Amazing Female Scientist

May 15th, 2008

I just read a profile of an amazing female scientist, named Susan Greenfield. She’s a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, and the director of the Royal Institution in London. She, being a woman and having reached such a place of distinction within academia, is a rarity in science.

According to statistics from the Association for Women in Science, in 2001 women made up 20.6 percent of those people employed in tenured academic positions for more than 10 years. Career longevity for women in the sciences appears to be something that’s lacking.

A more recent report suggests that the reason for the attrition rate (52% of women in sciences leave with the greatest rate being approximately 10 years into the career path, which coincides with the average woman’s thirties) may be due in part to hostile work environments that fail to take the female role as mother into account.

A brief look at Susan Greenfield’s life suggests that she continues to contend with the male dominated scientific environment, and may have made some compromises to her personal life in order to be so successful.

“It’s unfair. I publish three or four papers a year in peer-reviewed journals,” she says. She fits it all in by “not doing what other people do: gardening, watching television, sleeping in late. I wake up between four and five. If it’s a London day, I get the 6.30 train from central Oxford, where I live. I’ll have a working breakfast here with my second in command, then a day of meetings or interviews. In the evening, I may chair an event or go to a reception.”

On Oxford days she wears T-shirt and jeans, but is still in the lab by 7.30am, planning experiments, applying for grants, analysing and writing papers. She plays squash three times a week. With a trainer. “He pushes me to improve my skills.” At weekends? “I write, read, prepare talks.”

Her marriage to Oxford professor of physical chemistry Peter Atkins ended in 2005. Is all this activity a way to escape loneliness? “You can be lonely when you’re with someone,” she says quickly, “as much as when you’re by yourself.”

It is somewhat of a chicken and egg question, however. Is it only driven personalities, male or female, who are able to succeed so outstandingly? Or, is it the environment that engenders the sink-or-swim behaviors; people learning, and thus believing that if they do not work 16 hour days they’ll never get anywhere, and only those who do so being rewarded. It puts most women in a position of having to choose between family and career.

Usually, family will win.

Yet, I’m among a growing number of women who have put off starting a family in order to pursue my career. Is this a wise choice? I will certainly find out sometime down the road. It’s certainly both a blessing and a hazard to be a woman in this century.

Making Things…

May 14th, 2008

A few weekends ago I went to the Maker Faire in San Mateo, CA. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but having been to Burning Man several times I think I was hoping for more fire. Lots more fire. What I did see was surprising and entertaining, but alas I left before dark and missed the fire. There were robots, bartending robots, battlebots, rockets, diy projects galore, a camera obscura tent, steam punk beauty, power tool races, and much, much more.

I went to the faire with a few friends (Colin, Kepi, and Marshall), and ran into many friends while there. It seemed like everyone I know had either brought something to the faire, or was there to see what everyone else had brought. And, I think everyone else who attended had the same idea. The place was packed. The parking lot was full by noon. It seems that the Maker Faire has hit upon a very successful model.

Interestingly, Marshall and I were talking recently about how there aren’t many festivals in the US that really make science fun and engaging to the public. Sure, there’s the occasional festival for smart kids in which they compete in various contests of engineering, science, or intelligence. But, what about festivals that just make doing things based in science fun for everyone? From what I saw, the Maker Faire does just that, bringing together scientists, engineers, artists, actors, and diy-ers from all walks of life.

My favorite moment had to be when a young girl who couldn’t have been more than 9 years old told me about the potential for carbon nanotubes in creating cable for a space elevator (all this while playing with the robot she had built and brought to the faire with her dad). Her dad informed me that she had recently completed a report on nanotubes for school. What school does she go to?!? Or, is just a matter of parental guidance? Either way, that young girl has a brilliant future ahead.

All around, I had a great time. Check out some of my pics from the day:

The Reason Why

April 28th, 2008

I simply have to put this comment from Trish up front and center.

My 9 year old daughter (who always showed an interest in science) has spent this year struggling with the “tween syndrome” of her friends thinking her interests are “uncool”. After showing her your podcasts, she has discovered that it is not only possible but very rad to be both smart and interested in science but to like fashion and lip gloss at the same time. She even did her science fair project on water based on a recent pop siren episode! (I plan on emailing the pop siren’s a picture!)
So, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! If I could send you flowers I would. You are not only a rock star to my kid, you helped bring her back from Hannah Montana hell! :)

Thank you, Trish, for sharing. I hope you don’t mind that I brought your comment to the front. This is why I want to keep doing what I do. Girls need to know that it is ok to be smart and a girl. Somewhere along the way it seems that the idea was spread that if you are a girl and interested in science, you shouldn’t act like a girl, shouldn’t play with make-up and clothes, put away your curling iron, and just do science. While some girls might find that a relief, many more really enjoy the girlie things in life. Either one should be ok, as long as you’re doing what you enjoy.

I was recently chided for being too sexy (a comment that I found hilarious). The commenting party suggested that because I use a nice looking profile picture I am being disingenuous. It’s sad that some people see it that way. Should I instead find a picture in which I purposefully look comely, “nerdy”, or unapproachable? Should I do away with the profile picture in preference of an ungendered symbol?

I think either tack would do a disservice to females everywhere. A “nerdy” picture or a neutral symbol would promote stereotypes, and undermine the work that I’m trying to do to show girls and women that they can be anything they want, make-up or no. I doubt I would have made much of an impression on Trish’s daughter that way.

Besides, I like playing with my hair and make-up, and feeling fancy from time-to-time. I’m fancy on the inside, and my exterior should reflect that. When I know I look good, I feel good about myself, inside and out, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Trish, I can’t wait to see the science project picture. I know all of us at PopSiren will be thrilled. Tell your daughter that she’s totally rad.

Me, but Italian

December 19th, 2007

I was interviewed a week ago by an Italian Master’s student in science communication, Chiara Ceci. We had a great conversation, and she turned it into a podcast. It’s kind of weird to hear myself translated. If you are interested in hearing what I had to say, or in brushing up on your Italian you can take a listen here.

Something to shout about

May 21st, 2005

Little do the people of Califonia know that there is a war going on under their noses. An equity war of the sexes that isn’t taking place in the impoverished areas of our state, but in our houses of higher learning. Reports have been released by the University of California Office of the President revealing the truth behind the hiring practices of the many departments within the statewide system. Women are not being hired for new faculty positions even though they represent nearly half of all Ph.Ds in the candidate pool.

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