Twenty-five years later.

Twenty-five years ago today, on December 6, 1989, in Montreal, fourteen women were murdered for being women in what their murderer perceived to be a space that rightly belonged to men:

Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student

Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student

Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student

Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student

Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student

Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student

Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department

Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student

Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student

Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student

Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student

Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student

Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student

Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student

They were murdered because their killer was disgruntled that he been denied admission to the École Polytechnique, the site of the massacre, and because he blamed women occupying positions that were traditionally occupied by men for this disappointment, among others. When their killer entered the engineering classroom where the killing began, he first told the men to leave the room, because his goal was to kill the women. In their killer’s pocket, discovered after his death, was a list of more women he had planned to kill, if only he had the time.

Shelley Page was a 24-year-old reporter who was sent to cover the Montreal massacre for The Toronto Star. On this, the 25th anniversary of the event, she writes:

I fear I sanitized the event of its feminist anger and then infantilized and diminished the victims, turning them from elite engineering students who’d fought for a place among men into teddy-bear loving daughters, sisters and girlfriends.

Twenty-five years later, as I re-evaluate my stories and with the benefit of analysis of the coverage that massacre spawned, I see how journalists— male and female producers, news directors, reporters, anchors — subtly changed the meaning of the tragedy to one that the public would get behind, silencing so-called “angry feminists.”

Twenty-five years ago, I was a 21-year-old finishing my first term in a chemistry Ph.D. program. I was studying for final exams and the qualifying exams that would be held in January, so I was not following the news about much of anything outside my bubble of graduate school. When I did hear about the Montreal massacre, it was a punch in the gut.

It was enough already to fight against the subtle and not-so-subtle doubt (from the faculty in our programs, from our classmates, even from our students) that women were cut out for science or engineering. Now it was clear that there existed people committed enough to science and engineering being male domains that they might kill us to enforce that.

The murders were political. They did not target particular individual women in the forbidden domain of engineering on the basis of particular personal grievances. Being a member of the hated group in the social space the murderer thought should be for men only was enough.

But the murders also ended the lives of fourteen particular individual women, women who were daughters and sisters and friends and girlfriends.

The tragedies were deeply personal for the survivors of the fourteen women who were murdered. They were also personal for those of us who understood (even if we couldn’t articulate it) that we occupied the same kinds of social positions, and struggled with the same barriers to access and inclusion, as these fourteen murdered women had. They made us sad, and scared, and angry.

The personal is political. The challenge is in seeing how we are connected, the structures underlying what frequently feel to us like intensely individual experiences.

I’m inclined to think it’s a mistake to look for the meaning of the Montreal massacre. There are many interconnected meanings to find here.

That individual teddy bear-loving girls and women can still be formidable scientists and engineers.

That breaking down barriers to inclusion can come at a cost to oneself as an individual (which can make it harder for others who have gotten into those male preserves to feel like it’s OK for them to leave before the barriers are completely dismantled).

That some are still dedicated to maintaining those barriers to inclusion, and where that dedication will end — with words, or threats, or violent acts — is impossible to tell just by looking at the gatekeeper.

Because they were murdered 25 years ago today, we will never know what contributions these fourteen women might have made — what projects they might have guided, what problems they might have solved, the impact they might have made as mentors or role models, as teachers, as colleagues, as friends, as lovers, as parents, as engaged citizens.

In their memory, we ought to make sure other women are free to find out what they can contribute without having to waste their energy taking down barriers and without having to fear for their lives.

Giving thanks.

This being the season, I’d like to take the opportunity to pause and give thanks.

I’m thankful for parents who encouraged my curiosity and never labeled science as something it was inappropriate for me to explore or pursue.

