An analytical approach to unconscious gender bias

No two graduate school experiences have ever been, nor ever will be the same from survivor to survivor. Looking past the fact that individuals have unique responses to any situation, lack of consistency across graduate school experiences is inherent to the research funding scheme at universities. Thus, grant obtaining PIs hold close to complete autonomy over the lives of their graduate students.

Recently, our campus’s Women in Science and Engineering group conducted a very thought-provoking discussion around “what the ideal student looked like” to science faculty based on our own experiences.  Collectively, we agreed that professors value: putting research above all else, self-motivation, a strong work ethic, a high tolerance for neglect (my favorite contribution from someone in the group), assertiveness, confidence, efficiency, self-serving/promotion, leadership skills, intimately familiar with the literature (all your meals are spent reading ASAPS, right?).

We then compiled a list of resources that our advisors possess and can offer to us: mentorship, projects, publications/authorship, undergrads (a blessing or a curse), awards and graduation. Logically, professors can then bestow these gifts on students as they please, likely on persons displaying these “ideal” qualities.

In terms of gender, we identified a couple of characteristics, assertiveness and self-promotion, which seemed to be traits acceptable in men, yet people felt uncomfortable when women displayed the same characteristics. Some even view this negatively. I thought this served as a brilliant exercise to identify potential subtle bias against women in science.  It allowed us to synthesize general cultural sentiments into very well-defined arguments with possible outcomes. My friend Debbie once told me that naming something is a powerful thing, and is especially helpful when engaging in the unconscious gender bias debate. In some situations, I have encountered varying amounts of resistance, either in 1) defensiveness (unfortunate because an accusation is not my goal) or 2) requests for concrete, detailed and reproducible proof of said bias (typical scientist’s reaction to any debate, well, perhaps not the latter given the state of supporting infos, am I right Blog-syn?)

I think being able to recognize and articulate issues that women face in a factual, logical manner is really critical to garner active support. The challenge is that some of the factors that contribute to a “chilly” atmosphere for women may be subtle social cues and perceptions (from either party, i.e., stereotype threat), which are tough to establish.*

Finally, I enjoyed that the session concluded not with cookie-cutter answers but with probing questions that I think would be valuable for any graduate student to ask themselves.  What resources do I need to be successful, am I getting these resources, and what can I do about it? Once you’ve pinpointed these things, you may be able to ask your PI what they want to see from you in order for you to receive these resources.


*[Notice I mention nothing about babies and women in science.  While certainly valid, that topic has been done to death so I’d rather discuss in the more nebulous reasons behind the gender gap.]


#ChemMovieCarnival: BSG – Need I say more?

First, I’d like us all to agree that 1) Battlestar Galactica is a captivating, beautifully crafted series that explores the intricacies and limits of humanity and 2) that no actress has ever fully embodied a character as much as Katee Sackhoff has with Starbuck. However, like most successful works of science fiction, they have taken certain liberties with the laws of physics and science at large. As a dedicated fan of the show I have participated in more than a few discussions of its storyline, logistical and moral quandaries, mostly with my labmate Dale, a post-doc and fellow BSG analyst. Here’s one example of pretty blatant science side-stepping. (FTL travel will be accepted as fact for the purposes of this post).

How are they simulating gravity?  The show never addresses this fundamental force that allows the characters to walk around in their daily lives aboard the ship. Gravity can only be simulated in 3 ways: By a large object with inertial mass (i.e. planet), by rotation of the spaceship which acts through the simultaneous effects of centrifugal and centripetal force (see Newton’s third law), or by linear acceleration. Although it’s possible the fleet could be using this last strategy, the careful viewer will realize that many times the Battlestar has been forced to hold its position as it waits for returning vipers in order to make a jump. And they always seem to jump to specific coordinates, so to use linear acceleration they’d also have to tell the fleet which direction to continue heading upon arrival.


So according to this picture, only the circular ship in the top middle is likely to have full-time gravity. You can sign me up for that one.. bone and muscle deterioration? No thanks.

