Friday, July 27, 2007

Light Blogging

Just a note to say that I'm not dead, I'm blogging lightly due to family obligations. All should be back to normal in a week.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Interview with Math Whiz Danica McKellar

At Aetiology Tara Smith has a great interview with actress and math-lover Danica McKellar. McKellar is probably best known (at least by people my age) for her role as Winnie in The Wonder Years. After leaving the show McKellar attended UCLA, where she majored in mathematics, publishing a proof (pdf) and graduating summa cum laude. Since then, she's been actively promoting math and science education for girls. She recently publishing a book about mathematics aimed at middle school girls, Math Doesn't Suck.

In the interview Tara asked her about her use of stereotypically "girly" examples.

The fact that it's not a mixed signal is exactly the central message of my book: Girls can enjoy being "girly" and "fabulous" alongside developing their brain - and in fact, in the book I develop the thesis that their brain happens to be their most important tool in becoming a fabulous young woman someday. They're not at odds; they can fit perfectly together. And the more they can be seen to fit together, the more girls will be attracted to math.

The media tells girls that math/science lovers are nerdy white males with pocket protectors, etc, and that girls ought to focus on looking like the women they see in magazines. While that's clearly a superficial goal, let's face it, things like makeup and hair products and fashion can be a lot of fun. Why should I be telling girls they have to shun all of that fun in order to develop their minds? It doesn't make sense, it certainly doesn't sound appealing, and it's not even realistic. I think most women would agree that it's fun to feel attractive and hip.

That sounds like a great approach: letting middle school girls know that enjoying math doesn't make them unfeminine. Math is for both the frumpy and the fashionable!

Read the whole interview. For more about the book, read Smith's review of Math Doesn't Suck.

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Why Aren't More Women in Science?

Marcia Linn (professor of Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology Program, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley) reviews of the book Why Aren't More Women in Science? Top Researches Debate the Evidence in the July 13 issue of Science. The book includes 15 essays that primarily focus on women with PhDs or in doctoral programs. Beyond that, the essayists look at the issue of the gap between the participation of men and women in science from different perspectives.

Against this encouraging backdrop of women's increasing participation in science, the essayists focus on three main areas of scholarship. They largely agree that subtle beliefs about who can participate in science--held both by those who instruct and select participants and by those who decide whether to participate--affect participation and persistence. They offer disparate interpretations of well-documented findings about cognitive abilities that might contribute to success in science, as indicated by mathematics test scores and spatial reasoning scores. They discuss the emerging methodologies and findings about a wide range of biological indicators, including prenatal hormones, brain development, brain lateralization, evolutionary processes, and brain activation patterns measured while individuals engage in science-related tasks.
In some cases, very similar data is given disparate interpretations. Does the narrowing gap between SAT mathematics scores mean that there is actually very little difference between the mathematical abilities of men and women? or does the very existence of a gap show that men have innately superior ability at mathematics? The essays do not appear to have been selected to support any one position, so the compilation gives an overview of the range of opinions in the field.

The authors clearly weren't forced to mince words:
In the most dramatic statement, Doreen Kimura argues that giving special scholarships or grants exclusively to women "bribes them to enter fields they may neither excel in nor enjoy.
I'll admit I'm curious about the context of that statement. I'm finding it hard to imagine young women being effectively "bribed" to study physics or engineering. High school students that excel in science and mathematics in high school usually enjoy those subjects. In my personal experience as a bioscience major, most students who ended up majoring in the life sciences against their own desires were those under extreme parental pressure to attend medical school. It's harder for me to imagine similarly pressured students studying one of the physical sciences or engineering.

Anyway, Why Aren't More Women in Science? looks like an interesting overview of current opinion. As Linn sums it up:
Despite the disagreements among the contributors, they all concur that scientific talent is desperately needed to address the challenges facing us. They express in delightful, thoughtful, and encouraging ways their commitment to the goal of attracting able and interested individuals to science. At the same time, they endorse research on the full range of factors that might contribute to success in science. Why Aren't More Women in Science? raises important questions. The volume will stimulate all readers to think more deeply about their own beliefs, commitments, and activities as they consider participation in science and how we can ensure that all individuals have the opportunities they deserve.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Joan E. Higginbotham wins Black Rose Award

Astronaut Joan E. Higginbotham will be presented the 2007 Black Rose Award on August 26 in Atlanta.

The Black Rose Award is considered the League of Black Women's highest honor. It's presented to individuals committed to advocating leadership opportunities for women of color in science, technology and public service.
According to her NASA profile, Higgenbotham has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Southern Illinois University, and masters degrees in management and space systems from the Florida Institute of Technology. She has worked at NASA as an engineer on the space shuttle program since 1987, and was accepted as an astronaut candidate in 1996. Her first space mission was on the Space Shuttle Discovery in December 2006.

In her preflight interview, she spoke about her education and experiences at NASA. She acknowledges her family for supporting her and feels like she can give back to less fortunate kids.
It’s not so much that I think I’m a role model. It’s more of that I think I’ve been incredibly blessed as an individual, and I had wonderful parents and family and friends who just encouraged me to be the best that I could. I think that’s why I am the person I am today and where I am today. I just feel a sense of responsibility to do the same for people who are coming up. I think nowadays there are a lot of children who weren’t as blessed as I am. They don’t come from homes where families encourage them to do things. I think if I can maybe help them and encourage them to do whatever it is -- not necessarily become an astronaut -- just encourage them to do their best and expect nothing but the best from themselves, I think that I’m doing something good.
Read the whole interview for more about her background and role on the space shuttle mission.

Higginbotham also won the 2007 Women in Space Science Award from the Adler Planetarium in her hometown, Chicago.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sunday Video: Story Time with Young Science Authors

The program QUEST on public television station KQED in San Francisco did a segment on "Story Time with Young Science Authors." And they do mean young - these are 5-8 year olds from the KQED Reading Rainbow Young Writers and Illustrators Contest reading their science-themed contest entries. The video features Maanasa Rajaguru reading her story and talking about her goal of becoming an astronaut.

