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Let’s Get Honest About Women In Science

22 Mar

There has been a good deal written recently about women in the scientific workforce. It’s not a new conversation, but I’ve been reconsidering why more of us aren’t forging ahead in STEM while preparing a talk for Women’s History Month.

I’ve posted many, many, many times about the unique obstacles we face in academia. Women lack visibly successful role models, face a good deal of gender discrimination and, at times, sexual harassment, and – most importantly – the academic lifestyle is not ideal for raising a family. I’d like to focus on that last one.

As a new mom, I will return to work on Monday–when my son is just nine weeks old. I am fortunate to have a flexible schedule, supportive husband, and wonderful colleagues, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. When I discuss motherhood, there are usually comments about how fathers are ignored in the conversation. So first let me be perfectly clear: Partners are extremely important and often play a very active role in childcare. But there are also significant differences.

Here’s a big one: When I fly out of state on Thursday, there’s suddenly a lot more to figure out. No one prepares you for traveling with a breast pump or explains how to freeze enough milk for the day. And that’s only the beginning. There are lots of little and big things like that we just don’t talk about in academia. I think balancing a family and career would be easier if we have these conversations. Openly.

What I know for sure is that no matter what else I do – whether I write more books, move back into research, or return to policy – the most important job I will ever have is being a mom. Not every woman in science will decide to be a parent and not all of us will choose to stay in the scientific workforce, but if the goal is to get more women into positions of influence in STEM, there’s one clear solution. We must make these two more compatible.

Would You Call Me A Scientist?

14 Jun

We all arrive into this world as budding scientists, naturally curious about everything we encounter. I’ve yet to meet a 6-year-old who isn’t captivated by whales, dinosaurs, or space exploration. They may not call their interests “science” or be able to recite the scientific method by heart, but elementary schools across the United States are teeming with would-be astronauts, paleontologists and ocean explorers.

Once upon a time (a decade ago), I studied the charismatic sea cucumber in graduate school. I modeled the way populations of these animals move and reproduce in the Gulf of Maine, spending much of my time elbow deep in sea cucumber gonads. I also worked with fishermen and the state government officials to implement better management of the emerging sea cucumber fishery. So back in 2002, sure, I would have immediately called myself a scientist.

Then I had the good fortune to serve as a science fellow for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). I was initially brought to his D.C. office to handle ocean policy. My science background helped me also take on energy and environment issues. I became comfortable and happy in the role of policy staffer because I filled an important niche.

I started blogging, writing science articles and books after taking a job at Duke’s Nicholas School. Although I have never taken a journalism course, I had evolved into a budding science writer.

Now I work at the University of Texas at Austin. At the business school I direct UT’s Energy Poll — an initiative to explore the relationship between energy and the public.

In other words, I’ve always worked in science, but also don’t fit into any traditional academic category. I don’t consider science my profession. Science is the way I live. It involves careful observation, critical thinking, patience and the courage to ask important questions, even when those questions might not be welcome.

So, would you call me a scientist? I’m not sure it matters.

This post originally appeared at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog.

A Changing Landscape For Women In Academia?

22 Feb

On most recent Science podcast, Kerry Klein interviewed Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Deborah Kaminskido about the gender breakdown among science and engineering faculty. When Kaminskido and her colleagues used publicly available data, she found gender disparity doesn’t appear to be quite as dramatic as she expected.

Across science and engineering–with the notable exception of mathematics–women seem to be staying at the same rates as male colleagues. Woman are also being promoted at the same approximate times (for women entering the system after 1990).

Kerry Klein: [W]hat do you think are the most important messages to take away from this?

Deborah Kaminski: Well, I think there’s several messages. One thing we haven’t talked about yet is the point-of-view of the academic administration. We have a very high rate of leaving [overall], so our retention in academia is low. We lose half our people in 11 years. Our start-up packages can be as high as one and a half million dollars. You’re investing in someone at the rate of $1.5 million, and in 11 years, half of them are gone. So this is an economic calculation that universities need to make. And I don’t think they’ve had this number before, this “11 year” number, to guide them in their judgment for what they have.

And the other thing we see is that it’s going to take a very long time, at the rate we’re going, to get women into the science and engineering faculties. That’s another major message.

The third message here is in the mathematics discipline, we actually have two problems there that are different from other disciplines. One of the problems is that we’re not retaining them as quickly as men, and, furthermore, in math, faculty leave even quicker than in other disciplines, like in physics or in chemistry or in electrical engineering. They’re leaving quicker in math. The women are leaving quicker than the men. And, in mathematics, what we have is that in the pool, it’s about 25% women in the Ph.D. pool, but only 20% of them are becoming assistant professors. So, when you put that all together, this really points to the need for another study on what’s happening in math.

