Jenn Does Science

Audacity of imagination

Category: making new scientists

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

What Is a Physicist?

Last Friday, I stumbled upon a paper on the arXiv called “Upper-Level Physics Students’ Perception of Physicists,” which investigates the question “what is a physicist?” from the perspective of undergraduate students pursuing a physics major. That evening, I listened while D tried to explain what he’d been doing that week to my mother. Now, my mom is a pretty savvy lady when it comes to what physicists do, but I realized while listening to the conversation that even she had a hard time understanding that the project that D was describing wasn’t even really his ultimate research goal, just a short-term task that, while important, wasn’t particularly interesting to him at the time.

These two things got me thinking about what physicists are and what they do. And how that’s not really the same thing much of the time. The paper asks for students to answer the aforementioned question and then sorted the responses according to four categories on a 2×2 grid. Responses could put either a high or low emphasis on the importance of research to identifying a physicist, and they could focus on internal mastery of physics concepts versus external performance that shows this mastery. The four categories were ranked such that physicists were perceived as anything from natural philosophers akin to Aristotle or Newton (“Physicists Are Researchers Who Answer the Unanswered Questions”) to simply a student who declares a physics major (“Physicists Are People Who Are Committed to Physics”), with varying degrees in between. In my view, it seemed like many engineers would certainly fall under some of these definitions of a physicist.

But that’s a good start. It addresses the important ideas about what it means to be “A Physicist,” versus just someone with an interest in physics. I’m not here to claim I have the answer to that. But it misses something important when discussing what a physicist does: physicists don’t always do physics all the time every day. When I was an undergraduate researcher, the post-docs were fixing some plumbing leak or other and we joked about how “physics” involved an awful lot of not-physics work. And one of the post-docs turned to the other and said, “God, I wonder what it’s like to be a theorist and actually do actual physics, like, all the time?” And then we all went quiet and thought about it for a moment, and then went back to mopping.

But it’s true: experimental physicists are often not physicists. We’re plumbers or electricians or mechanics. I was the resident plumbing “expert” in an old group because I was the only one who got a certain connection to not leak. And that’s what we tend to do on a daily basis. Then, there’s the weekly tasks. They’re actually physics experiments, but often they’re at the level of an advanced undergraduate lab: measure some constant or calibrate some equipment. It’s not at all new or groundbreaking, and no one is going to rise through the ranks, but just like making sure your plumbing connections don’t leak and your electronics don’t short-circuit, they’re necessary to advancing the interesting stuff. Heck, even the theorists, the ones that sit around all day thinking about “pure” science sometimes find themselves being computer programmers more than physicists.

And if someone were to go out for a drink or dinner during one of those weeks and asked “what did you do in the lab this week?” the answer would sound depressing and not very science-y. Or it might sound just science-y enough to be confusing because why aren’t you more excited about doing SCIENCE!? That’s where my mom was with D the other night when he was talking about how boring and uninteresting the task that’s been taking him all week is. She was confused because she thought this was his “thesis research.” And it is, inasmuch as it’s necessary to get to the good stuff on which his thesis will be based.

That’s something that I think it’s important to instill in young, aspiring physicists as much as the equations and concepts: being a physicist doesn’t always mean doing physics. But even the not-physics will ultimately advance knowledge in some, albeit indirect, way.

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.

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.

“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.