I’m thankful for teachers who didn’t present science as if it were confined within the box of textbooks and homework assignments and tests, but instead offered it as a window through which I could understand ordinary features of my world in a whole new way. A particular teacher who did this was my high school chemistry teacher, Mel Thompson, who bore a striking resemblance to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and would, on occasion, blow soap bubbles with a gas jet as we took quizzes, setting them alight with a Bunsen burner before they reached the ceiling. Mr. Thompson always conveyed his strong conviction that I could learn anything, and on that basis he was prepared to teach me anything about chemistry that I wanted to learn.

I’m thankful for the awesome array of women who taught me science as an undergraduate and a graduate student, both for their pedagogy and for the examples they provided of different ways to be a woman in science.

I’m especially thankful for my mother, who was my first and best role model with respect to the challenges of graduate school and becoming a scientist.

I’m thankful for the mentors who have found me and believed in me when I needed help believing in myself.

I’m thankful for the opportunity graduate school gave me to make the transition from learning knowledge other people had built to learning how to build brand new scientific knowledge myself.

I’m thankful that the people who trained me to become a scientist didn’t treat it as a betrayal when I realized that what I really wanted to do was become a philosopher. I’m also thankful for the many, many scientists who have welcomed my philosophical engagement with their scientific work, and who have valued my contributions to the training of their science students.

I’m thankful for my children, through whose eyes I got the chance to relive the wonder of discovering the world and its workings all over again. I’m also thankful to them for getting me to grapple with some of my own unhelpful biases about science, for helping me to get over them.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to make a living pursuing the questions that keep me up at night. I’m thankful that pursuing some of these questions can contribute to scientific practice that builds reliable knowledge while being more humane to its practitioners, to better public understanding of science (and of scientists), and perhaps even to scientists and nonscientists doing a better job of sharing a world with each other.

And, dear readers, I am thankful for you.

Complacent in earthquake country.

A week ago, there was a 6.0 earthquake North of San Francisco. I didn’t feel it, because I was with my family in Santa Barbara that weekend. Even if we had been home, it’s not clear that we would have noticed it; reports are that some folks in San Jose felt some shaking but others slept through it.

Dana Hunter has a great breakdown of what to do if you find yourself in a temblor. Even for those of you nowhere near California, it’s worth a read, since we’re not the only place with fault lines or seismic activity.

But I must confess, I’ve lived in earthquake country for nearly 25 years now, and we don’t have an earthquake preparedness kit.

To be fair, we have many of the recommended items on the list, though not all in one place as an official “kit”. I even know where many of the recommended components are (like the first aid kit, which came with us to the swim league’s championship meet, and the rain gear, which comes out every year that we have a proper rainy season). But we haven’t got the preserved-with-bleach, replaced-every-six-months ration of a gallon of water per person per day. We’re in the middle of a drought right now. If we needed emergency water, how many days would we need it for?

Honestly, though, the thing that really holds me back from preparing for an earthquake is that earthquakes are so darned unpredictable.

My attitude towards earthquake preparedness is surely not helped by the fact that my very first earthquake, when I had been in California scarcely a month, was the October 1989 Loma Prieta quake, clocking in at 6.9 or 7.0, depending on who you ask. I felt that temblor, but had nothing to compare it to. At the time, it was actually almost cool: hey, that must be an earthquake! I didn’t know that it was big, or how much damage it had done, until my housemates got home and turned on the TV.

The earth shakes, but seldom for more than a minute. If after the shaking everything returns to normal, you might even go to the USGS “Did You Feel It?” page to add your data on how it felt in your location. Depending on where you are (a lab full of glassware and chemicals and students, a law library with bookcases lining the walls, a building with lots of windows, a multistory building on filled in land that used to be bay, a bridge), you may get hurt. But you may not.

Maybe you lose power for a day or two, but we survived the regular rolling blackouts when Enron was playing games with the California power grid. (That’s why I know where our flashlights and emergency candles are.) Maybe a water main breaks and you get by on juice boxes, tonic water, and skipping showers until service returns.

