Category Archives: Women in Science

Scientists on TV and in the Movies

In my last year of grad school, I listened to this NY Academy of Sciences Science & the City Podcast called “Celluloid Science: Humanizing Life in the Lab.” I’ve taken increased note of scientists in television and movies since then, and honestly – it’s hard to find a cool scientist on TV. I think the winner right now may be Lanie Parrish on ABC’s Castle, as a sassy, sensual, confident medical examiner who is seen inside and outside of the morgue and enjoys really normal interactions with the other characters. She has romantic relationships, she puts on dresses to go to social events and parties, she wears a classy suit on the scene. She’s insightful and good at her job. In the earlier seasons, there was a male medical examiner who was awkward and odd, that the other characters were uncomfortable around. The friendly ME is a much-welcome breath of fresh air for scientists on television.

The Sci & the City podcast pointed out there have been no scientific screwball comedies. There have been days in the lab where I felt my life was headed that way. The fact that David in Bringing Up Baby is a paleontologist is a key plot point (and Cary Grant is quite the dashing awkward scientist) in that classic, but I’m still mulling over the potential for a great scientific screwball comedy.

More recently, I finally got around to watching Losing Control, a movie I had been meaning to see for a while. It focuses on a graduate student who has become mired in the attempt to finish graduate work, and she feels it is holding her back from all the other parts of her life. It was a cute romantic comedy, a little predictable in some ways but I think that’s almost to be expected of the genre. If anything, the great thing is that science is accepted as a normal default mode – even if a bit obsessive and quirky – the way most other movies treat being any other profession.

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Scientists Have an Image Problem

I saw this article quoted on Tumblr back in the fall, but it had slipped my mind until the recent Girl Scout Advocacy Day. I was speaking to STEM director for Girl Scouts of Connecticut, and she told me a story about an event where they had female scientists come talk to the girls. The scientists came in jeans and sweaters for a Saturday event, and as the girls were just hanging out with the speakers before they got started, the girls asked, “But when are the scientists coming?”

The NewScientist article talks about the public perception of scientists, as measured by the “draw a scientist” test and a general look at scientists in movies and media. They link to Margaret Mead’s 1957 Science article, “Image of the Scientist Among High School Students.”

With great perception, Mead out that a negative perception of science not only means that students are less likely to pursue science careers themselves, but that they also feel negatively toward a future spouse having those careers, and that this seriously impacts the environment in which future scientists are going to school and the environment their educators are presenting science in. Of course, Mead only asks the girls how they’d feel about marrying a scientist, she never asks the boys – and that says a lot about the world then (and now?).

It doesn’t necessarily seem like a huge deal, but loneliness is hard. Kids today face so much pressure from bullying, and even into my 20’s, “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” seemed to ring so true. Scientists are people, with feelings and passions and lives, and it’s important to clear the way for future scientists by showcasing who scientists really are – normal people with a passion for this particular way of thinking and this particular kind of work.

Other gems from Mead’s article:

“He works for long hours at the laboratory, sometimes day and night, going without food and sleep. He is prepared to work for years without getting results and face the possibility of failure without discouragement; he will try again. He wants to know the answer.”

I think that anyone who has survived graduate school in the sciences is at least in some percentage this person. Perhaps, however, in our rush to affirm the above positive image of ourselves, scientists lead other people to draw a similar conclusion to this ‘negative’ image in the paper: “He has no social life, no other intellectual interest, no hobbies or relaxations. He bores his wife…He is never home. He is always reading a book. He is always running off to his laboratory.”

One of my favorite recent efforts along these lines is This is What a Scientist Looks Like.  It certainly gives me reason to pause and ask what I’m really telling folks when I dash back off to lab.

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STEM Advocacy Day with Girl Scouts of CT

The Girl Scouts of Connecticut held their annual STEM advocacy day on March 7, 2012. I was a Girl Scout from second grade through high school, earned my Girl Scout Gold Award, and am a lifetime member of GSUSA. It’s am amazing organization – in a time when women couldn’t even vote, there were badges for circuitry and aviation. Almost every American woman who has been in space was a Girl Scout. Secretaries of State, CEOs – leadership to the core. As a scientist and a member of Women in Science at Yale, I’m super-supportive of STEM education. Clearly, this was worth slipping out of lab for the morning.

It was great to talk to girls from around the state and meet with legislators to talk about the importance of STEM education, particularly for girls. There was a press conference where one girl shared her story of STEM experiences through Girl Scouting and lots of legislators showed up to show support and have a rededication and investiture for the “legislative troop.” I had a great chat with a scout and her mom over lunch then went to more meetings – and sat in on the Public Health Committee’s public hearing for a bit – in the afternoon. It was a great day with people who are enthusiastic about seeing girls become leaders in science and all realms of life.

From GS of CT's Facebook

Learning about the Public Health Committee public hearing schedule, photo from GS of CT Facebook

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Unexpected ladies…

I had no idea that Menten of Michaelis-Menten kintetics was a woman.  You go Maude.

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