Sara Does Science

Sporatically posting thoughts and amusements from a pretty rad (if I don't say so myself) lady physicist.
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Posts tagged "science steroeotypes"

Some of the ladies over at the fantastic Ladies of Science reddit posted this "50 Sexy Scientists" article on Business Insider.

Luckily, it’s less of this:


and more of this:

(Thanks for finding an adorable science hipster, Business Insider!)

But overall it still feels kind of weird to me.

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During my senior year of college I needed an interview suit. So I went shopping for one and looked at store that, to 21 year old me, said “business woman”. I ended up getting a brown suit (I wanted something different than black because everyone wore black, but now I look at it in the back of my closet and wonder what I was thinking) from Anne Taylor. At the time I thought it was a great ensemble that proclaimed “I am a serious adult”. But looking back, I realized that it looked like I was a young-looking 21 year old trying to dress like a middle ages lady.

Over the years my fashion sense has changed. Thankfully it’s not what it was in high school (plaid bondage pants, anyone?) or in undergrad. As I’ve tumbled through grad school I’ve gotten a better sense not only of my personal style, but also what my personal style is in a variety of settings and a much better idea of how to dress myself well and in a flattering manner. I know now that when I feel like I’m dressed well I am more confident and this is something that I plan to use to my advantage in talks, interview, and later throughout my career.

Because I do reflect on my personal style and how I present myself as a physicist, I often get frustrated when the discussion turns to advice on how to dress or when I’m around a lot of other physicists and observe what they are wearing. My biggest problem is that for women in academia, I feel like there is an attitude that dressing professionally means you either look like a frump or look very generic.

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The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting is an annual meeting devoted to connecting Nobel Prize awards winners and younger researchers in their fields. This year’s meeting is devoted to physics and Scientific American is currently profiling a handful of attendees in their “30 Under 30” series on up-and-coming physicists. Being both curious and a little jealous, I’ve been reading these profiles, where the subjects answer a few questions about their research and inspiration. One question is “Who are your scientific heroes?”.

This question caught my eye for a number of reasons. One is that I recognize the important of role models and heroes to someone interested in science. I really couldn’t connect with physics at all until I had a great teacher who not only taught the science well, but also made sure to connect our lessons to the scientists who originally discovered whatever physical principle we were discussing. So it’s been interesting to see who inspires other young physicists.

I was also curious to see what types of people were picked as “scientific heroes”. Are they mostly historical or contemporary figures? Are they physicists who may have affected the field more broadly or in a popular sense (ala Carl Sagan) or lesser known physicists who might be inspiring because they did important work within a specific sub-field of physics?

And the one that is my “hot button” issue:  How many women were named as scientific heroes? So far , zero. (To be fair, the series is only just beginning, but the lack of even one women among ten-or-so listed physicists doesn’t bode well.)

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I was thinking about who my next science crush should be and I realized it’s been a while since I’ve saluted vintage scientists. Then I realized that there is no better choice for this week’s Science Crush than the one-and-only Hedy Lamarr.

"But wait…", you might be saying to yourself, "Wasn’t Hedy Lamarr an old Hollywood actress?" Why, yes she was. But that’s far from all. She was also an inventor whose big idea helped paved the way for the future of communication.

Personally, I love that Hedy Lamarr is someone who absolutely mixed brains and beauty. I think that most people have a very drab or nerdy stereotype come to find when they think of who scientists or inventors are. (Either that or they think of Doc Brown from Back to the Future.) I love that Hedy is someone who represents that fact that I think science is amazing and provocative and yes, even sexy.

(Yes…all lady scientists are this glamorous. Would you expect anything less?)

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I’ve been thinking a lot about science and younger students lately for two reasons. The first being that my adviser asked for my input on selecting a high school student that he and I will be mentoring this summer. The second is that the high school senior who worked with us last summer was a finalist for this year’s Intel Science Talent Search and I spent yesterday eagerly awaiting the ultimate results of the competition.

