Thursday, June 28, 2012

My Daughter’s Experience with Math and Science

This week’s guest blogger is Neil Gehrels. Neil is Chief of the Astroparticle Physics Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.  He is Principal Investigator of NASA's Swift observatory and Deputy Project Scientist for the Fermi observatory.  He received his Ph.D. in physics at Caltech in 1981.  His research interest is in exploding objects in the universe such as gamma-ray bursts and supernovae.

My Daughter’s Experience with Math and Science
by Neil Gehrels

There were a few minutes of "meet the speaker" time before a talk I gave this Spring and a question came up about how my kids felt growing up with scientist parents.  "Well, my daughter liked science in grade school ….".  I could hear the audience groan, anticipating a story of teen peer pressure turning her in a different direction.  It was really a nice moment when the rest of the answer didn't go that way.   "I'm happy to say that she pursued that interest through school years and is now a graduate student in physics." 
Here is the story of Emily.  My wife, Ellen, and I are both physicists and our oldest offspring, Tom, was a kid who liked math and gadgets from day one.  Emily was born into a geek family for sure, and we may have even over-reacted to not pressure her in that direction.  She played with dolls, loved pink and had regular friends in the neighborhood.   She was a smart kid, but didn't fiddle as much with numbers and puzzles as her brother.  She liked people issues and was a drama queen.  One day at age 4, after a small argument with her mother, she left a note:  "Bay Mom, I am gon".  She had run away from home dragging a suitcase down the block.  We quickly found her, and later laughed at the memory.  We certainly enjoyed the diversity in our house.  
I have to say that Emily's interest in science snuck up on me.  One day in early grade school, it suddenly became clear that the nice notes from her teachers and her questions about Ellen's and my work were signs of a budding fascination with science.  The most gratifying thing is that she was never discouraged by her friends.  Very few of them had similar interests, but they seemed to enjoy each other's weird hobbies.  It is still not clear to me if we were just lucky in schools and friends, or if there is a change brewing in the world.  I look forward to learning more about this in CSWA and hearing other people's experiences. 
The end of the story is that Emily is now starting as a graduate student at Harvard, working in condensed matter physics.  My guess is that she will one day in the not-too-distant future be joining a CSW Physics group.   She still has that interest in people.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"Science: It's a Girl Thing" (Just Add Lipstick)

Today’s guest blogger is Daryl Haggard, who has also been guest editing for the AASWOMEN Newsletter. Daryl is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) at Northwestern University. She studies AGN and their host galaxies, accreting compact binaries, and accretion-driven outflows using multi-wavelength and time domain surveys. 

"Science: It's a Girl Thing" (Just Add Lipstick)
 by Daryl Haggard
The European Commission on Research and Innovation released an incendiary video this week: 
It was intended to attract young women (teens and pre-teens) to the sciences. Instead it elicited backlash across nations -- the video has subsequently been removed from the EU's "Science: It's a Girl Thing" webpage: 
The other videos on this website, of real female scientists, are wonderful and paint an honest and realistic picture of what we "look" like and what we do. (Click on the "Watch women in science" link and you'll get a new video narrative each time; or on the "Profiles of women in science" link in the bottom menu.) 
At the moment, I am attending a meeting at the Aspen Center for Physics and I couldn't resist showing this video to colleagues at our weekly BBQ. It elicited something between amusement and disbelief. If shown the video with no context, one scientist said she never would have guessed it had anything to do with encouraging participation in STEM. Another commented that the ad "May be more successful at attracting teenage boys into science". 
While research studies (together with anecdotal evidence) have shown that young women, junior high school age and younger, are actively interested in science, this STEM curiosity declines as girls head to high school and college. The EU Commission is targeting the right demographic, but are blinking lights, high heels, and pink lipstick the best ways to attract and retain these young women in the sciences? 
Clearly we old folks think no. More than 15 years ago I gave a lecture to college students in China about similarities between the corset and high heels; women can't walk properly (or breath) with either, let alone carry anything heavy, e.g., a microscope or a child. Yet if this video captures our careers, stilettos and an up-do are all we need to succeed (and/or to achieve representation of women in STEM). I appreciate a broad range of scientists, including and especially those who embrace femininity, intelligence, and the creativity that is science, not to mention the color pink. These women are not, however, dressed for date-night (or the runway) when they arrive in the morning for work. 
The EU's official website is pretty spot-on, despite the cheeky lipstick motif. Insofar as the defunct, but nonetheless viral video incites young women to visit the website, maybe it will have succeeded?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Family Sandwich

