Where does it end?

I listened to some of the inaugural episode of "Late Night with Chemjobber" last night. As a whole, I think it was a decent start. There were some technical issues (the audio cut out several times), some glitches (at one point Chemjobber accidentally hung up on the callers), and I get the feeling that nobody involved was practiced at radio or podcasting. All of that was understandable. For the most part, the topics were interesting or amusing, and (after a little dancing about deciding who should respond first) generated good discussions. I have one bone to pick with the show, though, and it's a big one: significant air time was given to a troll. 

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A Lab Notebook for Teaching

Chemists are trained to use lab notebooks, whether paper or digital, to record their observations, measurements and preliminary conclusions. Good lab notebooks include not just what you tried, but why you tried it and even what expectations you had for the outcome. Lab notebooks are a record; reading over previous entries can help you notice patterns and plan future experiments. Someone else should be able to read your notebook and understand what, why & how you did everything. Ideally, they could reproduce your work with that knowledge.

Teaching involves a lot of experimentation: choosing examples, refining explanations, developing ways to address misconceptions, rearranging the order of topics, yet few professors I know keep a teaching notebook, even among scientists who would surely defend the importance of a notebook in lab.

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Some thoughts about crying

Reset your "days since a sexism-in-science incident" counters to zero. A Nobel laureate dug himself a pretty deep and boggy hole when, among other things, he explained why he thought men and women shouldn't be in labs together. Apparently, the womenz are just too irresistible and men "fall in love with them," but women also cry too much.

Much digital ink has already been spilled on the many things wrong with the speech, the speaker's behavior, the non-pology circus, and the pathetic and tone-deaf kinds of support he has received. I just want to focus on the part about crying.

I cry easily. When I'm excited, I tend to tear up. I cry during movies. I have cried in the lab, in my advisor's office, while presenting a group meeting, and, yes, at the end of my thesis defense. I don't recall anyone ever calling it unprofessional, but I do know that that message has been implied at times. Several people, at several points in my life, have told me to "get a thicker skin" so I wouldn't cry as often.

I have a few problems with that.

For one thing, not crying, for me, is like not sneezing. I can control it a little bit, but it's hard and sometimes painful, and I often end up with my eyes watering anyway.

For another, you get a thicker skin by developing callouses, and you get callouses from repeated, sustained exposure to something abrasive or otherwise painful. No thank you, I don't want to become calloused. I don't want to expose myself to painful and abrasive things any more than necessary.

I want to be a person who feels.

The chemistry Nobel should go to a woman

It's Nobel Prize season, and everyone has their picks for which chemists might get a phone call from Sweden. All the names I've seen are of accomplished people who've done excellent, influential work. There's a problem with all these lists, though: I haven't seen a single woman on any of them. Not a damn one.1 Also notable: a general lack of brown/black people of either gender. What gives? Chemistry is not solely the domain of white and Asian men.

Folks on Twittter have been passing around the Slate article about the 50-year drought of female laureates in physics, but I think it's worth noting that the story is hardly any better in chemistry. I counted four women among the chemistry Nobel laureates: Marie Curie (1911), Irene Joliot-Curie (1935), Dorothy Hodgkin (1964), and Ada Yonath (2009). Did I miss any? I really hope so. Four is a pitiful number.

Are women really not doing Nobel-worthy work? Or do we not recognize their work with the same prestige?

Do we only recognize the super-women? Those who aren't just better, but leagues better, like Curie and Goeppert-Mayer?

When we speak of scientists, do we remember to count the women? Or do they become faceless and forgotten? Do we even listen when they speak?

So, with a few more hours to go, can we think of a few women who should be on the Nobel shortlist?

Update: I missed C&EN's list, but it also doesn't have any women. Still bummed.

1: Admittedly, I didn't check the much longer list of previous predictions from Everyday Science. I may have overlooked somebody.

More on career breaks

I have a few more things to say about how taking a break from science/academia could kill a woman's career.

First, the Executive Director of the Elsevier Foundation wrote a letter to the New York Times about retaining women in STEM (emphasis mine):

The work-life balance challenge faced by working women is particularly difficult for those in STEM professions (science, technology, engineering and math). Taking time off the research track can be a potentially career-ending decision for a woman, as she can lose valuable connections and funding.

Career brakes indeed. This letter prompted me to flip the issue and think about it from another side: what if men took more career breaks? The anecdata I have say that paternity leave (or, parental leave, in more generic terms) is becoming more common. Could we make it an expectation that parents will take breaks?

