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Biased for science December 10, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, geophysics, math, physics, science, societal commentary.
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I’ve taken a couple tests at Project Implicit.  The premise is that we have unconscious biases that may unknowingly affect decisions we make about other people.  I remembered this after coming across an article on race from the Washington Post.  I’d taken a test before that said I had a bias against blacks.  I’m owning up to it, but now that I’m aware of it, I try to recognize it’s there when making decisions.

I revisited the site to see if I could retake the test and if my results had changed, but I was distracted by the shiny things.  In particular, I saw there was a test on the subconscious preference to associate science with male and liberal arts with female.  Given the studies about how labs hire women less often and there is a subtle bias in salary, as well, I thought, “this could be interesting.”

And it was.  I was expecting to show a rather strong relationship between men and science.  Not only is that the most common association, but it seems like working in a male-dominated field would make that a no-brainer.


Your data suggest a moderate association of Female with Science and Male with Liberal Arts…

I’m one of the 3% who took the test who has that association.  If what I read in the Washington Post article applies to this study, most of the people taking this test are younger, more liberal, and more female than the average population, so the test may actually mean that the 10% who associate females with science is actually an overestimate.

Why do I have that association, particularly working in the field I do?  (I feel a bullet list coming on.)

Some potential ideas:

  • Being a female scientist is a very strong part of my identity, so I would naturally equate the two.  While at first guess, I would think this would be a no-brainer, the studies I cited above seem to indicate that’s not the case for most women scientists.
  • I have a lot of female friends that are also scientists.  As an undergrad, I was the only female physics major, but I made friends with a lot of female math, engineering, and physics and math education majors.  In my MS program, I spent a lot of time with other women engineering students, the handful I could find.  Going to a grad program (in earth sciences) means I was in a program with near gender-parity among the students.  Through the beauty of the internet, I’ve also made friends with other women scientists.  I think I’m likely to “see” more women in science than the average person…or even the average scientist.  “Women in science” isn’t a token female here or there but an actual sizable demographic in my world.  I think that this sort of exposure has probably had the most profound effect on my biases.
  • I know a lot of men who are interested in liberal arts.  Probably the most strongly influential one is older son, who is very much into drawing and writing.  I spend a lot of time with him, so that also probably affects my perceptions.

I’m curious how others fare on this test as well as their analysis of their own results.

Yo mama is SO stupid she can’t explain plate tectonics! December 4, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, science, societal commentary, teaching.
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When selling something or conveying information, particularly when it is technical, one wants to make it easy and understandable.  Unfortunately, one of the most common approaches I’ve seen is to say one needs to make it easy enough for an older woman to understand, particularly a mother or grandmother.  One example of this issue was the IEEE article posted about the making of the Arduino that was erroneously titled, “With the Arduino, Now Even Your Mom Can Program.”  They corrected it and apologized.

Last week, I came across another one about having a “grandmother talk.”  Once people got upset about the sexist trope, the author changed it.  However, it was more out of frustration because people weren’t paying attention to his main point about communication.  (Note: if you piss off half of your audience with your title, chances are your communication may weak in certain areas.)

I don’t understand why they don’t just come out and title these things as such:

Yo mama is so stupid she can’t program an Arduino

Yo nana is so stupid she can’t science

I don’t think anyone would intentionally pick on grandma, but they apparently do so without realizing it.

The problem with using this terminology is that it assumes older women have no interest or ability when it comes to technical or complex information.  Frankly, I’m pretty sure that, with the right instructions, both my mother and grandmother could handle a lot of technical topics.  Being older females, however, people often assume that they are too ignorant to really learn things in depth.  But despite myriad counter examples, the stereotype still exists.  Some women really have little interest and ability in science, but there are also many, many women who are exceptionally talented scientists and engineers.

I have not yet seen, however, what seems to me a much better analogy: the kid talk.  What if your kids ask you questions and you have to simplify it to be developmentally appropriate or to meet the constraints of a limited attention span?


When I try to make things understandable to kids, I take the approach that there may be developmental challenges that they’re not ready to meet, such as a particular level of abstract reasoning.  Perhaps they don’t yet have enough math to follow the technical details of a topic.  There is also the reality that even the most mature five-year-old is not going to listen to me go on and on for hours about a particular topic, except perhaps Legos.  The point of meeting them where they’re at is not because they are ignorant but because they’re inexperienced and uninformed.  While I suppose a few would get offended at such a characterization, it also acknowledges that they’re capable of learning more once they’re a bit more mature or if they have a particular interest.  It gives you some wiggle room, and you don’t have to stereotype anyone or be condescending.