We've been having some great conversations on the blog lately about some of the challenges in raising young children while pursuing a career in astronomy.  This time I want to talk about the reverse problem: taking care of aging parents.
I'm not having to deal with it yet, but the specter is looming.  My father is pretty ill, and wheelchair-bound.  My mother has been taking care of him, but it's a big job.  Fortunately, she's a registered nurse, so she's fully qualified for it.  However, we've been having some tough conversations about how sustainable their situation is.  Taking care of my father is only going to get harder, both physically and emotionally.  My mother isn't getting any younger.  And my father is deteriorating mentally as well as physically, so it's harder and harder to keep him happy.
It is likely that I will eventually become my mother's caregiver one day.  It's possible that I might become a member of the "sandwich generation," taking care of two generations of family members at once: my children and my parents.  It raises the juggling of career and family to a whole new level of difficulty.
Elder care is full of pitfalls, too.  There's a whole range from in-home care to retirement communities to assisted living facilities.  If you think you're subject to judgmental opinions if you put your kids in day care, try talking about nursing homes.  And it's not like you're simply caring for a large child.  You're taking care of someone who is losing their independence and not necessarily taking it well.
Just as with child care, women seem to shoulder the burden of elder care more often than men.  Again, this dates back to times when in women didn't work outside the home.  
It's important to remember that "family-friendly" should be interpreted pretty broadly.  It's not just about kids and not just about their female caregivers.  It's about all of us and our commitments to the loved ones in our lives.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Feminine Role Models

This week's guest blogger is Kate Follette. Kate is a graduate student at Steward Observatory and an adjunct instructor at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. Her scientific research focuses on planet formation in circumstellar disks, and she is also engaged in educational research on mitigating quantitative illiteracy through introductory science courses for non-majors. 

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was dismayed when I read the headline “My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls”.

The article, which was posted to the WIA blog on April 16th and is linked here, was published in Social, Psychological and Personality Science. Its abstract reads:

Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are labeled unfeminine, a costly social label that may discourage female students from pursuing these fields. Challenges to this stereotype include feminine STEM role models, but their counterstereotypic-yet-feminine success may actually be demotivating, particularly to young girls.
• Study 1 showed that feminine STEM role models reduced middle school girls’ current math interest, self-rated ability, and success expectations relative to gender-neutral STEM role models and depressed future plans to study math among STEM-disidentified girls. These results did not extend to feminine role models displaying general (not STEM-specific) school success, indicating that feminine cues were not driving negative outcomes. 
• Study 2 suggested that feminine STEM role models’ combination of femininity and success seemed particularly unattainable to STEM-disidentified girls.
The results call for a better understanding of feminine STEM figures aimed at motivating young girls.

After reading the study myself, the bitter aftertaste of its primary conclusion - that “feminine” STEM role models demotivate girls who are STEM-disinclined - stuck with me for several months. I kept coming back to it and thinking “this CAN’T be true, can it??”

I do a fair amount of outreach with middle-school aged girls, and I’d like to consider myself a “feminine” STEM role model.  I don’t want to believe that my femininity is “demotivating”. Of course, just because I don’t want to believe it doesn’t mean that it’s not true.

The root of my personal discontent is that as a STEM role model, the message I received was that I should choose to be either discipline-independently feminine OR gender-neutral if I want to motivate young girls (or avoid demotivating them). I loathe this idea, because to consciously cultivate a “gender-neutral” appearance/demeanor or avoid specific mention of STEM success means not practicing what I preach. I want to be myself when I work with girls, and encourage them to do the same.

