitol Hill Style. She recently published this post, about how women undercut themselves by responding to presumed doubt of their abilities. And it reminded me of a conversation I had with my boyfriend D a month or so ago. Let me tell you a story.

When I started grad school, I had just graduated from an Ivy League university. And went into grad school at a state school near my hometown. Even though it’s a top-rated physics graduate program, it would be understandable if I felt like I was going down in the ranks, mostly because I’ve heard comments to that effect about my graduate alma mater from other graduates of my undergraduate institution. Fine institutions though they may be, the Ivy League is not known for putting out modest alumni. And yet, from the first moment I stepped into a graduate class, I had the overwhelming sense that I shouldn’t be in grad school. It’s a well-known effect: Impostor Syndrome (or Phenomenon). That feeling that you somehow don’t deserve merit you’ve come by honestly. In fact, the phrase was coined to describe high-achieving women who feel they don’t deserve their achievements, and, boy, did I have it in spades. I went through grad school, passing my classes, passing my qualifier, publishing a paper, and writing and defending my thesis, all the time worrying that at any time I might be “found out” as the idiot I really am. To this day, I wonder if getting my PhD was somehow a fluke.

But then I started to look at the world around me. Specifically, my male classmates. I noticed that a lot of them seemed extraordinarily confident in their intelligence, often to the point of being maybe a little annoying. I even watched a first-year grad student argue with the senior grad student on an experiment that a fundamental element of her experiment was wrong, and even though his assertion came from his own flawed understanding of the concepts involved, even though this was an experiment that had been carried out over the course of many years before he’d even gotten there, he refused to back down. There was this quality of many of the incoming grad students that they knew everything. Eventually, I looked around and realized that none of these erroneously overconfident students were female. In fact, in my admittedly small circle of female scientist friends, everyone I’ve met has had some degree of impostor syndrome coloring their self-perception, while many (if not most) of the men have come in thinking they’re the best thing since sliced bread. Even D, my wonderful, open-minded, not-at-all-an-obnoxious-jerk boyfriend said he recognizes that he came in thinking he knew a lot more than he actually did. And the process of grad school wears that down a bit, every time you get a problem that’s nearly impossible to solve, or an exam where the high score is a 60%. So many of those men will end up on a mentally level playing field with the women who know they don’t know everything. And then you do learn things, and after you’ve learned enough, you get your PhD and are turned out, a shiny new physicist who’s been remade better, stronger, faster. Right?

Except that’s not the end of the story. It’s very easy to say “You spent seven years learning your subject, so now you should know that you’re qualified.” But it’s not that easy to internalize. And part of the reason for that is that it has to come from you, from your internal monologue, because, well, the world is not always going to be so helpful. That’s when you start realizing that this doubt in your ability is not always presumed. It’s not always “self-doubt.” Some of it is internalized doubt that others express. It’s not always explicit, but it’s not veiled enough. Every time I get a price quote back from a company that has assumed I’m an administrative assistant rather than a researcher. Every time a machinist calls me “honey” or “sweetheart,” or that they’re “always happy to help out a pretty girl.” Every time a tech tells me I “need to find someone to write [me] some C code” to program the equipment that’s not working. That’s the doubt that I’ve been trying so hard not to feel on the inside, flung at me from the outside.

And it gets old. It gets hard. But I don’t have to accept it or like it. I don’t have to chalk it up to a miscommunication or (my favorite) an overreaction. And I sure as hell don’t have to parrot it back myself.

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Leaning Out in the Sciences

I found this article today and it made me think. I’m definitely not the kind of person who leans into her career. Since I started my post-doc, I’ve taken up ballet dancing, started crocheting, and performed in a community theater play. All of these activities take my time and energy away from science. There’s a perception among the physicists I’ve met that physics has to be your entire life and identity. It certainly isn’t mine.

When I was in grad school, I ran a marathon. I was a relatively high-mileage runner (~20 miles per week when I wasn’t actively training for something, up to 40 at my max during marathon training) throughout my first few years of grad school, and the marathon was certainly a time and energy commitment. But I kept my specific training goals a secret. No one asked “Oh, hey, are you training for a marathon?” while I was training, so there was no outright lying going on, but I limited my discussion of my training to my personal friends and family. I was afraid that if I let on at work that I was undertaking such training that they might become critical of my performance in the lab: “Oh, Jenn’s too tired to work hard today because she was up at the crack of dawn to run” or “Jenn didn’t get as much done this week if she would have if she’d been in the lab during that 90-minute run she took at 7am.”

And then, the day after my marathon, I was gingerly lowering myself into a chair at our weekly seminar and one of my colleagues jokingly said “What’s up with you? Did you run a marathon this weekend or something?” Probably was not expecting the answer he got.

But just because I’m not devoted to physics with my entire being, body and soul, does not mean I don’t love science. I’ve also been applying for a fellowship lately and in the process of that, I’ve had to write a research proposal. Research proposals are wonderful things because they force you to go out and read all about the cutting edge ideas in a particular field. And I rediscovered my obsessive love of certain fields in physics. I went to bed thinking about my proposal and woke up to it. I had long, deep conversations with my boyfriend about the intricacies of the experiments and hashed out how the theories work, not just to make sure I got it right in my proposal, but to satisfy a genuine curiosity.

