Jenn Does Science

Audacity of imagination

Category: outreach

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!

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/

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.

#Shirtstorm: How To Be Classy

So, I’m not going to touch most of the controversy surrounding #Shirtstorm with a ten-foot pole. But. I do have something to say about it. This Friday, I happened to catch the coverage of project scientist Matt Taylor’s response to the whole controversy, and I have to say, I was impressed. Honestly, to me, his response is the most important thing coming out of this because it was exactly what the situation called for. He was sincere and didn’t try to rationalize or offer a false apology. He apologized, briefly and honestly, and didn’t try to deflect.

And that’s what we need. Because, seriously, I’m sick of being treated like I’m in the wrong when someone does something that makes me feel uncomfortable for something I can’t control: the fact that I am female.

Yes, this has happened. I’ve been incredibly lucky in most respects, but even I have experienced the darker side of being a woman in physics. And I know what it’s like to feel like I need to acquiesce to something that makes me uncomfortable to avoid being labeled a harpy.

When I was in grad school, the company Edmund Optics came out with their Red Hot Optics campaign. And, yeah, I was not entirely on board with the idea that the sale of lab equipment needs to be promoted by objectifying women. I was not the only one, even in my own group. The senior grad student was pissed, to the point that at the next trade show we attended, she decided she wanted to give the owner of Edmund a piece of her mind in person, and I was going to come along for moral support.

The problem is that the rest of our group were guys who thought that the campaign was awesome, and thought this female student’s anger was hilarious. So here I was, a young grad student, the most junior person in the lab, torn between acting in solidarity for beliefs that I generally support and being the “cool girl” who didn’t get all up in arms at every little thing, right? It’s not a big deal, right?

But that’s thing. That’s what I’ve realized is the insidious part of objectifying women: it pressures women to accept it. And that same pressure to accept is what is used to excuse the “boys will be boys” argument for a whole host of permissive attitudes.

And that’s why it means so much to me that Matt Taylor didn’t take the easy way out, and instead chose to actually feel bad about contributing to the casual objectification of women, and apologize for it. Because it’s likely that if he’s worn that shirt in the past to work, someone has felt offended by it, but decided to keep quiet so she wouldn’t be ostracized.

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 Theater of Science

Anyone who knows me personally or reads my cooking blog knows that I’ve gotten into a community theater play. Yes, for the first time since college, I’m going to be on the stage. It’s a fun and exhilarating experience, although I joke that giving presentations at scientific conferences, or giving tours of the various labs in which I’ve worked has provided more than enough practice for presenting a persona in front of a group of strangers.

I firmly believe that anyone considering pursing science as a career should also consider taking a theater class. Or going out for a play. Or performing improv on the Metro. Maybe not that last one.

Anyway, I was backstage chatting with my castmates and one of them mentioned that she had met a woman who was studying kinesthesiology in one of her acting classes. This young woman was so petrified of speaking in public it was affecting her ability to give lectures in front of students. So she took the initiative to put herself through an acting class to give herself some skills and confidence in that arena. My castmate said she was obviously painfully shy, but made it through. I hope she felt some benefit outside the classroom.

So I joked when I started going to auditions again that I may have an almost 10-year gap on my acting resume, but really, I’ve been continuing to play the part of a cool, confident scientist who knows exactly what she’s talking about every time I get up to give a talk or lab tour. But it’s not entirely a joke. There’s a calm that comes in the knowledge that, no matter what’s going on in the “real world,” you can put on a persona and just speak your piece.

Because being a scientist is not just about doing your research. It’s not enough to be brilliant in the lab, not really. You need to be able to communicate your research to other people. Because the explanation will be so much richer coming from the person who fully understands the research. And you have to be able to read your audience, know when they’re trying and failing to understand you, and when they’re just tired or wishing your talk were over so they could get lunch. You have to learn not to get flustered by a disengaged audience, and how to re-engage them when you can. You have to be able to have the confidence to explain at any level to people of any background. And a lot of that is acting. Even when you’re about to burst into tears because nothing works, you have to be able to put on an engaging face and sell your research if a tour comes through. Even when you broke a major part of your experiment the week before, you have to go to that major conference and perform your conference talk.

And that’s where acting experience comes into science. It’s not about making things up. It’s about communicating your excitement for your work effectively.

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.

Explaining Physics to Zen Buddhists

In meditation group the other day, the leader did a brief reading from a book that included an aside about how the philosophy could be exemplified by particle physics. He chose to omit that aside from his reading but later passed the book around so we could take a look. Of course, someone eventually remembered that I am a physicist, so that’s how I ended up, in half-lotus on a zafu, explaining pions to a group of Zen Buddhists.

As a physicist and a meditator and yogini, I’ve encountered my fair share of non-scientists who like to try to use physics, particularly quantum and particle physics, to advance their spiritual worldview. In yoga, any time I mentioned quantum physics, I was told to see the film What the Bleep Do We Know?, which was generally described as life-changing among my yoga friends and utterly ludicrous among my physics friends. The idea is that the principles of quantum mechanics prove that we are all interconnected and our intentions send energy out into the universe and affect things. It’s very woo.

So I was nervous, sitting here in front of a group of people with cushions and incense and talking about interactions among sub-atomic particles. But Zen seems a little more grounded in their understanding of physics. They were very smug about the discovery of sub-atomic particles because their cosmology states that the world can be divided into ever-smeller pieces. And that’s not untrue. It’s also true that, at the sub-atomic level, our bodies have little difference from any other matter in the world. And when we die, we just go back to that bank of raw material that the universe uses to build things. Except we don’t even have to die, really. No matter what state we are in, we are just particles.

But where the pions come in are when you talk about observation and interactions. The idea in the Zen reading was that we don’t ever observe a thing; we observe how it interacts with the world. Personally, I like to think of color, which isn’t an inherent property as much as a way of seeing the light an object doesn’t absorb. When you put green cellophane over a plant, it dies because the green light is the light it reflects, not the light it absorbs for photosynthesis. But the reading talked about the interactions between the constituent particles of protons, how they gain mass from these interactions. And it’s true. If you take two free up quarks and a free down quark, their masses don’t add up to the mass of a proton. However, quarks can interact and form two-quark mediating particles, and these could give the proton its mass. This is a rough explanation because I’m not a particle physicist, but I was glad that I happened to remember this from a college class I took.

When it comes down to it, I sit with a very educated, science-minded, intelligent group of people. I don’t know if the Zen conversations seem more grounded because there are a lot of scientists, or if Zen attracts scientists because it seems to have a more grounded cosmology. But talking about physics to the “layperson” is not always about classroom demonstrations and family gatherings.

“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.