The world has a long history of excluding women from science and—when women have been able to bust into the male-dominated halls of science—of overlooking their work. But against all odds, women have made astounding contributions to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. This episode explores four perspectives on gender issues in science.
First off, professional chemist and Geek Girl Con volunteer Raychelle Burks talks with us about pop culture portrayals of female scientists, from Abby Sciuto to Dana Scully. Then, we take a field trip to the Marine Mammal Center in California and visit with a team of female veterinarians—women are actually a majority of vets across the country. After that, we talk with author Rachel Swaby about her new book Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World, which profiles female scientists we should learn about in school (but don’t). In closing, writer and hydrologist Vivian Underhill discusses her series Queered Science and LGBTQ issues in science workplaces. Listen to the whole show below.
INTERVIEW WITH RAYCHELLE BURKS
A VISIT WITH VETS
INTERVIEW WITH RACHEL SWABY
INTERVIEW WITH VIVIAN UNDERHILL
Join the handmade revolution! Blue Buddha Boutique is the leading innovator in original chianmaille designs, tutorials, and projects. We are an independent, woman-owned boutique based in Chicago, and we help people all over the world create beautiful works of art! Check us out online at www.bluebuddhaboutique.com. Happy weaving!
If you’re an LGBTQ person working in a science or math-minded field, check out OSTEM and NOGLSTP, which both provide mentoring for queer STEM folks. Also check out Vivian Underhill’s article Queer Science: LGBT Scientists Discuss Coming Out at Work. Plus, science professionals and nonprofessionals alike would get a kick out of Geek Girl Con.
The songs featured on this show were “Queen of the Meadow” by The Corner Laughers, off their album Matilda Effect, “I’m Gonna Be An Engineer” by the great Peggy Seeger, and “Crazy Bird” by the band Wild Child. Additional creative and minimalist music was provided by Blue Dot Sessions.
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This show was generously transcribed by volunteer Edith Tita. We're proud to make Popaganda available to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
This is Popaganda – the Feminist Response to Pop Culture podcast. I’m Sarah Mirk.
Okay, here’s a simple question. How many female scientists can you name?
A few years ago, beauty company L'Oreal surveyed 1,000 Americans and asked them to name any female scientist. The result was an EPIC FAIL! 65 percent of people could not name a sole woman in science. That’s bad… but it’s a reflection of some big problems in the culture of science: the fields of science, technology, engineering and math have a major gender imbalance. That’s no surprise when you look at history: until very recent decades, women had to fight, sneak, or beg their way into higher learning institutions if they wanted to study science or math and, still, these days, women are discouraged from careers in those male-dominated industries in all sorts of ways, some big, some small.
A study just this year from the center for WorkLife Law at the University of California found that women working in STEM fields—that’s science, technology, engineering, and math [science people LOVE acronyms]—often have to provide more evidence of being competent to be treated as equally capable as men. Even then, one study found that when a man and a woman had equal math skills, 90 percent of the time, employers would choose to hire the man. Yikes.
But it’s not all bad. Against all odds, women have made amazing and influential contributions to science—often, sadly, for little pay and even less recognition. Just because most Americans can’t name a female scientists doesn’t mean there aren’t astounding women in our history and today doing really important scientific work.
On today’s show, we’re exploring three perspectives on women in science. We also hear from Raychelle Burks, a chemist and organizer of Geek Girl Con about portrayals of female scientists in pop culture, including my personal favorite, Dana Scully. Then, we travel to a Marine science center in California and look at a field of science that’s majority women. I then talk with the author of a new book that details the life stories of some of these overlooked scientists—it’s called Headstrong, 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World. Finally, I talk to hydrologist and writer Vivian Underhill about queer women in science and issues around LGBTQ representation in the sciences. Stay tuned.