I decided to put this into practice and once asked my older son to sit in on my classes.  He would’ve been a year or two younger than most of the kids in the class, but being tall, he blended in very well.  (It also helped that we don’t have the same last name.)  I felt the information would be useful for him, but I also wanted to get his take on what parts were confusing or needed work.  Beyond actually having a kid give you live feedback (because, let’s face it, they aren’t always available), it’s useful to even contemplate explaining concepts to kids.

There are a lot of marketing slogans to the effect of “so easy, a kid could do it,” but science and engineering communicators don’t generally seem to think this way.  Part of the problem is that they don’t view children as a potential audience, even though I think they’re a rather important subset of most groups.  I’m not saying you have to communicate on the level of a four-year-old, but an educated and curious 14-year-old will get you a long way.  I wonder if science would be more interesting if we saw these kids as our intended audience in most communication ventures.  At the very least, I’m sure there’d be more jokes.


The #ShirtStorm and Its Double Standard November 18, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, research, science.
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I was a bit distracted and didn’t notice Matt Taylor’s shirt until today.  Now that I have seen it and thought about it, I’d like to say that I think the people who are upset are wrong.  Here’s why:

  • How many women get picked on because of the clothes they wear or how they do their hair?  If you missed it, this happens all the time while men get a free pass.  We usually say that making commentary on women’s attire is a crappy thing to do…so how come we’re doing it to a guy?  Treating a guy the way a woman normally is treated doesn’t make it okay…it means we shouldn’t be doing it to anyone!  I seriously would love to wear a similarly styled shirt with Wonder Woman on it…but I know I shouldn’t because I would be judged very harshly.  Why can’t we make it okay for everyone?
  • Most people I know believe that women should be allowed to wear whatever they want without being sexualized.  How many of those same people don’t like the shirt because the drawings are revealing?  Is a woman’s body supposed to be sexualized or not?  (That being said, anyone who thinks it was okay for him to wear that shirt, particularly if they’re defending it as “nerd culture” but expect women to dress or not dress certain ways is just as bad as the other side.)
  • If a woman should be allowed to wear what she wants without having conclusions drawn about her, why is it okay to draw conclusions that the guy wearing that shirt is inherently misogynist?
  • Why should scientists be held to a different standard of dress?  I keep seeing this business about how scientists ought to dress more professionally.  Says who?  Scientists don’t need dress codes any more than high school students do.  Scientists already have an image problem: people think of us as stuffy people who always wear lab coats.  I’m glad someone was excited and NOT being boring.  Science is cool stuff!

I do realize that much of the upset may be the power dynamic in STEM fields: there are far more men than women, and women are so very often not taken seriously.  There is also the potential that something like this could be used to make women feel uncomfortable.  (I don’t get the sense that this was the case, however, but I see the potential for it going wrong.)  Ideally, one of his colleagues might have been kind enough to point out that some people may take the shirt the wrong way.  As that didn’t happen, however, I don’t think the answer is to apply a set of standards to men when we are already complaining that they are unfair to women.  Likewise, I hope that all the folks defending him aren’t ever going to turn around and accuse a woman of dressing inappropriately.

Personally Matt, I wasn’t crazy about the shirt.  Like I said, I prefer Wonder Woman.


Someone was stupid on the internet November 16, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, feminism, math, science, societal commentary.
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See more on Know Your Meme

Even though I am a woman who is working as an engineer at an academic institution, I have no ability or authority to discuss anything having to do with women in hard sciences.

Totally reasonable, right?

The person who told me this is a man who works in sports medicine.  During the course of the conversation on what causes low rates of women in hard science/engineering fields, I brought up “male privilege.”  I even went so far as to say that it benefits men to ignore this privilege because it keeps it in place.  The response to even mentioning such a thing meant I was a conspiracy theorist.  I obviously am incapable of discussing the issues women face in science because I believe in male privilege.  Despite the fact that I was the one posting links to actual studies to validate my claims (using studies discussed in Nature and Scientific American), I obviously am incapable of understanding the issues.

I was attempting to explain that while I don’t think most of this behavior is explicit (although I have definitely seen that, too), there is a lot implicit bias.  As I said in my interview on the Engineering Commons, there is quite a bit of sexism that is a result of people simply not thinking about the advantages they have or the assumptions they make.  That is the very definition of privilege.  I don’t think most people wield it mean-spiritedly, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist at all.

We were discussing a publication claiming that academic science isn’t sexist, a paper also discussed here.  Let’s be honest: claiming hard sciences aren’t sexist is like saying that relativity (or any other major theory) is wrong.  Not only that, it’s willful ignorance because there are so many studies out there to refute this notion.

