Tag Archives: Athene Donald

International Women’s Day March 8, 2014: women bridging ‘the valley of death'; celebrating the Year of Crystallography; describing success; and righting a wrong

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2014 and to thank Carla Caprioli (@carlacap) for reminding me of the date, here are a few stories about women and science that I find uplifting in one fashion or another, First, I have an excerpt from a piece written by Australian, Cathy Foley where she describes how women could be instrumental in bridging the scientific/technical ‘valley of death’, from a Feb. 20, 2014 news item on phys.org,

As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8 [2014] and my time as NSW [Australia’s state of New South Wales] Premier’s Woman of the Year draws to a close, I have been thinking about diversity in the workplace, and in particular, the relationship between diversity and innovation.

Science and technology that lead to innovation are critical for the changes that lead to a better quality of life, greater business opportunities and a happier, healthier and more equitable society.

There is strong evidence that companies operating with a gender-balance actually enhance their innovation quotient and gain a competitive advantage.

Reports also suggest that advances in gender equality correlate positively with higher Gross National Product (GNP) and that increasing women’s labour force participation and earnings generates greater economic benefits for a family’s health and education. Surely this can only be a good thing.

Foley then goes on to present her case that women can be instrumental in bridging the ‘valley of death’, that gap between laboratory research and commercialization.

Next up, Georgina Ferry’s Jan. 29, 2014 article for Nature (magazine) about women, crystallography, and the International Year of Crystallograpy,

Georgina Ferry celebrates the egalitarian, collaborative culture that has so far produced two female Nobel prizewinners.

“It takes a very special breed of scientist to do this work … it is an area of science in which women dominate.” So said the professor introducing distinguished British crystallographer Judith Howard in 2004 as she received an honorary degree from the University of Bristol, UK.

Some 15 years previously, Howard had received an invitation to apply for a new chair in structural chemistry at Durham University, UK, framed in similarly irksome terms: “because aren’t women supposed to be good at that sort of thing?” Her former PhD supervisor, the Nobel prizewinner Dorothy Hodgkin, encouraged Howard not to let such comments get in her way. Howard got the job, established one of the world’s leading laboratories for low- and variable-temperature structural chemistry, served as head of the department of chemistry, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and became the founding director of Durham’s interdepartmental Biophysical Sciences Institute.

Whatever their level of distinction, female crystallographers have always in fact been in the minority. But there is a relationship between the outstanding achievements of some of them and the reputation and culture of the field that is worth examining as we celebrate the International Year of Crystallography.

Ferry goes on to present a fascinating history of the contribution women have made to the field of crystallography.

Next up is a March 7, 2014 posting about women and success written by Athene Donald for the Guardian science blogs (Note: Links have been removed),

At the more everyday level of academic science, how should success be measured? As part of its work on gender equality, and to coincide with International Women’s Day, the University of Cambridge is publishing a book entitled The Meaning of Success containing a fascinating series of 26 interviews with women identified as “successful” by their colleagues, plus an accompanying narrative written by Jo Bostock. These women aren’t only scientists, they aren’t only academics, but through them come some loud and clear messages about how they collectively view success, with the issues highlighted not necessarily the obvious ones.

The stories revealed in the interviews in The Meaning of Success suggest that women take a very broad view of success, how they achieved it and what it means to them. Take chemistry professor Jane Clarke, who only started research in her 40s after a career as a schoolteacher. She says:

I am one of the world leaders in my field and I’m tremendously proud of that. And I’ve done it in such a way that I can hold my head up and say that I never trampled on anybody. I’ve also done it starting late, in an unusual way, and I think that’s something to be proud of. It shows that there’s more than one way of having a successful scientific career, and you should never be told otherwise.

Or plant scientist and Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory, Professor Ottoline Leyser, who says:

I want to break the mould of what you need to be like to be successful. I think success needs to be about collegiality and recognising that the whole should be far more than the sum of the parts. Of course it’s nice if you’re elected to the Royal Society, but it’s a byproduct, not the object of the exercise.

From the University of Cambridge’s perspective this book is meant to start an internal dialogue about how we measure and value success to ensure that we truly do recruit and reward the best wherever that is to be found, not just facilitate the progression of lookalikes to those already in post.

