On Building A Community For Women In Science

As a first year graduate student, being called on to solve a chemistry problem at group meeting was nerve-wracking. Walking up to the whiteboard, questions rushed through my mind.

What if it went terribly? Would my advisor and lab mates still respect me? Did they even think I could do this? Could I do this?

Though I survived the exercise, the questions never quite went away. After research discussions with my male colleagues, I was left with a vague feeling of weariness. My energy was spent making sure my explanations were articulate and accurate. Yet I noticed that speaking about science with other women did not drain my energy. I felt like I had to prove my intellect before receiving the same level of respect afforded to my male peers.

While I made respectful and cautious suggestions, my male colleagues confidently argued and proposed highly experimental ideas. This confidence seemed instilled from a young age, bred by a society that encouraged men to share their opinions and rewarded their confidence. The same society had taught me that I should always appear polite and humble.

When none of my reactions were working, I hid my frustrations, thinking that showing emotion would be written off as female weakness, a far cry from the image of an objective scientist. These thoughts slowly formed my awareness of a gender-based divide of expectations and stereotypes.

Doubt seeped in as I replayed my decision to drop my physics major in college, instead pursuing chemistry. I was making mostly B’s and a couple of C’s but as one of only two women in all of my classes, I felt an intense pressure to excel. Did I really leave because I liked chemistry better, or because physics was too stressful? Would I make it through the chemistry graduate program?    

I wanted to understand how these attitudes towards women in science were formed, in myself and others. For months I read and shared with friends every article that mentioned unequal treatment of women in science in the headline. Around this time I met a post-doctoral researcher who was very informed on these issues named Ginny Hench. She was toying with the idea of starting a women in science group on campus but decided against it because of her work schedule.

As I was lamenting this loss to my roommate Jazz, an analytical chemistry graduate student, over dinner, she casually said to me, “Why don’t we do it?”

The seed was planted. We recruited a small group of women graduate students to help us shape this new group and named it UNC Women in Science and Engineering (WISE).

Exec Board 2013

 [Left to right: Courtney Roberts, Jazz Dickinson, Me – 2013 WISE Executive Board.       Photo credit: Andrew Perkowski]

We wanted to create a safe space to sort through our own understanding of implicit and explicit bias against women in science and together find a way to move forward. We decided this space would take the form of monthly meetings, based around a peer-reviewed study or popular article. We felt that grounding our discussions in concrete data would not only provide structure but be useful in conversations outside of the group.

Jazz came up with the idea to also share the life and scientific work of a woman scientist at each meeting. We felt it was important to value the contributions of the women who came before us and always end on a positive note.

As famed astronomer Maria Mitchell put it, “the more we see, the more we are capable of seeing.”

Our first meeting covered current statistics relevant to women in science, led by Valerie Schmidt, an organic chemistry graduate student. She presented a myriad of national statistics from amount of PhDs awarded to women to percentage of women faculty to salary comparisons by sex.

Many of us present had heard the claim from our male colleagues that being female gave us an advantage in applying for awards. But we learned that women PhD’s and professors actually received less scholarly awards than expected based on the proportion of women in the field.

This simple statistic sparked multiple calls for more data and carefully designed studies. We wanted to know whether women were equally aware as men of award opportunities, how many women were actually applying for awards and if they weren’t, why not? While every meeting was unique, it was a recurring theme for us to critically analyze and question the data from multiple angles.

We ended that first meeting with Jazz sharing the life and scientific work of Wangari Maathai. Maathai was the first woman to receive a doctorate in East and Central Africa in the biological sciences and who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to sustainable development.

Over the months we discussed balancing work and family life, unconscious bias, mentorship, female tendencies to undervalue their contribution and many others. I led a meeting on stereotype threat, finally able to define my anxiety in situations where I might fulfill a negative stereotype about my group. Each discussion was guided by a member on a volunteer basis. The discussion leader brought their own personality and gained affirmation from the group’s thoughtful engagement while members grew confident in articulating their opinions.

Member participation was key to our success and we were very deliberate in providing opportunities to lead special projects. The goal was not only to encourage active investment from members, but to help them develop leadership and organization skills outside of laboratory research. This way we could promote women in science in tangible ways and not just through rhetoric.


