The bitter sweet “first woman to…”

18 Aug

First female winner for Fields maths medal – BBC

Nothing But Gold: First Woman Wins Math’s Nobel Prize – Forbes

Fields Medal mathematics prize won by woman for first time in its history – The Guardian

Math’s Highest Honor Is Given To A Woman For The First Time – NPR

Finally, a woman wins the Fields Medal – Vox

 

Every time I see headlines like these, I have a whole bag of mixed feelings. On one hand, this is quite an achievement to be celebrated. The Fields Medal is a big deal. Not to mention Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the Fields Medal since it was first awarded in 1936, is now a role model for those (particularly women) who are interested in studying mathematics.

Maryam_Mirzakhani_2014-08-12_18-14

Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the Fields Medal. Image credit: Wikipedia under public domain

As pointed out by Anushay Hossain in her article in Forbes:

Imagine the message that is sent to women and girls with Mirzakhani being awarded such a prestigious prize. The image of her on the stage receiving her honor from President Park Geun-Hye, the female head of state of South Korea, herself a pioneer for women, reminds us that we are breaking barriers across the board, around the world.

Maryam Mirzakhani shows us not only that there needs to be more women and girls in the academic disciplines of STEM, but that also we should not fear to go where not many women went before us.

Her win gives women and girls the message that not only can we enter these fields, but we can succeed and thrive in them, too, breaking century-old assumptions that women are naturally weak in math and sciences when in reality our accomplishments can make history.

And mentioned by Sir Tim Gowers, a Fields medallist and mathematician at Cambridge University, in his interview with the Guardian:

I am thrilled that this day has finally come…Although women have contributed to mathematics at the highest level for a long time, this fact has not been visible to the general public. I hope that the existence of a female Fields medallist, who will surely be the first of many, will put to bed many myths about women and mathematics, and encourage more young women to think of mathematical research as a possible career.

On the other hand, the headlines made me sad because they raised more questions in my head. Are we still surprised that women can achieve greatness in science? Or, are we finally realizing how women have been overlooked when it comes to scientific achievements? When will we stop having headlines like these?

In the coverage by BBC news,

Prof Sir John Ball, another British mathematician and a former president of the IMU, agreed that Prof Mirzakhani’s win was “fantastically important”. Speaking to BBC News from the congress in Seoul, South Korea, he said that a female winner was overdue and that Prof Mirzakhani is one of many brilliant women mathematicians.

So, who are these “many brilliant women mathematicians?” How “overdue” are we? Who else should be recognized?

Quoted by the Guardian during her talk to the American Mathematical Society last year, Maryam pointed it out herself that the situation is far from ideal,

The social barriers for girls who are interested in mathematical sciences might not be lower now than they were when I grew up. And balancing career and family remains a big challenge. It makes most women face difficult decisions which usually compromise their work

When the news came out, a friend of mine jokingly said, “Girls can do math!!” While it was meant to be a joke, it reflects the situation we are in. That time and time again we still need to “prove” that we can make it in STEM, particularly in male-dominated fields such as mathematics or physics.

When will a woman receiving her well-deserved recognition in STEM become normality?

Will we need to wait for much longer for the next female Fields Medal winner?

Will we need to wait for much longer for the next female Fields Medal winner? Image source: Wikipedia under public domain.

It’s been too long!

8 Aug

It has been way too long since my last blog post! In the next few weeks you will see more posts because of my current staycation. I have the following planned for the blog:

Earlier this year, I mentioned that I would like to write something about clinical trials. With the latest Ebola outbreak, there are a few things I want to write about. Is it difficult to develop treatments for Ebola? Who is working on this, and why haven’t we made progress? You probably heard that an experimental drug is being used in the US to treat aid workers who are infected Ebola, and my impression is that the drug itself hasn’t gone through a proper clinical trial. What is the typical process for a clinical trial, why is it necessary, and why does it take so long? And then, let’s look at the ethics of drug development: Why is it difficult for drugs for illnesses common in less privileged countries to be developed?

Working in science outreach and communication, one trend I am noticing is the move from rigid teaching curriculum and standards to something focusing more on big ideas, including one that science is a process, not just facts. I am glad to see this move, but at the same time uneasy about it. I plan to work on a series on science education. Why is early science education important? What does this shift in curriculum and standards mean to students, teachers (in my opinion, a component often overlooked in this re-development of teaching standards), and informal science education (science outreach)?

