Tag Archives: women in science

In Search of Polar Perspectives

Perspective changes everything. Seeing things from a new angle, in a new context, can lead to some incredible realizations; just ask the astronauts who look down at our planet from orbit, seeing everything that means anything floating on an island in space. It is hard to have that perspective from close up, as author Ursula Le Guin put it:

If you can see a thing whole… it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives… But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death. 

Earthrise, taken by William Anders from the Moon.

To me, this is the uncomfortable comfort of wild spaces – of the wilderness. I grew up in the high desert, where what lies between towns and cities is mainly wild and mainly not for us.  It may sound strange, but it gives me a sense of peace to be somewhere where my presence is incidental, in the grand mountains and epic skies. That landscape’s vastness was there long before I was born, and it will long outlast me. There is a temptation when we find a place with this cosmic perspective, to use it as a kind of blurred backdrop to bring our own lives into sharper focus. However, this temptation must be resisted. The wilderness is not a canvas for your projections, not a metaphor for what you have finally realized about your own life. It just is, independent of you or your narratives.

Such grand places give perspective because of their immensity – they evoke a feeling of the sublime. But this can affect people in different ways. Sometimes the sublime in nature can inspire us, make us feel that we are part of something greater than us. Other times, being such a small piece of such a large thing can inspire fear, even existential dread, as we realise our own insignificance. But we are unique among creatures in being able to perceive and witness this. I think the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen described it well:

The starry sky is the truest friend in life, when you first become acquainted; it is ever there, it gives ever peace, ever reminds you that your restlessness, your doubt, your pains are passing trivialities. The universe is and will remain unshaken. Our opinions, our struggles, or sufferings are not so important and unique, when all is said and done.

I felt this keenly two years ago when I went to the Arctic. It was incredible seeing the glaciers and the icy seas, a brutal but beautiful environment at the roof of the world. But my sense of peace was shattered by the evidence, all around us, that this wilderness was not so long-lasting as it might seem. Climate change had shrunk the glaciers from their former size, whaling had destroyed formerly huge populations of beluga whales, and even isolated beaches had plastic garbage washing up on them as litter was conveyed on the ocean currents from other parts of the planet. I’ve described these things as if they happened passively, but we humans have actively caused these changes to occur. In the past, we had the excuse of ignorance. We know now exactly what we are doing.

Arctic mountains, glaciers, beaches… and trash.

Our planet may continue to float perfectly suspended in space, a blue marble in an ocean of emptiness, but our place on it will evaporate if we continue our current course. There is a drastic need for change. This is why I am taking part in Homeward Bound, an initiative bringing together women in science to become leaders in climate action. Women are underrepresented in scientific leadership despite high ability and skills, due to patriarchal ideas which we must dismantle if we want to use the full complement of human ability. My cohort of 100 women from across the globe is currently training in visibility, strategy, and science leadership, and in November 2019 we will set sail to Antarctica.  This will be the largest female expedition to Antarctica, and there is no more appropriate place than the continent which is most affected by climate change, and which for so long was considered the sole purview of men.

The cost and the carbon footprint of travelling to Antarctica is high. Would it be better to not make the journey, to preserve the place by avoiding the carbon emissions? And more broadly, is it better to preserve wild places by leaving them be? Few naturalists have advocated for our planet’s wild places by avoiding them. But I believe the question is worth considering, and when I was in the Arctic my shipmates and I discussed this at length – if we believed that the Arctic was under threat, then what were we doing there? My own conclusion was that the trip was indeed wasteful, if I did not use it as an opportunity to raise awareness of climate change and produce broader societal value. So I wrote and spoke about the Arctic, I worked with artists to create new works about science, and stepped up my advocacy to be in line with my values. My Homeward Bound journey, similarly, must be larger than the physical trip – like an iceberg whose visible piece is but a small fraction of the whole.