So before accepting their conclusion at face value, I suggest that we approach this paper with the same rigor afforded any other published scientific paper. Let’s  examine the data and experimental method and decide for ourselves whether the conclusion is warranted.  Here’s what I found when I did so:

1) Just 144 and 42 girls’ data were analyzed to draw conclusions for Studies 1 and 2 respectively.

2) Although statistics on the race distribution and grade level of participants are provided, no other demographic information is given. A few simple and potentially revealing questions might include how many/what type of schools were included, geographic (urban vs. rural) information, socioeconomic status, etc.

3) The crux of Study 1 was three interviews with university students, which the girls read and answered questions about. The setup is described as follows: “Participants then read magazine-type interviews with three female university students displaying feminine (e.g., wearing pink clothes and makeup, likes reading fashion magazines) or gender-neutral appearance and characteristics (e.g., wearing dark-colored clothes and glasses, likes reading).” Is this the definition of femininity?  Feminine women don’t read books or wear black?  This strikes me as almost comically narrow.

4) Since the students were only reacting to a small number of role model interviews (n=3) and rating them in general categories such as “positivity” and “perceived similarity”, it seems to me that conducting interviews with participants regarding WHY they chose certain rankings would be advisable. This could serve to reassure the reader that the girls are basing their rankings on the characteristics that the study designers claim – femininity and STEM success. In the educational literature this is called establishing “content validity” and involves answering the question “does your instrument measure what you think it does?” I’m not a social scientist, but I imagine that such a thing is (or should be) standard practice.

5) The second study used a similar set of interviews but asked two more direct questions
a. “How likely do you think it is that you could be both as successful in math/science AND as feminine or girly as these students by the end of high school”
b. “Do being good at math and being girly go together?”
The effect here was the same, but more marginal than in the first study (see Figure 3 of the paper) and had fewer participants (n=42), a less-standard setup (some girls participated in a classroom and some at a county fair) and a procedural error through which an (unspecified) number of girls didn’t receive item 2.

While this study is an interesting and thought-provoking result worthy of further investigation, I would have liked to see more of an effort on the part of the authors to emphasize the small and preliminary nature of the study.  Scientists of all persuasions need to be careful about how their work will be interpreted by non-experts, and this study reaches some particularly dangerous and counterproductive conclusions to be throwing around before they are fully supported by evidence. It is NOT the final word on the advantageousness of feminine STEM role models.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Guest Post: Lisa Winter on Undergraduate Research Advising: Making the Most of a Summer Project

Undergraduate Research Advising: Making the Most of a Summer Project

This week's guest blogger is Lisa Winter. Lisa Winter is a Hubble fellow at the University of Colorado studying active galaxies and their relationship to galaxy evolution through feedback processes.


It’s June, the spring semester just ended, and it’s now prime time for starting on summer undergraduate research projects.  After working with a number of undergrads over the past few years, there are a few principles that I keep in mind when developing and working with undergraduates.  

Getting started on the right foot - the first few weeks.  While it can be tempting for a busy advisor to assign lots of reading assignments at the beginning of the summer, this can sometimes do more harm than good.  Pouring over technical writing for a week or two may be crucial, but I find that a better approach is to get students started right away with some productive tasks with a clear beginning and end, interspersed with smaller chunks of reading.  This builds confidence, keeps the student’s interest, and also gets them curious to find out more about what the big picture is.  The most important element in the beginning of the project, however, is to set clear and achievable goals.  Have a plan of what can be accomplished in three months and set some milestones to be reached at regular intervals.