[WISE booth at the UNC Science Expo, Spring 2013]

We’ve also been involved in two large science outreach events in the community, both organized by motivated student members. We demonstrated science experiments for kids and families, sharing our passion for science and physically representing the idea that anyone can be a scientist.

In December, we elected new leadership and as graduating members Jazz and I passed the reins of the group onto amazingly dedicated younger members. Over the past 18 months, WISE has become more than just a meeting ground for discussions. It has become community of trusted allies. They are women and men who are learning how to speak up for themselves and for others. Leading this group, I have seen strength and brilliance in our members and finally in myself.


How Batteries Work

Our entry to the NC ACS Chemtube competition, please vote for us by clicking the like button on youtube.

I recruited some very talented friends to make this latest one. I’m learning so much with each video, wish I could spend all my time just making explainer videos. I would blog about behind the scenes action, but I’m gearing up for a stress-ridden, laser-focused, Battle Royale style job search which will probably consume my life. It is tough out there so I will be lucky to find a competitive job in less than 6 months. But as an ever optimistic organic chemist that always puts too many things on her daily to-do list, it would be awesome to have that settled before writing my thesis this spring, just to lower the chances of my head exploding.

Hope you enjoy this video!

All quiet on the blogging front

You may have noticed that I’m falling behind on my blogging and I’m starting to feel guilty about it, so here’s my defensive explanatory post.

So what have I been doing? Lots of thinking, listening and learning. This week Wired released 101 Signals: Best Reporters, Writers, and Thinkers on the Internet, with no chemists making the cut. See Arr Oh’s post “Hey Wired, why no chemistry love?” and the comments  pretty much sum up the chemblogosphere’s reaction. The twitter conversations I’ve seen are different iterations of “damn, that’s cold” to “how did we get here” to “why does this keep happening” to “what are we going to do about it.” Good stuff and I don’t think I need to rehash the convo here.

Point is, all of us chemistry bloggers obviously think something has to be done/are doing something about chemistry outreach. I think science communication works best when you take a strategy that’s comfortable for you and also personally think it’s the most effective one.

So I’ve been busy making sure I can bring something solid to the party. I started the HTML/CSS unit on Codecademy, which is sweet, thanks to everyone for their tips on where beginners could get their webpage design feet wet. Been watching lots of tutorials on photoshop, video-editing, animations (totally inspired by Domics) and GIFs. Also, can’t wait for next week because my science journalism class starts, which I’m very lucky that my PI is letting me take.

Whoa, somehow this post went from “my bad for not posting” to “hey look at all the stuff I’m doing.” Let’s end with “I think chemistry communication is important and to be successful, we need to get creative. The tools are there for anyone with a bit of time and a computer.”

I wrote a book review

So I wrote my first book review on Dr. Paul Offit’s “Do You Believe in Magic: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.” It appeared in the August UNC TIBBS (Teaching Initiatives in Biomedical and Biological Sciences) Times newsletter (http://tibbs.unc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/TIBBSTimesAug2013.pdf). To be honest, writing the piece was incredibly stressful, like I might really have an ulcer now. Writers who review books for a living, consider me impressed and sympathetic. What a challenge to decide what parts to highlight when there is an abundance of amazing and heart-wrenching stories while also capturing the essence of the book. But it really was worth it and thanks so much Erin for putting it in the newsletter, I appreciate the opportunity to write about this important book.

Science vs. Sensationalism: A High-Stakes Battle

In 1970, ten-year old Joey Hofbauer died of Hodgkin’s disease, a treatable cancer of lymph tissue. Doctors’ estimated that Joey had a 95% chance of survival through radiation and chemotherapy, but his parents tragically opted to treat him with a natural remedy called laetrile, coffee enemas, massive doses of vitamin A and raw liver juice. Social services attempted to intervene through the courts, but faced with financially powerful laetrile advocates, a movie star and a burgeoning social movement, their efforts to save Joey’s life were denied.