The most irritating part of this discussion is that it should never have been about this issue at all.  The discussion was in a forum designed to talk about science communication, and yet he initiated the conversation by claiming that the paper proved there is no sexism in academic science.  There was no discussion about how to bring into account all the other data, how to most effectively communicate or discuss the result, or even about public response to news about this paper.  Instead, this person used the forum as a bully pulpit for his own viewpoint, ignoring contradicting data and viewpoints.  If this is how science communicators approach studies to begin with, it’s no wonder the public has a hard time understanding and interpreting these same studies.  If the communicators don’t understand the science within the larger context, they certainly aren’t going to do a good job explaining it to the world at large.

Extra-dimensional conversations October 13, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in physics, science, younger son.
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The younger son occasionally has band lessons after school.  Recently, I picked him up and he said that his band teacher hadn’t been in her office when he was supposed to have his lesson.  The next comment surprised me.

You know, in an alternative universe, I forgot my instrument but she was in her office.  And then there’s other universes where I had my instrument and she was in her office and others where I forgot my instrument AND she wasn’t in the office.

Apparently he has combinatorics licked.

I was somewhat surprised at this response, so I asked him what he knew about other universes.

Not much.  I just know you use wormholes to get between them.

I responded that wormholes are supposed to transport you across time and space, but wasn’t sure if the strict physics definition allowed for travel outside of our universe.

Mom, wormholes transport you across dimensions!

This made me wonder if he knew about M-theory.  When I asked him what he knew about higher dimensions, he said,

Well, they’re really similar.  But after a short time, you notice differences.

I was confused, but he continued.

And some dimensions have aliens and some don’t.

Ah!  His definition of higher dimensions was basically an alternate universe.  He was working with the ‘sci-fi definition.’  I needed to change terminology, as we obviously were discussing two different things with the same word, so I said the world we live in has three spatial dimensions and time as the fourth dimension.

Time is a dimension?!

He understood and explained the concept of two dimensional space and then three dimensional space, but he was perplexed about time as a dimension.  My explanation was that you can move through time, but only forward.  With the spatial dimensions, you can move forward and backward, left and right.

I think I blew his mind at that point, so I figured we’d drop it and move on to Calabi Yau spaces another time.  In the meantime, I’m trying to decide if I should introduce him to Abbot’s Flatland.

Fungible funding September 3, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science.
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I was reading a discussion the other day on funding sources when it occurred to me that I’ve made a big switch on the topic.  I used to think that industry funded research was *always* bad, *always* biased.


I guess being in engineering has changed my view considerably.  A lot of engineering work is funded by industry, and this is a good thing.  First, it means that the research actually has a chance of getting used.  Second, it is helpful to the majority of researchers that are likely unable to get any funding from large governmental funding agencies.

In engineering, a lot of the conferences I’ve gone to have had large numbers of researchers from industry.  (In a couple sub-fields I’m involved in, *most* of the people come from industry.)  Those fields are the “too applied for NSF” type work that is still rather interesting and useful.  Without companies funding some of their own research, they probably wouldn’t be going anywhere.

Despite my great appreciation of the system we have for government funding, it is still very limited.  And even when things are funded, I’m not sure how many of these concepts actually make it to industry.

Now, looking at science from this engineering-informed background, I’m not as suspicious about industry-funded projects.  Admittedly, science has a different approach than engineering, but I wonder how many areas are being underfunded.  There are far more good ideas and questions to be answered than funding available.  Is it better to let a question sit unanswered or to try to work with an industry partner to do some type of study?  Just about every university will have a conflict-of-interest policy.  While these aren’t bulletproof, I would assume they’re going to hit some of the basics.  And maybe, just maybe, researchers really want to find the answers to their questions no matter how they get the funding.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t be skeptical when research is funded by industry…but neither should we just write it off as biased.

Never ask a woman her weight…but her kinetic energy is fine August 2, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in math, physics, running, science.
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Today, I had one of the most awesome runs I’ve ever had.  In particular, I sustained a much faster pace than I have over a 3 mile distance.

I couldn’t help but wonder, however, about the factor weight plays in one’s speed.  As much as I try not to worry about weight and focus on being healthy, there’s this part of me that thinks it would be cool to lose a bit of weight because then I would go SO MUCH FASTER.  Or at least that’s what I tell myself.  However, I wondered if maybe I was exaggerating a bit, so I decided to check it out.