Continuing the momentum – the middle of the summer. During the middle of the summer, you want to make sure you are keeping the student(s) motivated.  Make sure to offer encouragement!  When a student does a good job, don’t hesitate to point this out.  Building confidence is one of the most important responsibilities of a research advisor.  One of the challenges in developing their confidence is to find the right balance between independence and direct supervision.  Students need a chance to learn on their own while having someone around who will be able to step in when they get stuck or need an answer to a big picture question.  Assigning specific tasks and then checking in at regular intervals or setting up regular meetings (e.g., once a day for the hands-on or a few times a week) helps a great deal.  If you have more than one student working with you or a few students working in the department on similar topics, setting up group meetings with weekly readings to discuss is a great way to build student confidence (they get to explain and discuss their research/background material in a peer group) and develop a sense of community.  Plus it is a lot of fun for the students and the advisor!

Making it count – wrapping up the project with a clear end goal.  It’s important to have a clear end date and goal in sight.  At CU, I initiated a poster session where students presented the results from their summer projects.  Developing a poster is a great way to assimilate what was learned and accomplished in a succinct package.  Additionally, presenting a poster allows students to explain the work to a wider audience, including peers with no a priori knowledge of their specific project.  Even better, this lays the groundwork for an AAS poster, ensuring that the poster is ready well before the time-consuming academic responsibilities of the semester begin.  The end of the summer is also a time for an honest assessment of the student’s progress and future goals.  If the student didn’t seem to like the work very much, talk about what they did and didn’t like.  If they loved research and did a fantastic job, think about ways to keep up the momentum from the summer.  This is a good time to think about continuing the work as an honor’s thesis, if possible/applicable.  In either case, the semester is just about to begin so this is a great opportunity to offer career advice and general information on opportunities that the student can explore in the coming year (e.g., internships, scholarships to apply for, teaching opportunities).  Always end on a positive note with lots of possibilities for the future!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Fog Happiness: Children, astronomy, etc.

I’m grateful for Hannah's most recent blog post on how things get easier once children are a bit older (hers are 8 and 10, mine is 2).  This quote was great: “But I know my life is richer and more joyous with my children than without them, and all my lost sleep is well worth it.”

Recently I’ve been reading Gretchen Rubin’s book "The Happiness Project."  I think a lot of women in astronomy might identify with her project.  Her life is wonderful but she thought she could appreciate it more.  She wanted to push herself to recognize the things that made her happy.  

When she gets to the bit about her children, she notes that there is a lot of data out there indicating that people with children experience a dip in happiness, and often children can be a strain on marriage.  I myself have seen articles indicating that marital happiness “returns” at a point somewhere between 18 months and 18 years (when the kids move out!).  It can sound rather depressing!

Gretchen Rubin disputed this by describing “fog happiness.”  This is happiness that pervades your whole life, but when brought under close scrutiny is hard to pinpoint.  Children create an abundance of fog happiness.  They also create good ol’ easily-recognized happiness, but sometimes we can forget about that when we have been up all night tending to them.

Astronomy is a discipline that also is rich in fog happiness.  I think many of us, inbetween worrying about proposal deadlines, writing letters for our students and postdocs (gosh, I am overdue to write one NOW), and whatever other career items we’re working on, have moments when we just step back and think about the object(s) of our studies:  galaxies from which the light has traveled for billions of years, distant stars that no rocket will reach in our lifetimes…   

So, thank you, Gretchen.  I’m a lucky woman to study galaxies and also have a tiny creature that reaches her arms out to embrace and kiss me in the grocery.   It is good to acknowledge all this happy fog.

AASWomen for June 8, 2012

AAS Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of June 8, 2012
eds. Joan Schmelz, Caroline Simpson, and Michele Montgomery

This week's issues:

1. Serving on a Scientific Organizing Committee

2. Beyond Job Boards: Alternative Job Search Strategies

3. Stereotypes of Women's Role in Technology

4. Book Review: Women in Astronomy and Space Science

5. How to Submit to the AASWOMEN newsletter

6. How to Subscribe or Unsubscribe to the AASWOMEN newsletter

7. Access to Past Issues

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Guest Post: Deanna Ratnikov on Beyond Job Boards: Alternative Job Search Strategies

