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.

Friday, January 23, 2009

On Not Quite Passing

Helping to moderate the panel on Race in Science at ScienceOnline'09 reminded me that I have not written all that much about my experience of race on this blog. This is certainly not because I never think about it, or am not impacted by it in my life. It's just complicated for me, and, so, hard to write about.

Though I am very light-skinned, I don't think that when people meet me they think that I am white. But, I also know for certain that a lot of people do not immediately think that I am black, either. And not being able to immediately pigeon-hole me makes some people very uncomfortable. I can tell when it is happening because they will circle around and around the question they'd really like to ask. They will start by asking me where I am from. The answer is usually unsatisfactory, since I was born and lived in the Midwest region of America until I graduated high school. So, then they will ask me where my parents are from. Again, the answer provides no satisfactory explanation for my appearance, since my my mother was born in the same town I grew up in, and my father was from a town only 50 miles away. What happens next is usually interesting.

Some people drop it completely, and that is just fine.

But some people then ask me, "What is your national heritage?". If I'm in still in a good mood, I will go ahead and answer them. If they have annoyed me along the way with their questioning (like when it has completely derailed an otherwise productive conversation, and has nothing to do with the topic it has supplanted) I will fuck with them, and answer, "I am an American," which is a perfectly true and accurate answer to that question.

Sometimes people ask, "What is your ethnic background?" or some other such carefully constructed question. These people I usually answer directly, but, again, if they have annoyed me, I will fuck with them, and ask them what they think it is.

Some people guess before things get to this point. I've been asked if I was Hispanic (all possible flavors), Asian Indian, a Sephardi Jew, Turkish, Southern Italian, and probably loads of other nationalities I can't remember. If the people of a region have olive skin and very dark hair and eyes, I have probably had somebody ask me if I am from that region. And be really convinced that they must be right. To the point where I have had more people than I can count walk up to me and start speaking Spanish without so much as an introduction, and I have even insulted a taxi driver in India because I "refused" to speak Hindi to him (because I don't know how).

Nobody ever guesses correctly. My father was of mainly German descent with a fair bit of Irish mixed in, and my mother was an African American with a several Native Americans on the nearby branches of her family tree. So, though I don't think anyone really thinks that I am white, I do often pass for being "not black".

So why do I fuck with people? Let me make it clear which people I will fuck with. The people who I become annoyed with are the ones who really want to ask me, "What are you?". Before the whole PC movement, when I was growing up in the seventies, that was a question that I got asked on a regular basis. And when I would give the most obvious answer, "a person" it would really not go down well. For nearly a year in elementary school, this gang of kids would make a game of asking me. "What are you? Are you black or are you white?" They never accepted any of my answers. When I tried saying, "I'm both," they insisted that I had to choose. When I tried saying, "I'm neither," they still insisted that EVERYONE is one or the other. So, I had to choose. They would push, and push, and push, and push, until, at some point, I'd just completely lose it, and become irrational. I got in many, many schoolyard fights during this time. And it began to feel as though my very person-hood was being questioned on a daily basis.

So, now that it's not considered polite conversation to ask someone if they are an "Oreo", a "domino", "caramel", "half-baked", a "half-breed", a "half cast", "Halfrican", a "mulatto", a "mongrel", a "mutt", "newspaper", a "skunk", or a "zebra"*, people dance around those questions, but there is still a population of people who are just looking for a slightly nicer way to ask the same thing. They are the grown up version of those kids who taunted me in elementary school. I'm an adult, now, too, and much better at keeping my temper (though if you really want to see me go ballistic, just call me "high yellow"). But I do enjoy letting people know that I know what they are trying to do, and I am not going to let them get away with pretending to be polite.

This is not to say that I don't like people who are merely curious about what ingredients went into the mysterious potion of genetics that created my exquisite and unique appearance. In fact, I'm happy to discuss all the details I know with those people. I just think it's their job to identify themselves clearly as such, and make sure I know they are not a member of the other group.

