Jenn Does Science

Audacity of imagination

Moving News

Hello, readers! I wanted to let you know that I’ve moved this blog over to my main page, physicsjenn.com. Come see the latest updates, which I hope will happen a bit more frequently, at https://physicsjenn.com/blog/.

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Outreach Fun: Volunteering at the Innovation Festival

So it’s been a while since I’ve written one of these posts, but this weekend, I definitely had something worth posting about! Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen my photo of an astronaut next to the getup he wore while climbing Mt. Everest. This was just one of the fascinating people I got to meet and exciting projects about which I learned on Sunday.

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The Innovation Festival is a joint venture between the US Patent and Trademark Office and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The NMAH recently opened its Innovation Wing, where they showcase inventions and inventors that changed the world. The permanent collection features things like the bicycle and ready-to-wear clothing alongside the telephone and computer. It’s a really neat exhibit, even when there isn’t a festival going on.

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But add in a wing full of inventors sharing their new patented inventions and you have a recipe for a very fun day. Among the inventors I met were USDA scientists showing off ornamental pepper plants. This guy was really interesting. Apparently he came up with his first patented plant at the age of 10, and now works for the USDA playing with peppers. He was a natural at outreach, and even had a fun analogy for describing how genetic modification works. He said it was like Mr. Potato Head: you can choose which parts you want to add or change. And he brought along a few types of pepper plants to show what he meant. Probably the coolest thing I learned from them is that there is one gene site that controls whether or not a pepper is spicy, and then a bunch of other ones that describe how spicy it is. So you can flip on the spicy gene in a regular bell pepper, which kind of confuses people. One of the other guys there said that he’s been “burned” more than once taking peppers home from work!

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I also met some guys developing workout clothing with built-in resistance bands, scientists who developed a new kind of gel for biological sciences, scientists who created an adaptive algorithm for finding interesting articles for people, and engineers who came up with a more intuitive way to back up a truck trailer, among many others. The most interesting thing was that not everyone was developing a thing or a device, and not everyone was an engineer. There were biologists, astrophysicists, chemists, and skateboarders! The only thing they had in common was that they had an idea.

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Then, I also spent my afternoon at the education and outreach booth, where we shared projects with the younger visitors that taught them about different inventors and inventions. The coolest thing there (besides the inventor trading cards!) was the paper-folding project using a 100-year-old patent held by Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts. Apparently, Low came up with a way of folding a flat piece of paper into a receptacle for holding garbage, including liquids. Even though I was a Girl Scout, I never knew our founder was an inventor!

All in all, this was such a fun event. I’d definitely go back as a guest, and certainly volunteer again. It was an event that showed the wide variety of science and invention and really got everyone excited about it!

Great News, Guys: Sexism in Science is Over!

Okay, maybe not.

A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims that they found that their hiring experiment shows that professors consider women twice as desirable as men when choosing candidates to hire from a stack of applications. Their conclusion is that the current lack of women in STEM fields is therefore not due to inherent bias, but due to women self-selecting out of the field.

Except their study bears no resemblance to an actual faculty search.

Scientists have responded to this study with a mixture of skepticism and outright anger, and they’re justified in doing so. By claiming that there’s no bias against women in technical fields, the researchers are placing the blame for the underrepresentation of women in the sciences squarely on the shoulders of women. They’re basically telling women to “stop underrepresenting yourself.” And yet, almost any woman could tell you some anecdote about being assumed to have less knowledge than a male at a field in which she is just as qualified as the guys. My own anecdotes are well-documented.

This article, written by a friend of mine, outlines in exactly which ways the PNAS study gets it wrong when they claim to study actual hiring practices. And in-person interviews are hard to study because there is no real way to make up for biases. Without being able to see the candidate, there’s no evaluation of body language that makes in-person interviewing useful. The closest examples that take into account a holistic view of bias might come from anecdotal evidence of scientists who have transitioned genders at a midpoint in their careers, although bias against transgender individuals is a whole different level of bias.