I have heard of a university (but now can't seem to find the article in which I read about it) that stops the tenure clock for new parents automatically. They have to ask for it not to stop, rather than the other way around. This is to encourage people to use the parental leave they have and make using it less stigmatized. It's a simple enough policy that might actually change academic culture. Parental leave is generally a few months, not multiple years, of course, but if we can change the attitudes about short breaks, I think it's possible to make longer breaks more acceptable, too.

Then there's this post at Chronicle Vitae about the proliferation of "quit lit," the genre of essays about leaving academia. I have read a number of quit lit pieces, but what strikes me about the topic this time around is that academia is a place people leave. Not take a break from, but leave for good. In that sense, it's not just women who might be unwelcome to return after time away, though men aren't likely to be accused of "leaning out" in the process.

I have to wonder how much of this attitude is related to the priesthood of science (and academia in general) and the ridiculous notion that "dedicated" scientists are single-minded in the pursuit of their work to the exclusion of other interests or obligations. I'm not sure and have no data to back it up, but I suspect they are linked.

Lastly, here are a few thoughts about working parents, moms in particular.

From an interview with Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo.:

I don't think women can have it all. I just don't think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all. My husband and I have been married for 34 years. And we have two daughters. And every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother, in fact many times during the day you have to make those decisions. And you have to co-opt a lot of people to help you. We co-opted our families to help us. We plan our lives meticulously so we can be decent parents. But if you ask our daughters, I'm not sure they will say that I've been a good mom. I'm not sure. And I try all kinds of coping mechanisms.

She says "you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother," but is her husband also presented with the same decisions about being a husband or a father? Maybe, but maybe not.

I also feel the need to invoke the Finkbeiner test on her interviewer, even though she's not a scientist.1 Until men are asked in equal proportion about how they balance family with work, we have got to stop interrogating women about it.

Finally, go read this post by dinahere about being the daughter of a working mother.

For the first 12 years of my life I don’t remember my father being there for my birthdays or attending a school play. He was busy saving lives in the OR, earning his share of the money and my mother was there for all of those occasions. So, why didn’t his absence count while hers did? Why were her absences so glaring while her presence so fading?

You know why. Women will never be able to have it all because what we think ‘all’ refers to has been pre-determined by a society that will always be stacked against us.

We can't keep blaming women when they don't measure up to an unachievable standard. The culture has got to change.

1: I'll just leave this right here, in case you haven't seen it yet.

Career brakes

From SciLogs:

When Adam Spencer asked if female scientists should consider taking an extended break of two or three years, the answer was a resounding “No.” “Science is really a fast-moving world,” [Suzanne] Cory said. “If you get out, even for three years, it becomes very difficult to get back in.

I have heard that position many times from both men and women, and I find it repugnant. It’s a “that’s the way it is” kind of attitude.

My grandmother was a music teacher before she was a mother. She’s told me if she could do it again, she would have become an accountant, but that’s not something girls did in those days. Girls could become teachers, nurses or secretaries. And then they could become mothers. Boys could become accountants or scientists or doctors or lawyers or whatever else they wanted. “That’s the way it is.”

Well that’s not the way it is now, and thank goodness. Thank goodness that somebody stepped up and said “This is what I want to do, and my gender doesn’t matter.” Thank goodness for the women who took the hard path – and the men who helped them – so that I could become a scientist. So that I could be treated as an equal.

Does my expertise have an expiration date? Does leaving the lab for more than a month make me forget how to be a scientist? Will my PhD turn into a pumpkin after midnight? No.

But “science is a fast-moving world” they insist. So what? We all had to learn how to get into that world once, so why can’t someone do it a second time? People also change fields and get into new topics they haven’t studied before. How is that any different from “getting into” the world of science after time away? No, the “fast-moving” argument strikes me as justification to leave things as they are and not bother to make it better.

It galls me to think that women are told that if they leaves, they will not be welcome back—that a career break soon becomes a career brake.

The panel in the article was discussing “possible solutions to fixing this leaky pipeline.” Their conclusion appears to be that women shouldn’t leave in the first place.1 But why on earth don’t we do something to support the women who want to come back?

1: Suzanne Cory:

“You are at a crucial age now. Don’t drop off.”

The panelists also said that women need more confidence. Tell me just how much confidence I’ll have after I’ve been told time and again that it’s damn hard to be a woman in science and you can’t leave because then you’ll have let down Womanhood and leaked out of the pipeline, and if you do go you won’t be welcome back because Reasons. And how far will that confidence get me when my words are ignored until spoken by a man? How confident do I need to be to get men to stop patting me on my head? How much confidence will I need to muster to get a seat at the table and be able to keep it?