You can read Maanasa's full entry (pdf) and leave a comment on the QUEST blog.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Women in Science Friday Link Roundup : July 20 Edition

Seed magazine has a video showing the work space of Kathleen Kristian, "a snapshot of one chemist's natural habitat."

Vanessa at Feministing posts about's categorization of toys by gender. The toys for girls include play kitchens and dolls, while the boys get cars, building materials, and, of course, science kits.

It couldn't get more obvious when I noticed there was a "Girls' Tech Toys" section, which was a tiny relief for about 2.5 seconds until I went to the page; these "tech toys" weren't much more than a Barbie electronic purse set, a Barbie and MP3 player in one, and a nearly three-hundred dollar electronic pony. (Where, oh where did the girl-pony phenomena originate?
Independent Online reports that the European Commission has appealed to "all males in the bloc" to take on more household chores.
He said men, regardless of whether they worked full or part-time, contributed seven hours a week of unpaid household work.

Women, on the other hand, contributed 35 hours a week if they also had a part-time job and 24 hours a week if employed full-time elsewhere. This made it impossible for them to devote as much time as men to their careers, Spidla said.

"So this is an appeal to men: It is not possible to reduce the pay gap if we do not make a greater contribution at home," he told a news conference.
No big surprise: women often take lower-paid or part-time work because of their responsibilities at home.
"Very often ... they have no option, it's not a matter of free choice at all. Our society all too often is such that women are obliged to take certain decisions and we don't want that to continue," he said.
The Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel has initiated the Sara Lee Schupf Postdoctoral Awards for women who completed their science Ph.D. at an Israeli university and have been accepted to a postdoctoral post abroad.
The grants will give women incentives – financial, but also social, personal and professional – to engage in postdoctoral research in leading labs around the world. The long-term goal of the program is to invest resources in women who plan to develop their scientific careers in Israel, and to create a feminine leadership within the Israeli research community.
They are currently calling for applicants for the awards to be presented in October 2007.

Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker has an article in the The Chicago Sun Times about asking questions about "Dangerous Ideas" - you know, like "Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?" He bemoans the lack of discourse on such ideas in academia, but he does explain why such questions might really be "dangerous" to society.

Not only can the imprimatur of scientific debate add legitimacy to toxic ideas, but the mere act of making an idea common knowledge can change its effects. Individuals, for instance, may harbor a private opinion on differences between genders or among ethnic groups but keep it to themselves because of its opprobrium. But once the opinion is aired in public, they may be emboldened to act on their prejudice -- not just because it has been publicly ratified but because they must anticipate that everyone else will act on the information. Some people, for example, might discriminate against the members of an ethnic group despite having no pejorative opinion about them, in the expectation that their customers or colleagues will have such opinions and that defying them would be costly. And then there are the effects of these debates on the confidence of the members of the stigmatized groups themselves.

As I see it, a big part of the problem is that there are always going to be individuals who are willing to discuss "dangerous" ideas. If they have authoritative sounding credentials - a PhD, or their own radio show - people will listen and be swayed to their point of view. It seems to me that some ideas should be addressed by interested voices if only to be sure that the discussion does not dismiss their point of view. Sometimes the best defense is a good offense.

Science Summer Camp News

The (Mississippi) Commercial Dispatch reports on a K-6 science day camp hosted by the Mississippi University for Women.
Hannah gave each group a slippery, translucent jellyfish, which the students immediately examined, commenting on its size, smell and tentacles.

“Cut it down the middle and see if you can find the heart, lung and brains,” instructed Hannah.

The gloved students poked, prodded, picked and cut at the elusive jellyfish, inspecting it thoroughly.

“Do you see an intestine?” Chael Williams asked his group.

After a few minutes, Hannah revealed a surprise.

“How many of you think you found a heart, lung or brain?” she asked, pausing for a show of hands. “There's not one! Jellyfish don't have them!”

Hands-on learning

This type of hands-on learning in a fun, upbeat atmosphere is sure to stick with the students for at least the duration of the summer.
Sounds pretty cool.

The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch reports on the Ohio State University's Women in Engineering summer workshops and other local science programs for girls.

"Girls have often internalized the idea that these fields are not for them," said Christianne Corbett, a researcher for the American Association of University Women's educational council.

"They are not going to gravitate to it. They have to be invited."

The Oshkosh (Wisconsin) Northwestern reports on the EAA Women Soar program for high school girls. The Women Soar 2007 weekend features astronaut Anousheh Ansari.

By connecting young women with successful adult women from a variety of fields including aviation, science, technology and other industries, Women Soar provides concrete role models and demonstrates women can hold jobs most often associated with men. The message to young women: set your goals, work hard, be determined and focused.

6ABC News in Philadelphia reports on the Attracting Women into Engineering summer camp in Glassboro for pre-teen girls.

So today these girls learned to purify water, make bottle rockets and iPod speakers. They also mixed oil, wax and mica into things like bubblegum flavored gloss with silver shimmer.

To reiterate the idea that engineering can be cool and glamorous, the girls had lunch with Miss Delaware, Jamie Ginn. The beauty queen has an engineering degree from Rowan and she works for DuPont.

Today did make some of the girls think about a field that includes everything from making food safe to building jets.

"I'm not very good at math, but I can try and I have been trying. So I might become an engineer," said Kelly Riley of Camden.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

2006 National Medals of Science

On Monday the White House named the 13 winners of the 2006 National Medal of Science (and no, it's not your imagination, the 2005 winners were announced on May 29th). As Zuska points out "they found some women this time." Two women were awarded "America's highest honor for scientific achievement." The winners:

Rita R. Colwell: professor of microbiology at the University of Maryland College Park and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is receiving the prize for her work on understanding marine microbes, particularly the agent that causes pandemic cholera. Colwell was president of the National Science Foundation from 1998-2004, and has also served Chairman of the Board of Governors of the American Academy of Microbiology, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, among many other positions.

Nina V. Federoff: professor of biology and life sciences at Pennsylvania State University. She is honored for her pioneering work on the microbiology of plants and the cloning of plant genes. Her lab focuses on understanding the molecular response of plants to stress, plant hormone response pathways and cataloging transposable element insertions.
Both the 2005 and 2006 winners will be honored at the White House on July 27th.

