Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hertha Ayrton

After reading about it on See Jane Compute, I signed the Ada Lovelace Day Pledge. I promised to write a blog post about a woman in technology I admire, and publish it today, March 24. Of course, that meant I had to find such a woman to write about. I had to do a little bit of research - mainly because I do not actually work in a technology field, and so I don't really have a list of people in technology I admire at the ready. I didn't really want to settle for any of the obvious choices, either. I wanted to write about someone that I'd never heard of, and I didn't want to pick the same person as fifty other bloggers.

So that is how I ended up discovering the story of Hertha Ayrton. As I read about her, I came to admire her. She had tenacity, patience, made careful and methodical studies of the phenomena that interested her, and found practical applications of the scientific observations she made. She has been described as a physicist, mathematician, and engineer. And she lived her life on her own terms, even though those terms were often in direct conflict with the social conventions of her time. My favorite quote atttributed to her was written in defense of her close friend Marie Curie: "An error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat."

Hertha Ayerton was born in Portsea, England in 1854. Her given name was Phoebe Sarah Marks. Her father, a Polish clockmaker who had fled anti-Semitic persecution in his homeland, died when she was seven, leaving behind her mother to support herself and eight children as a seamstress. Phoebe was sent to live with relatives in London who owned a school, and it was there that she was educated alongside her cousins. During this time, she met many of the intellectual elite of London, and changed her name in honor of her decision to reject organized religion - "Hertha" is the eponymous heroine of a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne that she felt expressed her position on this (you can read it here). She was able to attend Girton College at Cambridge University (the first residential college for women in England) thanks to the generosity of Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon. At the time, however, though women were permitted to attend, Cambridge did not grant women any kind of degree, so Ayrton had to take an additional, external examination to receive a her B.Sc. from University of London. She continued her studies at Finsbury College, taking physics classes taught by William Edward Ayrton, whom she eventually married. They had one daughter, Barbara Bodichon Ayrton, named for Hertha's benefactress and friend.

Hertha went on to assist her husband in his research on electric arc lamps (the type used in searchlights) and, with her husband's support, she eventually took on the lead role, becoming an expert in the field. She developed new designs for the carbons used in the lamps that improved the stability and efficiency of the lamps. She wrote a paper on the topic, which was the first to be read by a woman to the Institution of Electrical Engineers, and soon after became their first female member. She wrote several papers on the electric arc which she collected into a book, which became a definitive reference on the topic.

When her husband's health declined and he was advised to convalesce at the sea shore, Hertha began to study the formation of sand ripples, and the resulting paper became the first read by a woman to the Royal Society of London. She also was awarded the Hughes Medal, but, nevertheless, her nomination as a fellow of the Society was rejected, because she was deemed ineligible as a married woman - even though her husband was himself a member. She put her research on the vortices which form sand ripples to practical use when she designed a fan that was capable of creating similar flow patterns in air and could be used to drive poisonous (and heavy, relative to breathable air) chlorine gas away from foxholes. Though she put a tremendous amount of effort into bringing the Ayrton Fan and its capabilities to the attention of the military, she was disappointed in that it did not come into widespread use during WWI.

Hertha was, not surprisingly, an ouspoken supporter of women's voting rights, actively participating at suffrage rallies. When she died in 1923, she left most of her estate to the Institution of Electrical Engineers. The Hertha Ayrton Research Fellowship at Girton College was endowed in her honor by Ottillie Hancock, her lifelong friend.

If you'd like to read more about Hertha Ayrton:
Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics
Biographical Article, by Marjorie Malley
Biographies of Women Mathematicians
Reminiscences written by A. P. Trotter, President of The Institution of Electrical Engineers
NNDB entry
Wikipedia entry

Monday, March 2, 2009

Carnivals and Other Reading

Well, I hope you all have heard by now that the first ever Diversity in Science Carnival is up over on DNLee's blog, Urban Science Adventures. Hooray! If you haven't already, please do check it out! Danielle asked us to write about African American scientists, and she has done an incredible job soliciting entries from a broad range of disciplines, and they all sound very interesting. I've been under a pile of work and family obligations, so I haven't been able to read many of them, but I am looking forward to doing so! You should, too!

