Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Misperception: Women and Science

Lab Girl (2016), paleobiologist Hope Jahren’s vibrant and compelling memoir chronicles the academic and professional barriers that can impede a woman navigating a career in the sciences.  In the process, she brings me face to face with a telling misperception of mine.  (More on that later.)

Jahren’s father taught science and ran a science laboratory at a community college in a small Minnesota town.  Her experiences as a child finding pleasure and solace in her father’s lab provided fertile ground for her desire to study science.  It’s a course she’s pursued successfully, but one, she notes, that was largely denied her mother whose initial college stay was brought short because, “in 1951, the university experience was designed for men, usually men with money, or at the very least men who had job options outside of being some family’s live-in nanny.”  (p. 15)  Hope Jahren has earned an undergraduate degree in geology at the University of Minnesota, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.  She taught at Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Hawaii.  At each of those institutions, she established and ran a laboratory.  She is currently a professor at the University of Oslo.

Lab Girl moves on two related tracks, one describing Jahren’s life in science, the other introducing the reader to the life of plants, particularly trees.  At one point, she characterizes her scientific focus as figuring out “what it’s like to be a plant” (p. 76); taken together, the chapters devoted to plants serve as a compelling introduction to that perspective.  Jahren makes it abundantly clear that plants in fact do have lives, and she salutes the miracles they perform daily – creating sugar, drawing carbon dioxide from the air, and giving back oxygen – all of which are the sine qua non of our own lives.  In this memoir, each of these parallel paths – her life and plants’ lives – informs the other.  In both, the challenges are many and the chances of survival often seem staggeringly slight.  

Describing how the first root from a seed risks it all by extending into the ground, she writes,

The root grows down before the shoot grows up, and so there is no possibility for green tissues to make new food for several days or even weeks.  Rooting exhausts the very last reserve of the seed.  The gamble is everything and losing means death.  The odds are more than a million to one against success.  (p. 52, paperback edition)

Later, she observes, “Plants have far more enemies than can be counted.  A green leaf is regarded by almost every living thing on Earth as food.”  (p. 104)

When Jahren reflects on her career, she recounts some of the slings and arrows she’s endured as a woman in science.  Just a few of them include:  feeling the need to avoid certain paleontologists in the field (“knowing that they would never accept me as having a legitimate intellectual claim to the site,” p. 197), overhearing male, academic colleagues gossiping about her sexual orientation and commenting on her appearance (p. 127), and being banished from her own laboratory by a department dean at Johns Hopkins University who, it would appear, was uncomfortable being around a very pregnant woman which she was at the time (p. 216).  She sums up the conflicting and damning messages she’s received as a female scientist by observing,

I have been told that I can’t do what I want to do because I am a woman, and I have been told that I have only been allowed to do what I have done because I am a woman. . . . I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine.  I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous.  (p. 277)

But that struggle to survive has a silver lining.  Regarding the sexist messages sent her way explicitly or implicitly, she asserts,

Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody know what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along.  (p. 277)

And therein lies the profound allure of the book, accompanying her as she makes it up from childhood to life as a professional scientist, shaping a unique career path.  In the process, she establishes multiple laboratories, replicating the comforting and protective environment she enjoyed with her father as a child; she bonds to a colleague, Bill, whose personality and behavior puts off some people, but who is a deep friend and amazingly productive over the years in her laboratories; she struggles with and ultimately takes control of her bipolar disorder; and, through it all, she conducts cutting edge research.

Jahren's own efforts to reshape her academic environment find a striking (almost metaphorical) parallel in the research question she and Bill pursue in a spur-of-the-moment project they undertake during a trip to Ireland.  One day, while getting completely soaked in the rain, they observe that the very green, spongy mosses on the top of a hill seem as abundant and healthy as those living at the foot of the hill where clearly more water is available.  How does that happen?  She notes that plants have traditionally been considered passive participants in their environment, growing only when all of the requisites (water, sun, warmth) have been assembled.  In essence, they are seen to be at the mercy of what the environment offers them and when.  But what she and Bill are seeing suggests that these mosses may have taken things into their own hands (so to speak).

