Everyday mentors: a tribute to Dr. James E. Lu Valle.

People talk a lot about the importance of mentors, and scientific trainees are regularly encouraged to find strong mentors to help them find their way as they work to become grown-up scientists. Sometimes, though, mentoring doesn’t happen in explicit coaching sessions but in casual conversations. And sometimes, when you’re not looking for them, mentors find you.

Back in the spring and autumn of 1992, I was a chemistry graduate student starting to believe that I might actually get enough of my experiments to work to get my Ph.D. As such, I did what senior graduate students in my department were supposed to do: I began preparing myself to interview with employers who came to my campus (an assortment of industry companies and national labs), and I made regular visits to my department’s large job announcement binder (familiarly referred to as “The Book of Job”).

What optimism successes in the lab giveth, the daunting terrain laid out in “The Book of Job” taketh away.

It wasn’t just the announcements of postdoctoral positions (positions, I had been told, which provided the standard path by which to develop research experience in an area distinct from the one that was the focus of the doctoral research) that listed as prerequisites three or more years of research experience in that very area. The very exercise of trying to imagine myself meeting the needs of an academic department looking for a certain kind of researcher was … really hard. It sounded like they were all looking for researchers significantly more powerful than I felt myself to be at that point, and I wasn’t sure if it was realistic to expect that I could develop those powers.

I was having a crisis of faith, but I was trying to keep it under wraps because I was pretty sure that having that crisis was a sign that my skills and potential as a chemist were lacking.

It was during my regularly scheduled freak-out over the binder in the department lobby that I really got to know Dr. Lu Valle. While I was in the department, his official position was as a “visiting scholar”, but since he had been the director of undergraduate labs in the department for years before he retired, he wasn’t really visiting, he was at home. And Dr. Lu Valle took it upon himself to make me feel at home, too — not just in the department, but in chemistry.

It started with light conversation. Dr. Lu Valle would ask what new listings had turned up in the binder since the last time he had seen me. Then he’d ask about what kind of listings I was hoping would turn up there. Soon, we were talking about what kind of things I hoped for in a chemical career, and about what scared me in my imagination of a chemical career.

That he bothered to draw me out and let me talk about my fears made those fears a lot more manageable.

But Dr. Lu Valle went even further than just getting me to voice my fears. He reassured me that it was normal for good chemists to have these fears, and that everyone had to get across the chasm between knowing you could be a good student and believing you could be a successful grown-up scientist. And he took it as an absolute given that I could get across this chasm.

Now, I should note for the record that my advisor did much to encourage me (along with pressing me to think harder, to make sure my data was as good as it could be, to anticipate flaws in my interpretations, and so forth). But the advisor-advisee relationship can be fraught. When you’ve been busting your hump in the lab, showing weakness of any sort in your interactions with your PI can feel, viscerally, like a bad idea. I think that for a good stretch of time in my graduate lab, I put a spin on many of my interactions with my PI that was significantly more optimistic than I felt inside. (Then, I worked like mad so that my optimistic projections of what I would be able to accomplish had a reasonable chance of coming true.)

Being able to voice some of my worries to a senior chemist who didn’t need me to make headway on one of his research projects — and for whom reassuring me wasn’t part of the official job description — really helped. Dr. Lu Valle didn’t need to mentor me. He didn’t need to interact with me at all. But he did.

Somewhere in the course of our discussions, as we were talking about the frustrations of getting experiments to work, Dr. Lu Valle mentioned that his advisor had made him completely disassemble, then completely reassemble, complex apparatus — not just to get an experiment under control, but to persuade him that taking the whole thing apart and putting it all back together (even repeatedly) was within his powers.

That was the conversation in which that I learned that Dr. Lu Valle’s advisor had been Linus Pauling.

Now, maybe it amped up the pep-talks a little that a senior scientist who seemed to have complete faith that I was going to do fine had been trained by a guy who won two Nobel Prizes. But mostly, I think it reassured me that Dr. Lu Valle remembered what it was like to be a graduate student and to have to get over the chasm of not knowing if you can do it to believing that you can.

After the season of job interviews passed, I drifted away from “The Book of Job” and back to my lab to get some more experiments done and to get writing. Then, in January of 1993, while he was on vacation in New Zealand, Dr. Lu Valle died.