Also, the March edition of Scientiae is also up at Liberal Arts Lady. The theme is role models, in honor of Women's History Month. I blame the pile of obligations previously mentioned for causing me to not even realize that I had missed the deadline to make a submission until yesterday. Darn! But it looks like there are some really great posts there, too.

So, there is plenty of great stuff to read! Now if I could just get around to writing something myself - especially since the Health Zone Blog has put me on a list of "50 Must Read Bloggers". It's a great list, and I am honored to be included! Check it out - you may find someone new to add to your reader!

Okay, that's it for me. I've got another obligation fun filled day tomorrow, and if I don't get some sleep, I won't be able to enjoy it!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Diversity in Science - Erich Jarvis

The first time I ever heard of Erich Jarvis was some time after I entered the MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) program, during my second bachelors degree. I still felt very self conscious as a former dancer reinventing myself as a serious scientist. Someone very kind and very thoughtful told me about him. Though I have to admit that I still feel that I will never fit the mold of a scientist sometimes, thanks to that kind person at least I know of at least one very successful scientist who started out as a dancer. And that is why I have chosen to write about him for the Diversity in Science blog carnival.

Erich Jarvis was born into an artistic family in Harlem, NY. Both of his parents were musicians, and he went to the High School of the Performing Arts, majoring in Dance. While in high school, he also trained at the Joffrey Ballet and Alvin Ailey Dance Schools, on scholarship. He was a serious dancer, and had the opportunity to become a professional upon graduation. He chose, instead, to go to college. He double majored in Biology and Math at Hunter College, one of the campuses of the City University of New York. He received an NIH-Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) Traineeship and was an NIGMS-Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) Fellow. He did extensive research on the molecular biology of protein synthesis genes in bacteria under the supervision of Dr. Rivka Rudner while at Hunter College, resulting in several papers, two of which list him as first author.

After college, Dr. Jarvis went on to graduate school at Rockefeller, where he was again as MARC Fellow, he studied the molecular behavioral mechanisms of song-associative learning in songbirds under the supervision of Dr. Fernando Nottebohm. After a post-doc in the same lab, he joined the faculty of Duke University. He is now an associate professor with tenure (I believe). As a young faculty member, he led an initiative to re-name the parts of the bird brain in a way that better reflects their complexity and moves away from the model of the bird brain as "primitive". His work has shown that behavior, such as singing, causes measurable changes in gene expression in certain parts of the brain, and that these changes are dependent on the social context in which the behavior is performed. He was also a recipient of the Alan T. Waterman Award for young scientists, and is now a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

Although Dr. Jarvis is clearly doing some very interesting and important scientific work, he is an inspiration to me personally because of who he is as a person. He is an African American. He spent his early years training as an artist, and then changed direction fairly late in the game (though not quite as late as I did) and committed himself passionately to science. And he is not apologetic for having other interests. He says in a NOVA scienceNOW Profile that he considers himself a "scientific artist":

Because I don't see performing artists and scientists as being really that different. They might look different, but so do a pianist and a dancer. I would say that it's the process that's very similar. The process of becoming a dancer and the process of becoming a scientist are very similar.

Both require a lot of discipline, a lot of practice, an intense amount of training, and a lot of failure. In both cases, you must keep getting up and trying again. Both are creative. In both art and science you are often trying to do things that have never been done before. As an artist, you're trying to discover new things about yourself, life around you, and the art itself. In science, the goals are the same.

If you want to learn more about Dr. Erich Jarvis, check out the following links:

A CONVERSATION WITH: ERICH JARVIS; A Biologist Explores the Minds of Birds That Learn to Sing (New York Times)
2006 Emerging Scholars of the Year - Neurobiology: Secrets in a Song (Diverse Issues in Higher Education)
Science Hero: Erich Jarvis (My Hero Project)
Duke Faculty Page
Jarvis Lab Website

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Diversity in Science - last minute call for posts

I really hope that some of you visited Danielle Lee's blog, Urban Science Adventures, via the link on the upper right corner of this page. As a result of the sessions on gender and race at ScienceOnline'09, she had the really wonderful idea of starting up a blog carnival focusing on diversity among scientists. The internet could be a powerful tool to highlight the diversity that already exists among practicing scientists. One of the reasons that is often given for why members of minority groups don't pursue a career in science is the lack of role models that we can relate to. But what if there are scientists who look like us, come from where we come from, have had to overcome what we have to overcome, and more? If we don't know about them, that is an opportunity to feel included that has been missed.

