Monday, 31 January 2011

"Women Science Bloggers": Divide and conquer is not the answer

Let me make this clear. I am a woman. I am a scientist. I have a blog. I would not call myself a "blogger", given the more-than-sad state of this thing. I wish I had the time to blog about science, I really do. However, my job is not a "blogger"; I am a PhD student with a lot of things on my plate. I read my usual blogs in the morning, comment when I deem it necessary (read: rarely) and get on with my own work.

Some of my usual blogs include Bora Z's A Blog Around the Clock and Ed Yong's Not Exactly Rocket Science as well as following them (and many others) on twitter. There was the recent Science Online 2011 event as well as some articles concerning "Women Science Bloggers" and the various people and issues surrounding that concept. I have read what I can, and given some thought to the issue, but I have found myself getting slightly irate the more I see the term "Women Science Bloggers" pop up (also as #wsb on Twitter).

Why? I guess I should not be surprised at my reaction. I have the same impulses every time I get invited to a "woman's lunch" at scientific conferences. Though I realise women face different difficulties, particularly in science, which has not been traditionally a female pursuit, I am incredibly put off by attending these events. What if a conference held a "men's lunch"? (I know that's a pretty cliché response to a much more complex issue, but stick with me) Well, I can tell you I'd probably be the first in there, waving my burning bra in their faces. I simply do not think that to answer these issues, we should be actively separating genders for the purpose of discussion.

This is a tricky topic. I want to address issues that women face, especially in science. I have experienced it myself, but think that the "divide and conquer" approach is counter-productive. It sets women aside as "others" and do not allow for productive discussion.

I believe that I have come this far in astrophysics by my own right. I do not want my success negated by affirmative action. When I was in my last year of undergraduate, I was the first to get accepted into a PhD program due to the fact that I wanted to move overseas and needed to apply earlier (and I wasn't a bad student). However, my happiness was brought down by my male friends who figured I had "just got in because I was a woman". Now, this may or may not have been said seriously, but it was said by a group of men who were incredibly stressed out about their future careers. Seeing phrases like "we encourage women and other minority groups to apply" on their applications were throwing my white, male friends off their game.

I am the postgraduate representative for my university's Project Juno Committee, which was started by the Institute of Physics in order to address the issues of women in physics departments. I was more-than-hesitant to join this group because I have seen many get-women-into-physics schemes turn into positive discrimination. However, I thought I would go along and see what it was (I am willing to give anything a chance, and yes, I have gone to a few "women's lunches" as well) and was pleasantly surprised.

I approached this committee not to "address the issues of women in science" but more to create a happier, healthier environment for everyone in the physics and astronomy department. I held a seminar for the other PhD students in our department to discuss our futures and why we wanted to stay or leave academia. It was a hard sell, initially, but we had a good showing of 50% men and women who were there to talk about the stress of moving, having a family and advancing careers. These topics were on the mind of both the men and the women of the group.

Family matters are no longer as women-oriented as they once were, so how come the scientific (my experience is in physics) community continues to isolate women for these discussions?

I feel that the "Science Community" and the "Science Blogger Community" is pretty similar. It has a wide range of interests, backgrounds and personalities. Like I said at the beginning, it is hard for me to comment on the struggles of being a "woman science blogger" but I do know what it is like to be a "woman scientist" and frankly, I would rather be addressed as a "scientist".

Yes, I am proud of being a woman. I do not hide behind my sex and sexuality, but that is one aspect to who I am. It should not put me into an "other" category when it comes to my career.

Demographics are, indeed, an issue. In astrophysics (combining the astronomy and physics and astrophysics community in my mind... as I dabble in all of them) I would say that you can pretty much estimate 15-20% female in collaborations, meetings and conferences (and yes, I do count... some talks can be quite dull). This obviously changes the game.