While it’s a bit of an oversimplification (that doesn’t take into account muscle tone, lung capacity, hydration, electrolyte levels, altitude adjustment, and the 18 bazillion other things that can affect a runner, even as stupid as that kink that’s still in your neck from last Thursday’s swim (okay, that only affects the triathletes here)), a quick check is to use the kinetic energy equation.

First, of course, we have to assume a perfectly spherical runner.  Or a Blerch:

The Blerch

The Blerch

(As an aside, if you don’t know what the Blerch is, you must check out the Oatmeal’s wonderful cartoon on running.  We all have a Blerch deep inside of us.)  Either way, perfectly spherical things are happy for physicists because of all the lovely simplifications we can use in learning about them.  So, if you’re a perfectly spherical runner, remember that physicists will love you.

Anyway, our hypothetical runner will have a mass (m), which is, of course, directly proportional to weight.  (Weight, of course, is also referred to as gravitational attraction, so the more you have of it, the more attractive you are, at least from the perspective of the planetary body you’re closest to.  Also, it may start to be more attracted to you if your velocity starts to approach the speed of light.  Maybe this is why many humans also find runners attractive?  Not sure.)  The unit of mass is the kilogram.  The runner will also have to maintain an average speed velocity (v), and of course your pace is inversely proportional to your velocity.  Your velocity is probably measured in miles per hour by your local race, but since we’re being scientific, we could also use SI units of meters/second.  That being said, if you double your speed in one unit, it will also double in the other.  There’s nothing fancy that happens because you’re using one unit or the other.

The kinetic energy of our runner, assuming an average velocity, can be written as

(1) KE=½ mv2

If we have the kinetic energy and mass, but want to find out the velocity, we first divide both sides of the equation by the mass and then take the square root of both sides.  This leaves us with the following result:

(2) v=√(2 KE/m)

Let’s take an example.  If we have a runner who has a velocity of 5 mph (or 2.2352 m/s) and a weight of 140 lbs. (or 63.5 kg).  If we use SI units to compute this runner’s velocity, it turns out her initial kinetic energy (KEi) is 158.63 J.

On the other hand, we don’t really need to know how much initial kinetic energy the runner has, in terms of numbers.  We can just define it as the quantity KEi. It turns out that physicists are kind of lazy about using numbers, so we’ll try to go without them because, in my opinion, it sort of confuses things. (You’ll see why later.)

How this this help us?  Well, if you want to take a drastic example, let’s assume a runner loses half of her body weight.

First, let’s establish that her initial kinetic energy is defined also by an initial mass mi and velocity vi.  (These would be the same as the 5 mph and 140 lbs. above.)  This means her initial kinetic energy can be written as

(3) KEi=½ mivi2

and her initial velocity would therefore be

(4) vi=√(2 KEi/mi).

If her weight drops by half, we can write this as her initial weight divided by 2:

(5) m=mi/2

If we put (5) into our velocity equation (2) as our new mass and keep the same initial kinetic energy, we get

(6) vnew=√(2 KEi/m)=√(2 KEi/(mi/2))=√2*(2 KEi/(mi))=√2(2 KEi/(mi))

You can see that the last part in six is basically the square root of two times our initial velocity from (3).  That means that by losing half her weight, our runner would run about 1.4 times as fast, or 40% faster.

Now what if she only loses 10% of her weight?  It turns out that (5) would become

(7) m=mi/1.1

so our new velocity would be the initial velocity times the square root of 1.1, which is about 1.05.  Losing 10% of her weight only makes her 5% faster.

After spending time looking at this, I decided that going on a massive diet definitely isn’t going to help me speed up significantly.  (In fact, if I manage to go from my current weight to my ideal, I would maybe get a gain of a bit over 1/2 mph.)  It’s the fact that the mass doesn’t play as strong a role as velocity does because velocity gets squared and mass doesn’t.  If you want to go faster, you are better off practicing running faster.

So please pass the ice cream!  I need it for my fartlek recovery.

Maybe divorce is the answer… June 10, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, feminism, research, science, societal commentary, work.
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I think I am going to change my name.  It’s very annoying.

My last name, anyway.

If I had it to do over again, the one thing I would’ve done when getting married is to keep my maiden name.  Hyphenation was not the best idea by a long shot.

This has been an issue (a lot) because I worked with my husband for so long.  I suspect it will die off as we are no longer coworkers.  However, one of the most bizarre things that has come up is that I recently received some reviews of a proposal that we wrote before he changed jobs.  One of the reviewers noted that as a co-PI, I had the same last name as the PI and so a conflict of interest was a possibility.