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Science Fashion - Why is always about the boobs?

Anyone who has worn a lab coat knows that they aren't particularly fashionable. That isn't really so important since they are meant to protect your clothing and your body from chemical spills and biological fluids. That's not to say they couldn't be designed better. Most of the lab coats I've worn have floopy sleeves at the wrists that are liable to get caught on something if you don't tape them up. Labs rarely carry many (if any) lab coats designed for shorter scientists, meaning that some (usually women) have to wear lab coats that are several sizes too big.

Despite their design deficiencies, I've never known anyone who complained that lab coats didn't show of their figure well enough. That's why I think it's a bit of a shame that Lab Lit (together with SciCult) chose to illustrate their potentially fun lab coat design competition "Stripping off the White Coat" with a drawing of two large- and pointy-breasted women. As one of the editors points out:

"The current design, which has been with us for nearly a century, is highly unflattering to both men and women," Rohn added. "And white is a disastrous colour for lab work, as every last little spill shows. Surely we can do better."
So why not include an illustration of a good-looking broad shouldered man, particularly since the majority of scientists are men?

(And of course one of the obvious reasons why lab coats are pretty shapeless is that they are designed to fit over your clothing, which may or may not be form fitting.)

It's not just lab coats that get the "better fitting means showing off the female body" treatment. On Monday MIT aero-astro professor Dava Newman reported that her group had developed a form-fitting space suit, dubbed the BioSuit. This is a significant improvement over bulky traditional spacesuits.

Newman's prototype suit is a revolutionary departure from the traditional model. Instead of using gas pressurization, which exerts a force on the astronaut's body to protect it from the vacuum of space, the suit relies on mechanical counter-pressure, which involves wrapping tight layers of material around the body. The trick is to make a suit that is skintight but stretches with the body, allowing freedom of movement.

Not only does the flexible design allow easier movement, but the suit can also be used for resistance to retain muscle mass in low gravity, and small punctures can be easily fixed without immediately returning to the space station or home base.

It's frustrating to me that once again some are choosing to focus on the female form, rather than the technical achievement. I was a bit dismayed that the technology email list chose to use the subject line "spacesuits for supermodels" for their article about the BioSuit (fortunately the actual article doesn't carry that whiff of sexism). A quick look at the blog posts on the news turns up references to "space bunnies," comparison photos of Seven-of-Nine and Barbarella, not to mention the juvenile boob comments at Gizmodo.

Is it any wonder that there are female scientists who don't feel like they are taken seriously?

The image is Newman modeling the BioSuit (click the image for slide show).
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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Free Fictional Female Scientists

For those of you out there who like science fiction, here are a couple of free stories that feature female scientists:

The first is the eco-thriller The Rhesus Factor from Australian science fiction writer Sonny Whitelaw:

Marine engineer Kristin Baker advises the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu on environmentally sustainable development projects. After meeting US Navy Commander Nicholas Page, she discovers her unwitting role in the Exodus Project, a scheme to protect the West's interests in the face of global warming. But what neither know is that a stealth virus has quietly become a global pandemic; one that health authorities cannot stop. For this virus hasn't emerged from an African jungle or a remote Chinese province, it's come from within our own DNA.
Whitelaw studied geography and anthropology as an undergraduate, and almost completed her Master's thesis on "sea level change and global warming", but gave up science to write fiction. You can download Rhesus Factor from Double Dragon Books or

The June Issue of Hub Magazine includes the story "More than a Butterfly"by January Mortimer (pdf version, Mobi Pocket version, MS Reader version). As the SF UK Review sums it up: "It’s a story of genetic manipulation, fashion, butterflies and one woman’s passion for her work. There are some nice touches that help to flesh out the main character, showing her to be a complex person while hinting at the complexity of the subject without getting bogged down in technicalities."

If TV's more your thing, you might want to check out Dinosapian. The star is teenage Lauren, a counselor at her paleontologist mother's Dinosaur Explorer camp. The twist? You guessed it - real dinosaurs in the wilds of Canada. According to the review at, most of the supporting characters are pretty cardboard-like.
Beyond Lauren and Eno [the dinosaur], the writers do their best to people their world in the short half-hour. That doesn't leave much time to develop the secondary characters. The conceited best friend, the hunky counselor, the distracted mom, the bratty brother and sister and the rest come off as caricatures initially. Luckily, there's a season to get to know these characters.
Overall it got a positive review:
It's great to see a very accessible kids' show that works on so many levels for so many age ranges, and the special effects are just great. The younger kids will enjoy the dinosaurs, and the older kids will identify with Lauren's journey.
It definitely sounds better than some of the Saturday kids shows I've stumbled on. It's shown on Saturdays on Discovery Kids (BBC Kids in Canada).

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Online Mentorship

An article in The Scientist takes a look at the not-for-profit online mentoring service MentorNet. Unlike some of the other online mentoring sites that focus on teenagers interested in science, MentorNet that targets women and underrepresented minorities in engineering and science.

The MentorNet web site says the following about who can join and use the Forums and other resources:

  • Women and men with educational or professional backgrounds in engineering, *science, technology, or math.
  • Women community college, undergraduate and graduate students considering or pursuing a degree or certificate in engineering, *science, technology, or math, but not pursuing pre-medicine, pre-dental, pre-nursing or pre-veterinary studies.
  • Women postdocs in engineering, *science, technology, or math.
  • Female and male professionals with backgrounds in engineering, *science, technology, or math, interested in mentoring others.
  • Women science and engineering professionals and students looking for mentoring and support regarding their chosen field or career.
  • Women interested in exploring careers in engineering, *science, technology, or math.
  • Anyone interested in women's issues and advancement in engineering, *science, technology, or math.
*Science includes physical, biological, earth, atmospheric, and ocean science, computer science, and other related science fields.

One-on-one mentoring has more restrictions on who can join, the biggest being that the protégé must be enrolled or employed at one of the 118 partnering colleges and universities or be associated with a partnered professional society. Since its founding in 1998, MentorNet has matched 14,000 engineers and scientists with mentors. 70% of the protégés are in engineering and only 13% were in the life sciences, so engineers are more likely to find a compatible mentor.