Sometimes it is hard to tell. I have been coveted by white men as an exotic trophy. I have been told off by black men for thinking I'm too good for them (never mind that I am already married). I have been questioned by girlfriends as to why I didn't date more black men. I have been asked what I was doing at a black student group function. I have had the motivation and appropriateness of my parents' marriage questioned to my face. I have had people suggest that I must have been looking to "marry up" when I became engaged to my white, European husband. And I have had people ask me if I was remarried because Thing 1 is so much more similar in coloring to me than to her father, my current and only husband. Yes, among all that noise, sometimes it is very hard to tell.

*There are lots of the other, oh-so-amusing epithets that have been created especially for those of us who are not of a single racial lineage. You can see an amazing list of such terms at the Racial Slur Database. Some of the ones I have never actually heard, but found amusing were: "brass ankle", "calf", "halfro", and "Halfula".

Monday, January 19, 2009

ScienceOnline'09 - The Roundup

Well, I made it back from ScienceOnline'09, in spite of some weather issues. I had an amazing time! This was the first time I attended an un-conference, and I must say, I really liked it. The format made for much more dynamic discussions than I have ever seen before at a conference. The women in STEM group I am involved with at my university have some events planned that I think this approach will work well for, and I'm going to suggest it.

After the wine tasting, I heard Rebecca Skloot talk about the path she took to become a science writer, and about her upcoming book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" on the history of HeLa cells. I'm definitely going to get a copy as soon as it comes out.

Saturday was a busy day. First, I attended Science Fiction on Science Blogs? led by Stephanie Zvan (Almost Diamonds) where potential for connections between science fiction writing and science blogging was discussed. Clearly scientists read a lot of science ficiton, but they don't tend to write about it on their blogs.

Next, I went to Transitions – changing your online persona as your real life changes moderated by Propterdoc and ScienceWoman. This was a lively discussion, touching on the reasons why blogging in the early stages of a career can be beneficial, as well as pitfalls to avoid.

Then it was off to Gender in science - online and offline, moderated by Suzanne Franks (aka Zuska), Abel Pharmboy, and Alice Pawley. Again, this was a lively discussion, focused on what it means to be an ally to an underprivileged group, and how to be a good ally.

After lunch came the highlight of my day - I helped Danielle Lee moderate the session on Race in Science. This came about as a result of my staying true to my theme this year - I put myself out there when Danielle's intended co-moderator couldn't make it at the last minute. Boy, was I nervous, but Danielle really put me at ease, and I am so glad I had a chance to be a part of that conversation. You can be sure I'll be blogging about the issues raised in many upcoming posts.

Next came Anonymity, Pseudonymity – building reputation online , moderated by PalMD and Abel Pharmboy (I honestly don't know how he had the energy to moderate two sessions - by this point of the day, I was pretty close to wiped out). But this was, again, a great discussion of the types of online identities one can have and the pros and cons of each.

And last, but not least, I went to Janet Stemwedel's session on Online science for the kids (and parents). Check out the linked wiki page - there is a treasure trove of online science resources geared toward kids. Super cool!

Then there was dinner, and socializing to the wee hours. I met and chatted with just about every person mentioned on this page, and many, many more. It was just an amazing collection of fascinating and thoughtful people who were all interested in talking about science, the culture of science, and ways to communicate science. And, I got to sign the tee shirt for DrugMonkey! What an honor!

Sunday morning, I went to Hey, You Can’t Say That!, moderated by Greg Laden, Rick MacPherson, Karen James, and Mark Powell. Though I was slightly dissapointed that PZ Meyers wasn't there, this was a really eye opening conversation about what can happen when you write freely on your blog, and how to handle the heat if it comes.

My final session was Science blogging networks – what works, what does not? This one was moderated by Cameron Neylon and Deepak Singh. Anna Kushir, from Nature Network, and Erin Johnson from ScienceBlogs also helped guide the discussion, which was mostly about the pros and cons of joining a network like ScienceBlogs, or Nature Network, or running your blog on your own.

Whew! Then I had lunch and ran to the airport to catch my plane, which was delayed. But it wasn't too much of a hardship, since the Raleigh-Durham airport is quite nice, and I didn't have to entertain anyone but myself. When I finally got home, my kids ran to the door to meet me, and both of lept into my arms at the same time. It was one of the best greetings I have had in a long time!