Our guest blogger this week is Deanna Ratnikova. Deanna Ratnikova is the Women and Education Programs Administrator with the American Physical Society. In this role, she works on the Women in Physics program and provides administrative support to the Education and Diversity Department. She earned a B.S. in Chemistry at Austin Peay State University and a Master of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

Beyond Job Boards: Alternative Job Search Strategies
by Deanna Ratnikova, American Physical Society

In my position at the American Physical Society (APS), I come across many job seekers looking for help and advice on how to find a job.  I often promote the Physics Career Network (a collection of online job boards), but when I’m asked how I got my current and past positions, I have to admit that online job boards were not the best route for me.  Nearly 70% of the positions I’ve held since starting college were found using alternative strategies like networking.

So, if you’re struggling to find a position using online job boards, read on for alternative job search strategies that have proven successful for me.

1)      Navigate your network for opportunities.

I came upon my current position by way of my husband’s intramural basketball teammates who were physics graduate students.  I told them I was searching for a job at the intersection of science and the community and they said I should check out APS.  I took a look at the current job openings, applied, and here I am today.
I would have never known about the opening at APS, however, if I didn’t let people know that I was searching for a job and what type of position/field I was interested in.  But it is important to distinguish networking for a job from asking for one.  I never asked my friends, family, and colleagues to give me a job or help me secure one; rather, I just communicated to others that I was in the market for a job, provided details on my background and what type of positions I was interested in, and requested that they send information my way if they came upon a suitable position.

2)      Contact your target employer (even if there are no openings advertised).
Since graduating college, I have had to relocate two times.  In both cases, I had a very specific idea of what type of job I wanted to pursue in my new city.  Instead of searching job boards or even asking my network for leads, I went straight to the employers I wanted to work for.  Although none of those I contacted had advertised openings, I found job opportunities.

Here’s how I did it:
a) I knew what I wanted to do and I was specific with my skill set.*
b) I started with a handful of targets, researched them very well, and developed a pitch designed specifically for each target.
c) I found the person with the authority to make a decision or influence others about my employment and arranged a meeting to learn more about the company.
d) During the meetings I listened as much as I talked—showing true interest and appreciation—and I showcased my strengths and how I could benefit the company when given the opportunity. 
*Contrary to common belief, narrowing my skill set to a specific area did not narrow my employment options.  Employers who were interested in someone with those skills were happy that I reached out to them, and those who didn’t need someone with those skills knew of someone who did and pointed me in the right direction.

This job search strategy may be difficult for shy/introverted people or for those who are not comfortable boasting their abilities, but I have found it’s one of the best routes to gaining employment.  If you’re nervous about trying this job search strategy, ask a friend or colleague if you can role-play with them pretending they are the target employer you want to contact and meet.  Practice telling them about yourself and you’ll gain the confidence and poise you need to impress potential employers.

3)      Ask about alternative employment options.
Nearly every job seeker I know is searching for a full-time position.  If you are one of them and you’re reaching the desperation point, it may be time to consider alternative employment options like independent contracting or part-time work.  For me and several of my colleagues, alternative employment led to our first full-time positions.**
  • My first full-time job came by route of a part-time position that started out as a one-time project. 
  • My best friend interned with a company and received an offer of full-time employment following the internship. 
  • Another friend did freelance work for a company who later hired her full-time after the company received several new government contracts. 
**I should provide the disclaimer that we were all young adults at the time and had little financial and family responsibilities—factors that may prevent older job seekers from exploring such opportunities.