This article about the study also raises another important point: is it really the perception of gender bias that keeps women from pursuing higher education jobs in STEM fields? I would argue, no, that if a woman chooses to leave a STEM field, it is generally because there is little accommodation for the disproportionate role a woman is supposed to take in raising a family, or else because of some personal negative experience. I mean, I knew that it was “weird” to be a woman in physics, but that didn’t make the field less attractive. It just gave me a bit of advanced warning so I wasn’t surprised the first time I got patronizing comments from a professor.

And that’s the biggest problem I have with this study. If you tell women that this bias doesn’t really exist, then what does that say when they actually experience it for themselves? Without knowledge of bias as an existing issue, women in science who then experience bias might just chalk it up to one bad apple or, worse yet, their own oversensitivity. And that, I think, is even more likely to cause women to leave a field that they would otherwise enjoy. If you can take sexist comments, recognize them for what they are, and say “Eh, haters gonna hate,” it’s easier to go on with your career. Without a perception of ingrained bias, each negative experience becomes personal, which is actually worse.

So rather than declaring bias over based on one poorly-designed study, perhaps we should be addressing the causes of the very real biases in the sciences, not just against women, but against anyone who doesn’t fit the traditional perception of the nerdy, white, cis-male scientist.

On Casual Prejudice and Remembering People’s Names

My colleague recently sent an email to the wrong person because they had a similar south Asian name to the person to whom he meant to send the email. He asked me, “Is that racist?” And, honestly, the answer is yes, a little bit. No, it’s not the kind of racist that causes people bodily harm, but it is an example of the little annoyances of standing out in a primarily white, male environment.

For another example: I used to be assumed to be a secretary by people I contacted from my old job, and now that I work for a female scientist, I’m often assumed to be her before I have a chance to introduce myself. As in, people say “Oh, you must be [boss’ name]” before I even open my mouth to actually tell them who I am. It’s not a problem with which most of my male colleagues have to deal. And, yeah, it’s kind of annoying to have it pointed out that, hey, what are the odds there are two of you in a single physics group?!

The really sad part is that I have a really common female name, and my boss has a very uncommon name. I mean, also we’re totally different people and look different.

Seriously, stop.

Because that’s the crux of the problem: it points out a person’s otherness. Yes, people with non-Western names are used to people mispronouncing their names. They’re used to being asked if they’re from the same country or city as another person who looks vaguely similar. It just highlights to them that you are judging them first and foremost by what you see, and that you don’t have the ability to distinguish between different people who aren’t the same race (or gender?!) as you.

Yes, I’m being hyperbolic. But it’s a real problem. Every time it happens, it’s an alarm going off, “you’re different, you’re different, you’re different,” in your head. It grates. As with the concept of “lighten up” in response to off-color jokes, it builds up. I promise you, your slip is not the first time this person has had to deal with this, even if you think it’s the first time you’ve made such a mistake. We notice the people who treat us like individuals, rather than a demographic group. But we’re going to be gracious and polite about it, because what else can we do?

Women in Science in Science Fiction Theater: The Dum Dums by Glass Mind Theatre

So this isn’t really a theater review. Except it is. I recently had the chance to go up to Baltimore to see The Dum Dums, a play presented by Glass Mind Theatre at Gallery 788 in Baltimore. It’s a really fun show, but what struck me was the intense portrayal of the experience of being a woman in science. The play takes themes like toxic female competition, impostor’s syndrome, and depression and weaves it into a hilarious and touching show.

Better people than I have actually reviewed this show. Read this review for a pretty accurate idea of what I thought about it as well (although, do yourself a favor and don’t read past the second photo). The show opens with three astronauts embarking on a mission to Tau Ceti E. Right off, I have to give props to the playwright for actually choosing some real planets in the habitable zone of a known star. It lends gravitas to the struggle between the women on board the ship because it makes their training seem more real than fiction

The main characters are Captain Meghan Schill and Navigator Jennifer Traeger, along with Medic Debra Lambert, whose actor also plays a variety of other characters. Traeger embarks on the journey with a severe case of nerves and a horror that she’s made a terrible mistake with the star charts. The other two crewmates ensure her that she’s being silly and that she’s really brilliant. But it turns out, she’s right.