Why not ask about the impact of not just our big gestures, but the smaller choices that make up our lives? What impact does our travel have, our energy consumption online, our food choices? What must I achieve to be worth my carbon footprint? What are we doing to justify this impact, or minimize it?

After coming back from the Arctic, I became vegetarian. That was the right choice for me, though others may view it differently and make their own individual choices. But we must remember that we are not acting on our own – our choices contribute to climate change, to the destruction of the planet we call home.  How will we justify them to our neighbours, to our children? Why not choose to act, in both our personal choices and our collective action toward corporations and governments?

Perspective is important, but perspective without action will not be enough. We must face our discomfort, and look for new solutions, if we are to have any hope of preserving what is sublime on our planet and in ourselves.

I am fundraising for my Homeward Bound journey; you can donate here if you want to help. 

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Making Science Inclusive

It’s International Women’s Day, and people seem to find it easier to support girls than women.

I’ve noticed this as a Woman In Science, this eagerness to encourage girls into science with no concern as to what might happen to them as they, inevitably, become Women In Science. Isn’t that what we want for them, to evade the leaks in the pipeline and become role models that future girls can look up to? Don’t we want girls to become Women Who Have It All?

And yet, it’s easier to support girls than women – girls aren’t threatening. Girls aren’t competition. How else to explain the fact that, at this stage in my career, I face more sexism than I ever have before? I went off to college in 2001, at the ripe old age of 16, and you’d think things would have gotten better since then.

But when you’re part of a student cohort, or even a postdoctoral researcher or senior postdoc, you’re classed with other researchers at your level. As a PI on the other hand, running a research group, teaching undergrads, applying for funding, suddenly I am being treated worse than at any previous time in my career. Sure, it’s a demanding job, but I can’t help but notice the female junior academics around me getting saddled with heavier workloads and negative attitudes about their gender that male academics don’t have to deal with. And it doesn’t make my job easier when I can’t go to a conference without being asked ‘who do you work for?’

I have to admit I thought that as a society we’d be over this by now. Naïve student Jessamyn would have assumed there would be no need for gender quotas, in a place as progressive as a university setting, in the year 2019. Lecturer Jessamyn grimly admits that we still need them, and we have a long way to go before we are truly including everyone in higher education, and in science. Science is for everyone, regardless of gender, race, class, sexuality, or background, but it’s a lot of work to make that happen. Initiatives like the Athena SWAN and IOP Juno awards are a step in the right direction, and I’m glad to see my own institution pursuing them, but I think of them as being like the Bechdel Test – a necessary minimum, but not nearly enough to ensure true inclusion. We need to make sure that everyone is part of the story, not just the usual suspects.

Sometimes I find this tough going. I work in physics, a field with a pretty bad diversity problem, and I am used to being the only woman in the room. I wish I didn’t have so much experience being put down or disrespected, and while it may me a minority of physicists who act this way, a few consistent bad experiences can really change the environment. I sometimes wonder about the ethics of encouraging young girls into physics, having had the experiences I have: am I shepherding them into a place where they won’t be valued?

But you know, when I was an undergraduate at the cusp of either leaving physics or doubling down and pursuing a graduate education, I was lucky to end up working for an amazing physicist who I looked up to. She was an inspiration, a wonderful and supportive supervisor, and a role model whether she intended to be or not. In fact she still is – her name is Dr. Natalie Roe, and she is now the Physics Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. I’m sure she faced adversity in her career, and had experiences that differed from her male colleagues, but when I looked at her as a student I saw an incredible scientist and person, who I wanted to emulate. She paved a road for me into physics, and probably for many other young women who she mentored.

Culture change is slow, and frustrating, and in fighting injustice we often feel like we are far behind where we want to be. But I am grateful for everyone who’s pushed for change, and I hope that we can all keep paying this forward, to make science the kind of place where every girl, and every woman, is truly welcome.