So, all in all, ScienceOnline'09 was an excellent experience. I have all kinds of ideas for posts inspired by the discussions. And, I'll definitely be going back next year if at all possible. A big, big thank you to Anton Zuiker, Bora Zivkovic and David Kroll for organizing a kick-ass conference, and making it possible for me to attend!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Liveblogging - with Wine

Abel Pharmboy has arranged a wine tasting this evening for some of us attending ScienceOnline'09, as an extension of the "Friday Fermentable" recurring fun-feature he's been doing over on Terra Sigillata. Well, I've never been to a wine tasting, and I've never liveblogged anything. Why not just combine these two firsts? How bad can it get? Let's find out...

6:30 - We have just received our first samples - two Chardonnays, one from California one from France. The Californian has a more golden color, and has "legs". Abel is telling us some interesting facts - American wines tend to be inoculated with oenococcus oeni cultures (which converts malic acid to lactic acid) where the French tend to rely on airborne bacteria. American wineries tend to use new barrels, where the French do not. Vanillin leaches from the barrels into the wine to give it he characteristic taste of oak. That would explain some of the the taste difference -the Californian has more oak taste and is less tart. Now, my verdict: I like the Californian. The French seems weak in comparison (but perhaps wouldn't have done if I had it on it's own). But I would, and will happily drink both. (NB: We are not spitting!)

7:00 - We are on to the reds. Both are Pinot Noir. One is from Oregon, the other Californian. Both have really nice, rich red color. Both have legs, but the Oregon was slightly more pronounced. I really prefer the Oregon wine. It has a smoother, more balanced taste. I felt that the Californian was more acidic, and didn't have as nice a finish, almost bitter. Apparently, nearly everyone else agrees with me. The conversation is becoming more relaxed and familiar. Could this have anything to do with the fact that we have all had four glasses of wine each? Hmm...

7:25 - Wrapping up: My favorite overall was the Oregon red. I want to look into the whole phenomena of "legs". This is when you swirl the wine in the glass and it forms streams as it runs back down the glass. I am wondering what it is in the wine that causes this to happen, though I'm not sure that it really affects the taste. I will also add the names of the wines later, in case you want to try this at home. Well, off to hear Rebecca Skloot talk. Yay!

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Well, I probably should have announced this several weeks ago, but I guess I just didn't really believe it was all going to work out. I am going to ScienceOnline'09! I plan to blog as much as possible while I'm there - total immersion style. So stay tuned for some prolific blogging!

Also, if any of you are going to be there, and haven't done so, yet, drop me a line by email and let me know. So I can avoid you to protect my secret identity.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Apologies for the light (okay, nonexistent) blogging last week. Personal matters filled my free time, but now the issues are resolving, so I am going to try to get back on schedule.

Last post, I announced my theme of the year, "putting myself out there". ScienceWoman commented, "But I think it should also apply to networking-like-hell at conferences."

How true! And probably one of the things I need to do the most work on. I begin to feel overwhelmed quickly in large gatherings, and I have trouble sometimes handling situations that do not have well established rules of engagement. For instance, I do just fine in a talk + question-and-answer format, and do ask questions, even though I feel really nervous. I have discovered that it makes it easier if I write the question down first (during the talk) - then all I have to do is read it when my turn comes. However, during less formally organized types of situations, a more sophisticated strategy is required. You cannot write down your questions in advance. In fact, you often don't even know who you will be talking to in advance.

I have been told (repeatedly) that the only way to get better at these things is to practice. I am accepting that advice and seeking out opportunities to network. For example, I recently received an email notifying me of a symposium near me that I could attend, and present at, requiring no travel. Normally, I would wait for my PI to suggest that I apply. But this time, I took the initiative and asked him what he thought about it. He agreed it would be a good opportunity for me, so I'm going. Now, I just have to get my abstract in and see what happens.

I don't think anyone else in the lab is planning on going, so this will be the first time I will not have other members of the lab to fall back on - I'm going to have to talk to people I don't know for the whole day. I plan to make up some business cards, and practice quickly describing my work in a clear, succinct, and memorable manner. I'm also going to be on the lookout for more opportunities like this.