Here is what we do. We stop referring to "women science bloggers" or, ridiculously "men science bloggers" and instead we blog, we keep a presence. People will get used to seeing women around the blogosphere. The same holds for science (and is starting to take effect); instead of me getting up to give a talk and being introduced as a woman scientist to a bunch of kids excited about science, they simply see that I am a woman and therefore simply become used to the idea.

Blogs let you hide behind a persona, male or female, but that is not terribly different from science. We just need representatives. The more people standing up, saying who they are and speaking with the public will start to shift public opinion.

The process is slow. There are not that many female physicists, but the more that I take it upon myself to go to schools, go to planetariums and talk to the public, without making my gender an issue, people will just see that I exist. It is a matter of greying the issue, not making it more black-and-white.

This is why I refer to myself as a "Woman of Science" and not a "Woman Scientist"... the difference is subtle, yet elegant.

This is your life

Hello everyone. Lots has been going on, and will do a proper update soon, but here's some fun things going on!

First, there was a great paper published linking partition function to fractal behaviour. I would highly recommend reading (or glancing at) the paper(s) here at the American Institute for Math website. Even if you're not a math-geek like me, there is some interesting information. It is quite a big discovery. Fractals are sexy, and so is number theory if you manage to push through to that point!

Also, if you are following my Faces of Science project, never fear! It certainly has not gone away. However, profiles are dribbling in few and far between, so I am trying to stagger them as much as possible so I do not run out. I plan on posting a new profile this week, so keep an eye out!

I am heading off to New York this weekend to celebrate my ++age with some old friends. I have a few days off (while people are, you know, working) so if any science/tattooed geeks are around for a drink/coffee, let me know and we can talk nerd-ink-speak for a bit.

Speaking of tattoos, I found a great photographer, thanks to Matt Lodder, called Al Overdrive. I highly recommend going over to have a look at his work, particularly his portfolios. I think I may get some photos commissioned by him. He seems like he might be capable of capturing the Weird and Wacky World of Me.

2011 is now falling into a swing, so I will be posting more soon!

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Science blogging as a discussion board for new ideas

Today, blogger Ed Yong posed the question, "Are science blogs stuck in an echo chamber?" It's an interesting article, and I will let you read it for yourself (to fend off the "chamber? chamber? chamber?" bit) but I wanted to add my own thoughts.

Personally, I believe that science (and the world) is heading in a new direction. I am not saying anything new. The internet has clearly broken down many barriers and has opened new doors and venues for discussion. The problem though is that the world is still stuck in a somewhat "corporate" atmosphere, where people in the back of their minds want to be famous and make money. The best scientist with a fantastic blog can have the greatest idea and there will be a little voice in the back of his or her mind that says "Don't you dare! Patents! Glory! Who knows who will steal your idea?!"

We are scientists; we make careers out of thinking and innovating. There is a lot of great stuff out there, but  I find that most science blogs are, quite rightly, discussing and presenting published and relatively concluded research. Do not get me wrong; this is a fantastic development (ArsenicGate anyone? As tired as we all got of it, it surely was fun!), but we need to start taking it to the next level.

Most scientists these days will probably agree that they are a bit disappointed with the so-called "future" of the 21st century. Where is the alternative energy? Where are the flying cars? Okay, flying cars may be pushing it, but I think we are stuck in a need for smaller, faster, me, me, me motivated by corporations, politicians and anyone else you want to blame.

Have you been lying in bed, about to fall asleep, thinking about life, the universe and everything when suddenly you think you have solved the energy crisis? That you have developed bionic technology? That you have a way to get us to Mars?

Science blogs seem to have strayed from true discussion and innovation to journal reviews, rants and observations of society (online or in person) when really, we should be exploiting the fact that there are some very intelligent people out there. I know, there are a lot of whack-a-doodles to filter out, but why is that stopping us?

Online forums. Telephone conferences. These conjure up horrors of trolls and poorly wired microphones. At scientific public talks and conferences, the existence of "trolls" is much less (though occasional, but those lead to good stories) and I believe that is due to the level of discourse taking place from the questions, the speaker and the attendees at the pre- or post-discussion food tables. Why can't we bring that level here? We can read each others ideas, spread them around to people in that field and encourage intelligent, thoughtful discussion? True, the best discussion may happen over email and not on comment boards, but at least it is happening and there is a chance it will happen on the people who can do something about it. 