My university has a clear and very detailed conflict of interest policy, and I’m not clear how this applies.  As far as I can tell, this has nothing to do with conflict of interest as these policies are almost exclusively focused on outside financial obligations.  I checked with the funding agency, and that was all they had listed for conflict of interest, as well.

If he were supervising me or vice-versa (that is, one of us was a subordinate), such a scenario would violate internal policies to the university.  However, even if he is PI and I’m a co-PI, we both reported to someone else.  Further, a PI isn’t necessarily a supervisory role.  Do faculty members who collaborate on research supervise each other or collaborate?  (My experience says there are very few faculty who view their role as co-PI is that of being supervised by the PI.)

In any case, it’s a completely ridiculous comment to make on a proposal review because we could have been two completely unrelated colleagues who happen to have the same last name.  I can think about some of the areas of research I do, and I know of several groups of researchers, particularly in Asia, where many members of the team do have the same last name.  I never once jumped to the conclusion that there was a problem with this.

Of course, it’s obviously my fault for the name, so I should probably fix it.  Do you suppose it’s cheaper to go through the legal name-change process or to just divorce and quickly get remarried?

senseless self-citation April 28, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, research, science, work.
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When reviewing papers, I’ve tried to make a point of checking to see if the authors are heavily into self-citation.  I remember realizing how bad the practice was when I was asked to review a paper with a significant number of citations and realized that 90% of them were self-referential.

Self-citing one’s work isn’t inherently a bad thing, particularly if your sub-field is extremely small and you’ve done a significant amount of work in that field.  In that situation, it’s important to point out relevant work, not so much in the sense of, “this was what I did before,” but, “this previous work is relevant to the discussion.”  However, not everyone self-cites that way.  In some cases, someone will self-cite as much of their previous work as possible to get their h-index up.  It may not make sense to do that in certain field, but in some sub-fields of engineering, as well as some other fields, it really can make a huge difference for an early-career professor…particularly if the practice of publishing a bunch of LPUs full of self-citations is the modus operandi.

Beyond that, the practice just really bothers me as it doesn’t make sense.  If you’re in a TT position, it seems like what you’d want to do is cite broadly.  It helps ensure that you have a strong background in the field and that you have a good sense of what other people are doing.  It helps to make comparisons about how your work is unique.  Most importantly, though, it helps other authors realize you exist and will hopefully make them curious about your work.

Finally, someone may be flattered that you cited their work.  I recently had someone comment to me that they were glad someone read their paper other than the editors…and lead author.

A filtered education March 3, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, math, older son, physics, science, societal commentary, teaching, younger son.
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The older son is a lot of fun.  Despite his statements that he has no desire to go into science, he seems to get and make a lot of science jokes.  I know he’s not a scientist, but I feel comfortable that he’s scientifically literate.  As he was homeschooled, I’m feeling pretty proud of myself.

I’m more anxious about the younger son, though.  This weekend, he brought home his science homework, which focused on optics.  The kids were studying filters, and one of the questions asked about what kind of light would you see if you shined a flashlight through a blue filter and then a red one.  I asked him what he saw, and he said nothing.  Unfortunately, he was told that he saw nothing because the flashlights just weren’t bright enough, but that what he should have seen was purple.

I’m pretty sure that if I had ever been bombarded with gamma rays in the past, I would’ve turned into She-Hulk at that very moment and started smashing things.  Fortunately (or unfortunately, if being She-Hulk happens to be a goal of yours), that didn’t happen.

I find it infuriating that, throughout my years of homeschooling older son and teaching younger son math, I have constantly been questioned about my ability to teach them.  The implication has always been that I may have a degree, but they are experts on teaching.  In fact, this particular teacher attempted to take me to task earlier this year about the younger son’s math curriculum…the same teacher who apparently doesn’t understand that light and pigments work completely differently.

After I managed to calm down, I explained that light filters are like sieves, except that they only let one size of particle pass through: nothing bigger can pass through the holes, but nothing smaller can, either.  After this explanation, the younger son was able to correctly explain that the reason he saw no light from his flashlight is that the two filters together had blocked all the light.

I’m going to be watching very carefully to see what kinds of scores he’s getting on his answers and whether the teacher realizes she made a mistake.  This was very disappointing.  There was a new science curriculum introduced this year, one which I was very excited about.  The focus was supposed to be on hands-on, problem-based learning, which is great for science.  Despite that, it seems that younger son’s science education may be lacking.  What good does it do to have a top of the line science education curriculum (or math…or anything else) when our teachers don’t understand what they’re teaching?  And how is it that these same teachers can justify questioning the ability to teach material that some of us understand far better than they do?


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