Yes, I am dying for more suggestions.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Back to Work

Well, the kids went back to school today, and I went back to my normal schedule, full-time in the lab. The break has been much needed, and I was feeling ready to get my nose to the grindstone bright and early this morning. I was also inspired by Jane and ScienceWoman to choose a theme for this year. I had some vague ideas about what I want to accomplish this year, but I have only just now come up with a succinct way of expressing them.

I intend to make this year all about "putting myself out there".

I discovered last year that I need to build my skills (and confidence) in presenting myself and my science. I also discovered that I am ready to take more control of where my research project will go. Both of those important steps in becoming a real, grown-up scientist will require me to speak up, make decisions, and take risks. In short, it is time for me to step forward and out of the shadows. All last year, I kept hearing people referring to me as a nearly "senior" graduate student. My PI has been nudging me (okay, sometimes shoving me) in this direction. I just didn't feel ready until now. So, I've been dragging my heels.

But it is time for that to end. I've got a nearly completed manuscript on my desk. And just before Christmas, I got the nearly impossible experiment that would really improve the paper to work. Yippee! The only work I did over the holidays was to analyze the hell out of that data to see if I could get anything usable. Not-so-festive, but it's actually looking pretty good! So now it's time to send it out into the world.

It's also time to move forward with new things. Almost two years ago, I messed around with a new way to look at something that I thought could be developed into a new technique. At the time, PI wasn't all that impressed. But I kept coming back to it in my mind. When we were discussing potential follow up work, I brought it up again. This time, I had better reasons for why to work up my idea, and a clearer plan for how to do it. And this time, PI bit the hook - we are moving forward with the plan I laid out, virtually unchanged.

So I'm stepping out on a limb and doing the science that I want to do. That means that if it doesn't work out, then I've got nobody to blame for making me go this route but myself. I'm hoping that my PI's new-found enthusiasm is a good indicator that I have a good shot at making this work. But if not, c'est la vie, non?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

January Scientiae Carnival

It is New Year’s Day. We have crossed the threshold and have begun another year. For me, this is always a day of some degree of introspection. Over the past few years, I have opened and closed quite a few really big doors, and I’m always thinking about this on the first day of the year. I made the decision to go to graduate school. Seven years ago (ouch, it’s really hard to say that), I was preparing my applications, and I chose to aim high. It paid off, but not without a price. I marched through the door to the school of my dreams, and simultaneously opened the door to the nightmare of the “two-body problem”. One year later, I was finishing my first semester, and realizing that hubby was not going to be able to join Thing 1 and me in New City as quickly as we’d hoped. But we chose not to close the door on our desire to have another child. No, we marched right through that one, too, and two years later we were anxiously awaiting the birth of Thing 2. My difficult pregnancy necessitated closing to door on research for a while, but, thanks to the support of my PI and graduate program chair, I was able to re-open that one without too much trouble. It took another year before someone opened a door to hubby here in New City. But it finally happened. Which closed to door on the particular brand of insanity that trying to do my thesis research while raising two kids mostly on my own turned out to be.

This year has been all about looking around and opening the doors I thought I could not while things were so crazy. I have given several talks. I have nearly finished writing my first first-author paper. I have begun to take control of my research program in a way that I sometimes feared I would never be able to when all I could think about was how to get through THIS day. I have begun to see a big picture. It took me a while to get to this point, but I had a lot of closed doors in front of me.

Then, there is this blog. When I started this, I re-opened a part of myself that had lain dormant for some time. I love to write, I love to tell stories. I am grateful that someone out there actually wants to read them. And since blogging is so much more interactive than journaling, I have also gained a whole reader full of other people’s stories. So, for this month’s Scientiae Carnival, I asked you all to tell me about the doors YOU have opened and closed this year. And here is what you sent me:

Patchi @ My Middle Years has been keeping the door open on the research she did as a graduate student and in her first postdoc. But she has realized that:

One of the problems of trying to finish projects is that they are never actually finished.
So she has decided to
Move on, let the open doors shut...
which I think is a GREAT New Year's Resolution!