They end up on the wrong planet, hundreds of thousands of years off schedule. The portrayal of the ultimate impostor’s-syndrome-proved-right scenario struck me. It’s a feeling that I’ve struggled with (and I’m sure plenty of others have struggled with) and it was striking to see it up on stage. And yet, not until the end did anyone think to say to Traeger that this was her fault (a statement which is almost instantly regretted).

And yet, Traeger spends more of the stay on the wrong planet consumed with a kind of depressive lethargy that isn’t helped by the excessive gravity of a super-Earth. She flops around the ship, binge eating and binge watching reality shows on her tablet. The sheer honesty of the experience of depression is a far cry from the portrayal of scientists as nerds who have nerd tastes in all things. She watches reality shows about women catfighting at parties, not Star Trek. She is unapologetically “female” in her tastes, despite being an MIT graduate. There are so many more moments in the play that deal with depression, the main theme, that I would just say go see the show if you want to know more.

But the moment that spoke to me the most was a flashback when Traeger meets her future boyfriend in a bar. He’s asking what she does and she responds that she’s an astronaut. And then it comes. That line that I’ve gotten so many times before. “Oh, you must be so smart.” I literally rolled my eyes while sitting in my seat watching that. It’s just such a truth that I instantly identified with Traeger. And the guy in question ultimately proves himself unsuited to dating someone with a high-stress job.

All I can say is that The Dum Dums does a brilliant job of capturing the feeling of being a woman in science. There are also themes of both female competition and the commoditization of female competition. The portrayal of impostor’s syndrome and depression are among the most spot-on that I’ve ever seen. And Traeger is, if not likeable all the time, a very real character. I highly recommend you try to go see it before it closes in April. More information here: http://www.glassmindtheatre.com/season/the-dum-dums/

On Terry Pratchett, Discworld’s Scientists, and Profound Silliness

Terry Pratchett passed away today. He will be missed. In a way, he prepared his readers for this, both through interviews in which he expressed his wishes to die at a time of his choosing, and in his writing, where he never shied away from Death. In fact, Death was one of his best characters.

I always found his books enjoyable on many levels. On one level, I was utterly absorbed in his characters. On another level, his fantasy world was huge and comprehensive. It was explorable, like a video game. If you had enough of his books, it felt like you had traveled Discworld. And on another level, there was his depiction of academic sciences in the guise of the wizards. These academics — sorry, wizards — sat in their towers feeling vaguely superior and protecting their secrets. They had hierarchy and woe betide any who felt like messing with that. Pratchett outright said that magic is analogous to technology on Discworld in interviews, and the feelings of the general public towards the wizards is pretty similar to how much of the general public feels towards science.

So it was fun to see my own demesne mocked in a good-natured way. It reminded me to stay connected to the rest of the world, to learn how not to be a scientist-in-a-tower, but instead know how to bring this magic, even just a little bit of it, to anyone who was interested. And it reminded me that there is nothing inherently better or worse about a person because he or she chooses to pursue one career over another. Scientists aren’t smarter than other people, just different. Sometimes very different.

But it was Pratchett’s Death character that spoke to me the most. He took an archetypical character, one that is the epitome of fear, and humanized him. It’s like learning that the menacing shape in your closet is really just a sweater hanging from a chair. He didn’t make Death absurd, but rather turned him into a relatable character. In this way, Pratchett brought even Death into the fold of things that were familiar and not-scary.

That’s not to say that he wasn’t silly. He could be very silly at times. Just the names of many of his characters are extremely silly. He uses silly characters in absurd, exaggerated situations to prove the most profound of points. He speaks to human conditions left and right in his books. Beyond death, he covers workers’ rights and cultural prejudice. He explores government corruption and the plight of the common man (or woman). He even flirts with gender politics. But it never comes off as heavy handed or preachy (unlike some fantasy writers I’ve read) because it’s all sublimely silly. He makes a serious point palatable by seeming like he’s not serious. So you read through, but when you get to the end, you think, huh, that’s a good point.

And that’s important in the world. It’s important to have craftsmen of words who can make a profound point in a silly form so that the silliness coats the pill for swallowing. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced a writer who has Pratchett’s gift with profound silliness, but I hope that someday I will.

