Sunday, May 27, 2012


I scoured the biography sections of my local used bookstores today in search of a copy of David Leavitt's The Man who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer, this month's Skepchick Book Club selection. (I ended up special-ordering it.)

One local store has an entire section of science biographies, which is awesome! I did notice something disappointing though. Out of all the science biographies, only two were about women, and both (Galileo's Daughter and Einstein's Daughter) were certainly framed to be about their famous fathers rather than their own contributions to science. I'll acknowledge that I haven't read either book, but the titles alone reveal something about how the reader is supposed to view the subject.

There's certainly nothing wrong with writing about Sagan or Feynman or Einstein. They're all interesting and complex men who made major contributions to science. But there's also no shortage of interesting women scientists. Off the top of my head: Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Irene Joliot-Curie, Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Lise Meitner, Hypatia, and I could keep going for a while*.

The point is, there's not a lack of biographies about women in science due to a lack of interesting subjects.  But when we don't tell the stories of women in science, we undervalue women in science generally. It's part of why people don't think of women "Champions of Reason." It's part of why girls have trouble thinking of themselves as scientists. It's part of a culture that generally just doesn't value the stories of women.

Women do much more in science than simply have famous fathers, and we need to start telling their stories more.

*I do seem to have a physical science bias here, just due to my own interests!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Not just skepticism/atheism

So at the completely awesome-sounding Women in Skepticism conference (I was unable to attend, but I'll echo the call that I hope there's another one), Jen McCreight mentioned in a panel that women attendees at other conferences had taken her aside and mentioned prominent speakers who she, as a young woman, should steer clear of.

This is now being discussed all over the place. Stephanie Zvan has a couple of great posts, and I've been following the discussions at Pharyngula and Greta Christina's blog as well. It seems like many commenters, and well, they mostly seem to be men, are absolutely shocked to hear that such conversations happen. It seems to be a combination of not expecting atheist speakers to be sleazy and not understanding why women don't publicly name offenders.

While I haven't had this particular conversation (TAM this year will be my first skeptic con), I am not surprised to hear that it happens.

Because I've heard it elsewhere.

When I was looking at graduate programs*, I definitely remember female grad students getting a moment alone with me to quietly say "Hey, as a woman, you really don't want to be in Dr. XYZ's lab."

This problem is not limited to atheism/skepticism.

Now, were these unproven accusations? From my perspective, sure. I wasn't given a sworn statement on what had happened for that kind of message to get out. But I can't imagine that people would be demanding incontrovertible proof for graduates students quietly letting prospects know that "Dr. Jones is a total workhouse; prepare to be in lab every weekend" or "Dr. Smith has had problems with consistent funding" or even "Dr. Brown has a reputation for being less than honest with data collection." Maybe those things aren't true either, but it's generally unlikely that grad students would have an incentive to lie here. This kind of honest feedback is half the point of visiting campuses. And a graduate student has an incredibly hard time making any kind of complaint against their advisor. I can easily see why women would simply grit their teeth, get through the degree, and quietly warn any other women away from the lab.

So for everyone who has been astonished to find about these quiet warnings, please realize that this isn't the only context where this happens. I'd imagine that it's actually sadly common given the prevalent sexism in our society that some men with power will take advantage of their status and women without power will perceive little recourse other than this: make sure other women know to stay away from this person.

This is not a problem unique to the secular community. It's problem with sexism that the skeptic/atheist community simply isn't immune from.

But I'd love to see real solutions for this come from the secular community. Make sure to read all the links up top to see great suggestions for future cons.

*Just to be clear, no one had this conversation with me in my current program, I haven't experienced any harassment from faculty in my current program, and I haven't heard of any other woman who has. I have never needed to be the instigator of this conversation.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


The new Oatmeal comic reminded me of this conversation from an outreach event to get girls interested in science:

Girl 1: "Who's your favorite scientist?"
Me: "I would say Nikola Tesla"
Girl 2: "Didn't he marry a pigeon?"

Also, no one can beat Hark, A Vagrant for Tesla comics.

#MadPicLab Day 14: Surly

Here is a surly hound dog, howling because he wants a walk. ROOO!!!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

#MadPicLab Day 9: Conductor

This slide is coated in indium tin oxide, one of my favorite materials! It's both optically transparent and electrically conductive. Well, it's not perfectly transparent or conductive, but it's pretty darn good at both, which is still rare to find.