It was at his memorial service (which happened to be on my twenty-fifth birthday) that I learned the remarkable details of Dr. Lu Valle’s life that didn’t come up in our conversations in the department lobby. A press release from the Stanford University News Office describes some of the high points:

James E. Lu Valle, a visiting scholar at Stanford and retired director of undergraduate laboratories in the Chemistry Department, died Jan. 30 in Te Anau, New Zealand, while on vacation. He was 80.

During a long and varied career, Lu Valle’s research covered electron diffraction, photochemistry, magnetic susceptibility, reaction kinetics and mechanisms, photographic theory, magnetic resonance, solid-state physics, neurochemistry and the chemistry of memory and learning.

Lu Valle was well known in track circles as the 400- meter bronze medal winner of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. …

Lu Valle ran in the Olympics the same year he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of California-Los Angeles. He then returned for his master’s degree in chemistry and physics, during which time he helped found the graduate student association and served as its first president. In 1983, UCLA named its new Graduate Student Union in his honor.

Lu Valle’s career in chemistry started at age 8, when he found a chemistry set under the Christmas tree. He tried every experiment possible, and eventually filled the house with smoke. At his mother’s insistence, the rest of his childhood experiments took place on the porch.

In 1940, Lu Valle earned a doctorate in chemistry and math under the tutelage of Linus Pauling at the California Institute of Technology. He then taught at Fisk University in Tennessee, after which he spent 10 years at Eastman Kodak working on color photography.

He was the first African American to be employed in the Eastman Kodak laboratories. While there, Lu Valle went on loan to the National Defense Research Committee to conduct research at the University of Chicago and the California Institute of Technology on devices for monitoring carbon dioxide in planes.

He later served as director of research at Fairchild Camera and Instrument and became director of physical and chemical research at Smith-Corona Merchant Labs in Palo Alto in 1969.

During that time, he made extensive use of the Chemistry Department library, in the process getting to know faculty members. When SCM closed its Palo Alto operations, the Chemistry Department asked him to head the freshman labs.

“He was eminently qualified, a first-class chemist,” Professor Douglas Skoog recounted in 1984, “and we were glad to have him. In fact, he was overqualified for the job.”

As head of the labs for seven years, his task was to assign teaching assistants and make sure that the right equipment was always ready.

In practice, he became a friend and counselor to the chemistry majors and pre-med students passing through the department. In an average year, 900 students would start freshman chemistry.

Lu Valle is survived by his wife of 47 years, Jean Lu Valle, of Palo Alto, and three children. Son John Vernon Lu Valle is an engineer with Allied Signal under contract to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, and Michael James Lu Valle is associated with Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Daughter Phyllis Ann Lu Valle- Burke is a molecular biologist at Harvard Medical School. A sister, Mayme McWhorter of Los Angeles, also survives.

Dr. LuValle never talked to me about what it was like to be an African American athlete competing in Hitler’s Olympics. He didn’t share with me his experience of being the first African American scientist working at Eastman Kodak labs. We didn’t discuss the details of the research that he did across so many different scientific areas.

If I had known these facets of his past while he was alive, I would have liked to ask him about them.

But Dr. Lu Valle was, I think, more concerned with what I needed as someone trying to imagine myself taking on the role of a grown-up chemist. His success as the director of undergraduate labs had a lot to do with his ability and willingness to tune into what students needed, and then to provide it. With all of those accomplishments under his belt — accomplishments which potentially might have made a student like me think, “Well of course an exceptional person with so much talent and drive succeeded at science, but I’m not that exceptional!” — he wasn’t afraid to dig back to his experience of what it was like to be a graduate student, to remember the uncertainty, frustration, and fear that are a part of that experience, and to say, “I got through it, and I have every reason to believe that you will, too.”

I don’t know whether personal experience is what developed Dr. Lu Valle’s awareness of how important this kind of mentoring can be, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit. As an African American graduate student at Caltech in the 1930s, I’m sure he had lots of people expecting him to fail. Having people in his life who expected that of course he would succeed — whether his parents, his advisor, or someone else with standing as a grown-up scientist — may have helped him propel himself through the inescapable moments of self-doubt to the distinguished trajectory his professional life took.

It may not be accidental, though, that in a very white, very male chemistry department, Dr. Lu Valle was the one who put himself in my path when I was doubting myself most and reassured me that I would do just fine. Maybe he knew what it was like to have someone provide that kind of support when you need it.

I count myself as lucky that, in his retirement, Dr. Lu Valle still felt that the chemistry department was a home to him. Because of him, that department and the larger community of chemists felt like more of a home to me.