I have been a very bad blogger lately - I had intentions of really playing up the inaugural edition of this carnival for the whole month of February. Since February is Black History Month, entries should be about an African American scientist. As Danielle says:

All year is great time to learn more about science and the people who make the discoveries. But February offers a great opportunity to learn about the achievements of African-Americans (and others from the African Diaspora) in the sciences. So I’m introducing a new Blog Carnival – Diversity in Science. Blogs of every genre are invited to write a special feature post about a person who is a pioneer and/or innovator in any of the amazing fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).
Tell us all about him/her?
How has this person impacted field of STEM and/or inspired you?
Or why is his/her story interesting?

Unfortunately, Thing 2 has been ill, work has been piling up, and so, blogging has been very light in general, so I haven't been able to show the support that such a great idea deserves. But we have until tomorrow (Friday, February 20) to submit entries. So, if you haven't done so, take a moment to write something about an African American scientist you really dig - someone whose work is interesting, or someone whose personal life you can relate to, or even just someone you have heard of and happen to know is black. Google them, find out a little about them, write it up, and submit it. Easy as pie. I'm going to write one right now.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


I read at Zuska's today that there is a movie coming out about the Ecole Polytechnique massacre. There's a short article about it on the Chronicle of Higher Education's News Blog. I first heard about this terrible tragedy when Alice posted in remembrance on Sciencewomen. At the time, I was deeply saddened, especially because I had never heard about it before. I was just about to graduate high school on December 6, 1989, the day that Marc Lepine marched into a classroom in the engineering school of Montreal University carrying a semi-automatic rifle, told the fifty-odd men to leave, called the remaining nine women "a bunch of fucking feminists", and then shot them all. Then wandered through the rest of the building, still shooting, until he had killed fourteen women and injured nine other women and four men. He finished it all off by stabbing one of the women he had shot but not quite killed, and then shooting himself. And, yet, I do not remember hearing a single thing about this event until I read Alice's post. Perhaps that is because it happened in Canada, and I grew up in the midwest, the heartland of America, where people don't really care what happens too far north.

But, when I first heard the story, I identified somewhat with the victims. I am not an engineer, but I did my undergrad in another traditionally male-dominated field, and am in graduates school in a slightly different field that still has far to go before achieving parity. I have experienced my share of dismissive and even nasty treatment by misogynistic assholes. I have friends who have endured worse. I understand the idea of the "chilly climate" for women in academia.But I have never been shot at, and I have no reason to believe that I will ever have to endure the kind or ordeal that unfolded in the Ecole Polytechnique on that day.

It was purely out of curiosity that I chose to watch the trailer for the film, which is simply called Polytechnique ,and is going to be released in Canada on February 6, in French and English. I found myself in tears. And it was because of a simple gesture, highlighted in a single shot of the trailer. One of the women takes the hand of the woman next to her, and presses it to the side of her leg. This gesture is, for me, the essence of what it is to be a wife, a mother, and a friend, all in one. I held my husband's hand like that on our wedding day, before the ultrasounds of our two beautiful children, and as we walked up to the office where we closed on our condominium. I hold my children's hands like that while waiting to cross the street and before they have a shot at the doctor's office. I have held the hand of a friend like that when they needed to know I was there for them. I could easily imagine myself holding another woman's hand like that if we were facing something as horrific as Marc Lepine brandishing a semi-automatic rifle. And, just like that, I could imagine myself BEING one of those women. That really rattled me.

It wasn't all that clear to me why I had such a powerful response to the trailer. But in a Chronicle article written six weeks after the massacre, Veronica Strong-Boag, a professor of history and women's studies at Simon Fraser University is quoted:

It's hard for young women in engineering to admit that they could have been one of those killed in Montreal.

I don't expect public statements of feminism from them. What I expect is a lot of denial, because that's the only thing that allows them to live in that hostile world.