RAYCHELLE BURKES INTERVIEW
Every October, hundreds of people descend on downtown Seattle for an event called Geek Girl Con, a festival that aims to celebrate and honors the legacy of women contributing to science and technology (and celebrate a bunch of other nerdy stuff, just hang out and have a good time too). I was at Geek Girl Con last year and amid the chaos of the crowd and the talks and the cosplayers, I found this little haven: a series of tables set up with science experiments where actual scientists would walk you through how to do cool things with physics and chemistry. I, along with many children, made invisible ink. It was awesome. That DIY Science Zone was run by Raychelle Burkes, who is a chemist—in addition to volunteering for Geek Girl Con, she’s a post-doctoral researcher at Doane College. I called up Raychelle for this show to ask her, as a scientist, what she thinks about portrayals of female scientists in pop culture.
Sarah: So tell me about your work as a chemist – just super briefly: what do you focus on?
Raychelle: Well, I am an analytical chemist, so instead of making chemicals I find chemicals. I’m also a forensic scientist, so the chemicals I’m interested in are usually nefarious in nature: drugs, explosives, various types of bodily fluids laughs …
I design systems to detect chemicals in various ways, and different kinds of applications. We’re designing a phone app right now, to work in our research. I get to do a lot of cool stuff. I like to pretend I’m kind of a chemistry detective.
S: Where do you look for these chemicals?
R: We could do passive monitoring. Let’s say for instance you wanted to be able to monitor exposure of a certain workplace or at a train station; you’d want to have something that would just be monitoring things in the background, say by sampling the air. Those are systems that I work on.
Or maybe you want to specifically test some unknown mysterious white sample laughs – might be a solid, might be a liquid, could be a gas – we design different systems to look for chemicals in different areas, so you have to use a different tool depending on the chemicals you’re interested in and what you think you might find them in. So it can be a little bit of engineering, too.
S: That sounds really interesting. So on today’s show I want to talk to you because you’re both a scientist and a critical pop culture consumer about representations of scientist in popular media, books, movies and TV. So, just starting out, do you remember scientists you saw on TV growing up, specifically did you have any female scientists that you saw in pop culture that [made you say] ‘Yes! I want to do that’?
R: See, that was the problem when I was growing up – I’ve just turned 40, so I’m old – laughs but when I was growing up there wasn’t a whole lot on TV as far as female scientists. [Anyway] I distinctly remember Uhura from Star Trek, because she was definitely in a tech role, and she was the one person that looked like me: not only as a woman but as a woman of color.
[Star Trek clip:
Spock: Progress report.
Uhura: I’m connecting the bypass circuit now sir. It should take… Another half hour.
Spock: Speed is essential, lieutenant.
Uhura: Mr Spock, I haven’t done anything like this in years. If it isn’t done just right I could blow the entire communication system. It’s very delicate work, sir.
Spock: I can think of no one better equipped to handle it, Miss Uhura. Please proceed.]
R: You know, I always was watching with my dad, because – I’m not that old! laughs – So I remember her, but there was [otherwise] a real deficit of women on TV that were scientists. And it was really just into the Eighties…
It’s kind of funny: I remember sitting with my mom and she or my older sisters would be watching daytime TV once the VCR got rolling, she would tape daytime television. There were more female medical doctors, that was their job; like in General Hospital, they’d be running around the hospital. So I kind of remember that, but I don’t remember a lot in TV. More so, definitely as I got older, I was already in highschool or in college.
But in books, there was the Kay Scarpetta series who was a medical examiner, more of a forensic though, that really showed up when I was about in junior high… And though they weren’t scientists, I would definitely say [it was a turning point] when my grandmother got me into reading Miss Marple, from Agatha Christie, the Miss Marple series. Her mind, the way she figured things out, the quantitative reasoning – she wasn’t a scientist, she was a ‘spinster aunt’ laughs (I don’t know if that’s a job, but I need it! I mean, that would be awesome. I’d like to knit and drink sherry! laughs)–
S: But you’re right, she’s kind of a sociologist-slash-mathematician, I think you could call her that – somebody who’s really good at solving puzzles.