Women in Science at the End of the World

It is one thing to use science to better understand the world, another to fear the world itself is crumbling all around you. And yet the scientists who were pursuing research during World War II must have felt both these things keenly, as the Great Powers became embroiled in the second major war in a generation.

Against this backdrop, scientific advances were about to become very
important to the course of the war, and the public perception of science was about to be changed indelibly. Researchers in Europe and the United States were digging to the heart of nuclear fission, an understanding of how the nuclei at the heart of atoms could split, changing into other elements in a naturally-occurring process. Fission was also thought to release an unheard of amount of energy, which in wartime led to one obvious thought: was it possible to use fission to build a bomb?

The Project
After a report from the UK was shared with the US Army, which coordinated the results of a series of secret conferences to discuss the possibility of a fission bomb and how it might be designed, the Army Corps of Engineers launched what was called ‘the Manhattan Project’. Major General Leslie Groves was put in charge, and appointed as scientific director Robert Oppenheimer, an expert in neutron collisions at the University of California Berkeley (the only university with a particle accelerator powerful enough to make plutonium, which had been recently discovered in 1941). Oppenheimer’s first task was to find a suitable location to build a lab where a fission bomb could be designed, built, and eventually tested.

As a child, Oppenheimer suffered from tuberculosis and recovered at the Los Alamos Ranch School in the New Mexico mountains. Far from any major settlements, this location seemed ideal to Oppenheimer and he suggested it as the main site for the Manhattan Project. The land at Los Alamos was purchased by the US government in late 1942, with scientific work beginning there in 1943. Initially General Groves had imagined a military installation, with the scientists in uniforms and posted away from their families. But key scientists balked at uniforms and many wished to bring their families with them. The Los Alamos scientists, working in secret, are often considered a boys’ club, plus wives. Yet even in wartime, and facing prejudice their male counterparts did not, women made huge scientific contributions to the success of the Manhattan Project.

Lise Meitner


The physicist whose work set the scene for the development of the fission bomb, though she would not have wished it, was Austrian-born Lise Meitner. Working in pre-war Germany, she and long-time collaborator Otto Hahn developed the theory and the experimental understanding of nuclear fission. But Meitner was uprooted from Germany due to the Nuremberg laws and her Jewish heritage, and she was forced to flee to Stockholm to continue her work. Her German-based colleagues left her name off several key papers, fearing repercussions from the Nazi authorities. And so the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1944 was then awarded to Meitner’s main collaborator, Otto Hahn, for the discovery of nuclear fission. Although the Nobel committee later revealed that the complications of wartime and the difficulty of assessing interdisciplinary work had contributed to Meitner’s omission from the prize, the US Army had recognized her contribution and invited her to join the Manhattan Project. Her experimental and theoretical insight had clearly been critical, and she was no longer ensnared in Nazi Germany as Hahn was. But Meitner refused to join the Project, saying ‘I will
have nothing to do with a bomb!’ Her advancement of the theory of nuclear fission was, nevertheless, critical to the Project’s success.

Lilli Hornig


Among the women who did join the Project was Lilli Hornig, a Czech chemist who specialized in the newly discovered element plutonium. She had a master’s degree from Harvard when the Manhattan Project began and came to Los Alamos married to an explosives scientist, having been told that anyone
with a chemistry background would be welcomed on board.

Upon arrival, however, Horning was offered a typing job, and was only permitted to work on plutonium chemistry after saying she did not know how to type. Hornig was moved to the explosives group once lab management realised the intense radioactivity of plutonium might cause reproductive damage. ‘I tried delicately to point out that they might be more susceptible than I was; that didn’t
go over well,’ she said in an interview with Manhattan Project Voices (a public
archive of oral histories).

