Friday, October 1, 2010

Book Review: The Madame Curie Complex by Julie des Jardins

The Madame Curie Complex by Julie des Jardins provides an engaging overview of the lives of women scientists entwined with a description of uniting aspects of their “hidden history”.

The best parts of the book are in Des Jardins’ descriptions of the individual women’s experiences, including Curie, the women of the Manhattan Project, and several others. My favorites are the stories of “inappropriate” female astronomers Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, and Henrietta Leavitt, who had the temerity to both work in science and speak up about their frustrations back in the early 1900s, and a chapter on more recent women scientists arguing about the role of feminism in their work. I was particularly struck by the 1977 Nobel laureate Rosalyn Yallow, who dismissed the difficulties faced by herself and other women as easily overcome. It has long been my opinion that sexism and other barriers don’t matter as much for people with truly extraordinary scientific ability like Yallow as they do for the much larger group of women who are merely talented, competent, and industrious.

This is a useful and well-researched book on the history of women in science, but I struggled with two of her central arguments. First, I doubt the existence of the Madame Curie complex that gives the book its title, and second, I am not convinced that women as a group approach science in a fundamentally different way than men.

The complex of the title is a special variety of the more generally known imposter syndrome. This mindset causes American women to believe that they cannot match the personal and scientific accomplishments of Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize winner from first half of the 20th century, and therefore should not try.

Des Jardins’ main pieces of evidence for the existence of this complex are (1) another historian, Margaret Rossiter, noted an inferiority complex in women after Curie’s two fund-raising tours in the U.S in the 1920’s, and (2) the number of American women pursuing science did not increase significantly after these tours. As she proceeds through a roughly chronological description of various women’s scientific efforts, the MC Complex is occasionally invoked to explain why these women scientists remained such a rarity.

Pervasive sexism, the widespread acceptance of science (and professional careers in general) as exclusively male endeavors, and the difficulties of balancing science with family obligations are sufficient to explain the slow infiltration of women into science, and no inferiority complex focused on Curie needs to be invoked. Further, Des Jardins does not mention a single example of a woman saying, for instance, that she considered studying science but then was put off because she could never measure up to the Curie legend. To the contrary, in Chapter 6, the scientist Fay Ajzenberg-Selove cites Marie Curie as a positive influence.

Des Jardins goes on to highlight the work of the “trimates” Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas, and Jane Goodall as part of her argument that science done by women is fundamentally different than science done by men. She suggests, for instance, that only a man could be callous enough to deprive a baby chimp of its mother in the famous whatever experiment, and only a woman would decide to perform the intense observational work of the trimates.

Again, I am unconvinced. Her argument is undermined by the shared vision of the trimates with the man (Louis Leakey) who supported each of these women, by the many remarkable innovations and varied approaches of male scientists (examples abound, but I suggest starting with the movie Kinsey), and by the relative banality of most science done by both men and women. Great scientists have creative and unique approaches to viewing the world and to designing and interpreting experiments. That need for creativity is part of what makes science so fun.

Adjunct Teaching official article

My UtM post about my new adjunct position and women in science taking adjunct positions is here -

Monday, September 20, 2010

Barbara Gonzalez and the word immigrant

My interview with the statistician Barbara Gonzalez is up -

There was some controversy about whether to call her an immigrant or if there was a more PC term. It's a much bigger issue for coverage of illegal immigrants (as opposed to "illegal aliens" or "undocumented workers"), but I am a little disconcerted that just the word "immigrant" can sometimes create discomfort. Yesterday I told some soccer buddies that my husband was an immigrant (he's Irish), and they all assumed he was from a war zone or something (Afghanistan was mentioned). A random blog post asks "Why do the words ‘immigrant’, ‘alien’ and ‘foreigner’ all evoke a sense of negativity?". There's also the issue of the word "illegal" being so frequently attached to the word "immigrant". I once got a bizarre forward from an acquaintance soliciting approval for some proposed draconian law that was clearly meant to harass illegal immigrants but omitted the word "illegal". I think we handled the wording correctly, but it all makes me think about the controversy over the Muslim community center in NYC and the regrettable sense of xenophobia that seems to keep coming up.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Richard Dawkins’ Scarlet Letter

This morning I briefly met a man wearing a black t-shirt with a bright red letter “A” on the chest and “Stand OUT Campaign” on a shirt sleeve. I didn’t give the shirt much though until I was told that the “A” stands for “atheist”, and the shirt was purchased from Richard Dawkins’ website. Then I became very confused.

