Jenn Does Science

Audacity of imagination

Month: December, 2014

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.

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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.

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.