Because most of the mentors are white, minority protégés are often not matched with mentors of the same race or ethnicity.
Michelle Foster, a postdoc in neuroendocrinology at UCSF, sought out MentorNet not only because she is a woman in a male-dominated career path, but also because she wanted perspective from another African American woman in neuroscience. Although her mentor isn't African American, Foster says she could relate to her mentor just as well. "It was definitely a good match. We clicked. We definitely related on a lot of different issues," says Foster, who would talk to her mentor about competition in the workplace and balancing career and family.

"The challenges for women are universal," says Carmen Carter, president of the Multicultural Women's Council, a nonprofit networking organization for woman of different races and ethnicities. E-mentoring allows busy women to connect with people with whom they may not necessarily have access, she adds. The format of e-mail also removes some of the ingrained biases that hinder equanimity. "My PI is really smart so sometimes she can be intimidating - not that she means to be, but I don't want to ask the wrong questions," Foster says. "Whereas on e-mail it's easier to approach someone from behind a screen than it is to approach someone live."
If you do chose to try MentorNet, The Scientist has some suggestions for making the most of the protégé-mentor relationship.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Dealing with Bad Apples

Inside Higher Education reports back from the recent Leadership Excellence for Academic Diversity conference, meant to focus on promoting faculty women. One of the issues arose was that the environment in some academic departments can be poisoned by a few bullying "bad apples."

Faculty leaders said they can talk within their departments all they want about being inclusive, but one disparaging comment about race, gender or sexual orientation by a professor can poison a discussion and potentially sour junior professors on the department. Some said the thorny professor also plays a role in both scaring away potential female hires who can already feel unwelcome in male-dominated fields and convincing female graduate students at the institution to continue their careers outside of higher education.
These bullies are often older tenured faculty that are "unwilling to take direction." The trouble is that few scientists have training in management and dealing with unconscious bias is particularly difficult.

Terri S. Fiez, director of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at Oregon State University suggested that academic chairs should try not to allow a single senior faculty member dominate discussions of departmental policy and should gauge departmental consensus in private discussions. Other departmental leaders at the conference were not convinced that they would be able to implement that solution:
But several department leaders said during the meeting that they didn’t seek out the chair position and don’t have an interest in policing faculty discussions. Many noted that they never had training in managing personalities, to which Fiez said she disagrees. “Everyone has had to manage graduate students,” she said.
What Fiez may be forgetting is that faculty members manage graduate students and postdocs out of necessity and there are few who are particularly adept at dealing with contentious personal issues within their labs. Being a good leader is a totally different skill from being a successful scientist. It seems that departmental heads are not always chosen for their management skills; seniority, scientific acclaim, or even the fact that only one person wants the job, play a greater role in the selection than actual skills appropriate for the position. That's a problem if the departmental head is expected to convince senior members of the department that their behavior needs to change.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Sisters in Science

Diverse ("Issues in Higher Education") has republished a 1998 article about African-American women in science. At the time significantly more African-American women were enrolled in institutions of higher education than African-American men, but that difference was much narrower in the sciences and engineering.

Is it simple propensity that has more Black women seeking degrees in education, the social sciences, and the health professions, or are sisters being subtly guided away from the sciences and into more "typically female" fields? Given the fact that African American women receive five bachelor's degrees for every three that men earn, why do they receive just two undergraduate engineering degrees for every three that men earn?
The article points out that the lack of African-American women in the sciences may have had a negative impact on research in some fields.

While race and gender should not necessarily dictate areas of research, the paucity of African American women scientists has clear implications. There have not been studies, for example, of the impact that crack has on African American women. We see rising incarceration levels among Black women -- with a 500 percent increase in the past decade -- largely because of drug use and addiction. We also hear anecdotal evidence of crack's "hold" on Black women. But there has been little done to explain this more fully.

Similarly, although African American women seem to be more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer -- and in many cases, to be diagnosed earlier -- there have not been scientific explanations for this phenomenon. Studies on the health status of women have just garnered attention in the past decade, but studies on the health status of African American women are few and far between.

Has much changed in the last nine years? A NSF report looked at minority undergraduate science and engineering students from 1995-2004 found that there was an increase in science and engineering degrees awarded to black students during that period, particularly in computer science. However, the data isn't presented as a percentage, so it's not clear to me whether the percentage has increased.

Women's actually crunched some of the numbers in a February 2006 article about black women in science:

Data collected by the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency in Arlington, Va., found that of the 7,488 science doctorates awarded to all Americans in 2004, just 124--or 1.7 percent--were awarded to black women compared with 2,274 doctorates--or 30 percent--for white women. In engineering, a total of 1,941 doctorates were awarded in 2004. Of those, only 32--or 1.7 percent--were conferred on black women and 296--or 15 percent--went to white women. African Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population.

Even fewer women of color are finding their way into academia. According to a 2004 survey by Donna Nelson, a chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma, the percentage of women among full professors in science and engineering ranges from 3 percent to 15 percent. Of these, there are only a few African American women in science and engineering departments; there are no black female tenured or tenure-track professors in computer science. (Nelson was named this year by Women's eNews as one of its 21 Leaders for the 21st Century 2006 for her research quantifying female representation in science.)