I had overly-long, fast-paced conversations with a prospective employer where we got caught up in the science rather than sticking to the one or two logistical questions I had. I joked that it was like physics Gilmore Girls because we talked fast and cut each other off because were both getting so excited. I could feel the science getting into my blood again.

And yet, in a week, after my current play closes, I’m going to go to another round of auditions. Because it’s not all science for me. Science is just my career and I love it as such.

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The Theater of Science

Anyone who knows me personally or reads my cooking blog knows that I’ve gotten into a community theater play. Yes, for the first time since college, I’m going to be on the stage. It’s a fun and exhilarating experience, although I joke that giving presentations at scientific conferences, or giving tours of the various labs in which I’ve worked has provided more than enough practice for presenting a persona in front of a group of strangers.

I firmly believe that anyone considering pursing science as a career should also consider taking a theater class. Or going out for a play. Or performing improv on the Metro. Maybe not that last one.

Anyway, I was backstage chatting with my castmates and one of them mentioned that she had met a woman who was studying kinesthesiology in one of her acting classes. This young woman was so petrified of speaking in public it was affecting her ability to give lectures in front of students. So she took the initiative to put herself through an acting class to give herself some skills and confidence in that arena. My castmate said she was obviously painfully shy, but made it through. I hope she felt some benefit outside the classroom.

So I joked when I started going to auditions again that I may have an almost 10-year gap on my acting resume, but really, I’ve been continuing to play the part of a cool, confident scientist who knows exactly what she’s talking about every time I get up to give a talk or lab tour. But it’s not entirely a joke. There’s a calm that comes in the knowledge that, no matter what’s going on in the “real world,” you can put on a persona and just speak your piece.

Because being a scientist is not just about doing your research. It’s not enough to be brilliant in the lab, not really. You need to be able to communicate your research to other people. Because the explanation will be so much richer coming from the person who fully understands the research. And you have to be able to read your audience, know when they’re trying and failing to understand you, and when they’re just tired or wishing your talk were over so they could get lunch. You have to learn not to get flustered by a disengaged audience, and how to re-engage them when you can. You have to be able to have the confidence to explain at any level to people of any background. And a lot of that is acting. Even when you’re about to burst into tears because nothing works, you have to be able to put on an engaging face and sell your research if a tour comes through. Even when you broke a major part of your experiment the week before, you have to go to that major conference and perform your conference talk.

And that’s where acting experience comes into science. It’s not about making things up. It’s about communicating your excitement for your work effectively.

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Jenn’s Mom Does Science!

This is a quick one, but I thought I’d share with you, if only to illustrate something about where my love of inquiry came from.

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That, my friends, is known as an ice spike, and apparently it’s a fairly rare phenomenon. Apparently, my mother managed to make one by refilling the ice tray at work. She snapped a picture of it, and started Googling. My mom loves to Google. When I was a summer intern, she Googled the group before “parents day” and managed to ask a couple really neat questions while I was showing her around. The point is, she doesn’t really care what she already knows; she wants to learn.

She’s the kind of person who, when faced with something unknown and kinda cool, will put her effort into figuring it out. She likes to explore new things, whether it’s foods or places or ideas. And that kind of inquiring mind is exactly what she gave me. And probably has something to do with my choice of career path.

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Explaining Physics to Zen Buddhists

In meditation group the other day, the leader did a brief reading from a book that included an aside about how the philosophy could be exemplified by particle physics. He chose to omit that aside from his reading but later passed the book around so we could take a look. Of course, someone eventually remembered that I am a physicist, so that’s how I ended up, in half-lotus on a zafu, explaining pions to a group of Zen Buddhists.

As a physicist and a meditator and yogini, I’ve encountered my fair share of non-scientists who like to try to use physics, particularly quantum and particle physics, to advance their spiritual worldview. In yoga, any time I mentioned quantum physics, I was told to see the film What the Bleep Do We Know?, which was generally described as life-changing among my yoga friends and utterly ludicrous among my physics friends. The idea is that the principles of quantum mechanics prove that we are all interconnected and our intentions send energy out into the universe and affect things. It’s very woo.

So I was nervous, sitting here in front of a group of people with cushions and incense and talking about interactions among sub-atomic particles. But Zen seems a little more grounded in their understanding of physics. They were very smug about the discovery of sub-atomic particles because their cosmology states that the world can be divided into ever-smeller pieces. And that’s not untrue. It’s also true that, at the sub-atomic level, our bodies have little difference from any other matter in the world. And when we die, we just go back to that bank of raw material that the universe uses to build things. Except we don’t even have to die, really. No matter what state we are in, we are just particles.