I have always been quite a hands-on, “DIY” person. This probably comes with working in the Physics department and have access to all the cool electronics stuff. With that said, my health sciences background doesn’t lend help here. In the next few months, I will be playing with some basic electronics stuff based on the book Make: Electronics. This means that I will share my success and failures on the blog…

And of course, other than these “themes,” I will continue to share other random inspirations related to science communications and outreach. I am also hoping to update the resources page when I get a chance.

Thanks again for your patience and it’s good to be back! :D

A conversation about parenting, gender, and women and men in STEM

8 Apr

Recently this tweet by Terry McGlynn caught my eye:

From here, we started a conversation about work place policy for women:

Conversations like this usually get me down the rabbit hole of thinking about women & careers. I started to remember a feature by CBC Doc Zone, The Motherload (free online access for Canadian viewers).

Perhaps it’s because it was all supposed to have changed by now. Dads were supposed to carry more of the load. Motherhood was not supposed to become so idealized. Employers were supposed to be more flexible. Women were supposed to climb higher up the ladder, but feel less guilty. Society was supposed to live up to the promises our mothers made.  From single moms to CEOs – a generation of burnt-out, disillusioned moms are waking up and smelling the coffee. Forget having it all – today’s working moms are doing it all. Call it “The Motherload”.

This is hardly a surprise. Assuming that the amount of parenting work remains the same – with women taking on professional careers and spending more time focusing on work, the void must be filled somehow (by men, considering our social structure is not there yet). But, according to the documentary, only 26% of the Canadian fathers take *some* parental leave, vs 88% of the mothers. (Actually, Terry is part of the 26%)

But why is that?

And Paul Carini chimed in:

This is complicated, and there is no simple fix:

Terry talks about this more extensively on his blog post, On gender, parenting and academic careers. A very good blog post, please take some time to read it.

Going further down in the rabbit hole, perhaps I should support this with some data (and also because Pew Research Centre just published the data today and I can’t wait to include this in my post). According to the Pew Research Centre Report: After Decades of Decline, A Rise in Stay-at-Home Mothers, more than 70% of the Americans are supportive of working mothers, yet this support certainly does not fit well with results from another survey done in 2013:

Some 51% of respondents said that children are better off if their mother is at home, while 34% said they are just as well off with a working mother. And, in a separate question, they were asked about fathers and their children. Only 8% of all adults said that children are better off if their father is home and doesn’t hold a job, while 76% said children are just as well off if their father works.

(Another Pew Research Centre survey published last year also found that “women are much more likely than men to report having had a significant career interruption related to family caregiving.”)

Also, if we look at stay-at-home moms with a college degree, 88% of them have working husbands. This is the group that likely have a better chance of finding a job, and probably with less financial burden, yet why their husbands are the working ones, but not they, is curious (get paid less? cannot find jobs? social pressure to stay at home and care for kids? truly want to stay at home? probably worthy another analysis?). Reading the report, it is not difficult to see how complicated the issue is when you consider marital status, income level, education level, etc etc (hence, more than a gender issue…).

So now the question – how can we tackle this issue?

Agreed. And I think conversations including both genders are very important.

(I thank him for the twitter conversation and said that this had been a great conversation)

Now about having conversations re: women & careers and women in STEM. My personal experience chatting with some male colleagues and friends is that because discussions on these topics usually end up very heated (their impressions are that pretty much anything they said could be considered against women’s rights, or that they don’t understand the issues because they are not women), they would rather avoid conversations about any gender-related issue all together. And, many of these conversations happen in female-dominant meetings, where males are the minority. This could be very uncomfortable for male participants. At one of such meetings that I happened to be at, one presenter made a wiener joke – and I don’t even want to imagine how uncomfortable the two male students in attendance felt (Funny how that we are trying to increase the number of women in STEM, yet we created another minority in the discussion of women in STEM).

This is a huge problem for two reasons. 1. There is no way to know how to better change policy if we only have half of the opinions in the room. 2. Many of those in decision-making roles are still male, and without some buy-in and participation from them, gender-related discussions often reflect to actual changes very, very slowly.

How can we change this? I think more people are aware of the lack of males in discussions regarding women in STEM. For example, in the Women Poised for Discovery and Innovation: Resolving the Remaining Hurdles session (see my Storify of the session) during American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting, less than 5% of the session attendees are male, and people started to tweet about it right away. But, perhaps there is more we can do about this. How can we frame this so that it is more than a women’s issue, but something that everyone should participate in the discussion for? Even men in STEM have mothers, daughters, other colleagues they can relate to? What do our male colleagues think of these issues and are they aware these issues could bring instability into the academic environments as a whole? After all, a healthy academic environment must be good for everyone?