While women in general are underrepresented in science and engineering, black women have even less of a presence in those fields. The book Sisters in Science: Conversations with Black Women Scientists on Race, Gender, and Their Passion for Science, by Diann Jordan profiles 18 of those women, including:
  • Yvonne Clark: the first black woman to be awarded a B.S. in mechanical engineering. According to her IEEE profile:
    Recently, Clark received a grant from the Department of Energy to lead a team of scientists on a research project for improving refrigeration. She has also served as the student division team leader for the NASA-funded Center for Automated Space Science at Tennessee State University (TSU), where she continues to teach today. Her prolific career has included a number of awards and honors, including recognition from Howard University for outstanding achievement in engineering, and for leadership and distinguished service by the Society of Women Engineers. In the nearly forty years she has spent at TSU, the number of women in the engineering fields at the University has risen from only herself in the mid-1950´s, to approximately one in four today, an increase that is surely due in part to her example.
  • Georgia Dunston: currently Chair of the Department of Microbiology and Founding Director of the National Human Genome Center at Howard University. Under Dunston's leadership, the university established the Genomic Research in the African Diaspora to study genetic factors in diseases that disproportionately affect people with African ancestry.
  • Shirley Jackson: physicist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. According to her official profile:
    Dr. Jackson is the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from M.I.T. — in any subject. She is one of the first two African-American women to receive a doctorate in physics in the U.S. She is the first African-American to become a Commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She is both the first woman and the first African-American to serve as the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the first African-American woman to lead a national research university. She also is the first African-American woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and the first to receive the Vannevar Bush award.
Diann Jordan is herself a scientist: she is an full professor of Biology at Alabama State. Like many black women in science, she has many firsts in her resume.
She was the first woman faculty ever hired in the Soil and Atmospheric Sciences Department, first African American woman tenured in a science department at the University of Missouri-Columbia (1996) and the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Soil Science at Michigan State University in 1987.
Hopefully in another 10 years more progress will be made to close the gap in both race and gender in the sciences.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

Sunday Video: Why Study Science?

This week's video is a 1955 educational film in which parents explain to their son and daughter should study science. Yep, even young Betty whose ambition is to "hook a man." (about 5 minutes in) She can use science to do a better job keeping house! She could have a career as a laboratory technician! Some women even know as much science as men do!

While I strongly agree that all kids should learn science, even if they don't plan to be scientists, I'm not sure I would have been convinced to take chemistry just to do a better job keeping house.

(via Prelinger Archives)

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Women in Science Weekly News Roundup: July 13th Edition

Blog posts and news reports about women in science from the past week:

Karmen at Chaotic Utopia writes about how poor math teachers in high school made her assume that she couldn't learn math and science.

I gave up on math back in high school, in the middle of algebra. A few lousy teachers managed to convince me that I was ’bad’ at it. Looking back, I think I asked more questions than they were used to. The pure numbers and rote memorization didn’t satisfy me; I wanted other ways of looking at the formula. Instead of having a genuine curiosity about it, I came across as having struggles. I was frustrated, no doubt, but not for the reasons they assumed. By the time I graduated, that feeling had spread to the rest of my education. I felt out of place.
Based on the comments, she is far from the only one who only returned to science long after graduating from high school.

Naturejobs reports on the recent seminar organized by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology
Wendy Faulkner, of the Science Studies Unit at the University of Edinburgh, told delegates that the ways in which different individuals come to belong to the group may affect whether women are accepted. She suggested that workplace culture included styles of interacting, topics of conversation, humour and social circles. Crucially, said Faulkner, facets of masculine culture (such as football discussions and macho attitudes) mesh well with the culture of SET workplaces. Anecdotes from women she has interviewed suggested that they found it hard to fit in, whether because they couldn't take part in a joke or because they weren't seen as 'real' engineers. In some cases, male colleagues made inappropriate remarks. One woman said she wanted to report a culprit, but felt she had neither the confidence nor the support. Delegates at the meeting mutely mouthed recognition.
Sandra Porter at Discovering Biology in a Digital World writes about the "Life Science Centra" web site for people interested in biotechnology, but wonders why only one out of ten video profiles is a woman, since it's been her experience "that there are probably more women working in the biotech industry than males."

The Working Dad blog at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer writes about the University of Michigan study that shows the gender gap begins when "parents offer more math to their sons than daughters."
"They found that girls' interest in math decreases as their fathers' gender stereotypes increase, whereas boys' interest in math increases as their fathers' gender stereotypes increase," the University of Michigan said in a statement about the research.
CORDIS News reports that women professors at German universities has increased from 8% (in 1995) to 15% in 2006.
"Supporting excellence in science must not mean leaving behind half of our talent. Highly qualified women must be adequately integrated into the science system. We do not want to, and cannot afford to, relinquish their talent," the minister [Annette Schavan] added.
Meanwhile Austrian universities are setting aside 40% of government funding for research projects involving women.
'I am no fan of quotas, as quotas do not replace quality. But in this case it makes sense to put this nest egg at the disposal of young women researchers, as only when we give them the opportunity to prove what they can do will they have a chance to compete with men,' says Mr Hahn.
There was a press release from the government of the Republic of Botswana about the recent 35th Mathematics and Science Fair held at the University of Botswana.

[Former Education Minister] Dr [Gaositwe] Chiepe said the myth that Africans, particularly African women, are inherently incapable of understanding maths and science should be discarded.

Maths and Science, she said, are practical subjects, which do not depend on memory, guess work or wishful thinking.

"They require a critical, questioning mind that revels in the adventure of life and leaves no stone unturned to find out what, where, how and why."
Back around the world to the U.S.:

The Auburn Journal reports on Tech Trek Science Camp for Girls at California State University, Fresno.
The girls got a taste of college life while learning that math and science can be fun and good career choices. The students live in dormitories on campus during the camp and attend classes and mini-labs. Instructors include credentialed middle school teachers as well as women currently engaged professionally in science, math, and technology fields. The girls attended evening programs and field trips covering areas of study such as astronomy, engineering, marine biology, and environmental studies. AAUW volunteers serve as camp directors, nurses and chaperones.
The only comment left on the article was one complaining that it was "sexist" to only allow girls.

The San Jose Mercury News also has a bit about local girls sent to the Tech Trek program at Stanford University with the support of the local AAUW chapter.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Presentations from the AAAS meeting on gender in science

FairerScience has posted audio excerpts and slides from the session on "Miscommunications, Misunderstandings, and Mistakes: Gender, Science and the Press." from the 2007 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.

CDs of the complete session can be purchased from the Lawrence Media Group.

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Victorian Woman Doctors

The Wellcome Trust has put it's database of medical images - historical and contemporary - online. There is a lot of cool imagery that is as much art as science. Not surprisingly since it's a medicine-related database, there aren't many images of scientists or engineers. However, there are many images of physicians, including a couple from the Victorian era that joke about "lady doctors".