If you are open to temporary or part-time employment, you may be able to find an employer who could use the extra help for a time-sensitive project or while an employee is on extended leave.  I wouldn’t lead with this, however, during your job search, but if your dream company claims to be interested in you but doesn’t have a full-time position available at the time, you could try letting them know you’re open to alternative employment options to see if that opens a door.
(Note that I do not consider unpaid internships or volunteer work alternative employment options.  While they do provide exposure to a company and work experience, I do not know anyone whose unpaid work has evolved into a paid position.)
If you have an alternative job search strategy that’s proven successful, please share it with the community in the comments section of this post.  Let’s work together to advance our colleagues’ careers!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Sunday, June 3, 2012

AWARDS: There is a problem and we can solve it

During the decade 1992-2001, women earned nearly 20% of the PhDs awarded in astronomy, about double the percentage from the preceding twenty years. In 2006, 28% of astronomy assistant professors were women. These two groups represent the pools from which awards are selected for senior and early career astronomers. The percentages of women in these pools differ significantly from the percentages of women among the award winners: During the period 2001-2011, excluding women-only awards, women earned 4.7% of the senior society awards (Russell, Tinsley, Weber, Heineman, Lancelot) and 14.3% of the junior awards (Pierce and Warner) but 33% of the education awards (including Chambliss). It is particularly striking that the Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize was awarded to a woman in its inaugural year of 1986 (Jocelyn Bell Burnell) and not since.

Yes, there is a problem here and it is not solved by well-deserved recent honors to women astronomers such as Jane Luu's receipt of the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics for her co-discovery of the Kuiper Belt. Our long-standing problem was brought home to three representatives of the American Astronomical Society (Dara Norman, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and me) who recently attended a workshop organized by AWIS (the Association for Women in Science) entitled Professional Society Workshop for Advancing Ways of Awarding Recognition in Disciplinary Societies (AWARDS) Project.

The pattern of astronomy awards is universal: women are systematically underrepresented among scholarly award winners in professional societies in science, engineering and social science (at least psychology and economics, who sent representatives to this workshop). Yet women are typically overrepresented among winners of teaching and service awards. AAS members and readers of this blog should not be surprised -- the disparities were described in the AAS Newsletter almost one year ago. The AAS Council, recognizing the problem, agreed to participate in the AWARDS project.

Dara, Chanda and I learned that a group of 7 "pioneer" societies had made significant strides toward reducing this problem by instituting some best practices recommended by AWIS. We learned that implicit bias continues to plague selection processes and that all people are subject to it. We learned that AWIS has produced a wonderful set of short training videos (half are narrated by Meg Urry, so watch them and recommend them to others, including hiring committees!). We learned that the mathematicians and statisticans have developed guidelines for avoiding implicit bias which are required reading for their selection committees. We learned how certain kinds of language trigger implicit bias -- words like "leader, dynamic, innovator" are used more often in letters for men than women. We learned that women are nominated for awards at lower rates than men.

We are reporting our findings to the AAS Council and will be writing an article for the AAS Newsletter with more details. Meanwhile, I strongly encourage readers to nominate women and underrepresented minorities for AAS awards (and since I'm also active in the American Physical Society, I will shamelessly plug them, too). You needn't be a senior scientist to make a nomination. If you are concerned that your nomination or supporting letter carries less weight than that of a senior scientist, you can summarize the arguments for a nomination in a request for assistance from a senior scientist. And if you are a senior scientist, please make and support nominations of deserving candidates.

Now is the time to act: June 30 is the deadline for AAS nominations and July 1 is the deadline for the APS Bethe Prize and Einstein Prize.

What do YOU do for Child Care When Traveling?

It's been a tough few weeks in my household. First there was a proposal deadline, and hard on the heels of that, I'm about to disappear for a week for work travel.

It's hard enough managing things when I'm away for a week at a time. My husband has to pick up the slack on child care, which usually translates to taking vacation time, since day care hours generally aren't long enough for him to work a full day in between.

But what do you do if you want to go away for longer? There are institutes, schools, and fellowships of various sorts which can allow a researcher to spend months at a time at a different institution, not to mention sabbaticals. Sounds wonderful, except what happens with the kids? Since my husband can't simply up and leave his job, one or the other of us would be a single parent for the duration.

I have certainly passed up some opportunites for long-term travel such as this, precisely because of the child care issue.

So what do you do? Surely others out there have encountered this issue before. What have been your solutions? Or do I just have to wait until the kids go to college?