Tag Archives: science and society

Dressing for Success and the Scientist

Recently, Buckingham Palace issued a statement providing guidelines for attire for reporters who wished to have access to the Royal Family. This made me think about the idea of dressing for a job or role in general. I think this is something a lot of scientists have trouble with probably because they think that their science should speak for itself. Or maybe they just don’t like being around other people. The stereotype of the introverted physicist is not based entirely in fantasy.

So you get people who wear jeans and a t-shirt to give a scientific talk. One friend of mine thought it was hilarious to give his conference talks wearing what we affectionately called his “fart shirt.” Plenty of my former colleagues never dressed up beyond a polo shirt and a pair of khakis. These were the same people who thought it was amusing that I didn’t wear jeans to the lab for at least my first year in grad school.

Since then, I’ve always had to balance my sense of style with my image as a scientist. There’s this idea that if you dress too well, your knowledge is somehow suspect. And yet, in the rest of the world, your outward appearance is what communicates that you are a competent individual. Grad students might get away with wearing jeans and a t-shirt to give conferences at scientific conferences, but once they’re looking for a job outside of grad school, they might wonder why they get passed over if they show up to interviews in casual attire. The fact is that when we meet someone, their external appearance and maybe a piece of paper with a resume is the only thing we have to judge.

Since getting my PhD, I’ve gone a slightly less traditional route for postdoctoral positions. I applied for government jobs, which meant I had to dress not only professionally, but wear a full suit. And because government tends to be conservative, as a woman I had to make sure to get a skirt suit. And when I looked at the line of grad students waiting to get into the career fair, I realized that I was probably the best-dressed woman in the bunch.

Dressing up rather than down is also a good way to prevent people from assuming you are younger and less experienced than you are. When I had a summer internship, I worked closely with a postdoc who wore khakis and an un-tucked, too-large polo shirt every day. I tried to dress nicely because I was in my first “real” job. As a result, people would frequently assume he was the student and I was the post-doc, which irritated him to no end, but it goes to show the importance of looking your best.

So I guess my point is that even if you’re a scientist, you should probably think about how you dress. It doesn’t make you any less of a scientist, and it just might improve how people perceive you outside of the tiny group of experts that you think you want to impress.

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Building the World You Want To Live In

I’m currently in the process of building a new experiment. It’s a different experience for me because I’ve always been the person who joined an in-progress project, not the person who was given an empty table and a pile of equipment and told “Go!” It’s definitely had its challenges, but it’s also made me think a lot.

About policy and outreach.

Yeah, it seems a bit weird, but I realized that the same skills that go into building a lab go into shaping policies towards science and outreach. I’m building the world I want to live in.

When I was in graduate school, I found out that grad students at my institution had no formal access to any kind of maternity leave. Now, I had no children, or even plans of having children any time soon. In fact, I was on the pill at the time. But I thought that seemed like a bad idea. I mean, pregnancy is something that can happen even if you don’t mean it to, and the only official option was to take a leave of absence. This may not sound like a big deal until you realize that our stipends and health insurance benefits were tied to our student status. For many of us, our student loan deferrals or even visas to be in the US were tied to our student status. So a pregnant graduate student could see her insurance evaporate, all her loans come due or her visa revoked, right at the same time she also loses her meager income. It doesn’t seem like a friendly way to retain women in their mid-to-late 20s.

I also had a friend who was a new father and a university senator. I mentioned this issue to him and worked to help him research what a graduate student parental leave would cost the university so he could draft a proposal to implement such a policy. I still have no children, but I wanted a policy in place before I needed it.

How is this like building a lab, you might ask? Well, in the case of maternity leave, I saw a problem that might arise for me (and others) in the future and worked to correct it before it became a problem. In the policy world, lawmakers have to do the same thing: try to anticipate problems and solve them before they become a problem. When building a lab, there are certain things you know from the outset you will need: space, power, general equipment. Then, you look at your specific experiment and figure out what you will need immediately, a month from now, six months from now. You may even try to predict the direction in which the research will go and order equipment ahead of time so you’re not waiting on things to ship.

But then, sometimes, something just comes up. And when something comes up, the first thing you do is put a patch on it, try to get things up and running again as soon as possible. Kind of like passing a CR. But you don’t stop there. You then figure that thing-that-came-up into your plans and try to prevent the problem from happening again before the temporary patch fails. In the same way, some policies that go into place are not necessarily meant to be immediately effective, but will prevent a larger problem from coming up further down the road. The most effective fixes are the ones that the next grad student (or generation) will never know you needed.

In that way, my interest in outreach and policy comes from a desire to see science succeed unimpeded into the next generation. I write for general audiences, and give lab tours to a variety of people, in addition to doing my research because science will not succeed if only scientists are interested in it. I realize that it’s all scientists’ jobs to get as many people excited about science as possible. Only then can we use our skills to help shape a world in which we can all live happily.

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#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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