There's a link to this in the text of the News Blog item, but it's behind a pay wall. The point, though, is that those of us who are busy upsetting the status quo by doing things that run against cultural norms have to compartmentalize things - we know the stories of the indignities and discrimination that others have faced, but we cannot place ourselves in their shoes, and still continue to walk the paths before us. To do so would mean making ourselves vulnerable in potentially dangerous ways. One of the ways I protect myself on a daily basis is by permitting myself to enter an alternate universe where I actually do live in my ideal society, and that nothing I am doing is unusual. This works because, among sane people, if someone asks me how I am going to finish graduate school while raising two children, and I respond with an uncomprehending look and a comment like, "Oh, I'll figure it out," they tend to just go along with me. I go along with me, too. I can't allow the thought that some maniac might decide not to go along with me and, instead, to blast me to hell for that to enter my mind. If I do, the armature that holds up my armor may crumble, and where would I be then.

But that doesn't mean that I don't need to face the fact that there are people out there who think really ugly things about women like me. Who think that my husband ought to show me who is boss and put me back in my place. Who might even think that death is an appropriate punishment for a woman who won't settle for her prescribed position in life. I do need to face that, and we as a society need to face it. If we pretend this is not so, then nothing will ever really change. And the only place that my ideal society will exist will continue to be in my imagination, no matter what wonderful things that wisp of strength permits me to achieve.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Burns Night Supper

January 25th was the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland's national poet. My husband is Scottish (from Scotland) and for many years, we have toyed with the idea of having a traditional Burns Night Supper. But we usually forget to plan for this until it is too late, or miss the date altogether. Last year, we managed to remember the date, but were completely unsuccessful at hunting down a haggis, the traditional main dish which plays an important part of the festivities. Janet @ Adventures in Ethics and Science made a lovely, non-haggis meal that I could definitely imagine being served in Scotland, but I'm not that creative, so last year we just read poems to each other, and hubby and I toasted with some Scotch whiskey.

But this year, we were really on the ball, and as Rabbie's big day approached, we had everything in place for the celebration. Hubby actually deserves the credit for this - at Christmastime he found a shop that imports all sorts of stuff from the UK and came home with a box full of Cadbury chocolates, Licorice Allsorts and other goodies that he loved to have at Christmas when he was a child. Also in the box was a Christmas Pudding and four haggis!

So we had a (relatively) proper Burns Night Supper last weekend. Hubby dressed up in his kilt, and though he skipped the formal Prince Charlie Jacket, he looked damn fine! Thing 1 wore her kilt as well, and she looked just beautiful! Thing 2 is in full-on "I'm a Princess" mode, so we convinced her to be a Scottish princess for the evening - she wore her tartan Christmas dress with her tiara. I wore a little black dress. Sorry, no pictures, but just trust me - we looked good! We served our guests cheese with oatcakes, some other appetizers and, of course, whiskey while I finished preparing the dinner.

The dinner went over amazingly well! We served haggis, mashed neeps (mashed turnips), tatties (mashed potatoes), and this really nice cabbage dish with bacon and sour cream (not traditionally Scottish, but it went well with the rest) and doused it all with a whiskey, mushroom and mustard cream sauce. YUM! Hubby read the "Address to a Haggis", and, with much drama, slit open the haggis with his sgian dubh, and everyone cheered (though I doubt they really understood much what was going on, what with the accent and dialect). Then he handed the knife to Thing 1, who slit open the second haggis. At some point, Thing 2 started chanting, "Kill the haggis!" and our guests joined in. Only one guest declined the haggis; everyone else tried it and several people had seconds. We finished off the dinner with a rich and delicious chocolate bread pudding.

We drank many toasts, and tossed about a fair bit of poetry. Thing 2 went off to bed prety early, but Thing 1 helped her dad read "To a Mouse" before she retired (they found a website that "translates" the poems into more standard English, but I'm not finding it right now). I read "A Man's a Man, For A' That" substituting in "Aw dat", since my brogue is, well, nonexistent. Then we drank some more toasts. A jolly good time was had by all. The only thing I would have liked to add to the evening is a ceilidh, but we have a pretty small apartment, and none of us play the right intruments.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Give Us More Choice

For this month’s Scientiae, Pat @ Fairer Science has asked,

What do you think a better, more equitable society should look like? What are your dreams for your life? For the lives of others? How close are you to living the life of your dreams? What would make you able to live that life?

