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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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.


I got an iPod Touch in 20091 and wished from the start that I could write my own apps for it.2 I knew approximately nothing about coding, though, so it was a rather far-away sort of wish.

In grad school I learned to code in Matlab. It was a sink-or-swim kind of thing. With the help of another grad student, two books, the wonders of Matlab Central (and later StackExchange), and lots of practice, I learned how to write and debug programs.

My brother is a programmer, and by his standards I'm a hobbyist at best, but I can make the computer do what I need, and I've gotten better as I've gone. Still, he teases me about how I should learn a "real" language, and I kind of agree. So about a year ago, after listening to a Mac Power Users episode about learning to code, I bought a book about learning Objective-C.3 I got a little better than halfway through it before other things got in the way; it's one of the things I was planning to come back to this summer between grad school and job.4

Those summer plans may have just changed, though. A week or two ago at the WWDC Keynote, Apple announced a new programming language called Swift and I think I'm in love. I watched the demo and thought "I can definitely do this." I may finally be able to write the apps I wished for. There's an eBook about the language, which I've already started reading. Though it starts from "Hello world," I don't think it would be much help if you had no familiarity with programming whatsoever,5 but it does look promising for someone (like me) who has at least dipped their toes into the programming pool before.

So that's my next side project: learn another language, try to make an app (I have several ideas), and see how it goes. I'm excited to get started.

1: Nearly 5 years later, it's a bit sluggish but still kicking.

2: I was also bowled over by the idea that the device playing podcasts in my pocket had a bigger hard drive than my laptop's original drive: 64 vs 60 GB. When I stop to think about it, it still amazes me how powerful the gadgets in my pockets and bags are. And then I start feeling old…

3: It's a really good book, too: The Big Nerd Ranch Guide. My inability to finish it has much more to do with being an overwhelmed graduate student in need of "off" time for my brain than the quality of the book. I highly recommend it, and I think it's an excellent example of instructional writing.

4: Oh yeah, I accepted a job about the same time I was completely overloaded with dissertation and defense stuff. The defense is done, the dissertation is submitted, and though I wrote about the stresses and thrills of job-hunting, I guess never did mention here that I did accept an offer. More on that another time. Short version: I have a job starting in August and I'm excited about it!

5: This is actually the same gripe I have about the Matlab Getting Started Guide and books for "beginners." All of these say that you can start from scratch, but they usually assume knowledge and vocabulary that a first-time programmer may not have. (I'm looking at you, floating-point array.)

Consider these programming languages like human languages: the Getting Started Guide might tell me how a verb is conjugated, but if I don't know what "conjugation" is, I don't know what to do with that information. If you've learned another language before, you've probably learned the meta-terminology already, and have some kind of structure for understanding this new set of words, sounds, and grammar rules.

About that STEM shortage

About that STEM shortage

A week or so ago, somebody on Twitter shared this post at the US Census Bureau blog on employment in STEM fields. It includes a chart showing the trends in the fields as a fraction of total STEM employment. It doesn't tell you about would-be STEM workers who are unemployed, nor does it tell you about unfilled positions in these areas. Still, I think you can get a rough idea of the relative demand for workers in each field. If there are many people currently employed in a field, it implies a large demand for that field. Said another way, if there weren't demand for that work, why would those people still have jobs?

I was not surprised to see that T and E are bigger slices of the STEM pie. What did surprise me was how much bigger they are. So here, for your viewing pleasure, is a little graphic. The colored bars are proportional to each field's contribution to total STEM employment in 2011.

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