Good Enough and the Tyranny of Perfection in Science

In science, perfect is attractive. We talk about errors and deviations, but we always want to know that our equipment is working ideally. We spend our younger years in classes where we study concepts in a perfect world, and then we have the shock of going to a lab where things are decidedly messy. We may have an experiment held together with cable ties and electrical tape, but we want peak power out of it all the time.

When I was in graduate school, one of the banes of my existence was the frequency doubling cavity that gave me one of the laser colors I needed. I would take all my pump laser power, put it into this cavity, and get out a tenth of that in the color that I wanted. And that was on a good day. I probably spent at least a third of my graduate life fighting with the doubler power. There was always an elusive benchmark that if I could hit it, that would be enough power. In order to actually graduate, I had to step back and look at what I had, maybe do a couple rough calculations, and realize that I didn’t need optimal power, I just needed it to be good enough.

“Good enough” has become my rallying cry since then. Good enough means that you run your experiment as soon as it’s good enough to get a result. Because the result doesn’t really care if you had optimal power. The result cares that it was good enough to see an effect. And let’s face it, we’re probably not going to use the first data we take. We’re going to use that initial data to guide our experiments, refine it. So maybe along the way, we’ll see we need a smidge more power, an ounce more stability, and few more atoms in our trap. And maybe one day that will add up to “well, we need to overhaul the experiment.” But, in general, it’s best to save the obsessive perfectionism for those times when you’re waiting for your paper to be accepted for publication and have some down time to make big repairs. Which doesn’t actually happen that often.

Because let’s be clear, it’s really easy to get bogged down in the details. And the details are sometimes not even that interesting. Sometimes they’re even a bit depressing. Sometimes you’re turning two knobs back and forth, seemingly doing the same thing, but somehow getting a slow, steady improvement. And it’s boring and doesn’t have a lot to do with science. Or maybe you’re debugging code because you forgot to capitalize that ancient subroutine you called in the 268th line and also there might be a semicolon missing somewhere. It’s not adding to our understanding of the beauty of the universe, but it has to be done because things don’t work without it.

So why not let the things that don’t prevent forward momentum go? If you’re making steady forward progress, maybe it doesn’t matter that you’re operating on the edge of usefulness, just this once. It helps you keep sight of the big picture, of why you got into science in the first place. Because that’s important. Nothing kills dreams quicker than losing sight of them. And it’s especially important in graduate school because the tunnel gets really dark before you see the light at the end. So don’t linger in the dark places any longer than you have to, and listen to the adage: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

A Bone to Pick with Bones

So it’s no secret to anyone who knows me that one of my favorite genres of TV is the crime drama. Criminal Minds, Bones, and even good old Law and Order. I watch them in hotel rooms and at home, and I’ve recently discovered them on Netflix. Bones is actually one of my favorites. Despite the caricature-like portrayal of Dr. Brennan at times, I find it a great representation of diversity in science. But the episode I watched the other night gave me pause. I apologize for writing about an episode that’s a year and a half old, but it’s new to me.

In “The Lady on the List,” the intern Dr. Wells returns. Now, I have a problem with him in general because he’s a perfect representation of the idea on TV that all science-y people know all science. I guess it’s good that they at least try to make it apparent that his expertise in multiple scientific fields is unusual, but it still galls me that this perception exists. But that’s not the problem.

The problem is that he’s a belittling jerk. And he is pretty exclusively a belittling jerk to Brennan, Cam, and Angela. That is to say, the women. And they don’t really ever call him on it. Brennan seems to buy his “I’m smarter than you” attitude and tries harder to impress him. At one point, she almost puts him in his place by bristling at him complimenting her for figuring something out and then asking her on a date, but it was just that she doesn’t like him. Not that he’s belittling her as a scientist with way more experience in this field than he has. Angela is the best at dealing with him, quietly showing him that he’s misjudged her, but doesn’t press it when he attributes her skill to luck. Cam tries to get him to behave with “respect” but makes it more about rank.

And everyone makes it about him being “likeable,” not about that fact that, even given the chance, he doesn’t pull any of this crap on Hodgins. Kind of fishy, that.