Monday, May 7, 2012

#MdPicLab Day 7: Lemons

The best use of lemons: in a drink! Two whiskey sours, or maybe whiskeys sour. I'm not quite sure how to pluralize that.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

#MadPicLab Day 5: Dancing

This is my beagle mix, dancing like Snoopy. There may have been treats involved.

Long Hair in the Lab

A few weeks ago, I arrived in lab planning to do some chemical processing, but realized I'd forgotten a key part of my safety equipment. I already needed to go by the chemistry stock room for some other supplies, but while one could find all manner of gloves, goggles, masks, and labcoats, my missing piece of safety equipment wasn't there.

I was able to find what I needed at the campus general store for a mere two dollars: a pack of hair ties.

Why aren't hair ties included with safety gear like gloves and goggles? For those of us with long hair, that little band of elastic is crucial for lab safety. While I'm certainly aware that there are men with long hair and women with short hair, I can't help but think that the pattern I've noticed of the failure of lab equipment to accommodate long hair is related to the low number of women in STEM.

And it is definitely a pattern.

My old lab required everyone to wear laser safety glasses whenever a high-powered laser was on (known as the lab going "eye-unsafe"). I was one of three female students in lab, and we would race for the one pair of laser glasses with a plastic clasp in the back. All the other glasses has a metal clasp that would tangle in long hair. The lab was initially all men, none of whom had long hair, and I don't think it ever occurred to whoever purchased the glasses that metal clasps would be a problem.

I sometimes work in a cleanroom. I have yet to figure out how to get my hair inside the so-called bunny suit comfortably. The hood has to tuck into the suit itself, and I always have a weird lump wherever I try putting my bun. I can't just leave my hair down because I have to have a hairnet on under the hood. Whoever designed these cleanroom suits clearly did not account for users with long hair.

I wrote before that "[w]here sexism in STEM was once a stab in the back, it’s now more like death by a thousand papercuts. It’s these countless tiny messages that seem like nothing to worry about when taken individually, but add up to clearly tell women that we don’t belong."

When lab equipment doesn't accommodate long hair, that's yet another papercut telling women that we don't belong in the lab.

Friday, May 4, 2012

#MadPicLab Day 4: Patina

My husband bought me this necklace on our honeymoon. It's my most worn piece of jewelry other than my wedding/engagement rings. It's much less shiny than it used to be, but I actually think the patina gives it a cool look.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

#MadPicLab Day 3: Paint

This is a picture of titanium dioxide nanoparticles suspended in alcohol on a glass slide. The alcohol evaporates quickly, so it's pretty effective paint. Titanium dioxide particles are actually a fairly common ingredient in white paint as well as toothpaste, sunscreen, and a number of other common household products.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

#MadPicLab Day 2: Element

The first of all the elements: hydrogen!

Yes, you do use algebra.

I like today's xkcd for sticking up for math, but it does bring up one of my pet peeves: people who claim that most adults don't ever use algebra.

If you are reading this post right now, you almost certainly use algebra regularly. It may not look like the "solve for 'x'" problems you saw in high school, but you use it.

Have you ever split bills with roommates? "Amanda paid the cable/Internet bill, Sara paid the power bill, and I paid the phone bill. How do we split up rent to get back to even?" Yeah, that's totally algebra.

How about splitting up a restaurant bill? "I split the artichoke dip with four other people and a bottle of wine with two other people, I had the pasta dish for an entree, and I split a dessert with one other person. My share with tax and tip comes to..."

Have you ever compared prices at a store? "The package with 6 rolls of paper towels is $3, but the package with 10 rolls is $4, so that one is a better price per roll."

This is all algebra. It's a crucial part of mathematical literacy, and it's simply not true that most people won't use it. And if you know anyone currently taking algebra, help them realize how important it is to learn!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

#MadPicLab Day 1: Spectrum

Well, here's a way to get me to post more!  Mad Art Lab has a very cool group project for the month of May. Every day, you share a photo based on a set theme (#MadPicLab). Today is "Spectrum."

Here is how the world looks through a prism:

It had to be done.

Guess what day today is?

(Definitely not safe for work.)