Portrayals of Women in Science: thoughts on Big Hero 6

This past week I saw Big Hero 6, the recent animated film from Disney. I enjoyed the movie and thought the animation was really cool. It definitely hit all of origin-story motifs and so was a bit predictable. But one of my favorite things about the movie was the portrayal of academic science as cool. The movie starts off with Hiro, a boy genius, thinking that his brother Tadashi is super lame for going to college. Until he visits the lab his brother is working in, meets all of Tadashi’s labmates, and sees all of the cool technologies that are being developed in an academic lab. At that point Hiro decides he has to go to college too.

I think that this is really fantastic, because as many feminists have pointed out, the movies children watch can subtly influence their perception of themselves and their goals in life. So promoting science in this movie is a really huge step forward. Additionally, the movie did a pretty good job of showcasing than anyone can be a scientist, and none of the characters fit into the stereotyped awkward introvert that is often how people view scientists (and which is perpetuated by shows like The Big Bang Theory). Everyone in the movie seemed really cool and fun, which is honestly how all of my scientist friends are. Sure, sometimes we’re awkward and we all have our introvert days (even the extroverts!) but we’re also friends and have more dimensionality to our personalities than just ‘being a scientist’.

Despite this huge advance in the portrayal of scientists, I was still a little dissatisfied with the women in the film. Don’t get me wrong, they were strong, smart characters, but as a woman scientist I had trouble connecting with them. There were two: Go go and Honey Lemon. Go go is a sort of punk, chip-on-her-shoulder young woman who just wants to go as fast as possible on her electromagnet bike and Honey Lemon is your typical girly-girl who studies chemical interactions in order to make substances with her favorite colors, pink, purple, and yellow (or at least that’s what I gathered). I loved that neither of them played a ‘typical’ female role of damsel in distress and that both of them were very strong characters. However, if we really want to get young girls engaged in the sciences, it would be awesome to have a more relatable female character in the mix. And yes, the supporting male characters could fit into stereotypes as well, but young boys have both Tadashi and Hiro as relatable male characters to look up to. So although I think Big Hero 6 did a really great job in making science more accessible and in making science seem really fun and cool, I would say there’s still more to do to make female scientists seem relatable.

On a last note, I’ll leave you with a link to a video on National Geographic about actual female scientists and how they’re real people who do more than just look at beakers in the lab–they’re “women in the field, getting their hands dirty” and who have diverse hobbies and backgrounds. It’s short and worth taking a look!


Privacy in the digital world

Privacy of information is sort of a joke in this day and age. When we download apps onto our phones and tablets, usually there’s a statement what data the app wants to access and how that data will be used. This statement is a list of terms of which we have to agree to by clicking “I Accept”. Most people, myself included, probably don’t read those privacy statements very thoroughly. Most websites and web browsers use/sell browsing history data to “improve your advertising experience” by tailoring ads to things you’ve previously looked at or similar items. Passwords are hacked, companies are hacked, everywhere our so-called ‘private’ data are becoming less private. A quick google search pops of pages of articles about privacy in the digital age, including articles in the Huffington Post and NPR, and there’s even a statement about our Right to privacy on the UN Human Rights page.

Online privacy is a complicated beast to try to tackle, and we so often waive ownership of our own data. But recently the issue of privacy and choosing to share data became very visible to me and some of my friends. Many of us received unsolicited text messages from an apartment complex advertising its low rates. One of my friends called the number back and found out that our university had given them student contact information! This seemed like it shouldn’t be right, so I contacted the university information officer. She told me that since Texas A&M is a state school, it is treated as a government agency and so is subject to the Texas Public Information Act, which requires that all data from government agencies be made available to basically anyone who asks for it, and that the agency cannot ask what the data will be used for. Students at universities can mark their data as private in the school directory and thus prevent their data from being shared under this act. However, students must actively opt out of sharing their data, otherwise everything is publicly available and can be given to anyone who asks for it for any reason. The information officer told me that only about 1000 students (out of 58,809) change their privacy settings to be more restrictive.

I think it’s great that there are efforts to make the government more transparent. However, I also think that private data should automatically be preserved (rather than automatically made publicly available). I’m really glad that my friend’s persistence to get off the apartment’s call list motivated me to look into this issue (and not only because it turns out there was a bug in the A&M system that was reading my restricted privacy settings as not marked when they were–this issue is now fixed, but brings up lots of other questions about accidental loss of privacy in the digital era) because now I am more informed an am able to make choices about what data are being shared.

I encourage everyone to become more informed about what personal information is being shared on the internet. Employers and schools should keep data private, in my opinion, but you might have to actively seek that privacy out. If you feel something is wrong, consider taking action to fix it! And if you’re a student at Texas A&M, I highly recommend you log onto Howdy and change  your privacy settings–even your UIN can be public information!

Genetics as a component of natural history

This week John Avise, a well-known leader in the field of evolutionary biology, visited Texas A&M. He founded the field of phylogeography (integrating population genetics and phylogenetics), and has done some really groundbreaking research. He’s also written several books that I recommend checking out. During his visit he gave a talk titled “Genetics in the Wild” (which is also the title of one of his books). In this lecture, Dr. Avise went through a variety of examples of cool and weird animals and how genetic techniques have been used to gain a better understanding of the animals’ life histories, extending our knowledge beyond what classical natural history and ecology studies could do. He said something that really resonated with me: genes are part of an organism, and that studying the genetics of a species or population is just studying another component of the natural history of that organism. This is sort of an obvious statement, but I think it’s a very important thing to keep in mind. Many people, both scientists and non-scientists, have the tendency to study the genetics of organisms in isolation from field studies. There are good reasons for doing experiments that way (for example, in developmental biology, it’s sort of important to keep the environmental conditions the same for all of your specimens, which wouldn’t happen in the field), but so often the results of genetics experiments are not well-integrated into our understanding of the organism and its ecology.John Avise’s talk was a good reminder that genetic techniques can serve as a tool applied to studying a microscopic and important component of organisms’ natural histories.