This is also an exercise in humility. One has to be prepared to throw a wild idea out there and get a response of "This was done three years ago. The inventor lives in a castle and everyone, including my grandparents know about this, how can you be so foolish?" At least it is out there though, right? You never know what line you drew that has never been drawn before. Worth the risk for some innovative scientific advancement, right?

Massive innovation has (in my opinion) fallen by the wayside. The money is in improving what we have already got, not coming up with something new, crazy and risky. So why should we risk our jobs pursuing something like that? Well, this is what the internet is for, right? In this economy, you cannot expect the government to give you a job to simply think of the next great plan (though they have tried), but if we work together here on this wild and wacky world of the internet, you never know what can be accomplished!

So, who wants to go to Mars? Who wants a C3P0? Who wants an available, affordable zero-emission car? Who thinks they have an idea?

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Look into the mirror, shed a tear and resolve to change.

I would like to take some time out of your busy day to sit down and have a little chat. There is something terribly wrong with this country. Less than 24 hours after the brutal shooting of a congresswoman and the horrific fatalities of a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl (among 6 killed), my social media reflects more opinions of the Seahawks game than of how we allow ourselves to live in this society.

Maybe people are so horrified by the events that they cannot face the brutality, so their focus turns to a sport event. Or, and is sadly more likely, we are not surprised that this happened.

Our we really so numb to the thought of violent shootings, that our focus quickly turns away with a shrug? Or have we seen so much violent rhetoric coming from the media and from politicians, that our focus turns away with a "it was bound to happen" nod? Is any of this really acceptable?

The truth is, if you want to understand what happened, you need only look into a mirror. There are some more guilty than others, but an overall acceptance of what happened lies in how our society has evolved. It has evolved into a cruel, violent beast. I am seeing an outcry from the media and prominent representatives, but almost none from my everyday peers and colleagues. Why is this? Why are we not incensed and horrified and instead of wishing condolences on the families of those lost, we feel the need to comment on how awesome the Seahawks are?

This is not a society to be proud of. It is not one to hold on a pedestal for the rest of the world. It is one that should hang its head and be ashamed that things such as this:
can have such direct and horrific consequences.

There was a brilliant analogy on Countdown with Keith Olbermann last night likening this situation to an epidemic. It takes off the weak and the vulnerable first, slowly spreading through society and infecting all it touches. I cannot think of a more apt and chilling metaphor. It is those who are mentally vulnerable who fall first and this is not acceptable.

Some may turn around and say (with heated language) "Who are you to talk? You left this country, proudly and gleefully!" That is true, however, if there is one thing I have learned, I am the one you should be worried about pleasing. I am the one that has to explain every horrific occurrence in America to my friends, colleagues and strangers at the pub who hear my accent.

When you meet a stranger, I can probably bet that you are not being asked within 5 minutes about health care, or gun control, or voter reform, or immigration. Because of my accent, I stand out immediately as someone who represents the state of affairs and questions are immediately posed to me. For all that I am asked about American politics, it is necessary for me to be more informed on every topic. I am the one representing you to the everyman here in Scotland. I want to stand proudly, but instead I roll my eyes, shrug and say "Well, there's a reason I left." This is never more true today.

This is a time where Americans should take a few minutes and reflect on how much they accept current gun policies, or how much they agree with the rhetoric spit out by the types of Glenn Beck and the other swine on Fox News, and if there was anything they could do to prevent our society to turning into what it is now.

We are at a crossroads of sorts. This can be either the end or the beginning of a horrible chapter in American history. I want to be proud of my past, and today I am not. I am not proud of my fellow Americans for their passiveness regarding this horrific act. Look into the mirror, shed a tear and resolve to change.