Women in science


This past week, I’ve seen a lot of things on the internet about women in science, and much of it has not been good news. Primarily, I’m thinking of the recent paper in PLoS One that has garnered media coverage about how young scientists, and young women in particular, are often sexually abused and/or assaulted when doing field work. The authors of the study reported that 71% of the female respondents were sexually harassed (received inappropriate comments), and of those 84% were trainees (e.g. graduate students). This is not good news, although it is not entirely surprising, since sexual harassment in the real world is incredibly widespread.

But I also found this blog post by Nicola Hemmings in which she lists out ten reasons that it’s great to be a woman in science, and I wholeheartedly agree with everything she said. I mean, I wouldn’t be writing this post from the research station in Ar, Sweden, if I weren’t a scientist, and I’m able to ask crazy questions like, “do these fish like blue strings of beads more than yellow strings of beads”? and am not laughed at by my colleagues for suggesting to actually do such an experiment! I love being a biologist, and I hate to think that young girls with an interest in science might be discouraged, or taught by society that science is for boys.

Which leads me to another great piece of reading, a blog post by Janet Stemwedel in which she talks about being dismayed by the science kits for girls and her makeup-loving daughter’s reaction to the news that a major manufacturer of children’s science toys is going to stop differentiating between toys ‘for girls’ and toys ‘for boys’.

The common thread through all of these stories is that women are people, and scientists are people, and female scientists are people. People cannot be described by a single stereotype, and all people should be treated equally. A person can like to look nice and do science. A person can be smart and creative. People are complex, and no one fits into a single, one-word descriptor. So let’s all just try treating people like people, ok?




Taking chances and spontaneity

Bläse Limestone Museum

I am not a spontaneous person. Sometimes I wish I was, and I look with admiration upon those of my friends who act upon sudden inspiration when it hits them. However, I am the type of person who likes to have a plan, and once I’ve got a plan, it’s almost painful to deviate from it. Add my workaholic nature to my plans, and I very rarely just go out and do something fun just because I had a random thought. But it’s actually really important to take chances in life and to be a bit spontaneous. It’s a great way to face new challenges, meet new people, and to stumble upon unexpected sights. And for someone like me, it’s a great way to step outside of my comfort zone and learn more about myself.

So it happened that yesterday I had a few hours of unscheduled time, during which I had made a tentative plan with myself to read some papers and catch up on emails. However, it was a gorgeous day, the first really warm day in several weeks here in Gotland. So I decided to go for a bike ride instead. Because just riding off in a random direction would be sort of terrifying, and there really aren’t that many places to go from the field station, I decided to compromise with total spontaneity and plan to ride to a small museum about 10km away, which is about the limestone industry on Gotland and its history on the island. And I am so glad I decided to be a little bit spontaneous!

It was a perfect day for a long ride (considering I haven’t ridden a bike in months, 20km total is a long ride), and I got to see some more of my surroundings. I saw a new species of bird, a white-winged black tern (I believe), a group of which tried to chase me away from their nesting grounds.

White-winged black tern (I think--correct me if I'm wrong!)

White-winged black tern (I think–correct me if I’m wrong!)

And although the museum was rather small, and all the information was in Swedish, I learned a few things and enjoyed looking around. There has been a long history of limestone mining (i.e. digging up limestone in huge quarries) and processing (i.e. making other products, including cement) on the island of Gotland. And the limestone industry is rather topical right now, because there’s a big conflict on Gotland (which is making news throughout Sweden) between a company in a small town getting the rights to a natural wetlands area to dig up limestone and people wanting to preserve the natural beauty (and clean water) on the natural area. The major conflict is that of people losing jobs, which would have dramatic impacts on the surrounding town, and between preserving rapidly-disappearing wetlands and preserving the water quality in the region. The question has been sent up through almost all of the court systems in Sweden, with the decision constantly being reversed, and the most recent decision (in June) was that the company is allowed to begin the quarry–although right now they’re only allowed to do some preliminary work because the naturalists have sent it up to the EU courts, I believe. So it was interesting to see how the industry has developed over the past 100 years or so.

Bläse Limestone Museum

Bläse Limestone Museum

But most importantly, I had a really lovely morning (much better than if I’d stayed at the fieldstation and worked on my computer), and I proved to myself that I could bike 20km and be independent. One of my friends recently wrote a blog post about traveling alone, and it really resonated with me.

On my bike ride

On my bike ride

Spontaneity and risk-taking isn’t just beneficial to me in my daily life–it’s also an important thing to keep in mind as a scientist. Although it’s really important to not just stumble blindly into an experiment, running with new (and seemingly crazy) thoughts and ideas in the lab or in the field can yield really interesting results and lead to some cool discoveries. So the more I can challenge myself to do something a little different or a little crazy or a little spontaneous in my daily life (like ride a bike to a museum 10km away), the more that same spontaneity and creativity will spill over into my scientific life.