It’s a Girl’s World: Or is it?

Image from: http://globalclassroom.us/Portals/108225/images/girl_scientist.jpg

“More girls are getting interested in science, and I know it used to be that girls weren’t encouraged, but I’ve never felt like I couldn’t go into science…like I was being discriminated against because I was a girl” said Google Science Fair 2012 winner Brittany Wenger of Lakewood Ranch, FL.

It was the first time I’ve ever smiled while reading a Scientific American article. I smiled hard, in fact. These couple of words made me want to get up and move around and dance a little and hug Ms. Brittany Wenger-whom-I-have-never-met-before. My mind was screaming, “YOU GO GIRL.” She put into words my exact feelings. (Girls dominated the Google Science Fair in 2011 as well, by the way).

I’m picturing a lot of readers with confused faces at my happiness… Like wait, why? I feel that women’s advances can be taken for granted sometimes: “Yeah, women are getting more opportunities in science, just like in everything else nowadays.” Cool.

BUT WAIT!! Read this article (or don’t- just hear me out) and you’ll see the reason for my confusion and anger at humanity/ COMPLETE LOVE of these science fair winner-girls. If you’re one of those folks who decided against reading the article (bah humbug), I’ll sum it up for you:

Professors were less likely to offer women mentoring or job opportunities at American universities (even if they offered a job, it was lower paying than male counterparts).

Nancy Hopkins, biology professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said “People tend to think that [bias against women] has gone away, but alas, it hasn’t.”

Yale researchers sent out an application from a student seeking a position as a laboratory manager to biology, physics, and chemistry professors at 6 major research universities- 127 professors in total. The experiment? They sent some applications from ‘Jennifer’ and some from ‘John’ (the same application!!). The result? John received a higher ‘competence score’ than did Jennifer, and also received a higher starting salary.

This is the real reason everyone should be going… Wait, why? And I guess the answer is, for now, simply unconscious and even innate bias.

So what to do about it?

Ms. Hopkins suggests “affirmative effort,” or making deliberate, planned efforts to overcome discrimination; universities began using this tactic over a decade ago by utilizing more data-driven methods to help with hiring and promotion.

Jeniffer Harper-Taylor, president of the Siemens Foundation, believes that recognizing and celebrating young women in science will provide a much-needed confidence boost (ehem, Google Science Fair winners).

Yet another woman, Janelle Wilson, a sixth-grade science teacher from Georgia, says that young girls need positive role models who teach them that it’s possible to be both smart and beautiful at that critical middle-school-turning-point.

In fact, I remember a visit from NJ weather woman Janice Huff in the 5th grade immediately provoked my interest in the environment- here’s a beautiful lady who’s also confident and friendly and smart- and proud of it! Oh man, I wanted to be like her.

I think the real answer may lie in a combination of these three; we must recognize that certain biases, however unfortunately, are near-inherent qualities AND there may not be a single cure-all for these biases.

So, yes, Ms. Hopkins, we do need to make a more conscious effort to counter these unconscious thoughts. I see your point, Ms. Harper-Taylor, and can sympathize with the feeling of unparalleled joy after receiving an award for my science achievements. And I agree, Ms. Wilson, that a girl can easily be turned off from science if in middle school she’s made fun of for being a “nerd.”

Let’s make all three of these ideas work together for a more promising future for our budding young-lady-scientists.

I’m not a hardcore feminist, I promise. But I will stand up for what I believe.

‘Til next time.

P.S.- If you’re not convinced yet, take a gander at this graph from the U.S. Department of Labor:

Narrowing Your Topic Without Losing Your Mind

I’m studying this year (in Research Science 2) alongside the Research Science 1 students; this is all of their first times doing “real” research and they’re at that point where they have an idea that’s good but still frustratingly abstract.

One girl in my class approached me about a week ago with a worried expression and wide eyes… “When will I know what I want to study?” she asked. I guess I gave her a confused look because she quickly corrected herself: “I mean, when did you know what you wanted to study?”

