Sunday, February 10, 2008

Women Astronomers: Reaching For the Stars - An Interview with Mabel Armstrong

Women Astronomers: Reaching for the Stars is a recently released young adult book that looks at female astronomers from Hypatia to Wendy Freedman. It's the first book in a planned series on "Discovering Women in Science". Author Mabel Armstrong personally experienced the difficulty of being a woman with an interest in pursuing a career in science. From her biography:

Ignoring teachers and counselors who discouraged her interest in science, Mabel majored in chemistry in college where she was often the only girl in a 200-student lecture room. When interviewed by a major petroleum company after graduation, she was told, “Women are not allowed in the laboratories, they work in the library doing patent searches.? An international food products company said, “You have just the training we’re looking for, but we know women marry and leave. So we don’t hire women.”
She ended up teaching chemistry for 25 years.

Ms. Armstrong kindly agreed to answer some questions about Women Astronomers and her personal experiences in chemistry.

What made you decide to start a series of books on women scientists?
MA: Despite my struggles with people and the system, I love the science. It is such a rewarding career, I wanted more women to consider opting for the sciences. In a book series, I wanted to show readers - particularly middle-school girls - that women have been doing history from pre-history on. They have just fallen off the radar screen. I thought if I could show readers how exciting and satisfying science careers can be, and that the women profiled all loved what they did and are doing, that readers would think, "Gee, I could do that, too."
• Are there any women scientists in who inspired you when you were a young woman becoming interested in science?
MA: With the exception of Marie Curie, I didn't know the names of any women scientists. I think if I had known that history was full of women who studied science, often on their own, I might have made some different decisions.
It says in your biography that despite people who discouraged you, you studied chemistry in college where you were often the only woman in the classroom. Did you ever consider majoring in biology instead, since there are usually a higher percentage of women in bioscience courses than physical science courses?
MA: I enjoyed the chemistry much more than the life sciences. I realize now that may have been because my high school chemistry teacher was much more inspiring than the life sciences one. But it may also be that chemistry seemed more ordered and predictable than biology. I wasn't squeamish about dissections. I just liked chemistry better. I also realize, just now, that the smartest kids took chemistry. Hmmmmm. Maybe that attracted me. You may not want to say that.
[I'm pretty sure the smartest kids at my school studied chemistry and biology, but I may be a wee bit biased.]

• Your biography also mentions that you had difficulty finding a job in industry after graduating, because companies were reluctant to hire a woman. Do you mind sharing when you graduated? Did the negative attitudes towards women in industry influence your decision to go into teaching?
MA: I went into teaching because I got married and ended up moving to Oregon. I got married because that's what women did in the 60s. There were no jobs for chemists, male or female, in Eugene, Oregon in the 60s.
• How did your teaching experience influence the way Reaching for the Stars was written?
MA: My teaching experience caused me to write the book. When I began teaching, women in my classes were denied admission to veterinary schools. A few years later, they were only denied admission to 'large-animal veterinary' programs. Finally, they were accepted to all programs. Many science professional schools followed that same path - not admitting women until the mid to late 70s. That means there are few women in senior teaching levels.
I found that my students often internalized their rejection. They 'just weren't good enough.' I want to show them that the women are out there, they just haven't made it through the pipeline yet. And that wanting to do science doesn't make you weird, or unfeminine.
• Your target audience is high school students. Is there a reason why you selected that age group, instead of younger girls or college students?
MA: I'm actually hopeful that my main reader will be a 12-year old girl. That would be early enough for her to make the necessary decisions about keeping on with her math and science classes so she's well prepared by the time she graduates high school.
• Your background is in chemistry, so I'm interested in why you chose to write your first book about astronomers instead of chemists. Do you have a special interest in astronomy, or was this a marketing decision?
MA: I think one of the errors western science made during the Renaissance was the rigid separation of the sciences. All sorts of discoveries are now pushing them closer to each other. But that produces problems for me in trying to figure out how to package each book in the series I want to do. So, astronomy seemed a logical start, both alphabetically, and because it is pretty cleanly defined. And it lets me avoid the packaging issue. Turns out, it was an inspired choice because it is so wonderfully graphic - and lots of the graphics are available from NASA. I also think it is one of the more exciting sciences right now, and the media are give good coverage to discoveries. I think the TV science fiction series also spur interest in astronomy. is a companion site to the book that has information both about women in astronomy and astronomy in general. What made you decide to have a companion web site? Is the target audience also high school students?

MA: The web site, was actually conceived of as primarily a marketing tool. People seem to want more information about authors these days. And it gives me a chance to make available things like press information.

I also wanted to be able to update information on the young women astronomers I've highlighted as Rising Stars in the book, as well as providing information about ways to get involved with amateur astronomy groups around the world.

Finally, I hoped some of the site might actually function as a resource for science teachers. Haven't gotten that part worked out very well yet.
• What is the next book that is planned in the "Discovering Women in Science" series?
MA: The next book, which I'm currently working on, is on chemists.
• Your biography also mentions you enjoy science fiction. Me too! Were (or are) there any particular science fiction authors or books that inspired or excited you?
MA: One of my favorite writers is (was?) John Brunner. I love his extrapolations and his political bent, which matches mine. I like Sherri Tepper and Ursula Le Guin. I'm not much on fantasy, but I do like Judith Tarr. Hmmm do we see a pattern here? To finish the pattern, have you seen Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue and The Judas Rose?
[Yes, definitely a pattern there. I haven't read any of Elgin's novels, but Native Tongue is on my much-too-long "want to read" list.]

Thanks to Mabel for an interesting interview!

For more information, check out The Woman Astronomer.

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