Education of women in medicine was a new idea in the Victorian era. Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake and several other women ("The Edinburgh Seven") had been given permission to attend classes at the Edinburgh medical school in 1869. This was a controversial move:

Doctors, professors and the public had strong feelings about the women's medical education, about whether they should be allowed practical experience in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and whether they should be eligible for degrees. The debate spilled over from the pages of The Times and The Scotsman onto the streets one November afternoon in 1870. A crowd of hundreds gathered near Surgeons' Hall where the women were to take an anatomy examination. They were heckled and had rubbish thrown at them, but Jex-Blake refused to slip away afterwards by a side door. This incident has become known as the "Surgeons' Hall Riot". Later, the Sheriff fined three "disorderly" students £1 each for "breach of the peace".[4] Jex-Blake said the young men had been encouraged by a teaching assistant, but lost when he sued her for defamation.
That was the background for this comic in Punch by Gerald Du Maurier (click for larger version) which was published in August 1870. It depicts a bunch of men - probably lower class based on their accent - willing to do anything for an attractive women, even work for her as nurses.

Dr. Arabella "Well, my good friends, what can I do for you!"
Bill, "Well, Miss, it's all along o' me and my mates bein' out o' work, yer see, and wantin' to turn an honest penny hanyways we can; so 'avin' 'eard tell as you was a risin' young medical practitioner, we thought as p'raps you wouldn' t mind just a recommendin' of hus as nurses."
I'm not sure if Punch is mocking the idea of female doctors or of men who would do anything for a pretty lady (or both).

The second picture (click for larger picture) is an undated woodcut that has a old lady complaining about the gentility of female doctors. The way she complains is pretty funny though. She also is talking in dialect - Scottish maybe? - which probably has some social significance that I'm missing.


The Minister. "Well, Janet, how did you like your new Doctor, Dr. Elizabeth Squills!"
Janet. "Weel, Sir, only pretty well. Ye see, Sir, Dr. Elizabeth isn't so leddylike as some of ain men Doctors!"
The Edinburgh Seven lost their battle to graduate when in 1873 the Court ruled that the University had the right to refuse the women their degrees - and noted that they should not have been admitted in the first place. Five of the seven were eventually granted medical degrees abroad, in Bern or Paris. Finally, in 1876, there was new legislation that enabled examining bodies (if they so desired) to treat candidates of both sexes equally. Jex-Blake set a practice in Edinburgh in 1878 and helped found the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women.

Margaret Todd (1859-1918) was one of the first students at the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. She took eight years to complete the four year course, spending part of her time writing a novel, Mona Maclean, Medical Student. When the book was published in 1892 under the pseudonym Graham Travers, the magazine Punch didn't care much for the medical bits, but likes it when Mona behaves in a "womanly" manner :
"My Baronite has been reading Mona Maclean, Medical Student. (Blackwood.) "It is," he tells me, "a Novel with a purpose—no recommendation for a novel, more especially when the purpose selected is that of demonstrating the indispensability of women-doctors." Happily Graham Travers, as the author (being evidently a woman) calls herself, is lured from her fell design. There is a chapter or two of talk among the girls in the dissecting-room and the chemical laboratory, with much about the "spheno-maxillary fossa," the "dorsalis pedis," and the general whereabouts of "Scarpa's triangle." But these can be skipped, and the reader may get into the company of Mona Maclean when she is less erudite, and more womanly. When not dissecting the "plantar arch," Mona is a bright, fearless, clever girl, with a breezy manner, refreshing to all admitted to her company. The episode of her shopkeeping experience is admirably told, and affords the author abundant and varied opportunity of exercising her gift of drawing character. Mona Maclean is, apparently, a first effort at novel-writing. The workmanship improves up to the end of the third volume; and Miss Travers' next book will be better still.
The passage on the dissecting room actually sounds like a bit of fun to me.
It was the luncheon-hour, and the winter term was drawing to a close. The dissecting-room was deserted by all save a few enthusiastic students who had not yet wholly exhausted the mysteries of Meckel's ganglion, the branches of the internal iliac, or the plantar arch. For a long time a hush of profound activity had hung over the room, and the silence had been broken only by the screams of a parrot and the cry of the cats'-meat-man in the street below ; but by degrees the demoralising influence of approaching holidays had begun to make itself felt; in fact, to be quite frank, the girls were gossiping.

It was the dissector of Meckel's ganglion who began it. "If you juniors want a piece of advice," she said, laying down her forceps,—" a thing, by the way, which you never do want, till an examination is imminent, and even then you don't take it,—you may have it for nothing. Form a clear mental picture of the spheno-maxillary fossa. When you have that, the neck of anatomy is broken. Miss Warden, suppose, just to refresh all our memories, you run over the foramina opening into the spheno-maxillary fossa, and the structures passing through them."

The dissector of the plantar arch groaned. "Don't I" she entreated in assumed desperation. "With the examination so near, it makes me quite ill to be asked a question. I should not dare to go up, if Miss Clark were not going."

"I should not have thought she was much stand-by."

" Oh, but she is ! If she passes, I may hope to. I was dissecting the popliteal space the other day, and she asked me if it was Scarpa's triangle ! "

A murmur of incredulity greeted this statement.
It's not just anatomy. Mona and her friend Lucy also chit-chat about organic chemistry.
"I was at the School to-day," Mona went on.

"Were you really? It must have been horrid going back."

"It was very horrid to find the organic solutions in the chemical laboratory at such a low ebb. But I suppose they will be filled up again for the summer term."

"Oh, you know all those stupid old tests ! "

"It is precisely the part of the examination that I am most afraid of. I have not your luck—or power of divination. Why don't they ask us to find whether a hydroxyl group is present in a solution, or something of that kind ?"

"Thank heaven, they don't ! "

"I wonder what a scientific chemist would say, if he were asked to identify two organic mixtures in an hour and a half ! "

"I did it in half an hour."

"Yes, but how ? By tasting, and guessing, and adding I in KI, or perchloride of iron."