That got me thinking…

1. Write out a list of 5 things you’re interested in.

I hope this is self-explanatory, but your list should NOT look like this:

I’m glad you’re friends with Joe and I actually encourage you to continue eating pizza, but…come on.

Something like this is a great starting point (notice “Playing xbox” is still in there…you’ll see why):

Okay, awesome. Then fill in 2-3 ideas surrounding each of your 5 topics- questions, random thoughts about the topic, things you know about it…

Now get out there and find some answers!!

For now don’t worry if you think your question has already been answered or not. Just write whatever first comes to mind.

2. Talk to people. As simple as this sounds, the more people you talk to about your project the more insight you’ll gather and the more potential help you’ll receive.

Even if you don’t have a solidified idea yet, just throwing ideas out there often works. (“Oh yeah, I worked with thyroid cancer cells once! Maybe my college professor will answer some questions for you! Here’s his email address…”) Congrats, you are now 82634876 steps closer to starting your project than you were 3 minutes ago.

3. Go to this website or this website or this website or this website (for kids) or this website  for ideas. The importance of keeping up with current science events in order to choose a topic of study can’t be stressed enough.

Enjoy and hit the contact page for extra advice or help!

‘Til next time.

P.S.- Take some time to check out this article from the NY Times… It’s one of those articles I read that really just hit me.

BAM. And now I understand.

Research by Researchers: Thoughts on “Success with Science”

As part of my research science class, we just finished reading the book Success with Science: The Winner’s Guide to High School Research written by Shiv Gaglani and a few other talented undergrads/ recent graduates from Harvard and UPenn who won at a variety of national science competitions as high schoolers.

My thoughts:

  • This is a winner’s guide. Lots of emphasis is placed on how to make it to the biggest precollegiate science fairs out there (International Science and Engineering Fair, INTEL Science Talent Search, Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology…).
  • Do not pick up this book expecting lots of light and fluffy beating-around-the-bush talk. It is written like a manual on how to change a tire or fix computer problems. That being said, it does not contain exact steps on how to create a winning research project (because how could you do that?!), but it is the closest thing I’ve seen.
  • I specifically enjoyed “Part 3: Elements of a Successful Research Project” not because of what it did for me but rather what it did for my classmates who are new to research. I read it and thought it rather boring, but when my class held a discussion of these chapters, I immediately saw the benefit of their inclusion. The “newbies” had no idea how to write a scientific paper or give a Power point presentation- skills I now take for granted. Certain parts of the book (like this one) definitely have benefits for rising scientists.
  • My one criticism is that the book often contains information that one can easily find by performing a Google search. Ex: chapters 3 (scholarships) and 16-19 (major science fairs) contained a myriad of information about how much money one can earn through science competitions, whether certain fairs accept group projects or not, etc. I found it frustrating that there were not more original ideas in these chapters- simply a regurgitation of previously-established facts.
  • It is near polar opposite of Advice to a Young Scientist by P.B. Medawar. Success is for the driven student who is looking to win big, while Advice is for the everyday observant kid who likes to perform small scale experiments with their house plants (ironic because it was written by a Nobel prize recipient).
  • I sincerely enjoyed the one-liner quotes at the beginnings of each chapter: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”- Howard Thurman

I’d be interested to hear if any of you read this book also! Any thoughts? Hit the contact page or comment!

‘Til next time.

P.S.- Just a science joke…

Image retrieved from: http://loldamn.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/funny-cat-professor-chemistry-glasses-two-men-bar.jpg

The Art of Balance

This year while conducting my experiment, I stumbled upon an unexpected phenomenon. My project was very… well… scientific. It forced me to be precise and organized. Towards the end I was becoming increasingly tired of the meticulous measurements. I started to dislike the fact that I was required to write everything down in a notebook.

So I turned to an old hobby of mine- tie-dying- because something inside me felt I needed a creative outlet. I almost craved something not so exact.

It worked out perfectly. I splattered and dipped and threw the dye on as I pleased, and the shirts always came out looking neat. Then, miraculously, I could return to my calculations with a clear head.