Hornig was eventually a witness to the ‘Trinity’ test of the first so-called ‘atomic
bomb’ in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The Trinity detonation used plutonium as its fissile material, standing on the shoulders of Hornig’s work, but after seeing the devastation it was capable of, she signed a letter along with 100 other scientists requesting that the bomb be demonstrated to the Japanese on an uninhabited island. The next two nuclear detonations occurred over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 100,000 people. After the war had ended, Hornig went back to graduate school, getting her PhD and becoming a chemistry professor at Brown University. She was a feminist and a passionate advocate for women in science, studying inequality in the sciences alongside her first love of chemistry.

Maria Goeppert Mayer


Maria Goeppert Mayer was a German physicist, whose doctoral thesis was super-
vised by Max Born, the father of quantum mechanics. Goeppert Mayer came to America when her husband took employment as a professor at Johns Hopkins, but nepotism laws at the time prevented the wife of a professor from being employed at the same institution. Initially she worked unpaid, collaborating with others and eventually studying the separation of different atomic isotopes. The couple then moved to Columbia University and there Goeppert Mayer began her work with the Manhattan Project, studying isotope separation of uranium compounds to be purified into fissile fuel.

While comparing different isotopes, she began to notice ‘magic numbers’ of nucleons which led to more stable atomic nuclei. In 1945, she went to Los Alamos to work directly with Edward Teller on the successor to the atomic bomb: the hydrogen bomb, which exploited the energy from the atomic fusion of elements.

After the war, Goeppert Mayer continued to develop her shell model of the atomic nucleus, which she likened to pairs of waltzers at a dance: each nucleon was a waltzer paired with another waltzer, and more waltzing couples could be fitted into the nucleus by having some go clockwise, some anticlockwise, paralleling nuclear spin. She finally achieved her first full-time paid position as a scientist in 1960 at the University of California San Diego, after receiving her PhD in 1930. When she received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, for her shell model of the atomic nucleus, the local newspaper headline read ‘S. D. mother wins Nobel Prize’. Goeppert Mayer was the second female Nobel Laureate in physics, after Marie Curie.

Each of these women had critical scientific and technical contributions to the Manhattan project, but the politics of the time and secrecy surrounding the wartime effort shrouded the impact of their work. The contributions of male scientists to the Project are more widely touted, and although Hornig, Goeppert Mayer, and Meitner are long gone, the scientific establishment today still struggles to appropriately acknowledge the contributions of women.

Furthermore, that a Czech, a German, and an Austrian were so central to ending an international war, displaced from their countries of origin, shows the value of immigration and even of wartime refugees. Despite difficulties accessing academia and key resources, female scientists played a major role in the Manhattan Project, the building of the first atomic bomb, and the end of World War II.

When Your Science Hero is Problematic

We all have heroes, people we look up to and whose achievements spur us on to do our own personal best. And, especially in this era where women are saying #metoo and finally being heard, we have probably all had the experience of finding out that one of our heroes has done some less than heroic things. This has come up a lot for me recently with the deaths of some very famous scientists and science fiction writers, men I greatly admired when I was a kid, who I’m now discovering were frequently awful to women (i.e., people like me).

I think this happens more than usual in science, a traditionally male-dominated field where a culture of elitism and privilege has been embedded for a long time. And it’s tempting to view things in black and white: either my hero is amazing for their achievements or they are garbage for their behaviour. We know in our personal lives that people are multi-faceted, yet we’re slow to allow public figures that same understanding. If a famous male scientist discovers lots of things, and is a great collaborator with other men but acts differently toward women, consciously or unconsciously, how are we meant to think about that?

As a physicist who loves to write, I’ve had to consider this before, because one of my early science heroes was Richard Feynman. Feynman was a brilliant theoretical physicist, a Nobel laureate, and worked on the Manhattan project building the atomic bomb in my hometown of Los Alamos. He also wrote a series of very enjoyable popular science books, which were also quite personal and effortlessly engaging. A quote from an interview that immediately stuck with me:

Omni: As we came back to the office, you stopped to discuss a lecture on color vision you’ll be giving. That’s pretty far from fundamental physics, isn’t it? Wouldn’t a physiologist say you were ‘poaching’?