R: The things that she’d put together…! I mean, you knew you had seen the same clues, you had heard the same information, [but she had the] ability to connect what you thought at one time to be disparate ideas and little factoids, and to come up with a very good– people would call it a guess, but it’s based on her little bits of information. She would come up with these estimations, and I was just so impressed by how you could learn to do that! And she always had this great background…
And older than that, it would definitely be JB Fletcher, my homegirl from Murder She Wrote laughs They say she’s modeled after Miss Marple, but she’s another person who was a teacher on the show and became an author, [though] not a scientist – as you mentioned, whose mind is just… Whatever people [consider scientific reasoning to be], I would put those two as being world-class fictional examples. And then of course Sherlock Holmes, that fictional character, would be in that kind of realm too.
S: When you look at detectives like those you just mentioned, actually a lot of what they’re doing are skills that scientists use: the same skills of having to sort of look at the big picture and deduce, or look at a problem and think of solutions in the same way you’re looking for how to find solutions to find chemicals.
R: Exactly – and it’s just putting these things together. The advice I gave to my students was: ‘You need to be more like Miss Marple,’ in that you’re gonna hear something at the beginning of semester and you’re gonna need to find the connection with that concept as we move on, like you’re putting together pieces of a puzzle.
S: I wonder how science education would change if, instead of calling it Chemistry class, we called it Solving Mysteries! class…
R: Yes! I think that would be [great]! I think sometimes, we as chemists need to do a bit of rebranding, or just revamp chemistry – but I think you’re on to something.
S: So now you do a lot of work around pop culture because of your involvement in Geek Girl Con, in part, so how do you feel, as a 40-year-old? You’ve seen the pop culture representations of female scientists change since you were a kid.
R: Yeah, there’s definitely more of them. You’re seeing more on television. I would still say that there’s a real [white person] dominance: when we say ‘scientist’ [or] ‘lady scientist’, there are a lot of white ladies laughs and probably the biggest contributor of putting more women scientists on television has been the forensic science shows.
S: So, I’m kind of conflicted about those forensic science shows, because they do include a lot of women in scientific roles and that’s exciting – but then the shows are so over-the-top and sexy and someone dies in every episode…
S: …And I think it maybe paints an unrealistic picture of what it’s like to be a scientist. Whereas a show like The Big Bang Theory – which I hate, I do not like that show at all – it alarms me that TBBT is the most popular show in America right now, but on the plus side it has women who are scientists and do really mundane, normal science jobs. It looks like they’re doing actual science, they’re in really realistic environments, nobody’s getting shot, so…
R: I totally agree! I think you get to the point where you have exposure versus the quality of that exposure. And though the job might seem more realistic, you and I could probably have an entire show, and people have written entire blogs, about ‘Big Bang Theory: serious issues with diversity’ – and I mean diversity in all areas, as far as race, gender, gender roles, LGBTQ… So, the exposure, the number of character you see, [matters] but [so does] the quality of the show: because there are characters that people like, [for example] female scientist characters or even ‘the Strong Woman’ that you see on various shows, but when you dig deeper…
I mean, I love Dana Scully as much as the next person, and she would definitely be one of these medical doctor characters that were very popular, and I watched X Files for the entire run it was on – but even in watching that you realize ‘Why is this person putting up with Mulder’s fill-in-the-blank[??]’
S: Yeah! You know, that’s what I think I like about her character a lot: basically the show is Scully stating some really smart ideas and facts while the men around her are telling her that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about at all and ‘Actually,…’
R: Well, yeah…!
S: And every show has Scully saying something like ‘You know, there’s a logical explanation for this, this can be proven by science’ and Mulder’s like ‘ALIENS!’