Cherish @ Faraday's Cage is where you put Schroedinger's Cat feels the disappointment of seeing a publication on one of her ideas, that she did not write:
The article covered pretty much what I had planned on doing for my PhD had I stayed in electrical engineering. I still had hopes to pursue it since I'd already done some preliminary work. My MS advisor really was excited about this field of research, and I was disappointed that I didn't have the time to do more with it.
So now she must decide whether to re-open that door and use the paper as a stepping-stone to investigate the topic at a deeper level, or to (reluctantly) close the door for good.

ScienceWoman @ ScienceWomen wrote about closing out her Ph.D. research and beginning to establish her new research progam:

Three papers. And I'm out of material from my Ph.D. It's all published or about to be.

For years my research identity has been wrapped up in a particular subject and a particular field area. Now I live someplace far away and I have to establish my independence as an investigator in order to build my case for tenure. And, of course, I have to keep that publication pipeline flowing.
While it's hard to believe that someday I will look back on my Ph.D. research in such a simplified way, it's good to know that there is an "after" that is not just more of the same!

Jane @ See Jane Compute wrote about how she "inadvertantly let a door close" by not actively putting herself out on the job market this year. She is up for tenure next year, and, as we all know, nothing is guaranteed. But, she says:
In short, the way I've assessed the situation is that I need X amount of time and energy to get tenure here, and I would need Y amount of time and energy to go on the market, and X + Y > Z, the time I actually have available. In fact, X > Z anyway, which is problematic in its own right.
I feel her pain, as I try to ramp up my own activity without letting too much fall by the wayside on the homefront, and I hope that everything works out for her.

Unbalanced Reaction @ Unbalanced Reaction also closed the door on the job market for this year, only to see it re-open all on its own:
So in recent months, I've been exploring new territory. I had to decide whether to go back on the active job market or continue on for another year at TempCollege. I chose to not put out any applications. The Boss was terribly disappointed that I was closing the door on all potential opportunities. The argument was made that I could leverage any tenure-track offers to try to gain a position at N.A.'s institution.

Now, a door has opened at N.A.'s institution.
N.A. being the other body in her two-body situation. Way to go, U.R.!

doc-in-training @ Kate's Casebook has been a busy little bee this year, in spite of the efforts of a few people who seem intent on holding her back. But while she is pleased with her progress in building a foundation for for further research, she is a bit worried about her next steps:
With regard to the year ahead, the most significant event will be to find out whether doors will indeed be opened for me after all these foundation building. Will I eventually get the fellowship and/ or internal grant so that I can head over to the other research team in another country, and start getting to the core of my research that I’d like to do? Has my work been good enough to get me to the next level? Or, has the self-proclaimed good work simply not been good enough? Well. If you ask me, my answer as of today is I dunno.
I hope that door is opened wide for her!

volcanista @ Volcanista: a magmalicious blog has also had a whirlwind year:
I opened and closed a lot of really obvious doors this past year. I am literally just formalities away from having my PhD right now. I left my PhD home and moved to a new state, far away from my significant other, to take a faculty job ABD (soon to be with D). Wow! I wish her luck in all her new endeavors!

PodBlack @ PodBlack Cat has a well developed habit of opening doors, which has served her well this year:
I’ve made new friends, made some great discoveries and (as always, it seems) made some people irrationally self-righteously petulant for daring to question their assumptions by ‘asking too many questions’ - and even had an adventure where I stayed in a Japanese-style hotel box at Heathrow Airport! The picture features evidence!

Mind, none of those are really out of the ordinary for me. I hope that there’s lots of people out there who can nod agreement at similar experiences, especially the ‘daring to ask too many questions or challenge their own preconceptions’! World would be a far more dull place if we stayed behind rather than ’set forth for Corfu’.
I couldn't agree more!

Professor in Training @ Professor in Training has quite a story to tell:
Given that the theme of January’s Scientiae is “As one door closes, another one opens. Likewise, as one door opens, another one closes” and that I had never gotten off my ass in time to submit anything for previous Scientiae carnivals, I figured that this was as good a time as any to provide one example of how having a door opened for me helped my career … and how I almost fucked it up.
Well, I'm not going to spoil it for you. Her tale of luck nearly lost is a must-read!