What exactly is the goal of this shirt? I assumed from the “stand out” bit that the goal is to call attention to this man’s atheism and attach a (hopefully friendly) human face to the a-word. As an atheist, I certainly support the intention, but if the goal is to communicate with others, this shirt is a failure.

First, as a method of announcing one’s atheism, the label is far too subtle. If someone is struck by it enough to wonder about it at all (which I was not), they might just suppose, for instance, that the person’s name begins with the letter A.

Then there’s The Scarlet Letter reference. What exactly does atheism have to do with Hawthorne’s novel? The protagonist, Hester Prynne, gets knocked up when her husband is out of town and is forced to wear a giant red letter “A” for “adultery” on her chest. Is the goal to associate atheists with adultery? I certainly hope not. We’ve got bad enough image problems as it is.

I assume that a typical (high school or college-educated American) person is at least passingly familiar with Hawthorne’s novel but not at all with atheists’ use of the red letter A. What might such a person make of this shirt? Surely it will be taken as a reference to the book. But for what purpose? Irony of some sort? Perhaps a new movie version is coming out soon.

Baffled, I concluded that the designers were unfamiliar with the book. Maybe The Scarlet Letter isn’t as important a work of literature as I had been led to believe in high school, and non-Americans could be forgiven for failing to make an immediate connection.

But no. The A-shirt designers are not ignorant. Dawkins markets the shirts (and earrings and necklaces) under the name “Scarlet Letter”. The association between atheism and Hawthorne’s novel is intentional. The merchandise section provides no obvious explanation or link to an explanation.

(For added confusion, he also offers a bright red shirt with a white “A+”, which happily eliminates the scarlet letter issue but still doesn’t convey any information about being an atheist. Blood type and/or desire to brag about grade point averages, yes. Lack of religious beliefs, not so much.)

What exactly is the A design trying to suggest? That atheists, like adulterers, are typically good people who are often unjustly persecuted and/or ostracized? That seems like the best explanation so far, although I still hadn’t gotten over the atheism=adultery idea. To me, adultery is often, if maybe not always, morally problematic. Atheism is not. To associate an ethically questionable action with atheism strikes me as wrong and perhaps even offensive.

One of the A buttons has a website written on it directing me to the OUT Campaign. Their main page features a 39 second YouTube video titled “Richard Dawkins explains his ‘Scarlet A’ lapel pin”. Below is a transcript of this explanation:

Woman: What does the A mean on the lapel?
Dawkins: Atheist
Woman: Atheist, like the religion or the lack of religion?
Dawkins: Lack of religion, yes.
Woman: Wow. That’s cool. I’ve never seen that before.
Dawkins: Well, I’ve only just invented it.
Woman: (laughs) Well, is it catching on?
Dawkins: I hope so. Look on my website –
Woman: You’re going to be on the show with it, so people will inquire.
Dawkins: It’s fairly discrete. I mean, it’s not spelling it out.

If there was an explanation for the connection between The Scarlet Letter and atheism in that, I missed it. (And since when is Dawkins interested in being discrete about his atheism?) Perhaps Dawkins elaborates in his introduction to The OUT Campaign?

Sadly, no. All I found was this: “Wear Josh's red A if you like it as much as I do, otherwise design your own or find one on a website such as; or wear no shirt at all, but please don't carp at the very idea of standing up to be counted with other atheists.”