S: But what I like about her is that she stands her ground, she doesn’t back down and she says ‘I know what I’m talking about’ and as much as Mulder tries to shut her down, she stands up for herself and for science. And the show shows a lot of the non-sexy sides of science: like when Mulder’s running around with a gun shooting at aliens, Scully’s back in the lab dissecting somebody! I swear to god, she dissects a body in every episode…
R: Well obviously that’s because if there’s a scientific explanation it’ll be buried in the chest cavity! laughs And I think that’s the fun part – Scully is saying the straight dope and the men around her are like ‘ugh, ugh’ and you’re [thinking] that’s kind of real life, sometimes!
R: And the funny thing is, having worked in a crime lab, I’d be the first person to crush anyone’s CSI dreams, but there are those moments that [make you think] ‘You couldn’t make this up!’ laughs
The issue there with those shows is [their representation of the more factual, procedural aspects of the job], and then of course even then you have [other issues to consider]: ‘What’s the depth of this character? Does this person have agency, or are they just the hot blonde on the show?’ – that’s when you can get into the layers of the show. I think that’s why Abby Sciuto is so popular, besides the fact that she’s just like this person who can literally do everything in a laboratory: ‘We have to [dis]assemble this car’ ‘No problem, I’ll put it back together and tell you what’s wrong with it’ laughs
Abby: Is this the blood from our vic?
Detective: Hope so. How long before we get the DNA?
Abby: Let’s see what ABO typing says first…]
R: You know, she’s kind of a MacGyver-esque type of person. But also, because she has this personal life that seems really interesting and intriguing, she doesn’t ‘look’ like what you think a scientist should look like.
Even with TBBT, sometimes people have talked about the stereotypical socially awkward male and female characters that very much are the stereotype. I think that with Abby Sciuto’s character you’re seeing somebody who has clearly loved her job and is very good at it, but also clearly loves her personal life and her hobbies and has friendships and connections – and you see this life beyond the character, which is really exciting.
But I think you can see [a similar thing] in every character, just like with Sherlock Holmes, especially in the BBC adaptation: people love that show and I’m one of them, but man, can we all admit – and even he admits – that he’s a huge asshole?!
R: So I think that’s the fun part, being able to kind of dissect, à la Scully, these characters and these shows.
S: It’s interesting because we can laugh off Dana Scully and other characters having to put up with a lot of pushback from other characters, but that’s what a lot of women who are working in the sciences and in STEM fields experience in real life. There was a really big study that was done this year on the experiences of women in science from the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, and what they found through interviews with women who are working in sciences was that they say they have to prove themselves over and over to be as competent as their male colleagues. And that’s a cultural issue, in that field.
R: Oh, absolutely! And I think that one of the myths that comes around is that sometimes people found that kind of research shocking. It’s not shocking maybe for women in those fields, right? But it seems shocking to [other] people, because part of it is this mythology that science is a utopian field where we have ascended beyond these petty human issues of bigotry and strife! laughs So to hear that all of that human stuff is carried into what we assume is very logical we-should-know-better kind of workplace, for some people it’s shocking that that’s true.
Obviously, if you’re on the receiving end, it certainly isn’t shocking to you. I can certainly say that as a black woman scientist there have been several occasions over the course of my career – more that several, I don’t even know to quantify it – where it seems you have to have your oral CV at the ready, almost on the daily at some workplaces maybe more than others. Even though you work there, so you’ve gone through the process, right?! laughs You have the appropriate letters and your name, but it’s constant. Or they just dismiss it: you literally said the same idea, the same opinion, but now that a white man has said it, it’s magic. And that’s been talked about quite a bit, this idea that you’re literally not heard or you’re actively ignored. So those [issues] exist, that’s real stuff…
S: Can you speak to what’s unique about the culture of sciences? You were saying that scientists want to see themselves as people who are logical, fact-based and objective – and yet the same issues that pervade other industries in regard to gender and sexism and racism pervade sciences too!
R: Well yeah, [as it would] any human endeavor. I think that’s the problem: the idea that scientists are somehow smarter than that; it just isn’t recognized that human beings, no matter what their endeavor, carry that baggage.
S: So Raychelle, in closing, do you have some favorite scientists that you would like to tell us about?