I am science, and so can you!

Following up on my post yesterday about my own journey with science, I wanted to offer some words of encouragement to those who are still in the early stages of their own journey. I was prompted to write them by Dr. Isis, as part of her excellent and inspiring Letters to Our Daughters Project. Dr. Isis launched this project to fill a particular need she saw for connecting young women making their way through scientific education and careers with the perspectives and wisdom — and most of all the stories — of more senior women who had navigated some of the same terrain.

While the exhortations below were initially addressed to our scientific daughters, I hope that they may also be of use to our scientific sons.

As you pursue an education in science, and perhaps consider a career in science, you will encounter challenges. Do not let these challenges put you off. While science can be beautiful, captivating, and deeply satisfying, it can also be hard. The people around you who seem to find it totally easy did not always (or will not always) find it so. If they did, chances are they were just skimming the surface, missing some of the scientific puzzles worth puzzling over; once you notice them, it’s hard to let go of them.

Doing science is something that is learned. It is not an intrinsic quality of a person. This means that you are not allowed to decide you are bad at it if you haven’t been immersed in learning it. And, if you want to learn how to do science — and want it enough to devote your effort to it — you can.

Understand that part of the challenge is not the mechanics of doing experiments or fieldwork, but the big gap between learning information and making new knowledge. You will need to be patient with yourself as you learn and you will have to refrain from doubting that you could be clever enough to make new knowledge. Many people less clever than you have done it.

Assume that you will need help from others (to learn strategies for devising empirical tests of hypotheses, to learn experimental techniques, to learn good ways to analyze data, to learn how to fix equipment when it breaks, to learn how to file the necessary paperwork). Don’t be shy about asking for help, and don’t be stingy about offering your own help to others. The building of scientific knowledge requires a community, and grown-up scientists ask for help all the time. (Sometimes they call this “networking”, other times they call it “directing graduate research”.)

If you can, join a research group where people cooperate and collaborate. Sharing information makes the climb up the learning curve less lonely, more fruitful, and frequently even something resembling fun. There’s also a useful side effect here: you end up nurturing each other’s excitement about doing science.

Make a point of taking stock on a regular basis, so you appreciate all the knowledge and skills you have gained. Of course, you’ll also be keeping track of the knowledge and skills that you don’t have yet, but want. (That list always seems longer, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It means you’re unlikely to end up with nothing to do.)

Now we get to a big issue: After you immerse yourself in learning how to do science, what about careers? Will you automatically be a scientist when you grow up? And what happens if you decide you want to be something else?

Please trust me that putting yourself out to learn how to do science — and doing actual science as you are learning this — is a worthy end in itself. Building understanding, even if it’s just your own, is a good thing, whether or not you end up deciding to make doing science your life’s work. And deciding to make something else your life’s work does not undo what you’ve learned, nor what you’ve contributed to building new chunks of knowledge, nor what you may have contributed to the experiences of your colleagues climbing up the learning curve.

You can still love science and see other pursuits. Science can handle that kind of relationship, and your happiness matters.

If you decide that you want doing science to be your life’s work — if it feels like science is making a claim on your heart — the perennial problems of the job market may present daunting challenges.

Don’t give up.

If your heart is set on doing science, find a way to make it so. Pay attention to the advice your mentors and colleagues have to offer about finding a scientific career, but be ready to think out of the PI-at-an-R01-university box. There are many other situations where one can do science and be happy. (This is another one of those instances where it’s good to ask for help and to share information.)

Make sure the grown-up scientists training you understand your devotion to science. Nudge them to live up to their responsibilities to create conditions where there is room for the people who are devoted to science to keep making contributions within the field, and to have their contributions valued.

If your choice is not to go forward as a researcher in the field in which you received your scientific training, keep in touch with the grown-ups who trained you. Let them know that your appreciation for science has not wavered, even if you’ve chosen to make different kinds of contributions. Maybe, as you’re catching up with each other, you will even recognize some of the ways that the things you are doing are of value to science and scientists.

You may have a personal relationship with Science, but you will also have an important relationship with the scientific community. When this community raises you to be a grown-up scientist, you can leave home and make your own way in the world, but the connection to the community doesn’t ever really go away.

May this community be a source of strength and comfort to you, whatever path you choose.

I am science … or am I?