Feynman: Physiology? It has to be physiology? Look, give me a little time and I’ll give a lecture on anything in physiology. I’d be delighted to study it and find out all about it, because I can guarantee you it would be very interesting. I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.

As someone who is omnivorous about knowledge, I found that quote resonated with me deeply. Science is fascinating because it shows us how the world works, how things which might appear separate are deeply connected, and the overlapping intricacies behind the everyday we take for granted. I now do my research on nanoscience, a strongly interdisciplinary field that draws from chemistry, electrical engineering, materials science, and plenty more beyond the physics that I got my degrees in. I admired Feynman for not letting other people dictate the questions he could ask, for being a physicist in what felt like a subversive and wide-ranging way. He was also famous for his sense of humour, his love of non-scientific things like playing bongos, and for generally not being as formal and rigid about anything as physicists tend to be.

The author having a Feynman bongo moment at the No-Ball Prizes. Photo by Ian Bowkett.

Of course, if you read Feynman’s books you’ll also find less inspiring stories, if you are a female scientist. He writes about doing his calculations in a Hooters, negging women in bars, and pretending to be an undergraduate to pick up grad students’ wives. This is less subversive, and more what we might generously call ‘of a time’. Feynman did plenty to promote the status of women in physics, encouraging his own sister to study it and eventually get a PhD. But reading through these differing accounts of his behaviour, female physicists are left wondering whether this great man of science would have seen them as colleagues and equals, or as prey.

I still find a lot in Feynman to look up to, as a physicist who did amazing work but cared about communication and didn’t give in to pressure to conform. However I can still acknowledge the women he mistreated, or perhaps even drove out of the field which is a terrible loss to science. He had a complexity to him, and my initial hero-worship of Feynman when I was younger has been replaced by equally complex feelings, of respect for his scientific and communication work alongside frustration at his mistreatment of women. But there’s no such thing as a perfect hero anyway, and if I needed one in physics, I might be waiting a long time. We have many historical women in physics to look up to, like Lise Meitner or Emmy Noether, and yet often these women were denied resources and opportunities that their male colleagues had, which can make them feel like amazing but also tragic figures. I would hope that women working in science today can be heroic without the tragedy.

Perhaps looking for heroes in science is a fundamentally flawed endeavor. Science is at its heart collaborative, and the sheer scope of human knowledge means that it is impossible for one person, toiling alone, to conquer it all. We must talk to each other, work together, and build on existing work, as famously stated by Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The great man theory is as flawed when it comes to science as it is when it comes to history. We all seek out role models, but we must recognize that they worked with others, seen and unseen, and that science is a societal effort and not the work of a lone genius.

While Feynman is long gone, there are other scientists still living, still contributing, and still behaving badly. It’s important that we not let them off the hook. Feynman lived decades ago, and certainly the standards of behaviour were different then, but today’s harassers and discriminators have no such excuse. If science is truly a collaborative effort, then it loses strength every time a person is pushed out of science by harassment. We can have complicated feelings about prominent scientists of the past, but there are a lot of people working in science today who are doing it right, and can serve as inspirations.

For example, tomorrow is the first ever LGBT STEM day, being celebrated with events around the world. Our Irish LGBT STEM network, House of STEM, has done so much to organise and promote this event, and founder Shaun O’Boyle explains why it’s desperately needed here:

The past is full of problematic yet successful scientists. Yet I’m hopeful that the future will have a broader array of amazing scientists, working together, who are also amazing people.

A Chat About Women In Science

What do Erin and I talk about behind the scenes of this very blog? Well, plenty, but often we discuss science communication and women in science. We decided to post this recent chat we had, with references! This is how the sausage is made, people.