R: Well, I have a favorite fictional scientist and a favorite real scientist.
R: My favorite fictional scientist would have be from Eureka, a show that I loved because it was so diverse in its cast, in its characters – and I really loved Allison because she was a woman, she was a woman of color, she was in a position of power, she had this whole personal life and a professional life where she was very in command… So she would be my favorite fictional scientist.
S: I am not familiar with the show Eureka, what it is?
R: Oh! I so love it! It’s about this town and these geniuses, and yet the sheriff is this regular Joe and… Oh, you have to watch it! Now I have to get you to watch it laughs
S: Great! I’ll have to look up Eureka. So who’s your favorite real life actual scientist?
R: It’s a little bit of a sad story but – It would be Alice Ball, she was an African-American chemist. She was the first African-American to graduate with a graduate degree from what we know now as the University of Hawaii, and she really helped advance the treatment of leprosy in the early 1970s-1960. Her work helped with the treatment of a very old disease and really paved the way for natural products pharmaceutical research. Sadly, in the same year when she made this big impact she died and her work was– ‘taken over’ would be a friendly word: her contributions weren’t acknowledged publicly until several decades later.
S: Alice Ball! Thank you so much for sharing Raychelle!
R: Thank you!
That was chemist and Geek Girl Con DIY Science Zone organizer Raychelle Burkes. Follow her on twitter @drrabidium.
You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today we’re talking about women in science.
RACHEL SWABY INTERVIEW
You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today, we’re talking about women in science.
In 2013, the New York Times published a laughably bad obituary. The obituary was for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, but her immense contributions to science were buried beneath an opening paragraph about her beef Stroganoff recipe. Would you start off an obituary about Richard Feynman by talking about how much he loved French fries? No. The obituary sparked a lot of conversations and got many people thinking about sexism in science industries – including journalist Rachel Swaby, who was inspired by the incident to learn more about women in science. She got to work on a book collecting the biographies of 52 scientists. The book, Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science—And the World, came out in April and includes brief biographies of women in all fields of science, from well-known women like Ada Lovelace and Rosalind Franklin to many, many people I'd never heard of before. I called up Rachel to talk about the history of overlooking women in science.
S: So, Rachel – You put together this book where you did 52 different biographies of lots of impressive women working in science, and I want to know what you were thinking when you started this project. When you were initially thinking about researching the lives of female scientists, did you realize how big a project this was going to be?
R: Well, I certainly had never written a book before, so just the scope of how big writing a book is, I certainly didn’t know that. But as soon as I started trying to figure out who to include in the book and how to find those people – because I mean I knew that I would find a lot of people. I figured that there were a lot of incredible scientists that hadn’t been recognized as much as they should have been, perhaps, but my list just went on and on and on…
S: In reading this book, some of the names were familiar to me and some of them were new. Paging through this I knew a couple of the scientists, and I kind of think of myself as someone who’s interested in science, but so many of the women I had never heard about before! And their contributions are so important. So I was wondering, as you were doing this research, what surprised you about the lives that you were reading about and what sort of patterns did you see between the women you included in the book?
R: I also didn’t know a lot about the people in the book at the time – I certainly knew some names but even the ones I did know, I didn’t know a lot about. For instance I knew that Florence Nightingale had something to do with modern nursing, but I didn’t know that she was this amazing statistician!
Everybody in the book is dead, so some of the patterns in this book are because the women in it were working decades, if not centuries, ago. But, just personality-wise, there was a lot of creativity in figuring out how to get an indication, or how to get into the field that they wanted to get into. So one of the [what I would call] crazier stories of somebody going after their dream was Russian mathematician – and I’m going to say her name wrong – Sophie Kowalevski [Sofia Kovalevskaya]. She entered into a sham marriage in order to get to Europe, in order to try and get into university. When she got there, they wouldn’t let her in; then she went somewhere else, and they wouldn’t let her in. Then she was able to find an advocate who worked something else, so she was able to do her dissertation – in fact she did three.