I was the most disappointed with the portrayal of Cam’s character in this situation because she’s been outspoken about insidious prejudices before. In fact, earlier that same season, she gets indignant about her boyfriend getting pulled over for “driving while brown.” Good for her for calling that out. But when she’s faced with an intern who is profoundly rude, condescending, and interrupts his superiors (yes, people who are your boss are your superiors), she can only come up with lame comebacks about how he’s not likeable.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have the likeability burden foisted on a male character for once. But the punchline of the whole episode is that Dr. Wells ends up making friends with a computer program because it’s the only mind in the lab whose intelligence he respects. Apart from being a really lazy and stereotyping way of dealing with this character, this isn’t really a situation that demands humor.

This is a situation another entitled brat of a scientist who looks down on his female colleagues needs to be taught that that’s not okay, and it has nothing to do with whether or not someone wants to have a drink with you after work. It has to do with discounting the expertise of your colleagues, particularly those who actually have more expertise than you do. While this is a lesson that anyone, regardless of gender, must learn, it is particularly damaging in situations like this, where the male colleagues don’t get the kind of condescending attitude that the females see. Because we’re dealing with that sort of crap daily and don’t need yet another example of it. Particularly when it’s someone with whom we need to work to get things done.

Why Gender Still Matters

Yesterday, I heard a news piece about how Marissa Mayer doesn’t think gender matters in the tech industry. Now, the pull quote in the segment didn’t really make it clear what she meant by that, but the news source where I heard it was presenting it as Mayer saying she didn’t think gender was an issue in the advancement of people in the tech industry. It called to mind this question sent to “Dear Prudence” a few weeks ago, where a woman was complaining about feminists in her workplace getting all upset when she said she didn’t experience any different treatment based on her gender. It might have been heartwarming except that the young woman asking the question titled her question “Excessive Feminists” and seemed to think that because she was too young to get passed over for senior positions and hadn’t had anyone make sexual overtures towards her that that meant she wasn’t treated differently because of her gender.

There was also a generally dismissive tone, as if she felt like these “excessive feminists” were making a big deal out of nothing to foster a false sense of camaraderie. Don’t even get me started on Prudence’s reply. The idea that a 20-something who hasn’t experienced what fits into her narrow definition of gender discrimination should not invalidate the other women as “obsessive grievance-mongering” feminists. And it’s almost funny how naively the writer brings up that there just happens to be “too few [female] candidates” without really reflecting on why that is. It’s like just because we’ve made progress in the treatment of women in the workplace, people think it’s fixed. It’s not like it’s the 60s anymore, right? You should be happy your boss doesn’t pinch your ass and call you a hot tomato, darling. And that’s the problem.

The problem is that women are constantly being told to lighten up when they experience something that leaves them with a bad taste in their mouths, professionally. I’ve found that, particularly in experimental science, people tend to being a little looser with the rules of professionalism. People will make off-color jokes in a lab that you wouldn’t make in an office setting, perhaps because the fact that we’re wearing jeans and a polo shirt makes this less of a professional setting than those suits in their corner offices. It’s not sexual advances, or even flirting, but it’s not appropriate.

But we are professionals. And it matters that what a male colleague might find hilarious a female colleague will file away in her mental file with a note that you find something deeply disturbing to her to be funny and maybe she wants to avoid being in a private, vulnerable situation with you. Or it matters that when you call your younger female colleague “sweetie,” you’re telling her you think of her as below you, in part because of her gender. Or when you say you’re “always happy to help out a pretty young girl,” you’re implying she’s less than capable or that you’re giving her special treatment that has nothing to do with the job you’re both hired to do.

Because the thing is that we’re getting this all the time. And it really hurts to get it from the people we respect and work with well. When someone I like makes a sexist comment without even knowing it, it just reminds me how far we have to go. It reminds me that even though I have a PhD in physics, if the people who know me make gendered assumptions about me, how am I ever going to get to a point where I’m not assumed to be the secretary by the sales rep at the company I’m contacting? Or how is that engineer who mansplains my own project’s requirements back to me (incorrectly) ever going to learn that that’s just not okay? And it grates.