 

Jessamyn:  !!!
YES
Erin:  I question whether the overarcing discussion is still so humanities-unfriendly (given the proliferation of things like Bright Club over here), but he’s got a lot of good points
I also think it’s worth thinking about why the humanities’ contributions have been overlooked
mainly because I think they are viewed as ‘lesser’ by a lot of scientists
which is kind of ironic given the way the tide has turned
Jessamyn:  yeah
I think that putting science up on a pedestal has both isolated it and decreased its perceived value
and being all shirty about the social sciences and how they have ‘physics envy’
Erin:  which is ridiculous!
we should be able to appreciate the value of other areas of study and hopefully see how they can benefit our own
Jessamyn:  being interdisciplinary and collaborative have huge payoffs
but they aren’t ego payoffs
Erin:  absolutely
but I don’t think scientists feel like they are being egotistical
Jessamyn:  they may not label it as that
but they are imposing a moral value system that conveniently places their work at the top
and then building a hierarchy of status based on that
Erin:  oh! how funny it ended up like that
Jessamyn:  sorry guys it just HAPPENS that my stuff is the most important EVER
Erin:  as defined be ME AND ALL MY BUDDIES
Jessamyn:  not everyone is smart enough to do what I do, sadly
so I have to tell you what’s important and what’s not
ME
I AM IMPORTANT
Erin:  sadly the current environment of academia does not help dispel that. PIs and researchers are constantly being driven to justify their work
and it’s only very recently that outreach and collaboration have had any place in that justification
Jessamyn:  yeah
I love doing all this stuff but I’m very aware that it’s not going to do much to help me get a faculty position
research publications do that
I think some departments are more into outreach than others, and I’m hoping one of those will place a higher value on someone like me… but it’s not a universally valued thing the way research pubs are
Erin:  I was talking to a PhD student today who is great, she is part of the bioscience team and is also spearheading a college-wide blog initiative. and the comments from her colleagues have just been so dismissive. “Oh, you’re good at talking to people? you should quit your position and go into publishing or communications.”
Jessamyn:  yes!
after I won that physics communication award people asked me if I wanted to take the outreach coordinator’s job
and I’m like, no, I want to do research and some outreach, and I want her job to be coordinating lots of scientists like me
and I think most scientists should be doing this stuff
at varying levels, but I mean… COME ON
Erin:  yeah, oh god, don’t get me started
and it’s like “overall that might be a good amount of outreach but my god it’s unfair to the few people who are willing”
even if they enjoy it
because as you said, it doesn’t directly help your career
Jessamyn:  my boss was also commenting to me and a gender equality committee yesterday that it’s generally female scientists who end up being great communicators
which, yes, because (a) I think female scientists are much more aware that they are unlikely to be able to be the single-minded scientist, if only because there is the ‘WHAT ABOUT BABEEEZ’ thing from so early on that men can just skate on past, assuming that a partner will do the bulk of the work
and (b) women are socially conditioned to value communication and language skills more than men are, and more ostracized if they fail to develop those skills, so
Erin:  yeah, I’ve definitely read studies and it goes: men without kids < men with kids < women without kids < women with kids in terms of scientists who engage with outreach efforts
Jessamyn:  makes sense
I mean I guess you could also say, well women in science know about the importance of role models
so they would be more invested in providing that, to get more scientists and more girls into science
but then that ends up being effectively another tax on being a woman in science
Erin:  yeah, especially since they’re also required to sit on all the committees, and be on all the brochures, and the panels, etc etc…
Jessamyn:  exactly
Erin:  :-/
AND WHO IS MORE LIKELY TO END UP IN THE HUMANITIES? (to tie this in to the beginning point)
Jessamyn:  yes!!!
oh I read a great thing about that awhile back
and more of those people are women
I hated the title of this, using storytelling to bring women to science, but it’s very interesting
I like how it challenges the framing that women need better sci/math skills
when it’s also, we just lose those women who go off and pursue other things they are good at
Erin:  yeah!
science needs better women skills!
Jessamyn:  yes!
stop phoning it in, science!