Let’s start the conversation.

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com (Piled Higher and Diapers on Jan 11, 2010)

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com (Piled Higher and Diapers on Jan 11, 2010)

 

Field trip at the Chicago Field Museum!

2 Apr

I took a little break before attending two conferences to visit the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Personally, I am a huge fan of natural history museums in general. Job-wise, it is an opportunity to see what kind of demonstrations and interactive elements museums incorporated into their exhibits. I simply could not miss the opportunity to visit the Field Museum.

FieldMuseum

The Field Museum was originally born as the Columbia Museum of Chicago after the famous World’s Columbian Expo on September 16, 1893. It was later renamed as The Field Museum after Marshall Field, the owner of several department stores in Chicago at the time and the major benefactor of the museum when it was first founded. The Field Museum is one of the largest Natural History Museum in the US. It hosts over 24 million specimens and objects, and attracts more than 2 million visitors every year. I was told that at any given time, we see less than 10% of all the specimens available at the museum. Pretty impressive.

Specimen

The Field Museum has a large collection of specimens

Some students visiting the Field Museum. The kid in the photo totally photobombed this :)

Some students visiting the Field Museum. The kid in the photo totally photobombed this haha.

Here are some highlights for me:

Sue the T. rex – Sue is a famous Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton at the Field Museum because it is the most complete T. rex skeleton discovered to date. “It” (the gender of the T. rex is actually unknown) was named after its discoverer  Sue Hendrickson.

At the Field Museum with Sue

Photo in front of Sue!

SueSkull

Sue’s skull weighs 600 pounds, which is too heavy to put onto the full skeleton, so it is actually sitting in a glass cover on the second floor balcony.

The Evolving Planet Exhibit - The Field Museum very wisely incorporated all the dinosaur skeletons into the Evolving Planet Exhibit, so we get to see how dinosaurs and us all fit together in the grand scheme of evolution. Some natural history museums failed to do so, and for me it doesn’t quite make sense to just see all the skeletons in one room without knowing how they are part of the earth’s history. Well done, Field Museum!

I see that someone is having a fascinating time with exhibit...

I see that someone is having a fascinating time with exhibit…

Inside Ancient Egypt – This exhibit is in the basement of the Field Museum (how fitting haha!). It hosts a collection of mummies, as well as the interesting diorama of mummy making…

Egypt2

Egypt1

Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair – The Columbia World’s Fair hosted 65,000 exhibits in ~200 buildings to celebrate Columbia arriving in America 400 years prior. It was considered the event to see in a life time, and many spent all their savings just for a ticket to the fair. After the World’s Fair, some exhibits remained and became part of the Field Museum collection today. You can find highlights of the exhibit here on the exhibit website.

Using New Technology – Some cases have a QR code, which you can scan with your smart phone for more information. You can also download the museum app and design your own museum tour. Did I mention that there was free Wi-Fi in the museum?

QRCode  MuseumApp

Museum Discount Days – It turns out that Illinois residents can visit several museums and public attractions in Chicago for free on specific days. If you have read my post about museum admission fees, you would know how much I appreciate these discount days can do for science education and outreach.

IllinoisDiscountDay

The Brain Scoop – Okay, this is not really part of the physical “Museum”, but we (conference attendees) were invited to the Nerd Night Chicago before one of my conferences. I had the opportunity to meet Emily Graslie, the Chief Curiosity Correspondent of the Field Museum and the person behind the Museum’s Brain Scoop YouTube channel, in person!

WithEmily

She makes really cool “behind the scene” videos about the Field Museum. I highly recommend that you subscribe to the YouTube channel.

The Field Museum is definitely a must when you visit Chicago. I had an absolutely wonderful time there. Just make sure that you have plenty of time…especially if you are like me, who would attempt to read the descriptions for all the exhibit cases…

Science Communication at the #SharingScienceUBC Conference

31 Mar

My schedule for the past month and a half has been stuffed with conferences – from IPSEC to AAAS, to BC Outreach Workshop and now Sharing Science at UBC – I must admit that I shouldn’t complain about all the great science outreach and communication work I have seen!

The Sharing Science Conference is a science communication conference. The conference was student-driven, organized by the UBC student club Carl Sagan Association for the Communication of Science. This conference was also a collaboration with UBC Faculty of Science, the Science and Technology Studies of UBC Faculty of Arts, and the Beaty Biodiversity Museum.

If you missed the Sharing Science Conference, don’t worry – here is a summary to help you catch up. Click on the image below to access the story via Storify. Enjoy!

Storify - Sharing Science

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