The Real Katie is right: it’s a million barbs. It’s like nettles or crumbs in the bed. Not always dangerous, but damned annoying. And cumulative. It gets to the point where you end up snapping at the person who you like and respect because they happened to be the most recent in a string of offenses. And, yes, you know they were “only joking,” but, no, you’re not going to “lighten up.” Sorry, not sorry.

The Jenn Does Science Holiday Gift Guide

Inspired by a friend’s recent Facebook post, I’ve decided to put together a holiday gift guide for those who want to buy a science-related gift for a young person in their life. But first I want to talk a little about “buying a gift to foster a love of science in girls.” A friend of mine has a very precocious daughter who he says has leanings towards an interest in science. He put out a call on Facebook asking for advice on a gift to nurture that proto-interest. And, obligingly, his friends linked to several pinkified science toys. Ugh. If you have any child in your life who has an interest in science, get that child a toy that focuses on a project, not the outer wrapping. You’re not going to “trick” a girl into becoming a scientist by making her think she’s playing with a princess toy. The idea that science has to be pink is part of the problem.

In fact, this ingrained idea that science toys are for boys is so pervasive that when I searched for “electrical engineering toys for kids,” Google automatically included “toys for boys” as an alternate search term. I’m sorry, but “for boys” is not an alternative spelling of “electrical engineering.” Just saying. Also, I will provide the caveat that I am not a parent, so I can’t say how appropriate these toys are for what ages, but I am a girl and I grew up to be a scientist, and I developed a strong aversion to the color pink before I was 10 years old. Pink tinker toys would not have impressed me. I was more interested in what a toy could do.

And that’s what I’m listing here: toys that do something. Toys that you are supposed to touch and manipulate, and maybe even break. Because breaking things is part of the exploratory process. Ask any scientist. One note: I’ve linked to Amazon for examples of my toy ideas, but feel free to search far and wide for something better. None of these links are affiliate links. I get nothing from any of this, financially.

Even though I’m not a biology-inclined person, one of my favorite toys growing up was my pocket microscope. It’s not terribly powerful, but it was fascinating to look at the world through a magnified objective. Skin was particularly cool, as were magazine photos (they’re made up of dots of color!).

I can’t show enough love for Toobers and Zots. Full disclosure: my uncle was one of the inventors responsible, so I got to play with some early versions. They’re not specifically scientific, but they foster creativity and exploration. You can build almost anything you want to play with, but you have to build it!

When I was a kid, I had a friend who had this little electric toy with a motor and a propeller. I spent hours messing around with the circuit, experimenting with reversing the polarity and arranging the parts in different configurations to make it move differently. While I couldn’t find that, I think an electronics toy would be great for a kid inclined to explore the way things work.

In addition to science, I also spend a fair amount of time in the kitchen. One of the earliest melding of these two activities came in the form of rock candy projects. But you can also get a crystal growing kit for activities that are a bit less sticky.

For the future architects and civil engineers, I’ve always been fascinated by 3D puzzles. They come in a variety of structures, and are incredibly challenging. And, hey, if you really, really need to get a princess-themed gift, you can get a 3D puzzle of Cinderella’s castle.

In a similar vein, I used to enjoy building models. Now, everyone thinks of model airplanes, and those have the added bonus of providing historical insight. But why not give your budding engineer a chance to build a model engine?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a paleontologist. Didn’t everyone? I wasn’t just into dinosaurs, I wanted to learn everything about them. What they looked like, and how they are found. I had a velociraptor model kit that was a Jurassic Park tie-in, but I’ve since found the company Dinoworks, which has kits to explore paleontology at a variety of ages.

Along those same lines, as I got older, I decided I wanted to be an archaeologist. I was particularly interested in ancient Egypt. I had a learn-heiroglyphics kit and my parents made a special trip for my birthday to NYC to see the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I’ve included an archaeology kit, for those who like to learn about old things and play in the dirt.

As you can see, there are plenty of gift options for the budding scientist, engineer, or social scientist that don’t resort to overly-pink items and that aren’t necessarily marketed to girls. Think of it as buying a toy for a child, not as buying a toy for a girl. You future academic will thank you for it.