Women in STEM – 2014 in Review

31 Dec

What are the highs and lows for women in STEM this year?

The Field Prize: Maryam Mirzakhani became the first female winner for the prestigious Field Medal in mathematics. A bitter sweet moment, to tell the truth, because for whatever reason no other woman has received the prize since its inception in 1936. I couldn’t help but ask why, and wonder how many other outstanding women have been overlooked when it comes to prestigious awards in STEM?

Freeze your eggs now: This is the year we learnt that instead of providing a supportive work environment for childbearing employees, tech companies like Facebook and Apple decided to offer them the “benefit” to freeze their eggs. To whose benefit is this, really? Because otherwise women cannot commit to their work? So that the company can hire or promote those who don’t have children until later in their lives? Will women who decide to freeze their eggs now still keep their jobs later on if they do on on to have children? And who is going to take the responsibility if the frozen eggs lose their ability to be fertilized?

And no surprise that Microsoft CEO’s great advice to women is “Don’t Ask For A Raise, Trust Karma.”


#GamerGate: We saw the Gamergate controversy – it was a big mess. Was it really about Ethics In Games Journalism? Then how did it spiral into online harassment and threats of physical harm toward mostly women in the gaming industry, including Anita Sarkeesian who was interviewed in the YouTube video below? It got so bad that even FBI is apparently investigating this.

Let’s talk about Women in STEM: This is the year that we learnt talking about being a woman in STEM could be more difficult than you think, as experienced by these three female MIT computer scientists. Did they brought it on to themselves? Would things have been different if they avoided the gender topic? (Probably not…) You are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

The silver lining? As mentioned by Victoria,

And don’t worry, there is a silver lining: if you go to visit the AMA now that it’s over, most of the more intrusive jabs and demands have been downvoted into oblivion, leaving many questions that did focus on science, tech, academia, and what it’s like to be a woman in these fields—such as this redditor who asked whether or not the three women are treated differently than their male computer scientist colleages, for example.

#ShirtStorm: We watched the Rosetta mission and the landing of the Philae probe on a comet becoming the top science story of 2014. Only this celebration was dampened by an absolutely inappropriate shirt born by one of the Rosetta scientists, Dr. Matt Taylor, during the media brief.

Perhaps not intentional, and an apology did follow. But it makes you wonder how nobody pointed it out to him, and how subtle these situations could be.

Or perhaps the story really is this…

Nobody deserves to be treated this way.

Opting out: This year, for the first time, a well-educated man said to me, “What’s the problem with having only 15-20% of women in physics? They probably just chose not to go into physics and astronomy.” and then went on to argue how it is so unfair to men that there are more women becoming medical doctors now.


  1. The increase of female students in medical schools (the ratio is about 55 to 45, female to male now) just happened in the past decade. Not to mention, males are not exactly “under-represented” in the medical field – unlike the 20 to 80 female to male ratio we see in physics and astronomy (probably worse in computer science).
  2. Males still dominate the higher up, senior positions like department heads.

So then, why do we need more women in STEM? It is a diversity issue. It is an ethical issue. It is about keeping the best and the brightest in STEM, regardless of their gender.

Diversity in Tech - Information is Beautiful

Diversity in Tech – Information is Beautiful (http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/diversity-in-tech/)

Well, he is not the only one who thinks so. Oh no. Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci wrote to the New York Times Sunday Reviews about their recent published research paper, Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape (Ceci, Ginther, Kahn, and Williams). In Academic Science Isn’t Sexist, they said,

Many of the common, negative depictions of the plight of academic women are based on experiences of older women and data from before the 2000s, and often before the 1990s. That’s not to say that mistreatment doesn’t still occur — but when it does, it is largely anecdotal, or else overgeneralized from small studies. As we found, when the evidence of mistreatment goes beyond the anecdotal, it is limited to a small number of comparisons of men and women involving a single academic rank in a given field on a specific outcome.

Why then, do we not see more women in some STEM fields? In their research paper, they said, sexism isn’t the problem – women are simply choosing to opt out! It is their own choice!

The cause of this is not that women applicants are not being hired, but rather that they are choosing to opt out of academic science.

I wrote a 4-part series on how gender bias in science is studied. While I agree that many of the studies relied on anecdotal data, we do have experimental data demonstrating that junior scientists with female names are less likely to be hired into intro science careers. Some additional digging shows that the research work by the team could be questionable:

Ceci and colleagues are simply looking at the outcomes of women’s STEM careers in comparison to men’s, without adequately measuring how these outcomes arise, and how they’re connected to broader socio-economic patterns in society.