What if this moss had moved into an area, deemed it not wet enough, and proceeded to change this high ground into the soggy mess it preferred, causing what was previously heterogeneous to evolve into a uniformly green expanse?  What it the landscape wasn’t setting the stage for plants, but the plants were setting their own stage, green begetting green begetting green?  (p. 247)

It’s profound question and they spend days collecting samples of mosses in a thousand vials from different sites.  Sadly, on this occasion their research ends disaster, at least in the short term.  The vials fail to make it through security at the airport because she hasn’t arranged for official permits to conduct this research project.  (Clearly, governments have no patience with serendipity).  I’ll admit that I was disappointed that Jahren left me high and dry at this point because she doesn’t return to this research question either confirming or rejecting the insight that undergirds it.

As an aside, I have to say that an aspect of this Ireland adventure particularly warmed my heart.  As someone who has often failed at the “name that species” test, I appreciated the struggles she and Bill have identifying the moss species they are collecting.  She notes, “We settled onto our knees and began to take inventory of the species near us.  After two hours, we were pretty sure that we’d found Brachythecium thanks to its furry, leggy appearance up close.”  (p. 248)  That’s about par for the course.  Don’t try to name that species unless you’re willing to invest a lot of time with relatively little to show for it.  That they only came up with the genus of this moss and  punted as to the actual species makes this even more delightful to me.

I’m not quite sure where I come down on the title Jahren chose for the book.  Is this a bitter, and perhaps sarcastic, jibe at the sexism in sciences?  Is this a label she embraces as emblematic of the freedom she’s attained by shattering the expectations for a woman in science?  Both?  Neither?

The misperception of mine that Jahren forced me to confront?  As I read the book, I mentally outlined the blog post I would write, one that would not only review the book, but also draw attention to a recurrent theme of this blog, that of the highlighting of the role of women doing science, paleontology in particular.  Only that recurrent theme turns out not to be real.  Yes, there are posts that describe the work and sometimes the lives of women in science, among them are those on Barbara McClintock, Julia Anna Gardner, Mary Anning, Ruth Patrick, Jennifer Clack, Joan Wiffen, and Elsa Panciroli.  But the small clutch of posts that can be said to have done that is just that, small.  Disappointingly small.  Not until I really looked back at the 333 posts I’ve written over the past 15 years did I realize how male-dominated they are.  True, that reflects the reality of the gender distribution within the sciences, but I had the perception that I was, in some very small way, challenging that status quo.  The reality is different; I haven’t actually done anything approaching that.

Why my misperception?  Perhaps the very rarity of such posts meant they stood out and I was more likely to remember them.  Perhaps this little group of posts seemed enough to me, an adequate nod in the direction of gender equality, a sufficient salute to women doing science.  I certainly hope it isn’t because I subconsciously believe that it’s a rare woman who can do science.

My reading on the issue of women in science has made me realize that that last possible explanation is, even today, very much a likely root cause of the very skewed gender distribution in the sciences.  In her analysis of the question of “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?”, writer Eileen Pollack, who earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Yale in 1978 (one of the first two women ever to do so), disposes of the most malevolent explanation for the paucity of women in the sciences.  “That the disparity between men and women’s representation in science and math arises from culture rather than genetics seems beyond dispute.”  (The New York Times Magazine, October 3, 2013.)  Indeed, she observes, “The most powerful determinant of whether a woman goes on in science might be whether anyone encourages her to go on.”

Pollack recounts how, years after she graduated, when she interviewed the Yale math professor who was the supervisor for her senior thesis and who never encouraged her to pursue graduate studies, she challenged him on the continued dearth of women professors in the Yale math department.  He paused a bit, then commented, “I guess I just haven’t seen that many women whose work I’m excited about.”  But then a realization seemed to dawn on him.  “Maybe women are victims of misperception.”  Yes, yes, yes.  It’s a mindset that seems unable to entertain the idea that more than a few women can do science, that women actually belong in the sciences.  How revealing that this math professor is only now fumbling his way to that realization.

Of course, I probably shouldn’t talk.

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