Lucy helped herself to more potato.

"I seem to have heard these sentiments before," she said.

Mona laughed. "Yes ; and you are in a fair way to hear them pretty frequently again, unless you keep out of my way for the next four months."
I guess it would never pass for chick lit, but it's refreshing to read about a female character who sounds like a real science (or medical) student.

Todd only practiced medicine for five years, focusing on novel writing. She lived with Dr. Sophia Jex-Blake, her romantic partner, and published Jex-Blake's biography in 1918, shortly before her own death.

Related: Listen to BBC4's Woman's Hour Drama, "Famous people in Hastings: Sophia Jex-Blake."

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Anne McLaren, 1927-2007

ScienceNOW reports that 80-year-old geneticist Anne McLaren was killed in a car accident on July 7th. Also killed was her ex-husband Donald Michie, with whom she was still close.

Still active in the lab despite her age, McLaren's most recent research focused on mouse primordial germ cells, the embryonic cells that give rise to egg and sperm cells. "She could truly be considered one of the [pioneers] of modern mammalian germ cell genetics," says Renee Reijo Pera, a developmental biologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

McLaren's broad range of research-- including genetics, developmental biology, and reproductive biology--led her to tackle the social and ethical issues surrounding human embryology research. She was a member of the Warnock Committee, which helped shape the U.K.'s landmark 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, and for 10 years served on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which the Act established to regulate the use of human tissue. She believed that full disclosure of the potential risks and benefits associated with medical advances was the best way to gain public acceptance of stem cell and other controversial research.

McLaren was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1975 and was awarded a Royal Medal in 1990. In 2001 she received a L'Oreal Award for women in science, and earlier this year she received the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology.

In a 2001 tribute from her research students published in the International Journal of Developmental Biology, she was lauded as a scientist, teacher and mentor. She sounds like a bit of a superwoman and expected no less from those who worked with her.
As John West writes "I was so impressed that Anne could find time to work at the bench, attend numerous meetings and spend time with her family, that I decided that there must be three of her." She expected us to do the same. Paul Burgoyne recalls "when later I was with Anne at the Medical Development Unit in London, and had by this time acquired three children, she would tell me off if I worked late into the evening and say I shoudl be at home with my family."
Jim Smith, Chairman of the Gurdon Institute at the University Cambridge where McLaren had her lab, also praised both her scientific and personal achievements:
"My colleagues and I will miss Anne enormously. Her scientific achievements speak for themselves, but in addition to these we will miss her enormous energy and enthusiasm - she outdid many younger scientists during late-night discussions - and her unfailing support for women scientists, for whom she was a wonderful role model. As Chairman of the Institute I shall also miss her great knowledge and wisdom and her unfailing ability to put matters into perspective. She was a great colleague and a great friend.”
Even after 80 years, it was a life cut short.

Related links:
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Friday, July 06, 2007

Women in Science Weekly News Roundup

There weren't many news items this past week. Perhaps everyone is on their summer holiday?

Professor Lynne Frostick was elected President of the Geological Society of London, the world's oldest society of earth scientists. Frostick is the second woman to hold the position. The first was Professor Janet Watson, who held the position in the 1980s.

Professor Frostick said, "This is a great honour, but also a challenge in to ensure the Society goes from strength to strength. It also makes me very happy to be following in Janet Watson's footsteps- I wish she were still alive to share it with me."
UPI Energy Watch writes about "Diversifying Energy's Laborers."

Renewable energy may be, in ways, more appealing to women part because of the novelty and because it is more on the liberal side of the engineering work world, Forsyth said.
[. . .]
"As the only woman on the American Wind Energy Association board of directors, I certainly would like to see more women," said Karen Conover, president and chief executive officer of Global Energy Concepts, Inc. "Part of the purpose of Women of Wind Energy is to provide women with a networking forum."

The group provides networking forums in addition to sponsoring women who want to attend AWEA's annual wind power conference. So far, Conover said, the group has been successful. More than 150 attended June's WoWE luncheon. In the last two years, at least nine of the women sponsored are actively working in the industry. Ten more were sponsored at June's conference as well.

Conover knew at a very young age her career would be in engineering.

"In the fourth grade I attended an environmental fair with my father and saw an exhibit on solar energy and even though I didn't understand the economics, from then on out it was science projects and renewable energy and I choose engineering because I wanted to get into the renewable energy field," she said, adding "providing role models for women increases their sense of confidence."

The Associated Press reports on science camp for middle-school girls hosted by the chemical engineering department of the University of Missouri-Rolla.

"What we try to do is portray how engineers (and scientists) help people, and are part of the caring professions - even if you're designing a microchip," said Cecilia Elmore, camp coordinator and director of the university's Women's Leadership Institute.

The weeklong program for ninth- and 10th-graders was so popular that Elmore and her colleagues created the three-day "It's A Girl's Thing" camp for younger students. Now in its second year, the camp will likely expand into a weeklong program next summer, she said.

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Susan Greenfield: It's Crazy to Eliminate 50% of the Science Talent

Professor of Pharmacology, Director of the Royal Institution and Baroness Susan Greenfield writes for The Guardian about "The crazy attitudes that push women out of science". She talks about some of the reasons why women leave the sciences and pinpoints the primary reason as having a child.

The main reason for departure is maternity leave. The main reason for not returning is the disincentive of a lack of structural support - both financial and social. This feeds into a range of issues, commercial, social, cultural and political.
She points out that this is an issue that government and business should be concerned about.
Now, more than ever, we are entering an era where science and technology are at the centre of society and we need the best people as scientists. We need the brightest to tackle some of the biggest problems that face society, not least pressing being environmental and medical challenges. It is crazy to eliminate 50 per cent of talent. It is also crazy to invest in educating and training people and then ignore them and their expertise in later life.
She makes several suggestions as to how the gap can be closed:
  • improve the support of mothers, including greater tolerance and flexibility in the workplace and childcare
  • push for an "end to prejudices about 'male' and 'female' courses in our schools"
She calls upon the new Prime Minister Gordon Brown to help make those changes.