Some people worked it out with a professor – one woman for instance went into a private door and had to sit in a row by herself and couldn’t have any interaction with the men in the class because they were afraid she was going to be a distraction. The mathematician was able to do her dissertation from afar because she was already so advanced in math that she actually didn’t need to go through all of the classes at university – her learning was already up there. But yeah, [these women came up with] really creative ways: they’d go into a peripheral science because, say, engineering wasn’t open to women, but something else was; they would go into the other science and then work their way back to engineering later.
S: That’s interesting. So what kind of other patterns did you see emerge between the lives of these 52 women, either in the way that they gained their education or what happened once they started working in the field?
R: Many, many people worked without pay. I should have added it up at some point, but I would say at least half, if not many more than that, worked for free or for very little – and some of them for their entire careers. Some of them, in order to dedicate their lives to science, they had to make really big sacrifices. They had to devote themselves wholly to science instead of just being really passionate about it; many of the women decided not to marry because they figured if they married they wouldn’t be able to continue in the same capacity as they wanted to. Or some of them had scientist husbands who supported them. But it was pretty shocking to learn that entire amazing careers should go by without ever getting payment.
But then another interesting thing happened: sometimes the women who did get recognition for their work were seen as a kind of an extraordinary ‘other’: they weren’t like the other women, they were some kind of unicorn that could do math and science… So they were kind of allowed into unique places and institutions, but it didn’t necessarily [result in anyone else being let in], because they were seen as special, or not the norm.
S: So there was an exception made for this one brilliant woman, but that doesn’t mean that the university would just let in women in general.
R: Exactly. [It was like] ‘Oh we love this mathematician, she’s amazing, but she’s the exception, not all women are like this and other women couldn’t be [like] this one person.’
S: So, as you were researching all this, who really stood out to you as somebody who should get more recognition? Who would you want to be the headline of every newspaper? Like, who is a brilliant scientist that everyone should know but we don’t?
R: I would say that I was researching, almost every person hit that… I’ll give you an answer – but almost every person, as I was going through [the research] [made me think] ‘This person is amazing! Why doesn’t everyone know about this?!’ and then I’d get to the next person and I’d say ‘Oh my gosh, but this one is incredible!’ laughs I just love [the stories].
But there were a few that could speak to me personally – like, I would say Alice Hamilton. She was a pathologist and she was kind of like a reporter, which is why I think I’m not a scientist myself but a reporter. She looked into occupational disease and when she started doing it, the government didn’t even know what industries used lead in manufacturing. So she had to go and figure out what industries used lead, how they were using it and how it affected the workers. Sometimes she’d go to the plants and the manager would say ‘Oh, everyone’s fine – we’re not letting you in’, so she would go and pull hospital records, interview people at home…
So she became the foremost expert on occupational disease – so much so that Harvard hired her long before they admitted women to medical school, because there was no one else to hire! She was the expert. And she kind of laughed about it at the time. But her work was instrumental in pushing through some laws for workers that have made the workplace a safer place to be – and she was really at the forefront of that.
S: As you’ve mentioned, you’re not a scientist yourself, and I’m interested in how researching the lives of all these scientists has helped you think differently about science.
R: I feel like it’s a whole history of the world that I just didn’t see. For example I didn’t know that a woman mapped the ocean floor, or that a woman discovered the inner core of the earth, or that there was a preteen who discovered a dinosaur… These stories seem pretty basic, like the ones you would want to hear in elementary school chuckles and thinking back, I wonder why didn’t I hear these stories? These are amazing stories! I would’ve loved to know that, in this very accessible way, women were responsible for how we understand the world!
That was Rachel Swaby, author of Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science—And The World. Go check out the book—even if you know a lot about science, I guarantee you’ll find something new and interesting in its stories.
VIVIAN UNDERHILL INTERVIEW
You’re listening to Popaganda, the feminism and pop culture podcast. Today we’re talking all about women in science.