Some of this is encouraging news. Some is not. From my perspective, academia has to fundamentally change if the goal is to retain more women. But it’s also important to remember that there are many ways to contribute in science beyond the traditional tenure-track trajectory.

In any case, you can listen to the podcast here.

To The Young Scientist

6 Feb

Science is what you make of it.

When I was an undergraduate, my profession did not exist.

Look for opportunities and fill a new niche.

Science changes every moment.

Incorporate your experiences into emerging fields.

Don’t be afraid to take the road less traveled.

Stay flexible. Never be bored. Follow what’s fun.

Don’t worry about other people’s expectations for you.

Set your own.

Surprise yourself.

It’s Time To Shine The Spotlight On Energy Education

23 Jan

My latest article with Michael Webber is now up at The Chronicle of Higher Education. We outline why it’s necessary to retool energy education at universities so that students emerge with an understanding of the complex political, technical, and social issues involved:

Advances in the energy sector these days must clear multiple hurdles; in particular, they must meet global needs witShout compromising national security, degrading the environment, or impinging on the economy. But unfortunately, innovation in the large-scale energy field still seems to plod along through the invention of technologies designed to achieve singular purposes. Isn’t it time for this country’s colleges to take significant steps toward developing a new approach to energy education?

We  discuss how higher education for students interested in energy currently lacks the cross-disciplinary curriculum that they critically need and propose the adoption of energy departments on college campuses:

Across the country, undergraduates are being ushered through an outdated and compartmentalized system in which the education has not kept up with scientific advances. Energy is poorly defined at institutions of higher education, appearing to be an ambiguous professional pursuit or a subset of umbrella departments such as petroleum engineering or geosciences, which tackle only a single slice of the energy pie. Students must typically choose to enroll in a single department where they are exposed to narrow perspectives of the energy sector and do not obtain a comprehensive understanding of what lies ahead.

We originally introduced this idea in Nature, and here we describe how it might look:

Such departments would bring professors together from a variety of disciplines across campus to develop an organized energy curriculum. No longer would economics and engineering advances be isolated from each other. They would be hubs for a variety of areas tackling theoretical and practical questions that involve subjects like consumption, smart grids, renewables, waste, and more.

Energy departments would highlight history and the complex challenges ahead, while emphasizing social, economic, and political environments domestically and abroad. Graduates entering the work force with such interdisciplinary skills would be ideally suited for leadership positions with strategic responsibilities, armed with a firm grasp of the challenges ahead and the experience to act as truly global citizens.

You can read our full commentary at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Stephen Colbert Greets “Future Techno-Overlords” At The 2012 FIRST Robotics Competition

8 Jan

Last August I had the pleasure of interviewing Dean Kamen during a series of posts about FIRST, a truly inspiring initiative that’s getting kids excited about STEM while fostering teamwork and creativity. Having met several students who have been involved in these incredible competitions, I’ve been extremely impressed with their skills and passion. Now it gets even better..

This weekend, Stephen Colbert helped Dean kick off the 2012 FIRST Robotics Competition by rallying  thousands of high school students around the world to celebrate science and technology. In addition to Colbert, there were remarks by, frontman for The Black Eyed Peas, and former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as the Robotics Rebound Rumble got underway. Just take a look:

Can Science Spending Survive Partisan Politics?

6 Jan

Science Magazine is hosting a series of weekly live chats and yesterday’s conversation was of particular interest to me because it dealt with the way partisan politics impedes scientific progress:

Last year, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives by promising to slash federal spending. Science, especially funding for climate change studies and applied energy technologies, was expected to be a prime target. Yet 1 year later, the budgets of most research agencies are largely intact. What’s more, science has done better than most of the rest of the federal budget.

This week, we’ll look at why that happened. Our panelists will be two veterans of the federal science policy wars. We’ll also talk about what’s in store for next year, when a budget agreement struck last summer is supposed to take a $900-billion bite out of both civilian and military spending. And we’ll gaze into our crystal ball for signs of any improvements to the current tortured system of annual appropriations that might make it more responsive to the needs of the country.

Panelists included Joel Widder, of The Oldaker Group, and Mike Stephens, of the Association of Schools of Public Health. They covered a wide spectrum of topics from monitoring the weather to STEM education to energy. At 3:50 there’s an important point about advocacy among early career scientists:

Joel Widder: It is vitally important for graduate students and post-docs to become comfortable and active in the science advocacy process. In my experience — grad students and post docs can be among the best ambassadors for science because their passion and enthusiasm comes through in ways that Members of Congress and staff appreciate and remember. Working through AAAS or other science organizations can be a very effective way for students and post docs to get the support and help they need for helping to make the case.