In the 21st century, it is not acceptable for women to feel career and children are mutually exclusive or that they are jeopardising one if they pursue the other. But what is abundantly clear is that for too many women the notion of a 'career break' is a cruel misnomer. And if it does apply to some they are the few not the many.

This is a government that has built a reputation of working to secure life chances and a quality of life of benefit to the many, not the few. Now the new Prime Minister has a chance to make that a reality for female scientists.

As director of the Royal Institution, Greenfield chairs the panel of judges that select the recipients of the L'Oréal UK Fellowships for Women in Science.

(Comments on the article range from personal experiences to "women who want to be scientists just shouldn't have children")

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Nature on the Gender Gap

In a series of special reports in the July issue of Nature Jobs takes a look at the gender gap in the U.S. and Euroepe.

Magdalena Wutte reports on the gender gap in Europe in "Closing the Gender Gap." There is significant attrition of women who have earned their PhDs:

  • Women make up 40% of PhD students in natural sciences, but only 11.3% of the professor, research director and similar positions
  • Women make up 21.9% of engineering and technology PhD students, but only 5.8% of professor, research director and similar positions
  • Overall women have 24% of the positions on scientific boards. There are great country-to-country disparities, with the highs in Norway (48% women) and Finland (47% women) and the lows in Italy (13% women) and Poland (7% women).
  • In 17 of 26 European countries, women have lower success rates than men in securing funding
To help change the situation, the European Platform of Women Scientists (EPWS) was founded. The EPWS is "an umbrella organization for national women's networks and groups lobbying for women in science at EU level."

By networking across institutes and national borders, women hope to penetrate and overcome the 'old-boys' networks'; established institutional structures that often make it difficult for them to penetrate the higher ranks. Women need to form their own connections early in their careers, emphasizes Gaia Tavosanis, head of a junior research group at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Munich, Germany. She says that the mentoring women network FemmeNet, run by the Max Planck Minerva Foundation, has helped her to plan her career.

In the same issue Kendall Power looks at the science careers of women and underrepresented minorities in "Beyond the Glass Ceiling."

Women and minorities must both deal with implicit bias, a problem that is well-documented in the social-science literature, but one that has garnered little attention from the science sector until recently. Dean describes the problem of implicit bias in these terms: "People are most comfortable with people who think and look like themselves."

This type of bias cuts across all divides and has been shown to affect everything from basketball refereeing calls to hiring practices. In addition, a strong gender bias has been found in workplace scenarios, with both men and women consistently overrating men and underrating women in job qualifications (see Virginia Valian's chapter in Why Aren't More Women in Science? (eds S. J. Ceci and W. M. Williams); American Psychological Association Press, 2006).

The field of chemistry is looked at in more detail, as an example of a scientific field where women and minorities have made gains. In 2006 the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health co-sponsored a workshop of chemistry department chairs to try to address the gender imbalance. After learning more about implicit bias and other issues affecting women, the chairs were "more likely to admit to a lack of commitment or downright opposition to hiring female faculty members."

It sounds like getting senior members of the scientific establishment to face the issues affecting women and minorities may be the first step in closing the gender gap.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Elizabeth Blackburn

The New York Times interviews cell biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, who studies telomeres, the "protective caps at the ends of chromosomes in cells." Aging and stress wear the telomeres down, exposing the chromosome ends to damage. The study of telomeres and the enzymes, telomerases, that build them, is a field dominated by women. Blackburn talked about that apparent anomaly in a 2001 interview with Nature:

According to the 'grandmother' of telomerase, Elizabeth Blackburn, it is not the case that women dominate telomerase research, it is more that this line of investigation has not seen the drop-off in women at higher ranks that happens in other fields. "In the telomerase field there's been a critical mass of women to sustain other women." That mass includes several female professors who were at one time under Blackburn's tutelage, such as Carol Greider, Janis Shampay, Vicki Lundblad, Drena Larson, Dorothy Shippen and Marita Cohn. The line continues with Blackburn's 'academic granddaughters' such as Maria Blasco and Chantal Autexier who are former students of Greider.

Blackburn, who has run her own lab in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco since 1990, illustrates the gender disparity, "I was the only woman chair of a department in the School of Medicine here at UCSF. I've rotated off the chair and now there's another woman chair in another department but there's still only one woman chair."
Blackburn is not free of controversy. In 2004 she was dismissed from the President Bush's Council on Bioethics, apparently because her opinions on the study and use of embryonic stem cells weren't compatible with the administration's positions. She and another scientist were replaced by others with more conservative views.

While she might not be getting anywhere in politics, her star in the world of science is still rising. As Hsien at Eye on DNA points out, Blackburn won the Lasker Award (the "American Nobel)" in 2006, and is "rumored to be the next woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Hurrah!"

(Of course she hasn't been awarded the National Medal of Science.)

More Links:
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Monday, July 02, 2007

Darwin and Women Studying Science at Cambridge

Afarensis points out that Charles Darwin contributed five guineas toward building "a physical and biological laboratory for women in Cambridge." According to notes in the comments, this would be about $711 in today's money.

The Balfour Biological Laboratory for Women opened at Cambridge University in 1884. According to a 1997 article by Marsha Richmond:

For thirty years, until its closure in 1914, the Balfour Laboratory served as the central conduit for biological instruction for the women of Cambridge, introducing them to the new program of experimental biology developed by the physiologist Michael Foster and the embryologist Francis Maitland Balfour. [. . .] It provided university positions for able scientists who otherwise would not have been placed, offered advanced students the opportunity to engage in independent research, and, most important, formed the locus for the scientific subculture created by women at Cambridge to compensate for their exclusion from the social community of science.
Graduates of the lab include botanist Agnes Arbor, who was denied the use of the facilities in the Cambridge Botany School when the Balfour lab closed. Arber set up a laboratory in a back room in her home using borrowed equipment. Read more about Arbor's scientific contributions.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

New Scientiae Carnival @ Amelie's Welt

The new scientiae carnival is up at Amelie's Welt. The theme: responsibility.

The next carnival will be at Twice Tenured. Visit the scientiae carnival blog to find out how to submit your posts.