I still hear about teachers who told females students that they can never be physicists (one of my coop students told me that – and she is an Honours physics student now, thank goodness, because she is awesome). I still hear from friends who said that there is no way they will be able to have children right now, given the structure of their tech companies.

It Is not a choice If they don’t see the options.

Not just a woman’s problem: My friend Eric Mills, a physicist and the illustrator for Cartoon Physics, talked about gender issues in his comic strip, Witnessed – covering the sexism he witnessed himself (I highly recommend the comic strip). For example,


By Eric Mills in Witnessed (http://cartoonphysics.net/comics/18/).

Why did he touch on this subject? He said,

Well, because the burden of speaking out about sexism in science and society should not fall only to women. We all need to do our part for a more equal world. And because I still meet men who say they do not see sexism in science, and hence do not see why we should be doing anything about it. To those men, I suggest that perhaps you are simply not looking.

More and more, we see discussions about women in science not just by women anymore. We see these discussions becoming about people in science, about how we should treat each other – and really, that is what this is all about. I love where we are going.

We can do more: This is also the year that we saw a growing number of initiatives to support women in the technology industry. For example, Ladies Learning Codes hosts workshops to introduce website development, coding, even Arduino and electronics to women and youth. There are now organizations such as Women in Communications and Technology, that supports women with careers in communications, digital media, and technology across Canada. In UK, the Athena SWAN Equality Charter aims to work with institutions to address gender issues in science. In fact, the process of becoming a charter member is an opportunity to create a better work environment:

Although I was aware of many issues, the Athena Swan process has also been a bit of an eye opener, and made us all think. Does this meeting really need to be after work? Are we actively pushing our women forwards for senior roles? Do we ensure a good mix of invited key-note speakers to the Institute? We are addressing these areas. And importantly, with the help of our new maternity mentors, we are learning how to deal with the “bump that dare not speak its name”; this is the awkward situation whereby no one knows quite what to say about a pregnancy, for fear of doing the wrong thing.

–  in How to create a better future for women in science by Professor Tom Solomon is director of the Institute of Infection and Global Health at the University of Liverpool, and professor of neurology at the Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust.

We also heard about the recent announcement that Fabiola Gianotti, an Italian physicist and the former spokesperson for the ATLAS experiment (yes, the one that discovered the Higgs Boson), will lead CERN, where the world’s largest particle collider resides.

More Women in Science illustrations, please: And just the other day I was thinking about why we don’t have more animations or graphics representing women in STEM (the “Einstein” representation of physicists just don’t work for me anymore). Thanks to Katie McKissick who contributes to the blog Symbiartic, I was introduced to the wonderful illustrations by Rachel Ignotofsky. (Check out Katie’s blog post Women in Science Illustrations for an interview of Rachel). Now, can we have more of these?!

Even Google Doodle is paying some attention to diversity. This year, many female scientists are featured, including Ada Lovelace, Rachel Carson, and Grace Hopper.

2015: There will continue to be ups and downs for women in science in the coming year. But with each step and each discussion, we are engaging more in thinking about women in STEM – or perhaps, about making STEM a better environment for every single one of us.

Did I miss anything? If I did, please feel free to leave a comment below!

Updated at 8:57am on Dec 31: I totally missed May-Britt Moser receiving the Nobel Prize! And a few other achievements that deserve to be celebrated, highlighted by discov-her: A look back at the inspiring achievements by women scientists in 2014.

Updated 11am on January 2: We also lost a few great scientists in 2014. See Gone in 2014: Remembering 10 Notable Women in Science by Maia Weinstock.

Updated 9:30am on January 7: Fast Company put together the 9 Giant Leaps For Women In Science and Technology In 2014. Worth reading.

How to prepare a resume for a non-academic science job?

18 Dec

As you probably know already, my career path hasn’t exactly been a straight line. The transferable skills I developed during graduate school were very critical when I was looking for a job as a science communicator. Recently after a twitter conversation about the importance of transferable skills with Karen Lo (@kareynlo ) and Joanne Kamens (@JKamens), I was invited by Joanne from Addgene to write a guest post about presenting these transferable skills in a resume for a non-academic science job.

So here it is. My resume writing tips for those in graduate school, interested in moving into non-academic science careers.