Kevin Zelnio kicked it off on Twitter with a hashtag, and then wrote a blog post that shared the details of his personal journey with science. Lots of folks have followed suit and shared their stories, too — so many that I can’t even begin to link them without leaving something wonderful out. (Search the blogs and Twitter for #iamscience and you’ll find them.)

I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to tell my own “I am science” story, but it’s complicated. Thus, I’m preemptively declaring this my first pass, and reserving the right to come back at it from a different angle (or two, or three) later.

One of the things I mentioned in my story at the ScienceOnline 2012 banquet is that I have always loved science. As far back as I can remember, I have wanted to understand how the pieces of my world work. I have thrilled at utility (and fun) of the problem-solving strategies that are part of a scientific approach to the world. I have contemplated the different observational, experimental, and conceptual tools different scientific disciplines bring to the table (and the ways that directing these different toolboxes to the same phenomena can give us starkly different understandings of just what is going on).

I wanted to learn science. I wanted to do science. But I lived in a culture that took pains to make it clear that girls and women were not supposed to be into science, so I should just cut it out.

Luckily for my love of science, well-behaved was not really a tool in my personal toolbox, at least when it came to edicts that got in the way of goals that mattered to me.

I probably got by with the normal ration of sexist crap. For example, I had the junior high math teacher who was convinced (and did not hide this conviction from his students) that Girls Just Cannot Do Math. Finishing geometry in one quarter so I could get the hell out of his classroom (for the matrix algebra class at the high school) was not just liberatory, but it let me give him a metaphorical poke in the eye. It did not, however, change his conviction about girls and math. I had the guidance counselor who was concerned that I was overloading with “hard” (i.e., math and science) courses when maybe it would be better if I took some home ec., or even a study hall.

As I went to a women’s college, I actually skipped the bulk of the classroom sexism I heard about from peers at other universities. None of my chemistry or physics professors started with the assumption that it was weird to have women in the classroom or the lab, which was nice. I did find out later that at least one of the professors had made offhand comments that chemistry majors at my alma mater probably weren’t “up to” graduate programs like the one I went to. Unless this professor was thinking that the graduate school experience should be all margaritas and hot stone massages, I have no idea what this impression was based on; in my graduating class, I was a fair to middling chemistry major (as some of the comments in my lab notebooks attest) — not one of the stars by any stretch of the imagination — and I was sufficiently “up to” the graduate program that I earned my Ph.D. in just over four years.

Of course, I got to bask in the sexism provided by students of a nearby technical school, which my boyfriend at the time happened to attend. Said boyfriend had taken to posting photocopies of each of my grad school acceptance letters on his door, proclaiming to the world (or at least to the frat) what a glorious geek his girlfriend was. After acceptance number 5 (out of 5 applications, to top-10 schools) was posted, a frat-brother said, “Wow, she must have applied to a lot of schools.” When told that the number of acceptances equalled the number of applications, he replied, “Ohh — affirmative action.”

Because clearly, how else could a chick (from a women’s college, no less) get into top graduate programs in chemistry?

And you know, that view was shared by at least some of the men in the graduate program I attended. Because nearly a quarter of our incoming class was female, it was clear to them that affirmative action had been in high gear during the admissions process. (Meanwhile, I was looking at the numbers and thinking, “Where the hell are the rest of the women?”) Women who did very good research, who got publishable results (and publications), and who got their Ph.D.s in four or five years (rather than six or seven or eight) were frequently looked upon with suspicion. They must be getting extra breaks from the system. Or maybe it was that their research focus was not very … significant. (There were never any reasoned arguments to back up the claims that a particular research focus was trivial; it just must be, because … well, she’s doing it.)

Meanwhile, of course, female TAs (in classes like thermodynamics) were treated with contempt by undergraduates. In instances where problem sets and solution sets disagreed about an answer, the fact that the solution set was prepared by a female was treated as reason enough to question its correctness.

Because women don’t really understand physical chemistry as well as men do (even, apparently, men who have not yet taken physical chemistry).

The fact that all of this garbage was clearly recognizable as garbage at the time didn’t make dealing with it any less tiresome. Some days there was barely enough energy just to do my own homework, grade the stacks of problem sets, and try to get things in the lab to function as they should. Keeping myself from punching the noses of the people who treated me as an interloper in science because I was a woman took up energy I could have used for other things.

Sexist crap not withstanding, I made it through. I got my Ph.D. in physical chemistry.

And then, things took an unexpected turn.