No carping here (although I do hate comma splices). Yay atheism. But who is Josh, and what exactly is appealing about wearing the scarlet letter? Mysteries.

I support the OUT campaign, but for now I’m sticking with the feminism rip-off: This is what an atheist look like.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Adjunct Teaching

Toastmasters Competent Communicator Manual Speech #4

I have been looking for full-time employment for more than 1 year. The Great Recession of course makes this task difficult. My situation is further complicated by the fact I am changing career paths.

One year ago, I completed a PhD in Geological Sciences. I entered my PhD program with the intention of pursuing an academic research career. Now, however, my ideal job is one in which I directly apply the analytical skills I developed in graduate school to environmental problems.

Recently, I was offered a job, one that even requires a PhD.

This job is part-time with no health benefits, no retirement plan, no office, no job security, certainly no child care, and no prospects for advancement. The pay works out to about $5/hour.

I did not take this job, but I did take one that is very similar. The main difference is that I expect to make closer to $15/hour. If I actively limit the amount of time and effort I spend on this work, I can probably increase my pay to $20/hour. The less I work, the greater my financial reward.

(2 minutes)

Ladies and gentlemen, I am an adjunct professor, also known as an adjuct, and I am responsible for teaching your children.

Seventy percent of all university teachers in the United States are non-tenure track like me. Seventy percent. That number means that if you or someone you know is taking a college-level course, the odds are very good that the instructor is making about $3,000 to teach that class. Total. For the entire semester.

If an adjunct can find enough classes to teach, she can expect to make 25 to 30,000 dollars a year with no benefits, no stability, and very few prospects for professional advancement.

Why would anyone accept this job?

The main reason is flexibility. Many adjuncts are mothers whose husbands work full-time. They choose to work part-time while they are raising children, and these are the only part-time positions that are readily available to them.

Flexibility in location is also a major factor. Good jobs for PhDs are not always easy to come by. For those who are focused on obtaining tenure, moving to a new place that is far from friends or family is standard. Often, multiple cross-country or even international moves are required.

The location issue is very personal for me. It’s why I’m here in New York instead of Pittsburgh, where I was offered a permanent, well-paying job at a national laboratory. My husband, who also has a PhD, works for IBM, and my job prospects in New York are better than his job prospects in Pittsburgh.

Difficult decisions like ours are very common among PhDs, especially for women. An incredible 60% of women who hold PhDs are married to other PhDs. The majority of PhDs who move for family reasons are women, and for many of us, the end result is adjuncting. This phenomenon is so common, that some adjucts have started calling themselves the new faculty wives.

Objectively, I do not currently have a good job, but in today’s economy I am nonetheless very grateful to have it. I’m even excited about it.

My pay is higher than the national average for adjuncts because the adjucts at Pace University, where I will be working, are unionized. I have spoken to four other adjucts at Pace, and they all speak very positively about their experiences there.

My introductory-level geology class will refresh my understanding of basic concepts. I expect this general knowledge to be useful in other geology-related work at, for instance, an environmental consulting firm.

I will also develop a host of valuable skills, including my ability to convey complex concepts to members of the general public, to provide useful and timely feedback, and to facilitate group discussions.

My adjunct teaching position is a great opportunity for my personal growth at this particular time. I will strengthen both my understanding of basic scientific concepts and my communication and leadership ability. While my long-term career goals do not include adjunct teaching, the skills I am developing are highly transferable and will be extremely useful in my next position.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Under The Microscope and Riverkeeper

I started an editorial internship at a site for women in science -, and I'll have weekly-ish blog posts there, hopefully starting tomorrow.

I also met with Emily Griffin, the outreach coordinator at Riverkeeper, a local environmental group. I didn't realize before that most of the work Riverkeeper does is fundamentally more about law rather than about science. They use science, but they don’t actually really do much of it themselves or hire many scientists directly unless you count Emily herself. She has a bachelor’s in geology and says it helps her to understand a lot of the basic concepts that come up in their work. She’s not really working as a scientist at this point though.