Students getting an opportunity to excel in science depends on a lot of factors. Many are socioeconomic. Others come from peer interactions and the public perception of scientists. Access to good teachers and role models (or the lack thereof). I often spend a lot of time considering both the educational and public interactions that students have with scientists because this is where I currently feel like I can make the biggest dent. My ideas are usually focused on changing perspectives of who can do science and making scientific subjects engaging. Today, a conversation with my adviser got me thinking of something else I want to add to this in the future.

I want students to be able to see how much most individual scientists don’t know.

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The Mary Sue has an article about a fifth-grade girl who modeled a new molecular structure in science class. When she asked her teacher if it could be a real compound or not, instead of blowing her off, he asked a college professor. Now only did they find out that it could be a real material, but if it can be synthesized, it could be used for energy storage.

I think that Clara Lazen, who invented the new chemical, will be getting a fair amount of attention for this. It’s not undeserved and will probably be very useful in terms of humanizing science and demonstrating that science is accessible. I wonder, however, if her teacher, Kenneth Boehr, will be getting as much attention. He definitely deserves to.

In this classroom situation, it would be so easy for a teacher to dismiss a student by saying ” I don’t know” or “We can figure it out later” and then forgetting about it. But Mr. Boehr went the extra mile. He took his student’s question seriously, even though he has probably seen hundreds of randomly assembled molecules before. Not only has this lead to a really cool result, both for science and for his student, but it has lead to Clara being further interested and engaged in science. It has also shown (like I keep saying) is that anyone can be involved in the scientific process and that you don’t have to be a specific stereotype to be a scientist or make an interesting discovery.

Also, I’ve said before that there needs to be more connections made between the scientific community and classrooms. This provides a perfect example. I am sure that during this experience, Mr. Boehr helped his class understand how scientists “do science” and that his students have a much clearer idea than one that comes from a textbook explaining the scientific method.

I just wish there were more teachers out there like this one.

I’ve had the idea for a scientist pin-up tattoo for a number of years. I’ve always thought tastefully done pin-ups made awesome tattoos, something I chose to blame on Little Pete and Petunia in The Adventures of Pete & Pete

I also specifically wanted a pin-up for a number of reasons. I want it to say things both about myself as a physicist and who a physicist can be. I say it all too often that the existing stereotype of a physicist is either an old, white guy or a (male) nerd lacking social abilities. My tattoo shows a scientist that is sexy. This is not only someone you would love to go out with, but someone who does experiments and publishes papers. I also want to show people that physicists can be social people with fun tattoos and to show physicists that you don’t need to be old or a guy or socially awkward to be a good physicist. Overall, I want to be able to broaden peoples’ ideas of who does science.

I also want to show the glamour that I associate with intelligence and curiosity. I know that’s an odd juxtaposition of adjectives, but to me, brains are sexy. I would love for scientists to be idols like movie stars or singers (or in the case of Hedy Lamar, they can be both!). Also, I think that science is exciting and that the accouterments of science can be just as interesting to look at and encounter as a $2000 purse or bracelet or pair of shoes. 

And last but not least, I wanted a tattoo like this because I think it’s pretty rad.

In conclusion, here are some more pictures. (The tattoo is actually inside my right arm. Some of the pics make it seem like it might be on a very oddly shaped leg.)

For my inaugural “This is what a scientist looks like…” post, I present Katie Weglarz. Katie is working on her master’s degree at the University of Delaware, where she researches the classification of insects. She is outdoorsy, adventurous, funny, and absolutely loves her bugs.

I asked Katie some questions both about what she does, her path to becoming a scientist, and for some reflections and advice, of both the lighthearted and more serious variety.

Can you briefly describe your research in general terms?

Katie: I study the evolutionary relationships of a group of insects called planthoppers (the hemipteran family Delphacidae for those that know their insects).  These insects are tiny (1-2 mm tiny), feed on plants (frequently grasses), can be serious crop pests (especially on rice), and are vectors for a number of plant diseases.  I frequently describe them as miniature cicadas, that’s their closest relative people commonly come across.  