I was trying to write an NSF proposal to get funding for a post-doc I had lined up. I was very interested in the research in the lab in which I was planning to work. Indeed, I had been pretty enthuisiastic about the whole thing while I put together an NIH proposal to fund postdoctoral research in that lab. I could definitely imagine three years worth of learning about systems and measurment techniques that were new to me, and I could see it building on (and drawing upon) the things I had learned in my doctoral program in interesting ways.

But the NSF proposal I was writing was such that I could not describe the research project I was planning to undertake as a post-doc. Rather, the task was to describe the first project I envisioned undertaking as a principal investigator. In other words, tell us what you’ll contribute when you are officially a grown up scientist.

Now, I could think of lots of projects I would be qualified to pursue. I could even work out interesting projects in my general area of expertise that would be fundable. But, I was having trouble putting my heart into any of them. Imagining myself setting up a lab of my own to pursue any of these lines of research made me … sad.

I tried to ignore the sad feeling. I tried to put it down to slothful avoidance of the thinking and writing involved in the NSF proposal. But then, every time I’d try to make myself think past the few years of the impending post-doc, I got the same sad, empty feeling.

I knew I was still fascinated by science and its workings, still moved by the elegant model or the clever experiment. But it was becoming clear to me that in my heart I didn’t want to do science for the rest of my life. Serious reflection got me to the reasons: Doing science (i.e., being able to get funding to do science) would require that I focus my attention on the minutiae of a particular system or a particular problem; this is the approach that seems most effective in yielding the data and insight that solves scientific problems. But, the questions that kept me up at night were much broader questions about how, more generally, experiments tell us anything about the deep structure of the universe, how different methodological assumptions make the same phenomena tractable in different ways, what balance of hard-headed skepticism and willingness to entertain speculative hypotheses scientists needed to get the job done …

These were questions, clearly, that I would get into trouble for making the focus of my research were I working in a chemistry department. They had the smell of philosophy all over them. So I had to choose between being kept up at night by questions I couldn’t pursue professionally and pursuing questions I was not so interested in for a living, or admitting that my interest in science was primarily driven by an interest in philosophical questions and get myself the necessary training as a philosopher to pursue them. In some ways living a lie would have been the path of least resistance, but given how little I enjoyed being with me as I contemplated a loveless marriage to a scientific career, I figured I’d probably me cutting myself off from fellowship with other humans as well. So, I made the entirely selfish decision to do what I thought would make me happy.

Here, believe me when I tell you that it felt like a selfish decision in the time — not like a luxurious self-indulgence, but out and out selfishness. I leaked out of the pipeline. I could have improved the gender balance in science by one, and I didn’t. Instead of helping the sisters, I pursued my own individual happiness.

This is the thing I hate most about pervasive sexism. It makes your personal choices important to others in a way that they wouldn’t be if you were just an ordinary human being. It’s hard not to feel that I have let down people I have never even met by leaving the sparse ranks of women scientists, or that I have handed myself over to the pundits: one more example of a woman who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hack it in science.

None of which is to say that my relationship with science is over.

My professional life as an academic philosopher is tied up with understanding how science, and the community that does science, works. If anything, I feel more connected to the intellectual enterprise as a whole, and its connection to other aspects of human flourishing, than I did when I was in the trenches working as a chemist. As an educator, I have an opportunity I might not have had if I were teaching primarily chemistry majors to help folks who fear science understand it better. As it happens, I also have the opportunity to teach lots of science majors (in my “Ethics in Science” course) how ethics matter to scientific knowledge-building, and to the project of sharing a world with non-scientists. Since I’m tickled to be paid to think about the questions that keep me up at night, I have enthusiasm and energy I might not be able to muster otherwise to call shenanigans on misrepresentations of the scientific enterprise, whether by policy makers or science teachers.

Science has my devotion as a philosopher; as a chemist, chances are I would have just been going through the motions.

I may have left the lab bench, but I haven’t left the conversation.

Occasionally, though, I have to grapple with the question of whether I’m in the conversation as an insider or an outsider. Do I really count in the tribe of science? If I don’t do science anymore, how can it make sense to claim that science is part of who I am?

I don’t know what I can say to that except that my love for science, my inclination towards scientific ways of navigating through my world, the formation of myself as a competent scientist as I was figuring out how to become an adult — these are things I cannot separate from my identity. These are features of myself I cannot turn off. If you deal with me, these are some of the facets you are likely to encounter.

Am I science? It sure feels that way to me.

My story from the ScienceOnline 2012 banquet.