Since 1989, people in these parts have been pretty good about seismic retrofits. My impression is that the recession has slowed such retrofits down recently (and generally dealt a blow to keeping up infrastructure like roads and bridges), but it’s still happening. The new span on the Bay Bridge is supposed to have been engineered specifically with significant quakes in mind, although some engineers mutter their doubts.

I’d rather not be on a bridge, or a freeway, or a BART train when the big one hits. But we haven’t really got the kind of lead time it would take to ensure that — the transit trip-planners don’t include quakes the same way they do scheduled maintenance or even just-reported accidents.

There is no earthquake season. There is no earthquake weather. Earthquakes are going to happen when they happen.

So, psychologically, they are really, really hard to prepare for.

What do I owe society for my scientific training? Obligations of scientists (part 6)

One of the dangers of thinking hard about your obligations is that you may discover one that you’ve fallen down on. As we continue our discussion of the obligations of scientist, I put myself under the microscope and invite you to consider whether I’ve incurred a debt to society that I have failed to pay back.

In the last post in this series, we discussed the claim that those in our society with scientific training have a positive duty to conduct scientific research in order to build new scientific knowledge. The source of that putative duty is two-fold. On the one hand, it’s a duty that flows from the scientist’s abilities in the face of societal needs: if people trained to build new scientific knowledge won’t build the new scientific knowledge needed to address pressing problems (like how to feed the world, or hold off climate change, or keep us all from dying from infectious diseases, or what have you), we’re in trouble. On the other hand, it’s a duty that flows from the societal investment that nurtures the development of these special scientific abilities: in the U.S., it’s essentially impossible to get scientific training at the Ph.D. level that isn’t subsidized by public funding. Public funding is used to support the training of scientists because the public expects a return on that investment in the form of grown-up scientists building knowledge which will benefit the public in some way. By this logic, people who take advantage of that heavily subsidized scientific training but don’t go on to build scientific knowledge when they are fully trained are falling down on their obligation to society.

People like me.

From September 1989 through December 1993, I was in a Ph.D. program in chemistry. (My Ph.D. was conferred January 1994.)

As part of this program, I was enrolled in graduate coursework (two chemistry courses per quarter for my first year, plus another chemistry course and three math courses, for fun, during my second year). I didn’t pay a dime for any of this coursework (beyond buying textbooks and binder paper and writing implements). Instead, tuition was fully covered by my graduate tuition stipend (which also covered “units” in research, teaching, and department seminar that weren’t really classes but appeared on our transcripts as if they were). Indeed, beyond the tuition reimbursement I was paid a monthly stipend of $1000, which seemed like a lot of money at the time (despite the fact that more than a third of it went right to rent).

I was also immersed in a research lab from January 1990 onward. Working in this lab was the heart of my training as a chemist. I was given a project to start with — a set of empirical questions to try to answer about a far-from-equilibrium chemical system that one of the recently-graduated students before me had been studying. I had to digest a significant chunk of experimental and theoretical literature to grasp why the questions mattered and what the experimental challenges in answering them might be. I had to assess the performance of the experimental equipment we had on hand, spend hours with calibrations, read a bunch of technical manuals, disassemble and reassemble pumps, write code to drive the apparatus and to collect data, identify experimental constraints that were important to control (and that, strangely, were not identified as such in the experimental papers I was working from), and also, when I determined that the chemical system I had started with was much too fussy to study with the equipment the lab could afford, to identify a different chemical system that I could use to answer similar questions and persuade my advisor to approve this new plan.

In short, my time in the lab had me learning how to build new knowledge (in a particular corner of physical chemistry) by actually building new knowledge. The earliest stages of my training had me juggling the immersion into research with my own coursework and with teaching undergraduate chemistry students as a lab instructor and teaching assistant. Some weeks, this meant I was learning less about how to make new scientific knowledge than I was about how to tackle a my problem-sets or how to explain buffers to pre-meds. Past the first year of the program, though, my waking hours were dominated by getting experiments designed, collecting loads of data, and figuring out what it meant. There were significant stretches of time during which I got into the lab by 5 AM and didn’t leave until 8 or 9 PM, and the weekend days when I didn’t go into the lab were usually consumed with coding, catching up on relevant literature, or drafting manuscripts or thesis chapters.