Pat @ FairerScience wrote about the ongoing effort to open the doors of opportunity to women in academia:
Last year, Toni Clewell and I wrote a book, Good Schools in Poor Neighborhoods, that built on this concept. We found highly effective schools (defined by student achievement) and matched them with typical schools from the same district in the same neighborhoods serving the same types of kids. Then we looked at what the good schools did that the others didn't and vice versa. Some results reflected existing theory, others didn't.

We should be doing this at college, graduate, post doc and faculty levels. Take the places with larger numbers of women in STEM, match them with other similar institutions that aren't doing so well and see what are the successful institutions are doing differently than the others. Heck we could even compare institutions where women in STEM are, dare I say it, happy and where they aren't. Let's spend more time looking at success and exploring what's behind it rather than always testing strategies to see if they work.
That sounds like an awesome idea.

Isis the Scientist @ On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess addresses a reader's concerns about minority-specific funding and tokenism:

There may be one or two doors open to you specifically because of who you are, but there are one or two hundred that are closed. These allies appreciate us, want us in the game because of the skills we bring, and are trying to lay down mechanisms (ie, open doors) by which we can get the opportunity to play. As this happens, we can begin to lay down our own mechanisms (and, to some degree, are already). Funding is tight enough as it is; take advantage of every opportunity you can without apology. Then, take everything and accent it with the brilliant science I have no doubt you are capable of doing.
I have struggled with this myself, and at each new level of my career I have been able to see just how many doors I didn't even know existed. I expect this will continue for a long time, so I intend on taking whatever route presents itself.

Arlenna @ ChemicalBioLOLogy is thinking about what a Ph.D. actually means, and whether it is the right door for everyone:
Yes, it is a special thing. It is a desirable thing, this degree. It's an exceptional thing, that not just anybody should be able to do. That is what makes it a valuable degree, and why people put themselves through some hell to get there. BUT it is not the only way to personal and professional success, in science or the rest of the world.
Be sure to check out her Venn diagram of the qualities that come together to make a Ph.D. scientist.

Amanda @ A Lady Scientist wrote about how her significant other's expectations of work schedule differ from hers. Now that they are living together again:
The door has closed on the obsessive (and unhealthy?) work habits, but a door has opened to the possibility of being happy in grad school.
I'll drink to that!

Brigindo @ Dirt and Rocks wrote:
the big door that closed for me this year is active mothering. Active mothering is a phrase I termed for having a child in the home with you; a child you nurture and care for on a daily basis. That ended for me when Angel went away to college. I am now on inactive status.
As a person in the thick of active mothering, it's hard to imagine that I, to will one day close the door on this phase of my life. I hope she finds some new, unexplored doors to open.

hypoglycemiagirl @ hypoglycemiagirl wrote eloquently about the loss of her grandfather and the complex feelings it aroused in her about her own life:
My grandma is bored at her rehab home. She's not a complainer, rather the opposite, but it's pretty evident she's not very impressed. Not much rehab is going on during the holidays anyway so we get her out of there and home to her house as much as possible. The doors to her room at the home are automatic to help the weak oldies open them. Sometimes the door open and close open and close at random times, both day and night. Which is pretty annoying and a damn good metaphor describing my career. Random doors opening as I passed by.

Candid Engineer @ Candid Engineer in Academia wrote about how hard it can be to walk through a door in the first place, especially when it slams shut behind you:
I was in a completely different part of the country, in an apartment that wasn't mine, in a lab that felt like a zoo on the best of days, and a war zone on the worst. My husband was without a job, and we had no money. No support system. I described to my friends the feeling of being thrown into the deep end of a dark, cold pool. And all I could think about was how I wanted to go back to our old city, the place where we had fallen in love, where people knew me, where my labmates looked up to me, where I felt safe and productive and comfortable.

But that door had closed.

Thank you so much to all of you who contributed to this month’s Scientiae Carnival. It was truly a pleasure to read every entry, and I hope I have done them all justice. Happy New Year to you all!

Happy New Year!

To all my friends, old and new:

I love you all so much more than I can ever express!