Resume Writing for Non-academic Science Careers

If you have gone through a similar experience like mine, what would your advice be? Please feel free to share below in comments!

PS. Addgene is a non-profit plasmid repository – scientists who make new plasmids (small circular DNA molecule with codes) can share the plasmids with the repository, so that other scientists interested in the same plasmids can order them from the repository instead of having to make them. Its blog is a great resource not only for those working with plasmids, but also for any graduate students and scientists looking for career advice. Check out the career posts on its blog.

Tipping Point of Science Communication in Canada – A Response

1 Dec

I had the opportunity to represent my department at the Vancouver Telus World of Science during Telus World of Science Community Celebration Free Admission Weekend last year. 20,500 people showed up. Not just families, which we normally would expect with a visit to the Science World, but also teenagers, young adults, retirees, and more.

People lining up around the block in the rain, waiting to enter the Science World.

People lining up around the block in the rain, waiting to enter the Science World.

Having done science outreach and communications for the better part of my life, our general public’s enthusiasm toward science is hardly “just anecdotal” for me. As the person coordinating many public events for my department, time and time again I was worried that nobody will show up to a talk about the beginning of the universe, about the discovery of a new particle, about the physics behind climate change, about what “time” is, about the latest research on LED and Lasers…

And time and time again I was proven wrong.

So when David Kent, a friend from my Let’s Talk Science days, said the following in his recent article, “Sorry Rick Mercer, I’d love to agree but I think you’re wrong,” I had to disagree.

I believe Rick Mercer thinks that science is cool, and I even believe that he would be pleased to see his tax dollars (and maybe even his charitable dollars) go to support blue-sky research. But I do not believe Mr. Mercer’s idea that Canadians as a whole are interested although I, like him, would wish it to be the case. I think Mr. Mercer’s claims about Canadians’ passions are anecdotal at best, and lack any evidence – indeed it is possible that Canadians don’t give a hoot about science for science’s sake.

I’ve spent the better part of the last 15 years doing scientific research and outreach in Canada and the United Kingdom. To me it appears that, despite science influencing just about every aspect of their lives, the average Canadian adult does not particularly care about how or why something works. Canadians care about cures for their loved ones, faster mobile phone technologies, higher-resolution televisions, and fuel-efficient cars and homes.

In fact, the latest report “Science Culture, Where Canada Stands” by the Council of Canadian Academies seems to support what I have seen. The issue is not in our public’s interest in science. There is plenty of that here in Canada.

coca national percentages infographic-cmyk

David went on to say,

I would love to be proven wrong and I hope that this article might inspire some more efforts to create a better public understanding of, and support for, basic scientific research.

The real issue here is, with Canada’s short history, the spread of our population across a massive landscape, the lack of a champion organization or political momentum, and our current government’s unflattering attitude, what we can do creatively to foster public support for basic research. And, we as scientists or science communicators should stop expecting public enthusiasm alone is sufficient. What David is asking for takes more than just that.

In fact, for UK, which is the country that David is stacking Canada against, the two champion organizations I am aware of both have very long histories. The British Science Association was established in 1831. The Royal Institute of Great Britain was founded 1799. (And remember Canada only came about in 1867). These champion organizations have been a big part in driving the dialogues about science and science education in UK. Together, the environment fostered by such organizations significantly contributed to UK’s scientific atmosphere now.

So, how are we going to catch up?

It takes years of building human capacity by science communication training – through science communication programs from the Banff Centre, Laurentian University, Mount Saint Vincent University, and several science journalism programs.

It take organizations such as Evidence for Democracy and Get Science Right to encourage people to start writing emails to their MPs, to bring attention to science-related policies, to be a political voice from this side of the bench.

It takes making science geographically more accessible to everyone in Canada. For example, you can now watch public lectures from the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics live online, without taking a trip to Waterloo, Ontario – and if you want more, check out their archive.

It takes our scientists talking to others, not only about the science they do, but also about why the science is important to others – why, when someone is worried about the money for rent tomorrow, about looking for a job, about whether his or her child can get a childcare spot, this someone should care about basic science research. That is what many of the Science Borealis bloggers have been able to do through their blogs.

And, can we encourage more collaborations beyond science for simply science’s sake – how about being part of literature, art work, technology, movies, entertainment, and beyond? How about more events like the Beakerhead in Calgary, A smash up of art, science and engineering?