I guess I learned there’s something to be said about using both sides of the brain simultaneously. One thrives off the other. Yin and Yang.

I present to you… The Art of Balance.

‘Til next time.

P.S.- Mae Jemison has some awesome ideas on this topic, although she focuses more on the integration of the two rather than using them for balance. Either way, lesson learned.

It was sort of funny looking through my pictures from this past year- tie-dyes mixed in with research photos. Gotta love it…

Advice to a Young Scientist

Not to be confused with P.B. Medawar‘s book Advice to a Young Scientist– I’ll actually cover his ideas later.

What I’ve come up with are five essential pieces of advice for budding twenty-first-century researchers or scientists (or research scientists, for that matter).

1. Sense of Direction-

You must have some idea of where you intend to go. This is one of the more difficult and time-consuming aspects of research, especially if you’re new to the process.

Keep in mind I am by no means telling you to have a two-year plan of what comes next by the time you begin, because that will all come naturally once you get started. But it is many times more difficult to approach a teacher or parent with a question like: “What should I study?” rather than, “How can I set up an experiment looking into mussel growth?”

Think about a branch of science you’re interested in and narrow it down from there. Mine was environmental science. Yours may be engineering, computer science, psychology.

Don’t worry too much about picking the “wrong” topic at first, either. Use your younger years to explore new subjects and ideas.

2. Fearlessness of Failure-

One of my favorite topics, mostly because this year I essentially learned the most graceful way possible to fall flat on my face. I had the Sense of Direction and dedication, but really had no idea what I was getting myself into. For some reason I thought my experiment would work out flawlessly.

When it didn’t, I cried like a baby.

Then I found this article on failure and slowly started to feel proud of how much I was learning by not doing everything right. When something didn’t work out, I wrote down potential reasons for the failure and learned to move on. I’m telling you: anything that could or may go wrong probably will.

Brace yourself and enjoy the ride.

3. Persistence-

Goes along with #2- don’t let those little glitches defeat you. It may be the toughest thing you will do- yes, even tougher than the statistics- but find a way to clear your head and get back up. Talk to a colleague, a teacher. Write down a couple possible solutions.

This also includes a piece of advice that you just have to learn for yourself: Anybody will respond if you contact them enough times. You’d be surprised at how many borderline-instantaneous email responses I’ve gotten after this:

“Dear Dr. So-and-so, I write to confirm that you received the following email I sent a few days ago. (Insert email here)”

Works like a charm.

4. Find a mentor-

It goes without saying that in life in general (and in science particularly), we need someone to ask questions of and to bounce ideas off of- an expert who’s willing to be your teacher. So, find yourself one of these people.

Not so easy. I wager I wrote about fifteen emails to different scientists, researchers, experts in my field before I received one hopeful-sounding response.

It’s not that these people have anything against younger scientists or think your ideas suck or don’t want to help, but often they’re simply too busy and don’t think you’re serious enough to dedicate any substantial amount of time to.

You need to prove them wrong by showing them you’re interested in your (and, therefore, their) field and that you won’t give up after one disheartening response. Ask for suggestions if they truly can’t help you themselves- colleagues? Journal articles? Websites?

Finding a mentor is difficult but rewarding work- I’ll get to all the essentials in another post.

5. Own it-

Excuse the cheesiness, but my favorite way to describe this one is: If you don’t believe in your research, who will?

The hardest time to do this was at science fairs when the kid standing next to me conducted cancer research that was being looked into by the Johns Hopkins medical school… You think I’m kidding?

Somewhere along the way I’ve learned to be proud of my work, even if it was nowhere near as earth-shattering as I’d hoped. Because I know that with a little more work, someday it very well may be.

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Want even more ideas? Check out this TED talk by E.O. Wilson. “Keep your eyes lifted and your head turning. The search for knowledge is in our genes…”

What do you think is the most important attribute of a young scientist? Comment or hit the contact page to let me know!

‘Til next time.