My work involves collecting, identifying, describing, and naming these insects (yes, I get to choose the funny sounding latin names).  Additionally, I have some museum duties that include caring for and curating dried and pinned specimens of planthoppers and other insects.  I also spend a lot of my time producing and analyzing DNA sequences for planthoppers.  The goal of my work is to improve identification tools for these insects by finding true evolutionary groupings. There is one group (genus) of planthoppers that is especially disorganized and a large part of my job involves developing a new placement for some of those planthopper species. This will increase the identification ability of non-specialists, such as port inspectors, possibly preventing some of these insects from invading and damaging our crops. In addition, a clear understanding of these evolutionary relationships is important to other scientists working on different aspects of planthoppers such as their physiology and their interactions with plants.  


What has been your proudest moment in your career so far?

Katie: In August, I published my first description of a new genus and 3 new species of planthoppers.  I got to choose the names and now my name is forever attached to those names.  Technically when you talk about a species the full name includes the authors and date the species was described (i.e. Akemetopon ainigma Weglarz and Bartlett 2011). 


When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up? If it wasn’t a scientist, what made you change your mind?

Katie: I was a conflicted child.  I wanted to be a ballerina for a very long time, I danced regularly until I was 20, but at the same time I was excavating my back yard pretending to be a paleontologist.  I loved animals as a kid, I’m not terribly surprised I’ve ended up studying them. 


What is the hardest class you’ve taken?

Katie: My transcripts would tell you cell biology but in reality it’s a close call between invertebrate biology and herpetology (reptiles and amphibians).  I think inverts was just a tad more work though.  We learned about every phylum of animals that semester, vertebrata is a subphylum in the phylum chordata and there are invertebrates in that phylum.  We learned the basic morphology, physiology, ecology, and taxonomy of every animal from sponges, to molluscs, to lobsters.  The next semester I took vertebrate biology, it was a piece of cake.  Also, my favorite non-insect animal are probably the comb jellies (Ctenophora), look them up.  I think they’re beautiful.


What advice would you give to teenage you?

Katie: Pay closer attention in Spanish/French/whatever language you’re taking class!  Science is, very much so, an international endeavor.  I have colleagues around the world and my work requires me to travel.  I’m trying to improve my language skills but it’s a slow process.


If you could hang out with any scientist, historical or contemporary, who would it be and what would you do?

Katie: Lois O’Brien.  We planthopper folk call her grandmother Fulgoroidea (that’s the superfamily containing planthoppers).  Lois is a retired, but still very active, planthopper worker.  She has an amazing wealth of knowledge about these insects.  Granted, I’ve already had the opportunity to “spend a day” with her, but I feel like there is still so much I can learn from her.  I’d love to spend a day collecting with her or a day in her personal museum.  Additionally, I think it would be so interesting to go back in time to collect with her, she has some awesome stories about her travels.


On a weekend, I am most likely to find you…

Katie: I’m a lot like the insects I work on, I don’t enjoy being out in the cold or rain.  If the weather is cruddy, I’ll be baking, drinking obscure beers, playing board games, or just general exploring of interesting places around me.  If the weather is nice, I’m probably out hiking, camping, gardening (although I’m not very good), generally ‘playing in the dirt’, and definitely collecting insects.


If someone made a movie about your life, who would play you?

Katie: I think Drew Barrymore would play me well.  She’s good at portraying excitement and that’s and that’s how I generally feel when I start talking insects: EXCITED!

I’ve been doing some thinking about where I fit in to the wide range of scientists and science communicators out there, and I noticed something. Notable (by this I mean notable outside their fields) “Soft” science communicators often seem to women and “hard” science communicators often seem to be men. This seems especially true when it comes to mass media. It seems like women are relegated to animals and cultures and men get math, chemicals, and engineering. I have two words for this: NOT COOL.