Once, for fun, some of us grad students did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of our hourly wages. It was remarkably close to the minimum wage I had been paid as a high school student in 1985. Still, we were getting world class scientific training, for free! We paid with the sweat of our brows, but wouldn’t we have to put in that time and effort to learn how to make scientific knowledge anyway? Sure, we graduate students did the lion’s share of the hands-on teaching of undergraduates in our chemistry department (undergraduates who were paying a significant tuition bill), but we were learning, from some of the best scientists in the world, how to be scientists!

Having gotten what amounts to a full-ride for that graduate training, due in significant part to public investment in scientific training at the Ph.D. level, shouldn’t I be hunkered down somewhere working to build more chemical knowledge to pay off my debt to society?

Do I have any good defense to offer for the fact that I’m not building chemical knowledge?

For the record, when I embarked on Ph.D. training in chemistry, I fully expected to be an academic chemist when I grew up. I really did imagine that I’d have a long career building chemical knowledge, training new chemists, and teaching chemistry to an audience that included some future scientists and some students who would go on to do other things but who might benefit from a better understanding of chemistry. Indeed, when I was applying to graduate programs, my chemistry professors were talking up the “critical shortage” of Ph.D. chemists. (By January of my first year in graduate school, I was reading reports that there were actually something like 30% more Ph.D. chemists than there were jobs for Ph.D. chemists, but a first-year grad student is not necessarily freaking out about the job market while she is wrestling with her experimental system.) I did not embark on a chemistry Ph.D. as a collectable. I did not set out to be a dilettante.

In the course of the research that was part of my Ph.D. training, I actually built some new knowledge and shared it with the public, at least to the extent of publishing it in journal articles (four of them, an average of one per year). It’s not clear what the balance sheet would say about this rate of return on the public’s investment in my scientific training — nor either whether most taxpayers would judge the knowledge I built (about the dynamics of far-from-equilibrium chemical reactions and about ways to devise useful empirical tests of proposed reaction mechanisms) as useful knowledge.

Then again, no part of how our research was evaluated in grad school was framed in terms of societal utility. You might try to describe how your research had broader implications that someone outside your immediate subfield could appreciate if you were writing a grant to get the research funded, but solving society’s pressing scientific problems was not the sine qua non of the research agendas we were advancing for our advisors or developing for ourselves.

As my training was teaching me how to conduct serious research in physical chemistry, it was also helping me to discover that my temperament was maybe not so well suited to life as a researcher in physical chemistry. I found, as I was struggling with a grant application that asked me to describe the research agenda I expected to pursue as an academic chemist, that the questions that kept me up at night were not fundamentally questions about chemistry. I learned that no part of me was terribly interested in the amount of grant-writing and lab administration that would have been required of me as a principal investigator. Looking at the few women training me at the Ph.D. level, I surmised that I might have to delay or skip having kids altogether to survive academic chemistry — and that the competition for those faculty jobs where I’d be able to do research and build new knowledge was quite fierce.

Plausibly, had I been serious about living up to my obligation to build new knowledge by conducting research, I could have been a chemist in industry. As I was finishing up my Ph.D., the competition for industry jobs for physical chemists like me was also pretty intense. What I gathered as I researched and applied for industry jobs was that I didn’t really like the culture of industry. And, while working in industry would have been a way from me to conduct research and build new knowledge, I might have ended up spending more time solving the shareholders’ problems than solving society’s problems.

If I wasn’t going to do chemical research in an academic career and I wasn’t going to do chemical research in an industrial job, how should I pay society back for the publicly-supported scientific training I received? Should I be building new scientific knowledge on my own time, in my own garage, until I’ve built enough that the debt is settled? How much new knowledge would that take?