This year at ScienceOnline, the conference banquet featured storytelling organized by The Monti, a North Carolina non-profit organization dedicated to building community by getting people to share their true stories with each other. Conference goers were asked to share stories on the theme of “connections”. The stories had to be true, and storytellers had to tell them without notes.

The seven stories told at the banquet provided a kaleidoscopic view of what “connections” might mean to a bunch of people involved in doing science, or teaching science, or communicating science, or trying to negotiate their own relationship with science in their personal and professional lives.

I feel honored that I got to tell my story as part of this event. My narrative was about connections between what things were like for me as a kid and how I’d like things to be different for my own kids, between online discussions and outcomes in the three-dimensional world, between my comfort zone and situations where I know I am out of my depth.

You can listen to the audio of me actually telling my story here. (It’s #3 in the list; I haven’t been able to figure out a way to grab just my story and embed it here, and you probably want to listen to the other stories, too, because they’re all really good.)

Here’s a photo of me telling the story (taken by official ScienceOnline 2012 photographer Maggie Pingolt.

Partway through the story, it will become relevant.

And, here’s a transcript-like text version of the story. I’ve taken out umm-like things.

So, like a lot of people in the room, I guess, I have always known that I loved science, but I grew up in a culture that told me that I shouldn’t, because I’m a girl.

And, between the TV, and the toy commercials, and my peers, and the teachers, the message was: “Look, science is not girls’ stuff. Science is not something girls are supposed to like. You are supposed to spend your time figuring out how to be like girls are, which is pretty, and pink, and neat, and well-behaved.” I did not want to be any of those things. I did not know how to be any of those things. I did not see how being any of those things was going to get my hands on the science-y stuff I wanted to do. So what was the point?

So, as you can imagine, school was not a lot of fun, because on the one hand, I had my peers making life crap because I could not perform femininity. And, I had teachers making my life crap, saying: “Look, no, I don’t care that you can do the math and do the science. It’s impossible that you can do the math and do the science because you’re a girl. So, stop that!”

And, one gets through this. And, I kind of figured by the time I was a grown-up, and had kids that I was raising of my own, we were going to be past all of this in our culture — that we would have fixed this particular blind spot we have. But the first time we cracked open the educational toy catalog, when our kids were old enough for those: hit in the face with the heavily gendered science kits.

And they come in two flavors: they come in the science kits, and the science kits for girls. And the science kits for girls of course come in a pink box, and they are science that concerns what girls are supposed to want to do, which is make lip gloss, or make bubble bath, or maybe grow pretty crystals. And the pictures on the box have cartoon girls with eye shadow and off-the-shoulder blouses, as if to say: “Look, dear, there’s nothing about doing this activity that is going to get in the way of your really important task of figuring out how to be conforming to our gendered expectations of you.”

The boys’ kits, meanwhile, had cool stuff — I mean, you got to take things apart. You got to blow things up. You got to examine the world on a really small scale. This is stuff I wanted to do — and got to do, luckily, when I was a kid, but only because my mother was as much of a rebel against this as I was.

What the girls are offered is the pink microscopes that don’t magnify as well as the blue microscopes do. Instead of getting kits where you get to blow stuff up, you get to make bath bombs, and as it turns out, bath bombs do not actually explode. Which is kind of a rip off.

So, of course, when I started blogging, this was one of the things I blogged about — because a good rant is what keeps a blogger going in the morning. And this was like five years ago. So I got my rant on. And of course, this November, those of you who watch the Twitters knew that Ed Yong tweeted about the WILD! Science* website selling extremely gendered science kits.

So it’s still going on! And people were like, “Yeah, we should blog about this some more!”

I’ll be honest: I was tired. I did not feel like blogging about this again. I said, I have been banging my head against this particular wall with this culture, and, you know, maybe I’d like to bang my head against a different wall that might move a little. But, I took a breath. I said, OK, everyone’s doing it, so I’ll try to explain again what it is about these kits that I find problematic — that they’re not really trying to interest kids in science so much as saying the only hook we’ve got with girls is their femininity. And, they’re not actually cultivating an interest in science so much as reminding girls: even in science, you are expected to do this femininity thing or you will get crap.

So, I blogged about it, and then a really exciting thing happened in December. In December, Edmund Scientific announced on their blog that they had noticed these blog posts, and letters they had gotten, emails they had gotten from customers, and they understood the criticism, and they recognized that they were sending out a message that they did not want to send out as they were selling science kits. And they said, we’re going to stop. They said, we are going to no longer sell boys’ science kits and girls’ science kits; they’re now all science kits for whatever kind of kid wants to do it.