I have sworn off Women in Science luncheons because I’m sick being told that the solution for the leaky pipeline is “Believe in yourself,” like if I just close my eyes and click my heels together, that will just fix everything.

The best scientist I know

Joe Palca asked me on Twitter this morning,1

Who is the best scientist you know, and what qualities make her/him the best?

I had to think a moment about this. I'm sure many people who love science have a favorite historical scientist. My shortlist is mostly crystallographers: Kathleen Lonsdale, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, the Braggs (Sr. and Jr.), Linus Pauling,2 and I am amused by the story of Alessandro Volta, who was such a great practitioner of the scientific method, that he felt the need to zap himself with his electro-motive apparatus over and over again on various parts of the body "where the skin is very delicate" to make sure it really worked.3

Who is the best scientist you know? It's a simple enough question, but it can be interpreted in several ways. For one, what sense of "know" are we considering?

  • Who is the best scientist you know of?
  • Who is the best scientist you have seen (at a conference, seminar, etc.)?
  • Who is the best scientist you have met?
  • Who is the best scientist who knows your name in return?
  • Who is the best scientist you know personally?

Then we should consider what we mean by "best scientist"? The follow-up question (what qualities…?) allows us to define our own criteria for best, but who gets to be a scientist? Must we consider only professional scientists?

Because this question has so many variations, I have several answers. Here are two scientists I aspire to be more like.

W.E. Moerner is one of the best scientists I know. I have heard him speak on a few occasions, and I have read a fair number of his papers. My advisor was a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory, and from comments she has made over the course of my PhD, I believe that experience has significantly influenced her approach to science and advising.

Dr. Moerner gave a seminar at UM once, and I was among the students and post-docs who ate lunch with him. We had sandwiches and chips in the Biophysics conference room, and he chatted with each and all of us about a variety of topics. Someone asked him about his work with Kador on single-molecule spectroscopy, and he jumped up to the white board and started sketching out diagrams and explaining the story. He did so clearly and carefully, and seemed to have all the patience in the world when someone didn't understand. He has a reputation for being brilliant, and that made me a bit intimidated at first, but that feeling wore off quickly. He was approachable and just plain excited to tell us about the neat things he'd learned. And he didn't just talk to us, he conversed with us.

Krishanthi Karunatilaka is one of the best scientists I know personally. She was a post-doc in our lab until last fall. She is absolutely meticulous; I have some real notebook-envy for her tidy, organized notes in clear and even handwriting. She is driven and dedicated without any of the pushiness that I have come to associate with those terms. She has worked some long, hard days because she wants to know the answers to the questions she has. She also finds balance. I know that her Saturday mornings in Ann Arbor were set aside for a peaceful cup of coffee on her apartment balcony. She doesn't get knocked down by failures. If an experiment doesn't work (or gives unexpected answers), she has another idea, she keeps rolling on. When someone else is struggling, she's the first person to say "Don't worry, you can try something else. Keep going." She has a talent for presenting even brand-new data in a way that makes it sound like she's considered their implications for weeks.

Other names come to mind as well,4 but you'd find they follow the same pattern: the best scientists I know do good, thoughtful, careful scientific work, and are also excellent teachers, communicators, and just generally nice people.

So those are my "best scientists." Who are the best scientists you know? What makes them the best?

1: I admit, I had a complete fan-girl moment.

2: I admire Marie Curie, too, but she is used so often as The Token Female Scientist, that I think of the words of Mr. Bennet: “That will do extremely well… You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.”

3: From Volta's letter to the Royal Society:

If, by means of an ample contact of the hand (well moistened) I establish on one side a good communication with one of the extremities of my electro-motive apparatus … and on the other I apply the forehead, eye-lid, tip of the nose, also well moistened, or any other part of the body where the skin is very delicate: if I apply, I say, with a little pressure, any one of these delicate parts, well moistened, to the point of a metallic wire, communicating properly with the other extremity of the said apparatus, I experience, at the moment that the conducting circle is completed, at the place of the skin touched, and a little beyond it, a blow and a prick, which suddenly passes, and is repeated as many times as the circle is interrupted and restored.

4: For example, my introduction to Jenny Glusker was similar in many respects to my lunch with Dr. Moerner.

Victor DiRita, a collaborator and dissertation committee member of mine, is another one of the best scientists I know. He teaches me something every time time we meet, even if only for a few minutes.

The best amateur scientist I know is probably my uncle Tom, for lots of the same reasons. He is also the only person I know who gets really excited about moss.