What I would like to see more of in our society in general is choice. Real choice. Not just new compulsory roles masquerading as choice. I mean a multitude of different ways for people to live their lives, and all of them equally viable and equally respectable. I feel that I spend an awful lot of time justifying the choices I've made in my life and the rights of others to make different choices. Overall, I am pretty happy with my life, because I have done and continue to do the things I want to do. But I often wonder – how many people just don’t live the kind of life they want to because they just aren't as good as I am at ignoring the judgments of others.

I’d like to see people truly free to marry whomever they love – regardless of gender, race, nationality, or religion. And once these marriages were celebrated, I’d like to see the happy couples free to define the rules of the union for themselves. There would be no repercussions for choosing to be a two career couple. Likewise, if they agreed that only one of them will work outside the home, that would be fine, too, regardless of which one does so. It would be nobody else’s business which one of them brings home the bacon, which one fries it up, or which of them cleans up the mess when it’s done. That would be something that couples work out between themselves, and the only thing society would expect of them is that they work out a mutually satisfactory agreement.

Couples who chose not to formalize their relationship with a traditional wedding would not be marginalized, though I believe that with a more inclusive definition of marriage, many of the disincentives to entering into the contract would be minimized. And if a person chose not to marry or enter a long term relationship, that choice would be fully respected as well – no more lectures about how singles just need to get out there and find the right person. People are not socks – they do not have to be in pairs.

How many children a couple chooses to have, and when, is a personal choice, and in my dream society, it would be treated as such. But that would not be used as an excuse to withhold the basic supports that families need, such as health insurance for their children, decent neighborhood schools, and adequate and affordable childcare. And employers would treat all people as the rich and complex entities that we really are. This would mean they’d be willing to figure out ways for people to get their work done without having to slowly chip away at the parts of their lives that don’t take place in the workplace until all the joy in their lives is gone.

I’d also like to live in a society where the family unit is not rigidly defined. A family is a structure that exists to provide the support people need to thrive through the various stages of their lives. It should facilitate the raising of children. It should serve as a safety net for the newly independent young adult. It should serve as a pillar of strength to the fully engaged adult who is building a life’s work. And it should provide a hearth of comfort to the aged nearing the end of life. It seems to me that there must be more than one way for a group of human beings to accomplish those goals. In my ideal society, the most important thing would be making sure that people get the support they need from a family, not policing the configuration of that family structure.

In my dream society, people would be free to do the kind of work that excites them. When people are doing work that they find engaging, they will feel naturally motivated to do their best work. That is, I think, a much better motivator than money. But that doesn't remove money from the equation. I'd like to see the range of jobs that will allow a person to earn a living wage to be expanded. And I'd like to see greater respect for work that is done for no pay – like raising children and caring for infirm relatives.

If a person is wants to do a job, and is able to do that job well, he or she is an excellent candidate for that job. Period. I’d really like for there to be an end to all debate about whether a job is appropriate for a certain person because of things that have nothing to do with their ability or desire to do the job. And I’d like for those who are in the position to make hiring decisions to figure out that a person’s age, gender, and race are, more often than not, completely peripheral to the actual job qualifications.

Not all work requires the same, cookie-cutter education track. So I'd like to see a broader definition of when and how a person can be educated. That means more flexibility in when people go to college. Some kids are not ready right out of high school, and some people only realize later in life what they need that degree for. I’d also like to see more variety in the types of education a person can undertake that would be respectable. Maybe that means more apprenticeships, and more internships. We also probably need more configurations of “the degree”, including associates degrees that are actually worth something, and, perhaps, some sort of an extended degree that is more than a bachelor’s degree but not as intense as a master’s degree. And we definitely need more ways to pay for college. This is another good reason to create more apprenticeships and internships. Student loan debt is getting out of control. There have to be other options.

More choice. It seems really simple, but it would actually require a lot of restructuring of our current version of society. Or maybe not. Letting other people live their lives the way they want to may very well mean the end of the world as we know it. But if everyone in the world woke up tomorrow and realized that it could also mean the beginning of an even better one, the work would be done in short order. Call me idealistic if you like, but that is my dream.