Exactly. The entire chat is worth reading and now available at Science..

Power, Money, And Women

1 Jan

In January 2010, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a troubling piece about how little women earn compared to our male colleagues:

When compared with men’s pay at the same level of educational attainment, women’s pay is even more unequal: Women earn only 67 cents to their male counterparts’ $1. That difference remains steady at every level of education.

The discrepancy between men and women is even more skewed at the top power positions. Only 9 percent of the members of the National Academy of Science are women, only 8 percent of the nation’s top corporate managers, and only 5 percent of managing partners in large law firms. In Congress, female senators and representatives account for only 17 percent of their chambers’ membership. Without equal representation in positions of power, we as a society have less will to make the structural changes that would allow women to achieve equity in education and in the workplace.

Exactly. And that includes science, technology, engineering, and math.

So what will it take to get more women in those important positions of power? 1) More prominent female role models in these fields* 2) Increased emphasis on salary negotiation training 3) Greater cultural appreciation of women (and men) in STEM 4) More attention to the barriers holding women back 5) Fundamental changes within academia to support women

Two years after The Chronicle’s piece, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve made any progress..

* Young women need worthy role models to look up to

We Are The 99% Of Scientists

8 Dec

This is a guest post by Anna Goldstein.

Many young scientists end up leaving the lab for greener pastures

Tuesday, November 15 was a big day at UC Berkeley. Crowds gathered all day in Sproul Plaza as part of a “day of action” for the Occupy Cal movement. In the Haas business school, a student with a loaded gun was shot by police. And in the evening, Professor Robert Reich delivered his Mario Savio Memorial Lecture to an audience of thousands, motivating them to continue working to battle income inequality.

At the same time, across campus in Stanley Hall, a group of graduate students and post-docs were attending a talk on “The Future of Science”, hosted by the VSPA. The speaker was Kennan Kellaris Salinero, president of Yámana Science and Technology. You might think that this was bad timing for such a discussion. Shouldn’t we have been outside protesting with the rest of the 99%? But Salinero’s talk drove home the point that the government and banks are not the only institutions in need of change. Change is also badly needed in the sciences, and it’s our responsibility as the future leaders of the profession to determine the direction of that change.

Salinero began her career as a chemist at Georgetown University; she left academia to join industry after she discovered a need for more work-life balance. While working on the completion of the human genome project, she noticed that many of the sequencing centers were not sharing their data with each other. They even refused to use the same names to describe various proteins. That was when she realized that there are systemic problems with the way science is done today, and she’s been hard at work trying to define and solve those problems ever since. “Proteins are very good at self-assembly,” she says. “It turns out that humans are not.”

The issues at hand are enormously complex and impossible to wrangle in a single blog post (or even ten or twenty). So this post will just scratch the surface of my thoughts following Salinero’s presentation. And I’ll also limit myself to discussing academic science, for two reasons. First, it’s a world I know intimately, so I feel qualified to discuss its subtleties. And second, basic science research—the kind that results in a greater understanding of the natural world, thus greater mastery of it for the benefit of humanity—has historically thrived in universities. Government and industry labs are both significant sources of research progress as well; I will leave it to someone else to tease out the similarities and differences.

Let me share a story with you. A first year postdoc is applying for funding. She joined a relatively new lab; her advisor, Dr. Awesome (not his real name), was an extremely productive graduate student and has big plans for his group. Knowing that funding is limited, the postdoc crafts a fellowship application based on the overlap between her own expertise and the resources available in the lab. Reviews come back, and they are extremely flattering of her qualifications. They have nothing but good things to say about her preparedness and capacity to be a successful researcher. And yet, as of this writing, each of her last five proposals has been turned down. The committees justify their incongruous decision by citing her advisor’s lack of experience in mentoring postdocs.

At the same time, Dr. Awesome’s grant proposals are also getting rejected. Why? Not enough experience in the hyper-specific area of his proposed research. So Dr. Awesome and our postdoc heroine are stuck. They’re not established enough to establish themselves. Those coveted dollars are going instead to a select few groups (the 1%?) who managed to demonstrate their competence during a period of relative abundance. Perhaps things will turn around soon for Dr. Awesome. Or perhaps his bad luck will continue, to the point that future reviewers (and perhaps a tenure committee) will cite the lack of funding as a reason to deny him even further.