This just happens to be a pet peeve of mine and there are many more examples so certainly add more as you please! A quick google search turned up this book, an official guide to the science of Battlestar Galactica for those compelled to research this topic further (on my reading list now). The fact that most of the technology supporting the fleet’s survival is currently not in existence, I think takes nothing away from personal enjoyment of the series. Really, it challenges us to test the limits of our imaginations and what we might achieve even beyond the confines of this world.  So say we all.

Update: after sleeping on this post, I realized this was supposed to be chemistry themed not physics..I just got excited about BSG and totally forgot where I started.. hope everyone doesn’t mind too much!

World War Z

So it’s probably bad form to comment on a book that you haven’t finished reading yet but I CANNOT resist writing about Max Brooks’ novel World War Z. Let’s set aside for a second the fact that the zombie genre is endlessly fascinating to me and most humans. Personally, as an organic chemist and dedicated list maker, I love considering just the logistics of apocalyptic scenarios, and that everyone is forced to use any and all skills they’ve gathered (graduate school has given me a high tolerance for despair and that could be key to my survival).

Zombie box for blog

Our lab’s immediate reaction upon learning that the new packing peanuts were edible. (Photo credit: Andrew Perkowski)

The novel is ingeniously structured as a collection of interviews from survivors of a 10 year zombie epidemic, with minimal input from the interviewer. I was skeptical at first, pointing out to a friend that I couldn’t possibly get into a book with no recurrent characters with whom to attach emotionally. Upon actually starting the book, I found the format extremely clever and instructive because it allowed the author to explore every interesting detail, dilemma and angle in a very streamlined fashion. Setting up a narrative that follows a single group of people limits the realm of possibility for what they themselves could be exposed to, and forces third person observations of any other intriguing situations.

Fighting against an enemy that needs no food, rest, or supplies with unflagging (nonexistent) morale, and whose numbers literally grow stronger as your own become depleted is no small feat. So far the stories lean towards acts of human triumph and kindness, which is more than fine by me. Leave unpleasantness to the local news, science fiction is at its best, in my opinion, when it challenges us to imagine what mankind can achieve in the face of overwhelming hopelessness.


I’ve been waffling back and forth for a few weeks now trying to figure out the ideal format, content and tone for a hilarious and groundbreaking blog that’s going to take the scientific world by storm, leaving scientists and non-scientists alike clamoring for more. No small task.. but I’m sensing the vibe that friends and family are growing tired of circling this topic as the only thing I seem to be able to settle upon is that it must include words, pictures and specifically, the word science. Took me days to decide on a background color scheme (“make it blue, no make it pink” – Cinderella quote, not a statement on unconscious gender bias, will cross that bridge when I get to it)

Luckily, last night I attended a talk by NYTimes columnist Thomas Friedman as part of The Bryan Series hosted by Guilford College (the alma mater of my partner, who coincidentally is also currently diving headfirst into starting a politically themed blog, will dutifully promote when given the signal). Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, finally provided me with the impetus to put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard for the nit-picky). He gave a highly streamlined, personable and persuasive talk revolving around the thesis of his 2005 book “The world is flat,” which analyzes globalization and America’s future in this “hyper-connected” world. BTW, this book was published before Facebook AND twitter was a phenomena, so we are now living in a #hyper-connected world (I make no effort to include Facebook in a clever parallel because as my 16 year old brother Andrew says “Facebook is dead” – foolish or prophetic? I have a feeling we’ll find out in the next couple of years).

I was so absolutely captivated by this talk, the details of which I’m not yet sure I should dedicate a blog post. Point was, when I left the auditorium, I was dying to share this story, in fact, I kept having to refocus my attentions on Friedman as I found myself sketching a blog post in my mind and considering all possible strategies that would help me best relay this intricate thesis to any number of my friends in such a way that, not only would they be compelled to bring it up in conversation, they’d have all the relevant and most interesting tidbits to analyze and disperse it to others.  I thought, this is exactly what I want to accomplish, just transplanted into the realm of science, which in all its forms, has always intrigued me to no end.

And as if that experience wasn’t enough to get the wheels turning, my fortune cookie tonight from my favorite take-out Chinese place read:

Fortune cookie

 Well universe, point taken.