Next up, we’re talking with Vivian Underhill who’s a writer and a hydrologist; her writing focuses on feminist and environmental issues in science. For Bitch, she wrote and article about how queer people in science come out at work and the issues they deal with around that. In 2013 she also wrote a great column for Autostraddle about LGBT issues in science called Queered Science. She is also a scientist – Vivian works for the Geological Survey in Manilow Park, California, studying mercury contamination in San Francisco Bay.
S: Vivian, thank you so much for joining us!
V: Thanks for having me!
S: So, Vivian, you’re a scientist yourself. Can you tell us a little bit about your job and what you do?
V: I am a what is called a field-and-lab technician with the US Geological Survey, which basically means I spend about half my time in a boat out in the San Francisco Bay collecting water samples, sediment samples, etc. And then I spend the other half of my time back in the lab doing a lot of different analyses for how much total mercury there is in there, how much reactive mercury, what the general chemical makeup of that sediment or water is.
S: That’s pretty interesting! It sounds exciting, being on a boat studying mercury – but is it actually exciting on a day-to-day basis, or do you get kind of dragged down?
V: laughs That’s a very good question. The first couple of times it was definitely pretty exhilarating. I’m from the mountains, actually, I’m a very landlocked person at heart. So being on the water the first couple of times, trying to juggle sample bottles and pH meters, the whole thing was definitely exciting. I will say, though, that the more I do it, the less exciting it becomes.
S: I’m interested in your path to becoming a scientist: did you grow up always wanting to be a scientist? What role did science play in your life as a kid?
V: That’s an interesting question for me because, on the one hand, I grew up in the mountains and I was a big skier/rock-climber/mountain person. So, in a way, studying the ecology of mountain environments which is what my degree was in was a very natural area for me to fall into; but on the other hand, I always considered myself more of a writer, more of a word person…
So I took a year off college, went to South America and I got to spend some time on the Northern Ice Field which is one of the biggest ice fields in the world.
S: Where is that?
V: It’s in Chile – in Patagonia. It’s hundreds of miles of this frozen expanse with glaciers on all sides, it’s incredible. I saw that and all I knew was that I wanted to learn more about how that got to be how it is and what formed those incredible glaciers that I was seeing. So from there I went back to school and I started taking classes on hydrology and glaciology, and that got me to a degree in Environmental Science.
S: I think that’s so interesting because I feel like so often in our culture we sort of divide people into either ‘You’re a math/science person’ or ‘You’re a writing/art person’. And I’ve felt that conflict in my own life, where I’m kind of curious about everything laughs like on a Tuesday I could be a science person, on a Wednesday I could be a writing person – these divides don’t make any sense!
V: Yeah. After I got my degree – we’re getting a little bit into personal history here – after I got my environmental science degree, straight out of school I got a job also at the National Geological Survey but in Denver, Colorado (so, a different branch than I am now) and I loved that job. I really respected my boss and I loved my coworkers, but that was also the time when I was coming out to myself, my friends and my family… So I started really paying attention to the queer culture around me, and I noticed that very much in the same way I’d felt that writing and science had to be two separate things for me, I also felt like there wasn’t a lot of representation of scientists in the queer culture that I was seeing and there wasn’t a lot of representation of queer people among the scientific culture that I saw.
S: So when you started looking into this question you had about why aren’t queer identities more out or more represented in sciences, what patterns did you think you saw in the lives of the scientists you were looking at and the people you were talking to? What sort of patterns did you see emerge about why people don’t come out as often in sciences, or why queer identities aren’t incorporated into the culture of sciences as much?
V: I found that we’re really at a turning point, as gay rights become generally more accepted and even the Supreme Court is talking about gay marriage – we’re at this point where the experiences of being a queer person in the sciences are changing drastically. But for a lot of the people I talked to from older generations there was not even a question of coming out – you just didn’t. I mean, I talked to people who had their work sabotaged, who were slowly squeezed out of their lab groups after [others] found out that they were gay or lesbian… And I found other people for whom coming out had just never been a possibility in their lives because it would have damaged their careers etc.