The quote from Ottoline Leyser in the excerpt from Donald’s posting reminded me of some research about reference letters and how the words used to describe the candidates affect their applications (from a Nov. 9, 2010 piece by Jessica Stark on phys.org),

A recommendation letter could be the chute in a woman’s career ladder, according to ongoing research at Rice University. The comprehensive study shows that qualities mentioned in recommendation letters for women differ sharply from those for men, and those differences may be costing women jobs and promotions in academia and medicine.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, Rice University professors Michelle Hebl and Randi Martin and graduate student Juan Madera, now an assistant professor at the University of Houston, reviewed 624 letters of recommendation for 194 applicants for eight junior faculty positions at a U.S. university. They found that letter writers conformed to traditional gender schemas when describing candidates. Female candidates were described in more communal (social or emotive) terms and male candidates in more agentic (active or assertive) terms. [emphasis mine]

Thematically, we have Foley suggesting that women’s communal qualities can be an advantage for bridging the ‘valley of death’, Ferry noting that while women are a minority in the field of crystallography , their success has been due to “a collaborative ethos,” and Donald’s suggestion that we redefine success.

Finally, here’s an excerpt from Rosie Redfield’s Feb. 6, 2014 post on her RRResearch blog where she attempts to redress an old wrong,

A few days ago a French student in my Useful Genetics Coursera course posted a link to an article in Le Monde (sorry, it’s both in French and behind a paywall, but this link might get you a translation).  It reported that a Jan. 31 award ceremony for the discovery of the cause of Down syndrome, part of the 7th Human and Medical Genetics Congress  in Bordeaux, had been blocked by a Down syndrome support organization (Fondation Jerome-Lejeune).  The back story is very depressing, an egregious example of a woman scientist being denied credit for her discovery.

The woman is Dr. Marthe Gautier, now 88 years old.  In 1956 she was a young physician, returning to Paris from a year’s study of pediatric cardiology at Harvard.  She was given a clinical/teaching position at a local hospital, with no funds for research.  The Head of the Pediatric Unit, Raymond Turpin, was interested in mongolism (as Down syndrome was then called); years earlier he had proposed that it might be caused by a chromosome abnormality.  Human cytogenetics was not well understood, but a big breakthrough came this same year, when the true chromosome number was finally established as 46 (not 48).  When Turpin complained that nobody was investigating his hypothesis, Gautier proposed that she take this problem on, since her Harvard training had introduced her to both cell culture and histology.  Turpin agreed to provide a tissue sample from a patient.

For this work she was given a disused laboratory with a fridge, a centrifuge, and a poor quality microscope, but no funding.  And of course she still had her other responsibilities.  But she was keen and resourceful, so she took out a personal loan to buy glassware, kept a live cockerel as a source of serum, and used her own blood when she needed human serum.

By the end of 1957 she had everything working with normal human cells, and could clearly distinguish the 46 chromosomes.  So she asked Prof. Turpin for the patient sample.  After 6 months wait it arrived, and she quickly was able to prepare slides showing that it had not 46 but 47 chromosomes, with three copies of a small chromosome.  But her microscope was very poor, and she could not identify the chromosome or take the photographs of her slides that a publication would need.

All this time Prof. Turpin had never visited her lab, but she’d had frequent visits from a protege of his, Jerome Lejeune.  When she showed Lejeune her discovery, he offered to take the slides to another laboratory where they could be photographed.  …

You may be able to partially guess where this story is going (it bears some similarity to Rosalind Franklin’s which is briefly described in Ferry’s article) but you may want to check out Redfield’s Gautier for at least one twist. In any event, the good part of the story is that Redfield wrote that post and she’s working on a Wikiipedia entry as part of an informal collaborative movement to ensure that Gautier finally gets credit for her work. On that theme, one of my favourite sites, Grandma Got STEM [science, technology, engineering,mathematics] does something similar by soliciting posts that recognize all kinds of contributions women have made. Happy International Women’s Day 2014.