Joey’s story was one of Dr. Paul Offit’s earliest encounters with alternative medicine and opens his latest book, “Do You Believe in Magic: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.” The case contains all of the staples of a fraudulent alternative medicine movement: a desperate and vulnerable family, a charismatic alternative medicine doctor, a celebrity advocate and a highly profitable industry. This cast of characters assemble in each of his accounts, always ending with a tragic and preventable death. This narrative structure is repetitive, but highlights alternative medicine’s perpetual reliance on the same tactics and treatments for a range of unrelated diseases.

Book picture

Image: http://bit.ly/19A88xK – And yes, everytime I picked up the book I did wonder if someone had thrown up on the corner

In the book’s most captivating chapter, Offit reveals how the dietary supplement industry’s successfully positioned itself as separate from the pharmaceutical industry to justify its deregulation at the cost of public safety. The industry spent billions of dollars to pass the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994, which blocks the FDA from regulating the safety of vitamins, supplements or amino acids. Referred to by the New York Times as the “Snake Oil Protection Act,” this deception was made possible by a powerful publicity campaign. Industry lobbyists recruited politicians and movie stars to spread the message that the government was attempting to limit the American people’s right to choose their vitamins. The public not only accepted the deregulation of the vitamin industry, they demanded it. It was the FDA’s worst defeat, one that millions of American’s are paying for.

Only 170 of the 51,000 herbal supplements in the market have undergone any safety testing. Yet a recent poll shows that 58% of the American public believe that over the counter supplements are approved by the FDA. An investigation of 450 supplement manufacturers found that half had significant problems, from lacking ingredient lists to contamination with rat droppings and urine. Money, power and greed drive this $34 billion dollar a year industry even though about 50,000 adverse reactions to supplements are reported each year.

Paul_Offit picture

Photo: Dr. Paul Offit, Wikipedia Commons

Yet alternative medicine has not survived on dishonesty and charisma alone. Offit illustrates the power of the placebo effect and warns against underestimating it. One therapy he targets is the ancient practice of acupuncture. Studies show that there is no difference in patient relief when needles are placed in correct or incorrect position or whether standard or retractable needles are used. The placebo effect has specifically been proven in pain alleviation. In response to pain, spicy foods, or exercise the human body can produce endorphins, which have the same effect as morphine. In an experiment in 1978, patients were given morphine, a placebo, or naloxone, a drug that blocks endorphins, after dental surgery. Individuals from the morphine and placebo groups reported feeling less pain while those that received naxolone did not.

Offit allows that using the placebo effect can be ethical if the patient is at low risk, low cost or low burden. However, he specifies four ways in which alternative medicine becomes harmful quackery. This happens when practitioners recommend against conventional therapies, promote potentially harmful therapies and charge inordinate amounts of money that bankrupt people. Lastly, it is most dangerous when it promotes magical thinking and discourages scientific literacy, which is the only defense against those who would exploit disease for their own gain. At its best, alternative medicine provides placebo induced comfort, but at its worse it bankrupts families and kills people.

Has #Chemophobia Outgrown Its Use?

The term Chemophobia has gotten a lot of attention this past week, specifically around its use and the perception of its use. If you’ve been following the discussion, skip over the next paragraph which contains the obligatory recap.

[Chris Clarke brought up the subject by branding the dihydrogen monoxide joke and chemophobia unproductive, only serving to mock the ignorant. Andrew Bissette and Janet Stemwedel provide thoughtful responses describing the nuances of why and how chemists use #chemophobia. All are in agreement that condescension and mockery are poor strategies to communicate science. I pretty much agree with all three pieces, except the sentence from Chris’s article that says chemophobia is a “clan marker for the Smarter Than You tribe.” I prefer “clan marker for the people who study chemistry tribe” because I don’t think it’s normally intended the way he suggests.]

A paraphrased tweet from Janet Stemwedel (@docfreeride) sums up the discussion: “The point: if we want [everyone else] to trust science/scientists, we need to be better.” This is where I want to join the conversation. As a self-identified science communicator, I’d like to take a hard look at the hashtag chemophobia, the purpose it serves and if it should have a place in science outreach.