And I was really, really excited. You know, all of us sort of being cranky eventually, I guess … every now and then we get this incremental piece of change.

I was so excited that afternoon, and I had to tell my kids, because, you know, you’ve got to share your excitement and your tweeps get tired of it so your kids have to listen to the overflow.

I should tell you something about my kids, something I sort of keep on the down-low on blogs ’cause of creepy internet stalker types. My kids are daughters.

The oldest one’s in seventh grade, the youngest one’s in fifth grade. So, they’re twelve and ten. The older one … I think maybe there was a six month stretch in kindergarten where she experimented with officially sanctioned femininity as recognized by our culture and then decided it just was not worth the trouble, and hasn’t really bothered with it since.

The ten-year-old is a pretty pink princess.

Which makes our relationship with each other complicated, because as I told you before, I don’t really do femininity. She actually tried to help me with my outfit for tonight, but in the end she said, “Please don’t tell them I was involved in this.” We’re different, she and I.

But, she was the one, when I told her this news about this company selling science kits that decided to drop the heavy gendering, she was the one who got really excited and gave me a hug and gave me a high five.

Because both of my kids — the tomboy and the pretty princess — both of them love science. The ten-year-old who loves to dress up, who loves to wear pantyhose, for God’s sake, who asked for a lint-roller for Christmas — she loves to do science. She is also a fierce goalie for her soccer team, and she can tell fart jokes with the best of them, and this is because, unlike what the marketers would have you believe, a pretty pink princess has facets.

So, as we’re celebrating this, I’m sort of keeping up with the discussion in the blogosphere. And there’s some discussion going on saying, “Well, OK, heavily gendered science kits: probably problematic. But, maybe we’re doing some pink-bashing here. Maybe we’ve got to make the world safe for pink microscopes, too.”

There was sort of this “click!” in my head when I remembered — oh wait, it’s not just that we live in a culture that says “Girls can’t do science,” and we’ve got to deal with that; or that girls need to be feminine, and we’ve got to deal with that. We live in a culture where we have this idea that scientists need to be a certain way.

So we’ve gone from where I was when I was in school, having teachers tell me, “You can’t do science ’cause you’re a girl,” to now maybe the teachers are saying , “Well, you’re probably not going to be into science because you’re a girly girl.” You can do science, but you’ve got to be one of those girls who thinks the whole femininity thing is not something you want to spend any kind of time with.

And that’s a problem, too.

And I thought back to my misspent scientific youth in a physical chemistry lab, where absolutely the smartest, the best scientist in that lab aside from my PI was a fourth year graduate student who graduated after her fourth year with a ton of publications in the Journal of Physical Chemistry. But people outside of our lab thought she had all kinds of help, or that her work must not be too significant, and the main reason they seemed to think that is ’cause she did her hair, and she wore make up, and she did her nails, and she was kind of a grown up pretty princess. If they had bothered to talk to her about her science, if they had bothered to look inside her notebooks — which, I grant, were kept in loopy script, sometimes in pink ink — they would have seen that she was fiercely intelligent and frighteningly organized in her attack on the research questions that she pursued. She was an astonishingly good scientist, and she was made to feel like an outsider in our scientific community simply because she did femininity.

And we’ve got to cut this out. We have to cut this out.

We not only have to, as a culture, get over the idea that boys have to be a certain way and girls have to be a certain way, and that the certain way girls have to be is not compatible with doing science. We also have to get over the idea that to be a good scientist you have to be a certain kind of person, and that’s not the kind of person who’s going to get his or her nails done.

Because ultimately, the world I want to be in, the world I want for my daughters — for the tomboy and the pretty princess — is one where they can be authentically who they are, and they can love science, and they can pursue science, and it doesn’t matter what else they like.

Thank you.
*At the banquet, I erroneously said “Mad Science.” Ah, the dangers of telling a story without notes!

If you want to go back and relive the discussion of gendered science kits as it was happening last November and December, here are some links:

Science kits … for girls.
Some reasons gendered science kits may be counterproductive.
Gendered science kits aren’t so great for boys either.
How do we make room for pink microscopes? (More thoughts on gendered science kits.)

The WILD! Science selection of science kits for girls.
The Edmund Scientific blog post that filled my heart with joy.