But in the end, it takes time to build up momentum. While the Banff Science Communications Program is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary, most of these other science communication activities only happened in the past 2-3 years. This further speaks to the need for building capacity, and when we have reached the tipping point, things happen. More and more people will finally go, “it is time to do something about this in Canada,” as most of groups mentioned here have done.

So, let’s stop thinking that our public are not interested in science. They are. But science does not exist in its own silo. The bigger question is, why should the public care about funding for basic science research, about science-related policies, about the freedom to access research done by our own government scientists. And that, takes more than Canadians’ enthusiasm toward science. That takes capacity, momentum, and the tipping point.

PS. Here is Rick Mercer’s Rant that David was referring to.

How space dust teaches us about scientific progresses

30 Sep

Sometimes I feel that it sucks to be a physicist.

(Just to clarify – I am not one, and this is my personal opinion, having worked years in a department full of physicists, and with a background in non-physics fields. This is not after any discussion with other physicists in my dept – they might agree, they might not)

There was a major announcement back in March that results from BICEP2, a telescope sitting in the South Pole, showed evidence of cosmic inflation. This was, at the time, considered a Nobel Prize worthy discovery – I rounded up a few links on this back then.

The sun sets behind BICEP2 (in the foreground) and the South Pole Telescope (in the background). (Photo: Steffen Richter, Harvard University via BICEP2 image release gallery)

The sun sets behind BICEP2 (in the foreground) and the South Pole Telescope (in the background). (Steffen Richter, Harvard University)

However, recently new results from Planck, a space telescope run by the European Space Agency, showed that the patterns in cosmic wave background detected by BICEP2 are likely just space dust.

The Planck telescope up close (Photo: ESA for public use)

The Planck telescope up close (Photo: ESA for public use)

Suddenly the internet space is filled with criticism – like Big Bang blunder bursts the multiverse bubble, or When Science Gets Ahead Of Itself .

Enough, people.

The reason you are seeing all these in the public is because physicists are known to be open about their research results. There is no (or very little) “I am hiding this so that I can get rich off it” or “I think someone else is going to scoop my research.” Data are often shared as soon as they are available via the open access arXiv. People make results open so that others can criticize it. So that the public can better understand science. So the field as a whole can progress as much and as fast as possible. In fact, there was already some talk about data sharing between the BICEP2 and the Planck team. Physicists are years, if not decades, ahead of other fields in the openness and rapidness in sharing information.

In my mind, this is what science is about.

I completely agree with Philip Ball, as he said in his article in the Guardian:

The team involved has been criticised for publishing results before they were peer reviewed. But this is what science is: debate, discussion, deliberation.

This is also what makes science interesting. It is constantly changing, not static; it is the collective knowledge, not lines of facts. As mentioned by Astrophysicist Mario Livio,

As disappointing as these new results may sound, they provide for a powerful demonstration of how science truly progresses. Advances in science are far from being a direct march to the truth. Rather, they consist of a zigzag path that often results in false starts or blind alleys. The important point, however, is that through continuous checks, testable predictions, and new observations, science is able to self-correct and find the right way.

After Higgs Boson was found, Stephen Hawking (who lost $100 in a bet about it) said,

Physics would be ‘more interesting’ if Higgs boson hadn’t been found.

Let’s not go back to the age of waiting for years before the results are published. I say that realizing BICEP2 might come from dusts keeps the discussion of cosmic inflation interesting. And, this definitely means that the bet between Stephen Hawking and Neil Turok is not over yet.


Links to the original publications:

Ade P.A.R., M. Amiri, D. Barkats, S. J. Benton, C. A. Bischoff, J. J. Bock, J. A. Brevik, I. Buder, E. Bullock & G. Davis & (2014). BICEP2. II. EXPERIMENT AND THREE-YEAR DATA SET, The Astrophysical Journal, 792 (1) 62. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/0004-637x/792/1/62

Ade P.A.R., D. Barkats, S. J. Benton, C. A. Bischoff, J. J. Bock, J. A. Brevik, I. Buder, E. Bullock, C. D. Dowell & L. Duband & (2014). Detection of B-Mode Polarization at Degree Angular Scales by BICEP2, Physical Review Letters, 112 (24) DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/physrevlett.112.241101

Planck Collaboration, R. Adam, P. A. R. Ade, N. Aghanim, M. Arnaud, J. Aumont, C. Baccigalupi, A. J. Banday, R. B. Barreiro, J. G. Bartlett & N. Bartolo (2014). Planck intermediate results. XXX. The angular power spectrum of
polarized dust emission at intermediate and high Galactic latitudes, arXiv: http://arxiv.org/abs/1409.5738v1

Science, alone, cannot resolve the Ebola crisis

22 Sep

When I first set out to write this article, I was hoping to write about the science – the science behind potential treatments, research going from bench to bedside, the importance of clinical trials.