The fact is, none of us Ph.D. students seemed to know at the time that public money was making it possible for us to get graduate training in chemistry without paying for that training. Nor was there an explicit contract we were asked to sign as we took advantage of this public support, agreeing to work for a certain number of years upon the completion of our degrees as chemists serving the public’s interests. Rather, I think most of us saw an opportunity to pursue a subject we loved and to get the preparation we would need to become principal investigators in academia or industry if we decided to pursue those career paths. Most of us probably didn’t know enough about what those career paths would be like to have told you at the beginning of our Ph.D. training whether those career paths would suit our talents or temperaments — that was part of what we were trying to find out by pursuing graduate studies. And practically, many of us would not have been able to find out if we had had to pay the costs of our Ph.D. training ourselves.

If no one who received scientific training subsidized by the public went on to build new scientific knowledge, this would surely be a problem for society. But, do we want to say that everyone who receives such subsidized training is on the hook to pay society back by building new scientific knowledge until such time as society has all the scientific knowledge it needs?

That strikes me as too strong. However, given that I’ve benefitted directly from a societal investment in Ph.D. training that, for all practical purposes, I stopped using in 1994, I’m probably not in a good position to make an objective judgment about just what I do owe society to pay back this debt. Have I paid it back already? Is society within its rights to ask more of me?

Here, I’ve thought about the scientist’s debt to society — my debt to society — in very personal terms. In the next post in the series, we’ll revisit these questions on a slightly larger scale, looking at populations of scientists interacting with the larger society and seeing what this does to our understanding of the obligations of scientists.
Posts in this series:

Questions for the non-scientists in the audience.

Questions for the scientists in the audience.

What do we owe you, and who’s “we” anyway? Obligations of scientists (part 1)

Scientists’ powers and ways they shouldn’t use them: Obligations of scientists (part 2)

Don’t be evil: Obligations of scientists (part 3)

How plagiarism hurts knowledge-building: Obligations of scientists (part 4)

What scientists ought to do for non-scientists, and why: Obligations of scientists (part 5)

What do I owe society for my scientific training? Obligations of scientists (part 6)

Are you saying I can’t go home until we cure cancer? Obligations of scientists (part 7)

Teaching chemistry while female: when my very existence was a problem.

Not quite 20 years ago, I was between graduate programs.

I had earned my Ph.D in chemistry and filed my applications to seven Ph.D. programs in philosophy. (There were some surreal moments on the way to this, including retaking the GRE two weekends after defending my chemistry dissertation — because, apparently, the GRE is a better predictor of success in graduate school than is success in graduate school.) In the interval between the graduate stipend from the chemistry program from which I was now a proud graduate and the (hypothetical) graduate stipend from the philosophy graduate program on the horizon, I needed to earn some money so I could continue to pay my rent.

I pieced together something approximating enough earnings. I spent a few hours a week as a research assistant to a visiting scholar studying scientific creativity. I spent many hours a week as an out-call SAT-prep tutor (which involved almost as many hours on San Francisco Bay Area freeways as it did working one-on-one with my pupils). I even landed a teaching gig at the local community college, although that wouldn’t start until the summer session. And, I taught the general chemistry segment of a Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) prep course.

Teaching the MCAT prep course involved four meetings (each four hours long, with three ten-minute breaks interspersed so people could stretch their legs, use the bathroom, find a vending machine, or what have you) with a large number of students planning to take the MCAT and apply to medical school. The time was divided between providing a refresher on general chemistry concepts and laying out problem-solving strategies for the “passage problems” to which the MCAT had recently shifted. I was working with old-school overhead transparencies (since this was 1994), with key points and the problems themselves in permanent ink and the working-out of the problems in transparency markers that erased with a damp cloth. The screen onto which the transparencies projected was very large, so I’d have to make use of the long rubber-tipped wooden pointer that was resting on the ledge of the chalkboard behind the screen.