ETA March 10, 2014: Here’s one more article I’d like to add by Maia Weinstock for Scientific American, 15 Works of Art Depicting Women in Science [Photo Essay].  This art piece by Orlando Leibovitz is one of the 15 featured in the article,

 Lise Meitner and Nuclear Fission, 2009 Acrylic on Jute, 54 x 48 inches Credit: Orlando Leibovitz. [downloaded from http://www.orlandoleibovitz.com/Lise_Meitner_and_Nuclear_Fission.html]


Lise Meitner and Nuclear Fission, 2009
Acrylic on Jute, 54 x 48 inches
Credit: Orlando Leibovitz. [downloaded from http://www.orlandoleibovitz.com/Lise_Meitner_and_Nuclear_Fission.html]

Leibovitz has a series titled, ‘Painted Physics‘ where you can find the Meitner piece and others. From the Weinstock article in Scientific American (Note: Links have been removed),

Both Marie Curie and German-born physicist Lise Meitner were responsible for some of the most important advances in physics of the 20th century. Meitner’s contribution was the discovery of nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms that led to the development of nuclear energy and atomic weapons.  Unlike Curie, who was showered with two Nobel Prizes, Meitner was snubbed when her collaborator, Otto Hahn, took home a solo Nobel in physics for their work. But Meitner’s accomplishments eventually earned her something even more enduring: a place on the periodic table of elements. She is the namesake of meitnerium, element 109.

I was pleasantly surprised by the whimsy with which Orlando Leibovitz, a self-taught artist based in Santa Fe, N.M., represented Meitner’s signature work. …

Leibovitz adds: “Lise Meitner’s discoveries continue to have a monumental impact on our lives. The way she overcame the discrimination she faced as a woman, as a physicist and as a Jew in Nazi Germany is a dramatic story. Meitner wrote, ‘Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity. It teaches people to accept reality with wonder and admiration….’ She lived that sentiment every day of her life. That is a story worth painting.”

The Weinstock article appears to be a review of sorts for an art exhibit that Weinstock is curating, from the Scientific American article (Note: A link has been removed),

… The artists in the following collection of works featuring women in science have contributed boldly to the dual goals of celebrating women in the STEM fields and portraying them positively through the lens of visual media. A selection of these will be featured at a women-in-STEM art exhibit that I will guest curate at the Art.Science.Gallery. in Austin, Texas, from September 13 through October 15, 2014.

While the Art.Science.Gallery doesn’t yet list Weinstock’s show as an upcoming event, there are some intriguing exhibits and images being featured currently.

Science public engagement with policy makers—an idea for the Canadian scene?

Athene Donald’s Nov. 2, 2012 posting on Occam’s Corner (hosted by the Guardian) points out that scientists aren’t the only ones who need to engage, policy makers should try it too  (Note: I have removed links),

Recently the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has been consulting on its Science and Society programme, and I for one have fed my thoughts back to their team. On their web pages they also detail the progress they have made against previous objectives, set up a couple of years ago. Progress on some fronts is good, particularly in the way interactions with the media are progressing. Nevertheless, there are hints in the text implying unhealthy mental separation of different groupings. For example, language relating to how “we”, that is the scientists, are expected to engage with “you”, the public, might perhaps benefit from closer scrutiny. There are also some notable omissions of people who don’t seem to be expected to participate in engagement very much at all, notably “them” – those who set the agenda at the centre of power, comprising MP’s, civil servants and policy-makers in general. [emphases mine]

She’s suggesting engagement between scientists and policy makers, not engagement between the public, scientists, and policy makers. Personally, I’d like to see the latter take place, as well as, the former. Donald also goes on to reiterate her support for another suggestion,  (Note: I have removed links),

Nor does success, according to BIS, contain any mention of the suggestion, made by Adam Afriyie (then shadow Science Minister) before the last election, that MPs should get remedial science lessons. To quote my own MP and erstwhile colleague in Physics at the University of Cambridge, Dr Julian Huppert shortly after election as an MP in 2010, who said à propos of this:

“It would be really important for all MPs to have some exposure, because some of them will not have studied any science since they were 15 and it’s important to understand how to engage with it. You would then have a lot of MPs who were able to understand the information they were being presented with.”

Donald’s comments remind me of Preston Manning’s suggestions about Canadian scientists needing to engage more with politicians.  Luckily, Mr. Manning very kindly gave me an interview about those suggestions and more, ‘Preston Manning Interview (part 1 of 2) and PEN’s nanotechnology product inventory‘ and ‘Preston Manning Interview (part 2 of 2); Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Events; ASTC Conference‘ in September 2009. That year, the first Canadian Science Policy Conference was held. Next week (Nov. 5-7, 2012) will see the fourth conference in Calgary, Alberta where Mr. Manning is scheduled to speak on this panel, ‘What is the appropriate division of labour between business, government, and the academy in advancing science-based innovation in Canada?’