This is the reality of our current system. Is it logical? Is it efficient? Imagine academia as an engine whose goal is to efficiently convert intellectual and material resources into information and applications that benefit society. Of course, there are losses along the way. No conversion process can operate at 100% efficiency. We think first of the postdocs; there they stand at the doors of the academy, proposals in hand, ready to start their lab, but there just isn’t enough room for everyone. Then we remember the graduate students who, seeing the struggles and failures of their more senior labmates, decide not to pursue a research career (Salinero estimates that 60% of STEM PhD’s end up leaving the sciences). Even greater in number are the undergrad science majors who glimpse their future as a jaded graduate student, and decide that they would be better off in another line of work. People are walking away from science, and taking their future potentially ground-breaking accomplishments with them. Study the figure below if you don’t believe me. Our science engine is a gas-guzzler, wasting more bright minds every day.

The percentage of top-notch high school students going into STEM fields has plummeted in recent years. Click to see this data in the original paper by Lowell et al. (pg. 17)

I don’t mean to say that established researchers should be denied funding for the sake of the younger ones. The problem of funding inequality in academia differs drastically from that of income inequality in the rest of America. Members of our nation’s top 1% have more pie than any one person could ever want or need, whereas the most-funded scientists are not usually among the super-wealthy. Meanwhile, these scientists do tend to produce high caliber research that merits further support. If the 1% of scientists have a reasonable slice of pie, then do we just need a bigger pie? Well, kind of. Increasing the size of the scientific workforce would certainly increase its output. Whatever happens, we certainly should not shrink the pie. But I don’t think we should stop at asking for more money, and neither does Salinero.

I can’t say it any better than this statement, from the original proposal of Yámana Science and Technology: “The culture and structure of basic science fail to fulfill the true potential of invested time, money, and individuals’ contributions.” The enterprise of science must become more, well… enterprising. We must honestly assess our losses and figure out how to recover them. For starters, it is imperative that we patch the “leaky pipeline”, not just for women or under-represented minorities, but for any person who wants more depth to their lives than slaving away writing doomed grant proposals can provide. When you consider the wasted potential of all the talented people being driven away from science, the cost of maintaining the status quo is immense.

Should we just throw up our hands and say that the problems are all too big to be solved? Should we keep playing our part in the rat race, vying for those few spots at the top and hoping the system works in our favor? Clearly the answer is no; it’s time for the 99% of scientists to take action. Let’s make the future of science one in which people are rewarded for being creative thinkers and effective leaders. The NSF is already thinking along these lines; their new CREATIV grants are designed to attract high-risk, interdisciplinary types of proposals that might have been ignored otherwise. Maybe you could start a new collaboration, or volunteer teaching science to a diverse group of students. I don’t have all the answers (I barely even know the questions), but I urge you to continue this conversation online, in the labs, in the hallways, anywhere that scientists gather. Imagine a world where researchers young and old can thrive and produce freely, and then ask yourself what you can do to create that world. And don’t forget to ask for more pie.

This post initially appeared in the Berkeley Science Review. Anna is a graduate student in the Chemistry department at UC Berkeley. Her days are mostly spent making nanomaterials and hoping they will turn out to be useful for solar energy conversion. Email Anna or follow her on Google+.


Meet The Culture of Science Interns!

7 Dec

Two months ago, I put out a call for a science and social media intern. I’ve learned a lot about science and social media over the last five years and want to do my part to support bringing more young people into the conversation and encourage them to use new media tools to have an impact and influence beyond the science community. I received far more applicants than I anticipated and so many would have been wonderful contributors. After much consideration, I’ve chosen two young women with unique interests and expertise that I’m confident will do a superb job at Culture of Science.

Rebeka Ryvola

Please join me in welcoming Christina and Rebeka! Each has written her own brief introduction:

Hi CoS community,

I’m so happy to be joining this great space. In my mind, the conversations here encompass many of the most important issues facing global society, and I can’t imagine a better place to be trying to make sense of it all.

I recently received a BSc in Global Resource Systems from the University of British Columbia, where I focused on environmental and political science. My education and recent work experience with environmental policy have showed me how critical unique, creative, and interdisciplinary approaches will be if we’re to resolve the many pressing environmental issues facing us. This intersection of environment and society is what I am most passionate about, and I’m looking forward to exploring it here!

Christina Durbin

Hey, hi, hello!

Evil henchmen #2, at your service. I’m not a climate scientist, but I am a web designer named Chris who is passionate about increasing public understanding of science. I’m an obsessive geek interested in technology, astronomy, comic books and neuroscience with a hungry mind and internet access.

Currently I’m based in Chicago, Il, but I grew up all around the state of Florida. I have a Bachelors in Design from Full Sail University where I graduated as Valedictorian, but more importantly I’m an honorary graduate of the Jedi Academy. The force is strong in this one.