During hour two of the very first meeting of the very first session I taught this MCAT prep course, as I retrieved the pointer from the chalk-ledge, I noticed that a single word had been written on the chalkboard:


I was pretty sure it hadn’t been on the board at the beginning of the session. But I still had three hours worth of concepts to explain and problems to work before we could call it a day. So I ignored it and got down to business.

The second meeting with this group, I made a point of checking the chalkboard before I pulled down the projections screen, fired up the overhead projector, and commencing the preparation of the students for the MCAT.

Before the four hour session began, the chalkboard was blank. By the end of the four hours, again, there was a single word written on it:


The same thing happened in our third session. By then it had started to really bug me, so, at the beginning of our fourth and final meeting together, I resolved at least to flush out whoever was doing the writing on the chalkboard. I collected all the chalk from the ledges and put it in the sink of the lab counter at the front of the room (for I was lecturing in a proper laboratory lecture hall, with sink, gas jets, and such). And, I brought a water bottle with me so I wouldn’t have to leave the lecture hall during the ten minute breaks to find a water fountain.

At the very first break, one of the young men in the prep course followed a path between the projection screen and the chalkboard, paused as if lost (or in search of chalk?), and then exited the room looking only a tiny bit sheepish.

On the board, appearing like a film negative against the light residue of chalk dust, he had written (I presume with a moistened finger):


I still have no idea at all what provoked this hostility. The structure of the MCAT prep course was such that all I was doing was giving the students help in preparing for the MCAT. I was not grading them or otherwise evaluating them. Heck, I wasn’t even taking attendance!

What on earth about 25-year-old me, at the front of a lecture hall trying to make the essentials of general chemistry easy to remember and easy to apply to problem-solving — something these students presumably wanted, since they paid a significant amount of money to take the course — what made me a “bitch” to this young man? Why was it so important to him that not a single meeting we had passed without my knowing that someone in attendance (even if I didn’t know exactly who) thought I was a bitch?

When it happened, this incident was so minor, against the more overt hostility toward me as a woman in a male-dominated scientific field (soon to be followed, though I didn’t anticipate it at the time, by overt hostility toward me as a woman in male-dominated academic philosophy), that I almost didn’t remember it.

But then, upon reading this account of teaching while female, I did.

I remembered it so vividly that my cheeks were burning as they did the first time I saw that chalk-scrawled “bitch” and then had to immediately shake it off so that we could cover what needed to be covered in the time we had left for that meeting.

And I ask myself again, what was I doing, except a job that I was good at, a job that I did well, a job that I needed — what was I doing to that particular young man, paying for the service I was providing — that made me a bitch?

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.

Ada Lovelace and the Luddites.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day.

If you are not a regular reader of my other blog, you may not know that I am a tremendous Luddite. I prefer hand-drawn histograms and flowcharts to anything I can make with a graphics program. I prefer LPs to CDs. (What’s an LP? Ask your grandparents.) I find it soothing to use log tables (and I know how to interpolate). I’d rather use a spiral-bound book of street maps than Google to find my way around.

Obviously, my status as a Luddite should not be taken to mean I am against all technological advances across the board (as here I am, typing on a computer, preparing a post that will be published using blogging software on the internet). Rather, I am suspicious of technological advances that seem to arise without much thought about how they influence the experience of the humans interacting with them, and of “improvements” that would require me to sink a bunch of time into learning new commands or operating instructions while producing at best a marginal improvement over the outcome I get from the technology I already know.

That is to say, my own inclination is to view technologies not as ends in themselves but as tools which, depending on how they are deployed, can enhance our lives or can make them harder.

The original Luddites were part of a workers’ movement in England in the early 19th century. The technologies these Luddites were against included the mechanical knitting machines and looms that shifted textile production from the hands of skilled knitters and weavers to a relatively unskilled labor force tending to the machines. In the current economic climate, it’s not too hard to see what the Luddites were worried about: even if the Industrial Revolution technologies didn’t result in an overall decrease in jobs (since you’d need workers to tend the machines), there would be no reason to assume that the owners of textile factories would be interested in retraining the skilled knitters and weavers already in existence to be the machine-tenders. And net stability (even increase) in the number of jobs can be cold comfort when your job goes away.