But where the pions come in are when you talk about observation and interactions. The idea in the Zen reading was that we don’t ever observe a thing; we observe how it interacts with the world. Personally, I like to think of color, which isn’t an inherent property as much as a way of seeing the light an object doesn’t absorb. When you put green cellophane over a plant, it dies because the green light is the light it reflects, not the light it absorbs for photosynthesis. But the reading talked about the interactions between the constituent particles of protons, how they gain mass from these interactions. And it’s true. If you take two free up quarks and a free down quark, their masses don’t add up to the mass of a proton. However, quarks can interact and form two-quark mediating particles, and these could give the proton its mass. This is a rough explanation because I’m not a particle physicist, but I was glad that I happened to remember this from a college class I took.

When it comes down to it, I sit with a very educated, science-minded, intelligent group of people. I don’t know if the Zen conversations seem more grounded because there are a lot of scientists, or if Zen attracts scientists because it seems to have a more grounded cosmology. But talking about physics to the “layperson” is not always about classroom demonstrations and family gatherings.

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“More Than Just a Princess”

There’s a new toy, the commercial for which has been making the rounds. I actually first saw this as a Kickstarter linked from one of my favorite blogs, Epbot (Jen*’s are awesome). Honestly, I remember thinking “Gee, they’re trying to market something subversive against the pink-ification of girls’ toys, but they’ve managed to make a toy based on pink ribbons.” But it seems like the idea has evolved a little. Little Goldie certainly looks like the kind of kid I would want to play with when I was a kid (and the kind I’d want my kids to play with when I have those, but seriously, girls, stay away from anything too flammable).

This is a giant leap in the right direction. The difference between a pink engineering set (and it’s not all that pink) and a pink Lego set is that the Legos are also pigeonholing girls by making the sets build salons and the like, rather than castles and racetracks and Tie fighters. Honestly, the only model-building I did as a kid was a velociraptor. I preferred my building blocks a little less constricted by the idea of a kit.

But I was fortunate. I had parents who indulged any interests we had. When all my sister wanted for Christmas was a Tonka dumptruck, guess what she got? Even though my aunts gave my mom all sorts of guff for buying her a “boys'” toy. Yes, we had Barbies, but we also had lots of building toys, books, and numerous trips to museums downtown. When I was in kindergarten, I made a brilliant model of the solar system, complete with a guidebook based on notes I took at the National Air and Space Museum. No one believed I’d done it myself (to be fair, my dad had to cut the foam balls into irregular shapes to make Phobos and Deimos, and I’m pretty sure he hammered in the nails).

If Goldieblox helps some girl discover a love of engineering that she wouldn’t have discovered from a kit not explicitly directed at females, that’s great. If some well-meaning aunt has a gift option that still fits into her worldview of feminine, but still stimulates the creative-scientific mind of a future prodigy, great. The bottom line is, I wish we didn’t need Goldieblox, but I’m glad we have them because we do need them.

And my favorite part of the commercial? “Girls can code a new app.” Seriously, who writes a song intended to market a toy to <10-year-olds and mentions coding? Someone awesome, that’s who. Because there is so much about STEM that is cool, not just the stuff that makes the news, and this company recognizes that.

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But How Can It Be Science If They’re Wrong?

This comes up every so often, most recently in regards to global warming. I’ve discussed the fallibility of scientists in the past, but now I want to talk about scientists being wrong about their own scientific findings. Specifically, what do you do when science gets disproved? And what does that really mean anyway?

The most recent example I can think of is the faster-than-light neutrinos, and the popular articles declaring “Einstein was wrong!” because he said that the speed of light was the cosmic speed limit. And then, it was discovered that these faster-than-light neutrinos weren’t that fast after all. It was an error. In layman’s terms, “error” means “mistake.” “Error” means “scientists were wrong.” But the reality is more nuanced than that.

Science is a practice of inquiry, not of being right. The best experiments are those that can be reproduced by another group (Although that’s not a hard and fast rule, as there are plenty of large, complicated collaborations that aren’t getting reproduced anytime soon. The LHC comes to mind). And, when you’re on the cutting edge of science, sometimes you end up producing results that end up being disproven later. Anyone who followed the supersolid helium debates know about this. Science is a process by which we approach the truth, not a way to prove truth once and for all and get to just forget about it once you’re done.

And, yes, there are biases and opinions that pepper the scientific debate. Take advanced particle physics theories, for example. The Standard Model is one way to describe how sub-atomic particles combine to make the world we live in and observe everyday. But, even though it’s been very useful to a lot of people, there are those that believe it doesn’t describe everything. So what’s the better model? What’s the real science?

Well, the answer is, we don’t really know. But there are a lot of very smart people who have some ideas. Some beliefs. And, yes, they are beliefs because most of these theories have basically zero evidence to show that they are valid, just evidence that some other theory isn’t valid. So there is an element of belief, even among the most analytical of scientific minds. Heck, even Einstein tried to backpedal on the theory of quantum mechanics. The EPR paradox, which was originally conceived to critique quantum mechanics, gave rise to the theory of quantum entanglement, which has now been observed.

So now we’re back to “Einstein was wrong!” But it’s not about right and wrong. It’s about the journey.