S: So does your queer identity inform your science or your thinking about the world?
V: I think it depends on the person, but I know there’s a whole range of biologists, both queer and straight, who look at animal behavior through a very queer lens, which I think has been revolutionary for a lot of their work because they’re not looking at it with the presupposition that animal sex is straight and for procreation only. Obviously having a more open-minded worldview when looking at that has led to a lot of breakthroughs – [but overall] I think it depends on the field and the person, really.
S: That’s interesting – I like thinking about the way you think about yourself and about the world: if you’re more open-minded and more open to different experiences, you may be more open to seeing the realities that are there. Scientists try to be objective and say ‘Here’s how it’s gonna be’, but it’s always colored I think by what you’re assuming or what you’re hoping to find.
V: Yes. Exactly. That’s precisely the problem – or maybe not the problem, but the reality.
S: In growing up, did you have many scientific role models? Did you have any scientists who you looked up to?
V: Someone who I’ve always identified really strongly with was Rachel Carson, who wrote Silent Spring. She actually was working for the US Geological Survey also, at the time when she wrote that book.
Okay, so– my family is a really hippie family laughs and they’re all real environmentalists, feminists etc., so they often mentioned her as this example of someone who brought the truth of a serious environmental problem to the attention of many. And it was not taken well when it was published; she actually died before it got popular, before people started to agree with what she had written.
She learned about the effects of DDT largely from her work at USGS but she was realizing that no one was publicizing [it]. She realized that there was this poison leaking out into the environment that no one was publicizing or writing about, so she took a major career risk to write it to the best of her abilities and publish it. That was just heroic really – in this environmental feminist way. She’s always been a major role model.
S: That’s right – and she’s a good example of someone who’s a writer and a scientist.
S: I think of Rachel Carson as a writer, first and foremost. But we could also say that she’s a scientist and a writer – oh, like you!
V: Like me!
S: So, Vivian, we should probably wrap up – but I’m interested [in this]: if somebody is a queer person working in the sciences, what sort of resources can you point them toward? Are there groups or sites that someone can go to for information?
V: Absolutely. Well, first, you should read my column on Autostraddle… laughs
S: It’s called Queered Science.
V: Yes, Queered Science – on Autostraddle. But then – at least at a lot of major universities and also some of the larger scientific institutions there is a group called OSTEM which is ‘Out in STEM’ fields, they’re really great. Depending on the chapter that you find, they [can] provide mentoring services: they’ll set you up with an older scientist who also identifies as queer so they can talk about some of those issues with you, like coming out at work and how to be your genuine self in the workplace; they also have networking events, mixers, those kind of things…
S: Great. Well, thank you so much for talking with us, Vivian, and thanks for your work in writing about this issue and researching mercury that is slowly killing us all.
V: Yeah, I like to think that it’s not – but thank you so much, I appreciate it.
That was writer and scientist Vivian Underhill. You can read more of her work at https://vivianunderhill.wordpress.com. If you’re interested in reading her article about queer people in sciences that she wrote for Bitch, I’ll put a link to it in this blog post on our website bitchmedia.org.
There is so much more to say about women in science. But today’s show is meant to spark some thought, to give you three interesting perspectives on a huge, discussion, and quickly evolving discussion about gender and STEM fields. Hopefully we’ve gotten you thinking about how ridiculous it is to think that there are “science people” and “non science people”—we can all be interested in science and appreciate the wonder and beauty of math, biology, and chemistry even if we maybe barely passed classes in math, biology and chemistry, preferring to focus our energies on art and writing, thinking—wrongly—that art and science are distinct and irreconcilable ways of thinking. For far too long the idea there are “science people” and “not science people” has been used to exclude, discourage, and overlook women who are brilliant scientists. We are all science people, or… we could be, with a little more reading and research and encouragement. At the very least, every single listener can now name not just one but many female scientists. Go forth and appreciate science!
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