Continue reading

Let’s talk about “Doing Good Science”.

Welcome to my shiny new blog at Scientific American! Here, we’ll be talking about what’s involved in doing good science — and about what ethics has to do with it.

Doing good science includes:

Building a reliable body of knowledge about the world and how it works.
The world is full of phenomena, and the basic hunch that gets science off the ground is that we humans can make sense of those phenomena. But accurately describing the bits of our world and untangling how they work is hard. It’s a project that requires care and attention to details. It requires being objective. It requires being honest.

Doing good science is not just a matter of not deceiving others. It also involves guarding against self-deception.

Building a well-functioning scientific community.
Scientific knowledge building is not a solo operation but a team effort. It’s not just that we need help in figuring out the many phenomena in our world (although given just how much is going on in the world, splitting up the terrain helps). Rather, building more objective knowledge requires that we have something like a community of knowers.

Honesty is a crucial piece of what a scientific community needs to do its knowledge building together, but so is fairness. When the moving parts in your knowledge-building machine are people, things get interesting.

Training new scientists.
Scientists all come from somewhere, and the training of new scientists happens in most of the places that scientific research is done. This means that the knowledge is built as the knowledge-builders are built.

Doing good science includes helping scientific trainees learn how to build reliable knowledge, and helping them support well-functioning scientific communities. Doing good science also includes treating scientists-in-training ethically.

Interacting with the larger society.
Even if all scientists lived and worked full-time on Science Island, isolated from non-scientists, they would still need ethics to get the scientific job done. But in the real world, scientists walk among us.

There are transfers of resources (including but not limited to money) from larger societies to scientific communities to support knowledge building and the training of new scientists. In turn, those scientific communities share the knowledge they have built, and deploy some of those scientists to tackle the problems the public wants or needs solved.

Sometimes it seems like scientific communities and the larger societies in which they are embedded aren’t always listening to each other. Doing good science in a world bigger than Science Island requires figuring out how to take each other’s interests, values, and questions seriously.

And, although you might quibble about whether it’s part of doing good science, being a good scientist surely involves sharing a world. Fulfilling your duties as a scientist does not excuse you from your duties as a member of the human community.

Doing good science isn’t always easy. It requires paying attention, being creative, putting your shoulder into the task, and often some amount of luck.

Then again, so does being a good human being.

* * * * *

About your blogger:

My name is Janet D. Stemwedel, and I’m an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University (in San José, California). My teaching and research are focused on the philosophy of science, the responsible conduct of research, and the ways epistemology (knowledge building) and ethics are intertwined.

I didn’t always know I was going to be an academic philosopher. For a while, I thought I was going to be a chemist when I grew up, and even earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. However, I found that the questions that really kept me up at night were philosophical questions about science, rather than scientific questions. So, I went back to school and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy with a focus on history and philosophy of science. Among other things, this means I have great sympathy for those who feel like they have been in school forever.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area with my better half, two offspring (currently in the 10-12 age bracket), and an adopted New Zealand White rabbit, all of whom (except maybe the rabbit) have an interest in how science works and fits into our world.

You can contact me by email (dr dot freeride at gmail dot com) or find me on Twitter (@docfreeride).

Haven’t I seen you before?

I have another blog that I’ve been writing for going on seven years now (yikes!) called Adventures in Ethics and Science. Indeed, if you want a sense of some of what we’ll be talking about here, you might be interested in some of my archived posts there:

And, if conversations with kids about science are your cup of tea, you might be interested in my Friday Sprog Blogging.

Who made your banner?

P.D. Magnus, a fellow philosopher of science who also happens to have mad design skillz, created the Doing Good Science banner.