Tweets sharing cases of chemophobia often look like this:

Phrase indicating sadness, frustration, incredulity, sarcasm, disgust or outrage. “Article or product that perpetuates the fear of chemicals and contains inaccurate science.” #chemophobia

Chemists find #chemophobia useful because it’s instantly recognizable and the meaning has been well established in the chemblogosphere. To echo Janet, using #chemophobia is like “sending up the Batsignal, rallying [the] chemical community to fight some kind of crime.” Indeed, the hashtag usually does attract support from the scientific community. This is especially helpful for your sanity if faced with willful ignorance. A search for tweets containing chemophobia shows that the replies come almost exclusively from other chemists.

That brings me to the heart of another recurring conversation within the chemistry community, which is that most science outreach ends up more like science inreach. See this post at The Collapsed Wavefunction for details. I think #chemophobia is really only useful for alerting other scientists with the occasional breakthrough to a willing listener. That’s fine, as long as we acknowledge that it’s not accomplishing much more than that.

So what about that huge group of non-scientists, the ones #scicomm is dying to reach, that can benefit from the chemical knowledge we possess? For that demographic, I propose we devise new hashtags, ones that more accurately target the offensive article/product without condescending to the people who might fall prey to such falsehoods. Whether or not it’s our fault, chemists/scientists have a bad rap and it’s only getting worse. So if we actually want to make a positive impact, I think we have be open to new strategies.

I don’t think that shiny new hashtags are a cure-all, but it is a step in the right direction. That said, I will throw some out there to get the ball rolling: #ShadyChem, #ShoddyChem,  #FakeScience, #ThatsMadeUp, #ThatShitAintRight, #Fearmongering, #FactCheckPlz, #MobilizeTheTroops

These problems won’t be solved overnight but as researchers we should be all too familiar with incremental progress. Happy tweeting!

#Chemsummer – Grilling with Family

Sometimes I get intense cravings for a succulent beautifully medium rare steak. I’m talking about a piece of meat the size of my face.  It has to be seared over an open flame, and if that is not the plan I don’t even bother looking at those rib-eyes, NY strips, and T-bones at the store.

westpointsteakhouse steak

[Image credit: http://www.westpointsteakhouse.com/]

I don’t often succumb to the temptation of buying steaks. My family all agree that I am the cheapest member, so if I’m going to buy a steak it’s going to be done right. I season my steaks with just salt and pepper then sear them to a deep shade of brown. For this effect, I rely on the Maillard reaction. In this reaction high heats cause amino acids and sugars to react then break down into new compounds that give meats the distinct color and flavor. I’m also looking for some nice caramelization which happens when sugars are broken down by heat.

As soon as the steaks hit the grill, they have my undivided attention. Overcooking an expensive piece of meat is not only emotionally tragic, it’s also bad for your health. The National Cancer Institute has identified that heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) found in charred meat, are mutagenic, which mean they cause changes in DNA and increase the likelihood of cancer.

“HCAs are formed when amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars, and creatine (a substance found in muscle) react at high temperatures. PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, causing flames. These flames contain PAHs that then adhere to the surface of the meat.” – National Cancer Institute

That means if I’m watching a steak on the grill, don’t talk to me.

Last month I had the good fortune of going on a parent sponsored vacation to Portland for my sister Thuy’s graduation from medical school. The trip was an great break from subsisting on a graduate program stipend.  Upon arriving to our AirBnB rental home, equipped with an outdoor grill and lovely backyard, a cookout was immediately suggested and approved, starring steak from a local butcher.

Yo dog all up in my grill

[Image credit: http://bit.ly/181TlJ8, LOVE this cartoon, that makes it relevant ]

We fired up the charcoal grill with my brother-in-law Nolan elected to the helm with three enthusiastic helpers in Thuy, Ryan and I. We each had uninvited but valuable insights to share regarding the cooking of the steak. I commended him for having the foresight to start the fire early. We had to let the lighter fluid, most likely petroleum based, burn off so our precious meats wouldn’t take on an unpleasant taste.