But, this is not what this post will be about.

At the time this article is written, Ebola is raging through West Africa. So far, 4872 cases have been reported, and 2445 have died because of Ebola.

Ebola epidemic is the largest, and most severe, and most complex we have ever seen in the nearly 40-year history of this disease…No one, even outbreak responders, (has) ever seen anything like it.

– Margaret Chen, WHO Director General

Now, much of the early attention has been on the science. What is Ebola – and why isn’t there a cure? What kind of potential treatments are available? All great, because people should learn about Ebola. But little has been discussed about how it got to the point it is right now.

So if this is not about science, what is it about?

I could only imagine how I would feel in that situation, watching others get sick and die, wondering if I would be next. Then I considered the deplorable conditions — no visitors were allowed, and a bucket served as a bathroom — and how I, wearing my protective ‘spacesuit’, must have looked to the curled man. The idea of becoming sick with Ebola in Sierra Leone frightened me.

– Daniel Kelly, wrote about his experience interacting with Ebola patients

It is about the long-term distrust between the developing and developed worlds, the uneven distribution of wealth and resources, the unsettle political situations in parts of Africa, the lack of local research and healthcare infrastructure.

It is about not even receiving the basic supportive care, which could make a significant difference in the outcome of an infection.

It is about assuming that everyone in this world “should have known better” but forgetting that not everyone has the same access to resources, information, health care, and education that we in developed countries do.

It is about the developed world profit from the natural resources and cheap labours in Africa, and then say “hey, this crisis is not scary until it hits our homes.” Because, until then, it is their problems, not ours.

We clearly have the power to care. The #IceBucketChallenge raised hundreds of millions for ALS research. The iPhone launch had people lining up outside of the Apple Stores for days. Yet, the Ebola crisis seems to have taken a back seat in most news coverage since the very beginning.

I am hoping that the tide is changing. Starting from more people calling for international actions. Starting from developed countries realizing that everyone is affected by this. Starting from WHO and UN taking a real leadership role in this crisis because it needs to be done. Starting from more first-hand stories from those in the middle of this outbreak, like this, this, this, and this PBS documentary.

But more importantly, I hope we will start to change. That we will start to think about crises like this as crises for all; we are simply lucky enough to be born in the developed world, to have access to health care, to have years of education – privileges that not everyone in this world gets to enjoy. And that sooner or later, this crisis is going to affect us all – not just public health-wise, but also politically and economically – no matter where we are. I just hope that more people won’t have to die for it.

Science, alone, cannot resolve the Ebola crisis. But with humanity, we can.


Please take a moment to donate to Doctors without Borders: US link; Canada link (Note that the donations might not be earmarked specifically for the Ebola crisis. This is simply so that they can spend the money for effectively at where it is needed, including but not limited to the Ebola crisis. I am okay with that – they are probably drained by Ebola and could need funding for other important, life-saving initiatives. They also spend 80+% of their money in the field.)

Here are a few great articles I’ve come across:

This week WHO said it needs $1-billion for its Ebola work. That’s nothing more than punk change if the world cared. Canada, for example, found it could afford an average of $1-billion-plus each year of the 12-year war against the Taliban. Yet unconscionably, it’s taken until this week for the world to begin anything like a serious response to the epidemic. But in the words of Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of Medecíns Sans Frontiérès – and where would we be without MSF? – these latest contributions are “absolutely not enough.”

As if proving her point, the Harper government just announced Canada’s latest contribution to this massive emergency: $2.5-million in personal protective equipment for medical staff working in the affected areas. Maybe this was a typo. Or maybe it just doesn’t fit with the Conservatives’ pre-election strategy.

As human beings, we all hope that if we were in need of superior health care, our country and its top doctors would help us get better. We can either let our actions be guided by misunderstandings, fear and self-interest, or we can lead by knowledge, science and compassion. We can fear, or we can care.

If you have more time, check out the following collections of articles on ebola


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