Then there was some serious debate over whether or not to cover the grill while it heated up. Nolan had the lid on with just the flue open to let in air, a member of the fire triangle along with heat and fuel. Like The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, it takes all three to be successful. Thuy was campaigning to go lidless to let more air in for a hotter grill, anxious to get the right sear on the steak. Ryan and I chimed in with our support, oh yes the grill definitely should be hotter and why don’t we add some of these briquettes.

Nolan disagreed but feeling outnumbered, he tried to distract us by telling a story about the origins of charcoal briquettes. Apparently in the 1920s, Henry Ford was amassing tons of excess wood scraps and sawdust as by-products of his assembly line. He decided to form them into briquettes for outdoor cooking and sold the idea to his cousin E. G. Kingsford. So Ford started the popular American tradition of grilling out and the Kingsford Company is still the nation’s leading manufacturer of charcoal.

Ford charcoal

[Image credit: http://bit.ly/182XqAe]

To our advantage, Nolan had to leave to pick up his parents from the airport, and we immediately dumped in the rest of the briquettes. Within ten minutes the fire became so hot that we had to put oven mitts on just to hold the grilling tongs. The Korean BBQ spareribs and the prawns cooked in about thirty seconds flat. I mentioned this was a vacation, right? Finally the steaks hit the grate with three pairs of eyes on them that didn’t quit their gazes until the meat was safely resting on the plate. We agreed never to tell Nolan how close we came to ruining the food. A vow we promptly broke that evening as we all laughed about the story over a delicious family dinner.

You Know You’re in a Chemistry Lab If

Recently I’ve been consuming copious amounts of LOTR and it triggered the memory of a realization I came to about a year ago. I had accompanied my roommate to a party thrown by her lab, overflowing with analytical chemists. The big news circulating the party was that “The Hobbit” would now be released in three parts instead of two. This was received with some trepidation that the story would be unnecessarily drawn out, countered with more intel that actually the footage would include appendices from the LOTR trilogy to beef up the plot. And yes, I did contribute quite a bit to this conversation. That’s mainly because I had participated in the exact same conversation earlier that day with the people in my lab (an organic lab).

This led to the realization that lab conversations, as they are conducted by similarly science minded people, are probably not as unique as I might have thought. In fact maybe my concerns and yet barely contained excitement for the forthcoming “Ender’s Game” movie are being expressed right now in another lab. All of this to say, I’ve been inspired to put this list together:

You know you’re in a chemistry lab if…

-Someone nearby is quoting from Futurama, Arrested Development, The Simpsons, LOTR, Firefly or Battlestar Galactica and at least one other person recognizes it almost immediately

-It takes approximately 3-5 minutes to clear the room when the fire alarm goes off, but only 15 seconds if someone announces “free food” – if you’ve missed the aforementioned announcement no one is coming back for you

-There is a stash of middle-shelf liquor within reach in case you have a really shitty day or the reviews for your manuscript you sent out 29 days ago finally come back or the latter causes the former

-You joke about getting cancer in your old age from exposure to chemicals in lab, but when you accidentally spill half a liter of DCM on your arms, your worry secretly grows

-All of your best glassware mysteriously disappears when you go on vacation – as an older and shrewder member of the lab you have done well to hide that precious 25 mL two-neck round bottom flask

-At least one person in your vicinity is having a meltdown because their cumulative exams/orals/independent proposal/defense is coming soon and they don’t feel nearly prepared enough

-You have at least one skunky beer tucked away in your desk from the last lab happy hour 5 months ago

Beer in desk

Exhibit A – Skunky beer next to emergency shower change of clothes *god forbid*

-Someone makes a compound that smells either really good or really bad and everyone congregates to evaluate and express their opinion – “I think it smells like licorice with a tinge of burnt rubber”

-You feel guilty when you’re not there – more on that here

-Half of the people around you are listening to podcasts in their headphones, and probably the same one

-Survival plans in case of a zombie apocalypse have been seriously discussed, specifically if basic chemistry knowledge will or will not be helpful post-Armageddon

-You’re waiting til after 6PM to post this to your blog 😉

This may vary as I have of course based this off of my own experiences in a single lab space for the past four years with the same people. I’d be delighted to hear your own staples of lab life, pleasant or not, you choose, just comment here or use #youknowyouareinlabif on twitter!